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Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness, MI – July 2014 (Backpacking Trip Report)

blue skies over nordhouse dunes

Hiking & Camping In Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness, MI

View all of my Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness pictures | Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness HD video on Youtube

  • Location – Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness, Michigan
  • Trail – Varied, and mostly off trail
  • Trailhead – Nurnberg Trailhead
  • Park Type – National Forest, Wilderness Area
  • Fees & Permits – There is no fee to camp, but at the Nurnberg trailhead there is a $5/night fee per car, or $15 for a week
  • Length Of Time Hiked – 4 days, 3 nights
  • Trail Type – Off trail
  • Miles Hiked – ~30
  • Trail Difficulty – 4/10
  • Solitude – 1 on beach and popular trails, 5 in the interior of the park
  • Fires Allowed – Yes

Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Notes

Nordhouse Dunes is the only federally designated Wilderness Area in Michigan’s lower peninsula. This isn’t really too surprising as Michigan’s lower peninsula is about as far from wilderness as you can get. I don’t believe I have ever been more than 1.5 miles from a road anywhere in the lower peninsula. Another interesting fact is that Ludington State Park, which borders Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness to the south, has the largest area of fresh water interdunal ponds in the world.

Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Maps

http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5151641.pdf

nordhouse dunes wilderness michigan hiking trail map

map of norhouse dunes wilderness including trail heads

nordhouse dunes route hiked shown on map

Total distance: 27.2 mi
Max elevation: 761 ft
Min elevation: 505 ft
Total climbing: 5928 ft
Total descent: -5846 ft
Download

Day 1 – Friday July 11th, 2014

Miles Hiked – 2.1

We arrived at the Nurnberg trailhead around 6:30pm, and it was packed. The car after us took the last spot, and people now had to park down the road, past a sign saying “no parking beyond this point”. This is where Ryan had to park when he arrived about an hour later.

There where a lot of people coming and going, and it really looked the like the party crowd. One guy was carrying a cooler full of beer. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but this was not what I was wanting to see. Regardless, we left the trailhead around 8:30pm or so.

parking lot of nurnberg trialhead

Packed parking lot at Nurnberg Trailhead in Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness, MI

The Nurnburg trailhead parking lot actually has a trail passing through both sides of it. On the north side, near the outhouse, the trail heads towards Nordhouse Lake. On the south side, the trail heads straight for Lake Michigan, which is the route we chose. We hiked past one or two small ponds and a marshy area before reaching our first dune outcrop about 20-30 minutes later. Once over one or two small dunes we had our first view of the lake.

laek michigan dune hiking in nordhouse wilderness

nordhouse dunes sunset over lake michigan

The sun was going down quick, and we started scouting for campsites at this point. We started heading north along the dunes paralleling the shoreline. We saw a lot of people scattered around here and there, and as expected, it took a while to find a decent site. We settled on a spot tucked in a bit of a bowl just a few yards into the first patch of trees butting up to the dunes. Bryan and I were in tents, while Ryan brought his hammock. I’ve never slept in one, let alone laid in one (the kind for overnight camping anyway).  asked if I could test out the hammock, and it was pretty comfortable. Maybe someday I’ll buy one for myself.

Hiking In Nordhosue Dunes Wilderness

twilight lake michigan nordhouse dunes beach

We didn’t have much time for anything tonight after setting up camp as the sun had pretty much set. We hung out down by the water for a while before calling it a night.

Day 2 – Saturday July 12th, 2014

Miles Hiked – 10.1

nordhouse dunes sunrise over lake michigan beach

nordhouse dunes wilderness campsite

After waking up I headed down to the beach for a while. Ryan joined me a while later, and finally Bryan emerged from his tent and made his way to the water. We didn’t have a set plan for today, just to explore.

Day 2, Hiking Back to Nurnberg Trailhead

Dune Jumping

dune jumping nordhouse dunes

I’m flying!

SONY DSC

After getting back to camp and eating breakfast, we set off on a hike to Nordhouse Lake. It wasn’t long before we came across some dunes that looked inviting. One in particular caught my eye, with its large bowl shaped pit. We had some fun jumping into the pit from the top and taking some pictures before moving on.

nordhouse lake michigan wilderness

Nordhouse Lake

another picture of nordhouse alke

The trail to Nordhouse Lake from where we were camped required heading back to the trailhead, since the trail we were looking for passes through the other side of the parking lot. It was just as packed, if not moreso today. We passed through the lot and continued on the trail to the lake. There were less people around now, but we weren’t alone by any means. Once we arrived at the lake, it started sprinkling. Fortunately it was light and short lived. We were rather unimpressed with the lake itself and since there didn’t appear to be anywhere that would be easy to fish (and worthwhile to do so) from on the shore, we moved on. At this point, we decided to head back to camp and explore the dunes some more.

