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Nordhouse Dunes: Where the Wild Things Are
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Ike Jutkowitz
(Ike) - M

Locale: Central Michigan
Nordhouse Dunes: Where the Wild Things Are on 12/04/2011 19:09:01 MST Print View


“What book do you want to read tonight?” I was taking my girls to bed.
My eldest, Keira, hands me one. She likes to take charge of these sorts of decisions. Rowan, our 3 year old, is already curled up comfortably in my lap. “Here daddy, we can read your favorite.”
It’s by Maurice Sendak. Where the Wild Things Are.
“That is my favorite”, I respond, smiling.
“I know why”, she tells me.
“Why?” I ask.
“Mommy says that you are the king of the wild things.” She thinks for a minute, then “Is that why you go away sometimes? To see the wild things?”

snow fall
The snow had started falling in Michigan, and I couldn’t wait to get out there. The last several weeks had really been chafing at me. Hunting season had finally ended, at least with shotgun and rifle. I would take my chances with the muzzle loaders. I woke up at 3:30 am, dressed quickly taking care not to wake the dogs, grabbed my pack, and headed out to the car. Outside it was snowing, hard. Two new inches had fallen on the car since last evening. I stopped at a convenience store for some coffee and a cheap pair of sunglasses. I had broken my last pair and would need something for the anticipated snow glare. As I drove through the whiteout, I felt my spirit uplifted. I had been looking forward to the first trip of winter for some time now.

Somewhere around Grand Rapids, the snow started to taper off. That’s ok, I thought, still plenty to go around. Soon though, I was starting to see the snow cover thinning along the median. By the time I reached Muskegon, there was no snow to be seen. I briefly started to think about heading elsewhere, but decided not to waste any additional time in the car. It would be great regardless.


I reached Nordhouse Dunes just as the sun was rising. It was a brisk 31F. I started out on a trail that would take me along a ridgeline north to the Lake Michigan Recreation Area. There, I would hit the shore of Lake Michigan and follow this south to the adjoining Ludington State Park. I had planned a loop route through that area before returning via the beach to Nordhouse where I would complete a loop of the perimeter. My route overall would look like a stick with a loop at each end and would cover about 25 miles.

snow dust
A dusting of snow frosted the ground as I started out

Snow covered meadow

Climbing to the ridge

Animal tracks were everywhere.

Crossing a snowy ridge

Soon I could hear the crash of surf pounding the shore. Once I reached the treeline, I could at last see the water’s edge.

The wind coming off the water was biting, and I stopped to add a layer. Then I headed down to the water.

Stepping out from over the dunes, I was instantly blown away by the beauty of this place.

I stopped to snack on some dried figs, pears, and mango. Mostly, I just wanted an excuse to take in the scenery, but the fruit was bursting with energizing sweetness. The figs tasted like pure sugar, and the pears, they were my new favorite. I was in that zone I often found when backpacking where all the daily chaff is stripped away and simple pleasures take on a heightened significance.

I walked along the shoreline, savoring the blue skies and the crash of the waves. Hard to believe this was a lake and not an ocean. It would be easy to convince myself that I was on some tropical island, that is if I wasn’t bundled up and wearing hat and gloves.

dune grass
The dune grass was golden under the azure sky

Twisted driftwood assumed a variety of forms. At times, I'd see what I thought was a dog or a person sitting on the beach, only to have it resolve into wood as I neared.

A busy dune beetle sifted through the particles of sand for treasures only a beetle mind could comprehend

Hours seemed like mere minutes as I walked the shoreline. At times, the waves lapped at the dunes, leaving not much room for passage.

Under the sun’s glare, I was thankful for my cheap sunglasses, I couldn’t feel the warmth, but my face was starting to respond to the UV rays.

Tracks of a large canid. No human tracks nearby.


Remains of a shipwreck

I was also glad I had brought my poles today. I don’t usually use them but thought I’d need them for the snow. They did a great job in the 18 miles or so of sand I encountered.

Snowy Goose

Leaving the Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area. I propped my camera on the sign to shoot this picture.

It was now 12:30 and I decided to stop for a lunch of Manchego cheese, venison sausage, and ak-mak whole grain crackers.

As I ate, I spent a fair bit of time pondering the correct order to eat my lunch. After extensive trial and error, I decided that it was a bite of sausage, followed by the cheese, with the crispy cracker at the end. The richness of the cheese counterbalanced the saltiness of the sausage, and the earthiness of the cracker neutralized the sharpness of the cheese. Those paleo guys would probably omit the cracker, but I kind of liked it. It brought everything else into balance.


