Lace on some comfy shoes and gear up for an unhurried hike through gorgeous scenery and pine-scented backwoods. Your trail loops through the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, so stop just east of Empire on M-72 to pick up a park pass at the Phillip A. Hart Visitors Center.
Detour into Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate (12020 M-22, grocersdaughter.com) to snag a decadent treat on the way. Nibble a dark chocolate “puddle” studded with locally grown cherries and pumpkin seeds while cruising south to Esch Road. Turn west (at which point the road becomes Aral Road) and follow to its end at the Lake Michigan beach.
Stretch your legs on the 4.5 mile Otter Creek Loop, a beginner-friendly slice of the 15-mile Platte Plains Trail. Narrow at times but always well marked, the pine needle-carpeted trail is a cinch to follow.
Roam through forests of hardwood and pine and wildflower-speckled fields. Stop and listen to the forest hum, then trek on for snapshot-worthy views of Otter Creek and Otter Lake. In the early 1900’s, the trail would have spat you out in the bustling lumber town of Aral at the mouth of Otter Creek. Today, the only trace of Aral is a set of dock pilings. Abandoned after the nearby forests were depleted, the town vanished as nature reclaimed the territory.
Return to the trailhead and kick back on the uncrowded Lake Michigan beach nearby. Splash in the waves or creek, then head south to Beulah to refuel.
Trust your hunger to the Phoenix Cafe (245 S. Benzie Blvd., 231-882-2005). Try the Greek veggie panini – Monterey Jack cheese, fresh avocado spread, house-made feta spread, tomato and mixed greens on hand-crafted focaccia. Order up a frosty cherry mocha frappé from the full-service coffee bar and raise a toast to a day well spent.