Once we arrived back at camp, we were shocked to find another group of people setting up camp extremely close to us. Probably about 40ft separating out campsites. It was a group of about 12 or so people, some boyscouts and their scout leader(s).  I consider this to be rude and bad hiking etiquette. There are plenty of campsites scattered throughout the park, and therefore unnecessary to be that close to us. Especially with such a large group of young kids. We immediately began to pack up our stuff to move somewhere else. Ugh, the nerve of some people.

lake michigan shoreline hiking nordhouse dunes wilderness

Hiking south along Lake Michigan

We headed south down the beach, scoping the area for someplace more secluded to camp. Walking along the shore was easy and nice. After covering a little ground, we had to start heading inland to look for campsites. Every time we thought we found somewhere good, there were already people there. So all we could do was keep heading south.

Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Hike

nordhouse dunes wilderness backpacking

panorama shot of nordhouse dunes

nordhouse dunes ridgeline hiking to camp

This is the ridgeline we used to travel from our campsite up and over to the “interior” of the park.

After a while we left the beach altogether for a more accurate lay of the land. From the high ground we could see a few spots worth checking out, however, they were farther to the north. No big deal, we just back tracked a little. It turns out that we passed right by a great campsite earlier because we couldn’t see it from the beach.

nordhouse dunes wilderness campsite

Campsite for nights 2 and 3

After setting up camp, we took a quick swim in Lake Michigan. It was pretty cool at first, but not bad after a few minutes. However, a few minutes was good enough for me, I’m nice and cool now. The weather was starting to look pretty crappy now as the skies grew increasingly foggy. Back at camp, Ryan was taking a nap in his hammock. Bryan and I decided to head out further into the interior of the dune field and away from the lake. We figured there would be nobody out there, especially with the weather looking the way it was.

Leaving camp for the "interior"

Leaving camp for the “interior”

nordhouse dunes wilderness fog

The other side…

Foggy Nordhouse Dunes

We headed up a ridgeline in the dune up to a high point, which we could not see past all day. Now, we could see on the other side of this ridge, sort of. The fog was getting thick and hindered our views greatly. Still, being in a place like this with heavy fog cover was pretty cool.

nordhouse dunes interdunal pond

“Hey, is that an interdunal pond? Let’s check that out!”

nordhouse interdunal pond

interdunal pond at nordhouse dunes

We saw some water in the distance, so we headed for that. We still had not yet seen any of those interdunal ponds. From a distance, I was thinking this could be a potential campsite. Once we were up close, I could see that it was a dirty, muddy looking pond of stagnant water. Nothing like what I was expecting.

Nordhouse Day 2

Nordhosue Dunes Wilderness

Knife Point Dune Ridgeline

Next, we headed farther inland and up an even higher ridgeline. The top of the ridge was a knife point edge in spots and again, not what I was expecting for sand dunes. This was much more interesting to me than the beach.

Foggy Dunes

We wandered around through the dunes for about an hour and a half before heading back to camp. Hopefully the weather will cooperate tomorrow.

 

Day 3 – Sunday July 13th, 2014

Miles Hiked – 12.5

sunshine over nordhouse dunes this morning

nordhouse dunes backpacking trip morning day 3

Sun, Dunes, Lake MIchigan

I awoke before the others again today, and headed off into the interior of the dune field shortly after sunrise. I saw some deer as I made it to the top of the ridge. Actually, we had seen a lot of deer this whole trip. It was kind of nice to be up here alone this morning.

Once I was back at camp, everyone was up and ready to go for the day. We decided to use this camp as a basecamp and just day hike from here. Bryan and I both suggested further exploration of the dune’s interior. Ryan agreed, having not yet seen it.

hiking through grassy dunes in michigan

SONY DSC  blue skies over nordhouse dunes

We took a different route into the dune field this time as Ryan mostly led the way. It was really sunny now and shaping up to be a hot day. Still, I can’t complain about clear blue skies! The views were excellent now with proper visibility. It looked like we were hiking on an abandoned golf course with enormous over-sized sand traps. I’m sure a more skilled photographer would have a field day out here, but we still had fun taking pictures along the way nonetheless.