Big Sable lighthouse in the distance


snowy dune
Passing the lighthouse, I followed the Coastguard trail. This snowy dune led to the site of another shipwreck excavation.

Young buck near a closed campground

Lost Lake
Soon I reached Lost Lake, which was not actually all that hard to find. I had struggled with water extraction from Lake Michigan. While I had brought a length of cord to tie to my water bottle , to get within range allowed the waves to lap at my feet. The waves also churned up a lot of sand the needed to then be filtered out. Lost Lake seemed like an easier prospect for water collection. I did need to carefully bypass a transitional zone of reeds along the banks. In this 30 degree weather, I preferred not to get my feet wet.

Light snow through Luddington State Park

A stone lean-to near the lighthouse trail

Nearing the lighthouse

I reached the Lakeshore again by 3 pm. Two hours until sunset. As I walked the beach, I spotted two gulls fighting over something dark on the shoreline. They scattered as I approached this large salmon, and rejoined the battle soon after I passed by.

As shadows lengthened, the dunes lit up with a coppery glow.

Soon the sun began to sink into Lake Michigan.


I headed inland as the light faded, setting up camp in a small copse of Jack pines to avoid impacting the fragile dune ecology.

Firing up the ti-tri

Dinner was a homemade venison chili-mac, served with a large wedge of Zingerman’s Sourdough Bread. After many years of settling for packaged foods, I had recently decided that I should be eating in the woods as well as I ate at home. Since then, I'd been running my dehydrator almost non-stop. The presentation lacked aesthetic value, but the flavor was heavenly and I wolfed it down quickly.

After dinner, I fed twigs into the fire, contemplating life’s mysteries. It was now about 6:15 pm. People always ask me if I ever get bored on these solo trips, but I never do. Time seems to slow down, and my thoughts are free to roam as they will. Life becomes simple, problems easily solved. Existence condenses to the here and now. I thought about these things for 5 minutes or so, then cracked open the whiskey, mixing it with a bit of the left over hot water from dinner. Less than an hour later, I was asleep.

I awoke to the sound of rain, drumming down on my tarp. Turning over, I went back to sleep.

7 am and still raining. Believe it or not, the national weather service had forecasted a 0% likelihood of precipitation, and given the short duration of my trip, I had taken them at their word. I was packing my winter gear, which provided for water resistance, but not so much for rain. 0% had seemed fairly definitive. It was going to be a wet day.

looking out
I stripped off my baselayer and stuck it in my packliner. Might be nice to have something dry for later. I put on my R1, covered it with my windshirt, and hastily broke camp. Heading out into the rain, I stopped briefly to look out over the seething Lake. Then I started the trek back to the car and warmth.

lake in rain
Walking through the deep sand, I warmed quickly. Periodically, I would look over at the lake. Regardless of the weather, it was hard not to feel awe and gratitude to be out here, surrounded by such elemental beauty.

Leaving the shoreline along a narrow trail through the dunes

last look
One last look back at the lake

Trails through the Nordhouse Dunes were unmarked, and it took trial and error and some compass-work to find my way back to the car. I stopped briefly in Ludington for an outstanding breakfast at Bonnie’s before starting the 3 hour drive home.

Post trip thoughts: Although I have lived in Michigan for 8 years, I am continually amazed by the diversity of the wild places here. I may not have gotten the winter trip I thought I was looking for, but I received something of greater value. There will be plenty of time for camping in the snow soon enough. At the moment though, the thing I am most grateful for right now is my family. Thank you for understanding that sometimes dad needs to go to where the wild things are.

Edited by Ike on 12/04/2011 19:30:15 MST.

Doug I.
(idester) - MLife

Locale: PNW
Re: Nordhouse Dunes: Where the Wild Things Are on 12/04/2011 19:14:47 MST Print View

Thanks Ike. Nice report.

You're building quite a resume of wonderful trips, and trip reports.

Tim Zen
(asdzxc57) - F

Locale: MI
Re: Nordhouse Dunes: Where the Wild Things Are on 12/04/2011 19:16:05 MST Print View

Ike -- awesome trip report!

Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife
Nordhouse Dunes: Where the Wild Things Are on 12/04/2011 19:47:31 MST Print View

Almost makes me wish I'd stayed in Michigan! Great trip report!

Most of us learn from experience not to trust weather reports. Welcome to the club! Of course out here on the west coast, there's the excuse of thousands of miles of ocean west of us!

Peter Rodrigues
(prodrigues) - F

Locale: New York
Re: Nordhouse Dunes: Where the Wild Things Are on 12/04/2011 20:05:29 MST Print View


I've really enjoyed all your reports, and this is no different. Love the beach trekking photos.

