Michigan's Nordhouse Dunes

Sunny beaches, cool forests, and a birder's paradise along the shores of Lake Michigan.
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Sunny beaches, cool forests, and a birder's paradise along the shores of Lake Michigan.

Little-Known Fact: Most of the dunes in the Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area are 3,500 to 4,000 years old and stand 140 feet high.

I awaken to the melody of a whippoorwill, then hear the soothing lullaby of Lake Michigan surf. Peering out my tent and through the trees I can see the sky brightening to purple, signaling my wake-up call. I have a long day ahead with 3,450 acres to explore in the Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area of Michigan's Huron-Manistee National Forest.

I leave my campsite located among the vast folds of the dunes, and follow the Lake Michigan shoreline in the early light. To my left, in remarkable shapes, stand 20-foot-high foredunes that have been sculpted by the wind. Beyond them, the land rises into open dunes and stands of forest.

Nordhouse is sandwiched between Ludington State Park to the south and more of Huron-Manistee National Forest's 534,520 total acres to the north. Most of the people who visit here come for the beaches, and the area may be crowded in July and August. But not on this weekday in mid-May.

As the sky continues to brighten and the moon finally fades, seagulls swoop and dive over the lake. At a break in the foredunes, I decide to bushwhack inland. Nordhouse was formed 3,500 to 4,000 years ago when Lake Michigan's water level was 30 feet higher. Since that time, grasses, shrubs, and trees have taken root on the old beaches, and animals have moved in.

I reach the highest spot on the dunes as the sun clears the trees. Then, descending from the dune ridge, I hike the 15 miles of trails - most are unmarked but easy enough to follow.

After seven hours in the woods, I emerge to feel the cool breeze along Lake Michigan. I have the lake and dunes to myself, and feel like the sole proprietor of all of Nordhouse.

Contact Information:

Huron-Manistee National Forest

Manistee Ranger District

412 Red Apple Rd.

Manistee, MI 49660

616/723-2211

Location:

The Nordhouse Dunes are located in Western Michigan, 12 miles southwest of Manistee County. The town of Manistee is about 95 miles northwest of Grand Rapids. Ludington offer more tourist possibilities just 15 miles away.

Getting There:

From Grand Rapids, Michigan, take I-96 west to Muskegon. Take U.S. 31 North to the second Ludington exit (there are two). Follow signs to Manistee. (You'll bypass Scottville.) At the BP gas station, turn left onto Forest Trails Drive (also known as Road #5629). Go 5 miles to Quarterline Road and turn south. Turn west onto Nurnberg Road and park in the lot at the stop sign.

Visitors from Wisconsin can take the Lake Michigan car ferry from Manitowoc to Ludington. Call the Lake Michigan Car Ferry Service at 800/841-4243 for more information.

Seasonal Information:

In the summer, temperatures range from the 70s to the 90s. Winter comes in early November with temperatures anywhere from zero to the low 30s. The warmest months are July and August while the coldest month is January. Typical rainfall is 31 inches.

During the summer months and deer hunting season the area is heavily used and the opportunity for solitude diminishes.

Wildlife:

There are tracks of whitetail deer, red-tailed foxes, and weasels everywhere. Coyotes, raccoons, porcupines, squirrels, and skunks are also common. Birding is superb with plenty of waterfowl and songbirds.

Insects:

Black flies and mosquitoes can be annoying, especially in August.

Plant Life:

To the west the land is a blend of open sand, grassy dunes, wooded ravines, and pine stands, eventually giving way to Lake Michigan. To the east the ridge drops steeply into a forest of pines and hardwoods.

On active dunes, plants that tolerate the desert-like conditions exist. Woody patches within the active dunes are commonly populated with juniper and stunted jack pine. Dune marshes, particularly with the stabilized areas, contain a large variety of wetland plant species including hemlock and larch.

Facilities:

You're on your own in the wilderness, but there are somewhat developed sites at Lake Michigan Recreation Area, adjacent to the wilderness. These sites are $10 per site per night for up to 14 days. Flush toilets, fire rings, and water are available.

Parking:

Free designated parking lots are easily found by following signs. Facilities are located at Nurnberg Road and at the Lake Michigan Recreation Area.

Permits:

No permits are required.

Policies:

  • Motor vehicles, motorized equipment, and bicycles are prohibited in the wilderness.
  • Huron-Manistee National Forest requires that all campsites be at least 400 feet from wilderness boundaries and the Lake Michigan shoreline, and 200 feet from Nordhouse Lake.
  • Group size limit is 10.
  • Beach fires, horses, pack stock, motor vehicles, and bicycles are prohibited in the wilderness.

Hazards:

There is no water source in the dunes, so water must be carried into the dunes from an outside source.

Leave No Trace:

  • Hike on the most solid areas to reduce your impact.
  • Due to the fragile nature of Nordhouse Dunes, camping and campfires are discouraged in the open sand areas.
  • Woody material from beaches and other sandy areas - driftwood, shipwreck timbers, pine knots, etc. must not be removed.
  • All LNT guidelines apply.

Maps:

The "Hamlin Lake" quad is available at the Manistee Ranger District for $4.

Other Trip Options:

Nordhouse is sandwiched between Ludington State Park to the south and more of Huron-Manistee National Forest to the north.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is farther up the coast.