Shadow play

Shadow play

Me at Nordhouse Dunes

Nordhouse Dunes Panorama

Open Area

Much of the morning was spent off trail, on grassy dunes and sometimes just sand, although there were sections of trail here and there. There were a lot of ups and downs but nothing very strenuous. We saw shotgun shells here and there, reminding us that this area is open to hunting when in season.southern border of nordhouse dunes wilderness

Large Sandy Area

Day 3

nordhouse dunes wilderness ludington state park michigan hognosed snake

Hognosed snake

By late morning, we were approaching a large open sand area north of Hamlin Lake. The southern boundary line of the Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness lies in this area. Continuing on our southerly path, we entered Ludington State Park land. Along the edges of this long sandy area, Bryan spotted a Hognosed snake. It looks a lot like a rattlesnake, and has a king cobra-like hood, but it’s non venomous. Bryan got some “up close” footage with his GoPro and then we left it alone.

North of Hamlin Lake

North of Hamlin Lake

Compacted Dune Field

Day 3 Nordhouse

Near Hamlin Lake

We took our time wandering towards Hamlin Lake. It was actually farther than it looked.

hamlin lake ludington state park nordhouse dunes wilderness panorama

ludington state park hiking

Hamlin Lake

Once we got to the shore of the lake, we could see all sorts of people and activity on the lake. Several boats were out and many were docking on the northern shore of the lake and hanging out on the state park land, swimming and drinking beer. The scenery along the lake was very nice. Lots of soft sand dunes to hike up and down around the lake though.

Interdunal pond along the lighthouse trail

Interdunal pond along the lighthouse trail

I like the tiny little arrow mounted on that stub of a post. Nice.

I like the tiny little arrow mounted on that stub of a post. Nice.

Our plan now was to take the lighthouse trail back to the beach, and hike that north back to camp. We had to leave the shore of Hamlin lake and heard west inland in order to hook up with the lighthouse trail. We saw lots of people along the way and there were plenty of easy trails to follow. The lighthouse trail was pretty boring though, not much worth noting at all.

Looking north

Looking north from Big Sable Point Lighthouse

view from big sable point lighthouse

Looking south from Big Sable Point Lighthouse

big sable point lighthouse panorama

interdunal ponds seen from big sable point lighthouse ludington state park michigan

“Check out them interdunals! “

At the end of the lighthouse trail lies Big Sable Point Lighthouse. I’ll bet you never saw that coming. This was more of a tourist attraction than anything, with a gift shop and a fee to go up to the top. We went up to the top, which offered a great view of the surrounding area. Finally, we could see some of those interdunal ponds! However, it was not quite as extensive as I thought it would be. There were some small ponds in the dune areas, but certainly not what I was expecting for “world’s largest”.

We hung out outside the lighthouse for a while after we got back down, sitting in the shade beside the building.  It was a pretty warm day, and quite sunny, so it was nice to take off the boots and relax for a few minutes. One of the ladies inside gave us some leftover pizza they had, so we had a tasty lunch as well. Then, she tossed down a few apples from the window above as we headed off. Thanks for the hospitality, lighthouse ladies!

endangered and protected bird piping plover nesting area fenced off ludington state park nordhouse dunes michigan

Piping Plover nesting area

Hiking North Along Lake Michigan

Walking Lake Michigan's Shoreline

Interdunal Pond Along Lake Michigan

The hike back to camp was a couple mile stretch of shoreline. The hiking here was very easy and straight forward. At some point we came across some fenced off areas on the beach, closed for Piping Plover nesting. The Piping Plover is an an endangered and protected bird. The feet on these little guys move fast, and they almost looked cartoonish. Or maybe cartoony? You get the point.

Once back at camp, we were eager to jump in the lake and cool off. After that, we hung out at camp for a while and relaxed before having dinner.

open dune field nordhouse wilderness michigan

nordhouse dunes panorama shot

dead tree stump sticking out of sand

Once the sun had dropped a little, we hiked back to the same area Bryan and I had explored last night. We figured this would be a more interesting place to watch the sunset, with all the shadows on the dunes and whatnot. Ryan didn’t venture too far out, while Bryan and I were both in search of interesting photo opportunities that took us a bit farther out.

panorama shot of sunset over sand dunes nordhouse dunes wilderness

lake michigan sunset interdunal ponds nordhouse dunes

nordhouse dunes wilderness panorama shot of sunset over lake michigan and interdunal pond

I found a spot to set up on a dune perched above the interdunal pond we found the night before, with Lake Michigan beyond that in the background.  I hung out here as the sunset and took some pictures. What a great way to end a great day.