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
re: Dunes on 12/04/2011 20:09:21 MST Print View

Well done, thank you!

Jay Wilkerson
(Creachen) - MLife

Locale: East Bay
Norhouse Dunes: Where the wild things Are on 12/04/2011 20:36:18 MST Print View

Great TR and pictures, You gotta love the "Shoulder Season."

Stephen M
(stephenm) - MLife

Locale: Mind your own business
Looks Nice on 12/05/2011 06:54:17 MST Print View

I am moving to Michigan myslef shorlty from Europe so its nice to know there are Wild places to hike and camp in, I am from SW Ireland and will miss the mountains.

Ken Helwig
(kennyhel77) - MLife

Locale: Scotts Valley CA via San Jose, CA
Re: Looks Nice on 12/05/2011 10:55:10 MST Print View

Since I have so many relatives in Michigan and from the scenery that I have seen, I have to hike there.....Your trip report confirmed just that!

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Rain on 12/05/2011 13:49:10 MST Print View

Lovely scenery, compliments.

> 7 am and still raining. Believe it or not, the national weather service had forecasted
> a 0% likelihood of precipitation, and given the short duration of my trip, I had taken
> them at their word.
Snicker. :-)
Sorry, but leaving rain gear at home is an absolute sure-fire way of getting rain!


Edited by rcaffin on 12/06/2011 02:19:00 MST.

Nathan V
(Junk) - MLife

Locale: The Great Lake State
Re: Nordhouse Dunes: Where the Wild Things Are on 12/05/2011 15:47:29 MST Print View

Ike, great report, I stopped at the Nordhouse Dunes for a dayhike last summer to check it out, since I was over on the west side of the state. I definitely plan on going back.


Edited by Junk on 12/05/2011 15:57:39 MST.

Tim Zen
(asdzxc57) - F

Locale: MI
Re: Nordhouse Dunes: Tell the FS on 12/05/2011 15:49:27 MST Print View

If you like Nordhouse Dunes and would like it quieter,
Go to:
Click the link for Forest Plan SEIS

There was a law suit against the FS for not taking into account noise in their plan.
The result is limiting noise sources in the Huron-Manistee forests.
Comments are open, so drop them a line.

Chris Kannen
(cmkannen) - MLife

Locale: K-T Boundary
Re: Nordhouse Dunes: Where the Wild Things Are on 12/05/2011 17:35:32 MST Print View

Beautiful report, thanks for sharing. I like how you put yourself in several of the shots for scale and such. And also how you detailed what order you ate your food.

Nick Gatel
(ngatel) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Re: Nordhouse Dunes: Where the Wild Things Are on 12/05/2011 20:16:49 MST Print View

Enjoyed it a lot. Nice mix of pictures and prose.

Jeff J
(j.j.81) - F

Locale: Oregon
Great Report on 12/06/2011 16:49:25 MST Print View

Great report; the perfect mix of narration with plenty of photos. It made me miss the mitten too.

john parker
(orclwzrd) - F

Locale: Illinois
your patth on 12/06/2011 19:47:54 MST Print View

Would you be willing to share your path? Hiked there last summer but didn't accomplish those miles. It's an area I want to go back to.


Ike Jutkowitz
(Ike) - M

Locale: Central Michigan
Route on 12/07/2011 08:48:23 MST Print View

Hi John,
I used paper maps and guidebooks for route planning, but these two sites have crude maps that approximate the route.

In Nordhouse dunes, I followed what they referred to as the "ridge trail" and the "beach trail" with the extra foot path in pink. This loop was approximately 5.8 miles. Note that the actual trails in the park are unnamed and unblazed. I also did some bushwacking along game trails through the dunes in the south western corner of the park.

The beach walking section was 8 miles each way from Porter Creek to the Big Sable Lighthouse.

The Ludington Dunes trails were very well marked and mapped. I'd guess this area sees a lot of use in warmer weather. I followed the Coastguard Trail, Island Trail, Ridge Trail, and Lighthouse Trail. I think this was about 6 miles.

Hope this helps.

-edited links

Edited by Ike on 12/07/2011 08:49:33 MST.


Locale: Western Michigan
Nordhouse Dunes & More on 12/07/2011 12:41:27 MST Print View

The map below depicts a trip route with the family in the 70’s when this area was just a National Forest Campground and was not backpacked/hiked extensively. Ike expanded his trip South of this area into Ludington State Parks (left, lower portion of the map in green) and their trail system.

Nordhouse Dunes  Wilderness Arwea


If you desire to expand the hike as Ike did, you might take this approach below…..though many other options are possible.

Ludington State Park