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Michigan’s Nordhouse Dunes

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.

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