When you think about West Michigan, the most common thing that comes to mind–and usually the only thing that comes to mind–is Lake Michigan. There is so much more hidden beauty between the bluffs and inland lakes lining the shore of the big lake, but the most stunning collection of fresh water lakes and dunes, in my opinion, are found in Ludington State Park, also known as the Queen of the North.
My favorite trail in Ludington, although it’s hard to compare them due to their diverse beauty, is the 4.8-mile Island Trail, which connects several peninsulas, island formations, and sand dunes, and leads you to the Ridge Trail.
You enter the park by driving past miles of sand dunes to the east, with Lake Michigan just to the west. After passing over the Big Sable River, you enter what used to be a logging township before the dam broke and washed out most of the houses and buildings… now it’s a state park.
The start of the Island Trail begins on the shore of an inland lake named Hamlin. The shoreline leads you to the first board walk of the trail, which is a stunning way to be welcomed onto the islands. Winding deeper and deeper into the marshland, you begin to lose yourself to the raw nature that completely envelopes you. One of my favorite views on the whole trail is atop a bridge that connects to the main island, overlooking the vastness of Hamlin and the river that flows quickly into it.
Further down the boardwalk, you step off of the woodwork onto soft ground that is so full of life: deep green moss and root systems peeking over the earth’s edge in fractal patterns. Completely covered by a pine tree canopy, the trail opens up into a vague open path, giving you the opportunity to really explore.
Walking back into these woods, you begin to realize just how many small lakes have formed due to the breaking of the dam. To the left is the river, and to the right are two small lakes surrounded by endless life, including trees indigenous to Michigan, and nests of swans that you can watch from a safe distance. Uprooted trees and inland lakes along the trail give the land abundant nourishment for new growth, and homes for birds and small woodland creatures. As you follow the trail beside the river you are introduced to new terrain and a more challenging hike. The trees open up, and you are lead to the most beautiful boardwalk that takes you between 3 or 4 different-sized lakes that sit completely still, each so unique and colorful.
There is a point in the trail where everywhere you look, you see and experience some of the most amazing natural beauty the west coast of Michigan has to offer. Nothing brings a smile your face more than surrounding yourself completely by fresh water, fresh air, and nature. Further down the trail you start exploring dunes lining Hamlin lake, some bigger than others, but all made of rich, yellow sand you can only find in the Mitten State. You begin feeling like a child again, flinging yourself down the sand dunes without much care at all (besides the sand in your hair).
Up about another mile through an open trail beside the lake, you are lead to the edge of a dune you have to follow with a bit of caution. This ridge leads you to my favorite spot of the entire park, the only stone cabin that survived the flooding when the dam broke. I have more memories at this old dilapidated cabin than I have most other places. Cooking brats over a fire in the cabin using the still-working fireplace and chimney,and drinking whiskey on occasion. The history of this building is almost unfathomable when you begin thinking about the loggers who used to live there with their families, to the hikers like I who take a well-deserved break there after the first half of the trail.
Once you pass the historic cabin, you can either hook to the west on the Lost Lake Trail to loop back to where you started, or take on the challenge of the Ridge Trail, which I highly recommend. You’ll notice an immediate difference in the terrain right at the start of Ridge, beginning on a very steep, narrow path taking you on a tour of the back side of Lake Michigan’s sand dunes. Reaching the top of the first peak, you walk past the foundation of an old cabin that didn’t remain standing after the flood–the view from this spot is truly unforgettable.
You begin working you way west towards the lake, hearing the roar of the swells muffled by the trees in between you and the beach. A half mile further up the back side of a very large dune, you reach the sandy front, the highest point in the park. To your left you can see miles of rolling sand dunes, and to the right the endless Lake Michigan and the bluffs of Ludington and Pentwater. For people who haven’t experienced this area their whole lives, this is a life-changing view of Michigan.
A few relaxing flights of stairs take you down the large dune, and then spit you out on the main road connecting all of the camp sites and trails. This road is a nice, flat terrain to unwind from the fairly rigorous trails that take a total of about 3 hours.
The entire Ludington area is worth traveling to if you are a fan of the outdoors. Ludington State park will welcome you with open arms and open trails!