Ludington State Park & Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness

Ludington State Park and the Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness are adjacent tracts of land on the Michigan Lake shore of the southern peninsula. Both have the usual complement of forest and lakes that you'll find scattered throughout the southern peninsula, but between them lies something quite unique to this area. Between them you'll find a stretch of sand dunes, some 30 or 40 feet tall, that make you feel like you're deep in the desert rather than in a civilized midwestern forest.

The state park is quite nicely managed. A friendly ranger station greets travelers as they enter and nearby you'll find a large number of campsites. Further in you'll come upon at least a dozen miles of trail within the park, not counting the beach, which makes a fine walk itself. The trails near Hamlin Lake have some particularly nice scenery and the ridge trail will take you as far as the dunes without getting your feet sandy. The lighthouse trail, as you might guess, gets you to the Big Sable Point Lighthouse. All the trails within the park are well maintained and clearly marked.

The wilderness area, in keeping with federal requirements, has been stripped of official trail markings, but the main trails are still well worn and easy to follow. It's just not always easy knowing which trail you happen to be on and several well worn herd paths have sprung up between the old main trails. Nonetheless, with a bit of common sense you probably won't get lost here. If in doubt, head toward the lake!

The land between the park and the wilderness area can be a source of confusion. There may be private land in there somewhere, but the maps don't show it. It's marked as such by a few hand drawn signs and a few sparsely placed more official looking signs deep in the forest. There looks to be at least one house on the Hamlin Lake shore. As far as I know, if you see sand under your feet you're on public land, but stay well clear of the eastern border of this area to be sure you're not on private property.

Nice as each of these places are individually, they would've been too far a drive for me had I not been able to hike them together. When I spoke to the ranger at the front gate I found that I'm not the only one who has had this idea - about 3000 hikers each year do the same thing. My hike took me along the state park trails at Hamlin Lake then across the dunes and into the wilderness. I picked up a north-south trail in the wilderness that eventually led to the beach and, believing myself to be near the north end of the wilderness, I turned back along the shore. I camped out overnight near the dunes and found myself awakened in the wee hours of the morning by a biting wind coming off the lake. It was perhaps too early in the year for a comfortable outdoor overnight. Luckily, the moon was full and I could easily see to pick up camp in the dark. Though I couldn't take any photos in the dark with the equipment I'd taken along, I enjoyed a long, moonlit walk along the Lake Michigan shore before reaching my car at the Ludington State Park gate an hour or two shy of sunrise.

Maps I used to familiarize myself with this area are the 1983 USGS Manistee topo available at the USGS website and the Ludington State Park trail map available here.


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