Nordhouse Dunes Backpacking

Backpacking in Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area by way of Ludington State Park – May 2 & 3, 2015


For our 2015 spring backpacking trip we headed up to Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness near Ludington, Michigan. Instead of using the Nordhouse Dunes Trailhead we decided to extend the distance by starting in Ludington State Park.

With everyone’s busy schedules we always have to pick the weekends for our overnight trips several months in advance. We were once again fortunate to have picked one of the nicest weekends this spring. It was sunny with temperatures getting up into the upper 60s in the afternoon and only a low around 50 at night.

About Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area: Nordhouse Dunes is part of the Manistee National Forest and is the only Federally designated wilderness in Lower Michigan. It is relatively small in size at just 3,450 acres. This includes 4 miles of undeveloped Lake Michigan shoreline and sand dunes that reach up to 140 feet above the water. In between the large hills of sand and beach grass there are areas of woody vegetation that are mainly juniper, jack pine and hemlock. The wilderness area is primarily used for hiking and backpacking. There are 10 miles of unmarked trails with trailheads at at the end of Nurnberg Road and Lake Michigan Recreation Area. There is a $5 per day or $15 per week fee to park at the trailhead. The Lake Michigan Recreation Area just to the north of the wilderness area also has a popular rustic campground with 99 sites. For more information visit the US Forest Service website.


Ready to head down the trail. Photo by: J.D.V.

We parked in the small lot just past the contact station at the entrance to Ludington State Park. We planned to talk to the Ranger to make sure that it was okay to leave the car here for the night, but when we arrived no one was in the booth. We ended up calling the park headquarters and leaving a message on their answering machine to let them know what we were doing. We didn’t hear anything and the car was still there when we got back so it must not have been a problem.


Our plan was to take the the Logging and then the Lighthouse Trail out to Big Sable Point. Then walk up the beach for a couple more miles until we were in Nordhouse Dunes. The start of the Logging Trail is at the end of the loop in the Pines Campground. Photo by: J.D.V.

The campground in Ludington State Park is open year round, but the Pines loop was still closed for the season. Although, there was someone staying in the mini cabin for the weekend. This would be a good time of the year to do this because they had the place all to themselves.


The first half of the trail is nice and wide packed sand through a mixed forest.


About half way to Big Sable Point you climb up the dune above and into the soft sand and sun the rest of the way.


On top of the dune you get the first view of Big Sable Point Lighthouse and Lake Michigan on the horizon.


Climbing over the last dune before Big Sable Point.


Taking a break to empty the sand from our shoes at the picnic table by Big Sable Point Lighthouse.


A coworkers wife was also waiting by the lighthouse with their dog while everyone else climbed to the top. He captured this shot of us heading north up the beach with our backpacks. Photo by: S.C.

If you have not climbed to the top of Big Sable Point Lighthouse, the short presentation and awesome view is worth more than the $2 price of admission.


Looking back towards the Lighthouse. It is about 2 miles from the tip of Big Sable Point to the border of Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area.


The walk along the beach was fairly easy with just a small slant towards the water. There were several spots where we walked along the base of high walls of sand. There were a few spots where we would have been getting feet wet if there were waves.

The higher Lake Michigan water levels are eroding away what was at one time the foredunes. It is always interesting to watch the constant changes along the Great Lakes shorelines.


My old hiking boots split apart just 2 weeks before this trip. There was not enough time to break in a new pair of boots and I was thinking about trying my minimalist running shoes for backpacking anyway. I really liked the lightweight shoes until about the last mile of walking on the slant when I could feel a hot spot on my heel. The nice part about walking in sand is that I could go with 1 bare foot for the last 1/2 mile to help keep the blister from getting worse. Photo by: J.D.V.


The border between Ludington State Park and Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area is marked with this weathered and half buried post up on the dune.


I didn’t know that you could find Petosky Stones this far south. Photo by: J.D.V.


We walked about 0.25 miles past the border to an area where there were trees between the dunes. We then angled back in the trees until we found an old campsite. It was about a 5.5 mile hike from the car to where we made camp.

I decided to setup my tent out in the sand hoping that it would make for a softer bed. Campsites in Nordhouse Dunes are supposed to be 400 feet from Lake Michigan. After we setup and then walked straight back towards the Lake we may have been about 100 feet closer than what is allowed. It is probably still better to use an existing campsite rather than making a new one nearby.


Our campsite was in the trees just up the shore from here.


After setting up camp we found a spot in the shade to eat lunch. Photo by: J.D.V.


In the afternoon there were some attempts at kite flying, but the wind was pretty variable. Photo by: J.D.V.


I was kite-less so I walked up the shore to see what I could find. About 0.5 mile from our camp I came across this big plank that looked like it may have been from an old ship wreck. It is hard to see from the angle in the photo about, but there were several holes and slots cut though it that may have been for ropes.


Looking towards the interior of Nordhouse Dunes.


The view of more dunes to the north.


Relaxing on the beach by our campsite. The waves left the perfect sand backrest. Photo by: J.D.V.


Before dinner we walked back up the beach so I could show the guys the alleged shipwreck piece.


We circled inland on the way back to camp and climbed to the top of the tallest dune we could see. On top of the dune there was a sign that marked the border with Ludington State Park. Our campsite was somewhere in the trees on the top left of this photo.

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An interdunal pond that we came across on our way back down to shore. According to the US Forest Service: “The Ludington Dune Ecosystem has the largest area of fresh water interdunal ponds in the world.”


It hard to beat eating dinner on the beach while watching the sun drop towards Lake Michigan. Photo by: J.D.V.


One of my favorite backpacking meals. Mountain House, Mexican Style Rice & Chickenon tortillas with an Oberon chilled in Lake Michigan. In the background a flask of Jim Beam Honey on deck for dessert.


Soon it was getting dark and it was time to get a fire going. We didn’t have a problem finding plenty of dry wood. The previous campers must have carried a railroad tie all the way up from the beach for a nice fire side seat.


The moon was almost full and it made for bright night. When the whiskey was gone we buried the fire and headed off to the sleeping bags.


Sleeping on the sand was still not as soft as I had hoped and after about 7.5 hours I had enough laying and the ground. I headed over to the shore and had a double Starbucks instant coffee and peanut butter bagel for breakfast while watching the sun rise and freighters pass by on the lake. This is my kind of coffee shop.


It wasn’t long before everyone was up and we were packed up and heading back south. The clouds coming in and we were walking into a little more breeze. The waves were just starting to build and it made it a little harder to get around a few of the tight spots with out getting your feet wet.


This time instead of taking the Lighthouse Trail we took the lighthouse access road back to the Pines Campground in Ludington State Park. This route shortened the hike back to only 4.5 miles and it was much easier going than the soft sand on the trail.

The map of our hike. The blue track is our route to camp and the green is back to the car.

Overall it was a fairly easy and relaxing overnight backpacking trip. We walked a total of 10 miles with our backpacks and then probably a few more miles exploring in the afternoon. It seemed like a good time of the year to visit this area. Even with fairly cool temperatures it still felt pretty warm on the sand in the afternoon. I don’t think I would want to be here in the heat of the summer. It also was not busy, we only saw a couple other people walk past on the beach in the early afternoon. It really felt like we had the whole place to ourselves. From what I have heard it can get really busy in the middle of the summer.

Walking in from Ludington State Park was a good way to access the south part of the Wilderness Area that is harder to get to from the normal trailheads. Although, I would like to come back and explore the trails and some of the dune ridges further to the north. I guess we will just have to head back again in the fall.

For more on Backpacking and Beach Hiking in Nordhouse Dunes: Backpacking in Michigan



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