 

Day 4- Monday July 14th, 2014

Miles Hiked – 2.1

It was another nice morning when we woke up today. After a leisurely start to the morning we packed up camp and hit the trail, headed back to the trailhead. It was only a few miles at most back to the car, and there isn’t much to say about today really. I didn’t bother to take any pictures. We had already walked the trail we hiked back, so that wasn’t new. I will say that there were almost no people out here now, being Monday. It cleared out yesterday afternoon, actually. We made great time back to the parking lot which had cleared out considerably since we arrived.

Want to see ALL of my pictures from Nordhouse Dunes? Check them out here: Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Pictures

 

Final Thoughts About Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness

Nordhouse Dunes is one of the better hikes in Michigan’s lower peninsula in my opinion. I’m very glad I did this hike and would love to go back, but only during the week. There are just too many people here on the weekend. The fact that this wilderness butts up to Ludington State Park is nice because it extends the area in which you can  hike. Even if you want to camp out in the wilderness, hiking through Ludington State Park during the day and returning to the wilderness at night is very feasible.

DO NOT plan on hiking with flip flops here! I made this mistake of wearing them on day two much of the day as we hiked along the beach and later, through the grassy dune interior. By the end of the day, the top of my feet were swollen and tender. By day 3 (now wearing boots again), you could actually feel the tendonitis in the tendons on the top of my feet. My feet hurt for 7-10 days afterwards, preventing me from running or doing stair climbs. I recommend either a sandal with a strap of the back of the heel if you must wear a sandal, but really I liked wearing my full grain leather boots (Zamberlan Vioz GT).  They provide the necessary foot support for sand and also kept all of the sand out of my feet, when used with long pants. That was part of the reason why I chose to hike in sandals on day 2, so that I could wear shorts. Without long pants, sand can easily get into the boot.

I didn’t explore the northern or western parts of the park at all, we ended up staying on the east on south side. So, next time I could check that out if returning. Those sections seem to be heavily wooded though, and even swampy in the western section.

 

As always, questions and comments are welcome!

If you found my trip report useful, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment! Alternatively, if you feel you have any information you’d like to share with others regarding this hike, please feel free to leave that below in a comment as well.

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5 Responses

  1. Mike

    Great site here! Thanks so much for sharing your experiences!

    We are considering backpacking this area, but have read that there are no drinking water sources? Wondering what your experience was? Did you filter lake water?

    Thanks much!

     

    September 4, 2015 at 2:18 pm

    • MetalBackpacker
      MetalBackpacker

      Hey Mike! Drinking water was not a problem, I just filtered water from Lake Michigan. Tastes completely fine. Nordhouse Lake is also a water source. Beyond that, there really aren’t any streams or creeks running through here.

      Bordering Nordhosue Dunes Wilderness on the south side is Ludington State Park. You can’t camp overnight here in outside of the developed campgrounds, but if you’re hiking through here during the day (which I recommend)there is plenty of water here too. There are tons of ponds in between the dunes, streams, and small lakes, besides having Lake Michigan on the west side and Hamlin Lake on the east side.

       

      September 4, 2015 at 6:05 pm

  2. Nathan

    Thanks for the great TR. I’ve backpacked Nordhouse extensively but have never done the loop along Hamlin Lake. Is the section you hiked along Hamlin a marked trail? If so what is that section of trail like?
    Thanks for your insights!

     

    February 2, 2016 at 12:07 pm

    • MetalBackpacker
      MetalBackpacker

      Hi Nathan, in between our night 2/3 campsite and Hamlin Lake was mostly off trail. There were trails here and there but not really anything marked, just signs of previous use. Once we got to Hamlin Lake, we just worked our way southwest a bit and eventually picked up on a trail. Once we hit this trail, it was well beaten and very easy to follow. The trail goes up over a few large ridges with lots of trees on them, and you almost forget your surrounded by dunes. We saw several other people up here. And there were signs to follow in spots. Once down out of the “high ground”, the trail winds through some sandy areas in the dunes, but is an easy to follow path. This path leads to the lighthouse. From there, we just walked the shoreline north. I’m sure Ludington State Park has trail maps. Plus, you can download my GPX file and get an idea of where the trail(s) start and stop, and where the off trail hiking is.

       

      February 2, 2016 at 10:11 pm

      • Nathan

        Great, thanks for the detailed info!

         

        February 11, 2016 at 10:23 am

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