Picture outdoor travel in the upper midwest of the United States and an image probably comes to mind of flat forests and flat fields—if anything comes to mind at all.
In fact, the region is home to a variety of unexpected natural treasures,. Among those: the world’s largest freshwater dune system.
These dunes scattered along the shores of the five Great Lakes—Superior, Huron, Michigan, Erie, and Ontario—were formed 3,000 to 6,000 years ago (recent in terms of geological terms) when the water level of the lakes was 40 feet (12 meters) higher than it is today. Every U.S. state and Canadian province that borders a Great Lake has at least one sand dune preserve area, including Indiana where there are some wonderfully scenic dunes not far from the powerfully unscenic blighted industrial town of Gary.
Arguably the coolest place to experience the Great Lakes dunes is at the Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area in western-central Michigan.
The area’s designation as a “wilderness,” as opposed to a “park” for example, is significant. A park is a managed area that often has roads and structures built within in. A wilderness area is left wild and relatively untouched.
And so it is at the Nordhouse Dunes.
Almost nowhere inside the wilderness area’s 6,270 acres can a visitor see signs of human life save for Nordhouse’s small network of walking trails. Our favorite hike starts at the Nurnberg parking lot, heads 2.5 miles (4km) northwest to the Lake Michigan, then continues for a mile along the lakeshore, then return to the parking lot on a circular route along the dune ridges. None of the trails are marked; you can download and print out a map of the area but we’d suggest brining a hiking GPS unit, especially if you are camping for the night.
And if you want the full Nordhouse experience camping for the night is a must. Car and RV campers can spend the night in the designated campground on the Lake Michigan shore just north of the Nordhouse boundary. The more free spirited will be happier setting up a tent inside the wilderness area. There are no facilities so you’ll have to hike in everything you need. There aren’t even designated camping spots. Simply pitch your tent in a comfortable spot and enjoy the sunset over Lake Michigan.
And then wake up to dune-filled glory the next morning.
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