NORDHOUSE DUNES HIKING TRAIL GUIDE
Located on Michigan’s lower peninsula, Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area is, likely, the state’s most impressive piece of shoreline. Large sand dunes, formed nearly 4,000 years ago, stand proudly over Lake Michigan and provide untouched shoreline access to many hikers and backpackers every season.
A diverse landscape, unique ecosystems, and multiple examples of federally endangered plant and animal species make for a memorable excursion. Whether you choose to spend a few quiet hours beachcombing beside Lake Michigan or opt for a full, overnight adventure, there is something for everyone at Nordhouse Dunes.
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The expansive dune system found within Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area is part of the larger, Ludington Dune ecosystem, which, also, includes shoreline along Lake Michigan Recreation Area and Ludington State Park. The Ludington Dune ecosystem is recognized by the U.S. Forest Service as ‘the largest area of interdunal ponds in the world.’
Thanks to these marshes and dispersed water collection areas, Nordhouse Dunes features a wide array of plant life, vegetation, and dune grasses which provide habitat for numerous species. See if you can identify the Pitcher’s Thistle or a Piping Plover, federally endangered species of plant and shorebird that call the dunes home.
The Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area continues to be the only federally designated wilderness on Michigan’s lower peninsula. Among other protections, this ensures that no mechanical access is allowed within its boundaries and that human influence here will be minimized. Protected under Michigan’s 1987 Wilderness Act, all 3,450 acres of Nordhouse Dunes are, also, considered part of the larger Huron-Manistee National Forests.
There are, approximately, ten miles of trail within the wilderness area for you to explore. While the path through the forested sections is easy to follow and comfortable walking, the opposite can be said for the 2+ miles of hiking on sand. Since its designation as a wilderness area, all interior trail signs and markings have been removed, which can make for challenging navigation when trying to determine where to leave the sandy beaches.
The main challenge for hikers within this, relatively, small wilderness area will be navigating the unmarked trails, as mentioned above. While the elevation change experienced this close to Lake Michigan is minimal, you should never underestimate the fatigue brought about by hiking over mounds of sand.
Numerous miles on soft sand, with limited sun protection, can be far more exhausting than similar mileage on a compacted trail. You must, also, contend with the increased potential for blisters if sand makes its way into your shoes. Consider checking out Travel and Leisure’s ‘Best Water Shoes For Hiking and The Beach’ or reading advice from other hikers regarding footwear on sand.
The warm days and cool nights common in late spring and early fall make for the ideal times to explore Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area. If you set out to enjoy Lake Michigan’s scenic shoreline, here, in July and August, don’t expect to be alone. Not only is peak summer a popular time to hike Nordhouse Dunes, the hot and sunny days can make for strenuous hiking, particularly on a shoreline where shade is minimal.
You are not required to obtain a permit for day hiking or overnight camping within the wilderness boundary. There is a $5/day ($15/week) recreation enhancement fee, however, collected at, both, the Nurnberg Rd. parking lot and Lake Michigan Recreation Area access points.
There are, only, two access points for hiking into the dunes. The northern reaches of the wilderness can be accessed from Lake Michigan Recreation Area.
Turn onto W. Forest Trail Rd. directly off of Route 31 and follow it for 6.5 miles. Continue driving past the campground until you reach the parking lot, adjacent the boardwalks and informational kiosk. This is where your hike will begin.
Thanks to the intricate network of trails and old logging roads within the Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness, there are numerous options for, both, day hiking and overnight backpacking adventures.
Below, we will describe three popular options for exploring Nordhouse Dunes. The route that will make the most sense for you will, likely, depend on your allotted time in the area and/or your level of fitness.
This 6.5-mile loop is our favorite way to experience the full diversity of Nordhouse Dunes. Suitable as a day or overnight trip, this loop will take you through towering pine, juniper & hemlock forests, undeveloped shoreline along Lake Michigan, and the namesake dunes that are big enough to swallow large buildings!
Beginning on the boardwalk by the information kiosk, take the left-leaning option that takes you toward the impending bluff next to the lake’s shoreline. For, almost, two miles you will walk the unique line of two ecosystems colliding. On your left will be dense hardwood forest, where budding naturalists can look to identify maple, oak, hemlock, pine, and birch trees. On your right will be the iconic allure of Lake Michigan’s undisturbed shoreline and blue water horizon.
*Route Note: Be on the lookout for the following trail intersections that can help confirm your location. They can, also, be great options for those who are looking for a shorter loop than what is described here.
Exit the shoreline bluffs by turning left at the fourth intersection onto the most obvious path, an old logging road. Enjoy a reprieve from the sun exposure as you wind your way up and back down a bluff above a small marsh and pond.
You will soon descend into the parking lot at the end of Nurnberg Road. If you need a bathroom break, look for one of the vault toilets before continuing onto the wide path at the north end of the parking area. The final 2.9 miles of trail features enjoyable ridgeline hiking that returns you to the boardwalk from where you began.
For the quickest access to Lake Michigan shoreline and the notorious dunes, start your hike from the same parking area at Lake Michigan Recreation area, as described above. You can choose to take the boardwalk straight to the beach or head up onto the bluff, which will take you into the designated wilderness area.
For most day hikes, however, we recommend parking at the Nurnberg Rd. lot. Accessing the dunes and sandy beaches beneath from the trail, here, will require a few extra miles of hiking, compared to the above approach, however, it adds considerable diversity.
Experienced hikers and backpackers who are capable of higher mileage days and looking for an additional landmark to include on their trip may consider adding Big Sable Lighthouse to their adventure.
This lighthouse, honored in 2013 as a Featured Lighthouse of the Year, is located within Ludington State Park, which borders Nordhouse Dunes to the south. Hikers can continue south along the beach from the fourth trail junction listed above for approximately 4 miles until reaching the lighthouse.
It should be noted that after two miles, you are within the state park boundary and backcountry camping is no longer permitted. Additionally, this entire section is trailless. Navigation to the lighthouse is accomplished by walking along the compacted sand (easier footing) closest to the lapping water of Lake Michigan.
Must be at least 400 ft. from the Lake Michigan shoreline
At least 250 ft. away from any trail
At least 250 ft. away from Nordhouse Lake
No campfires or bonfires permitted anywhere on beach or dunes
No motorized or mechanized equipment of any kind
Horses and other livestock are prohibited within the wilderness
Do not collect wood from beaches or shoreline
If you are hoping to share your experience in Nordhouse Dunes with your favorite, four-legged friend, be aware that they must remain leashed at all times. This includes sections where you may be walking along the Lake Michigan shoreline, within the wilderness boundary.
A standard day hiking kit is suitable for most done-in-a-day adventures into Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area. Remember, you’ll still want to carry the key essentials for hiking and backpacking to ensure that you are prepared for, both, planned and unexpected challenges. Below is a sample checklist of what we might carry for a summertime hike into Nordhouse:
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Matt was reared by the bear and the bobcat and the coyote of rural Pennsylvania. For the moment he lives in Philadelphia and is a gardener and freelance writer by trade. Matt's free time is devoted to traipsing through forests, angling in creeks, and hunting for rare plants and mushrooms. He's got a soft spot for reading Steinbeck while in the outdoors and is quickly becoming a die-hard hammock camper. Matt is fueled almost entirely by beer and hot sauce.
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