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There's only one place where the Manistee National Forest touches Lake Michigan: Nordhouse Dunes, the only federally designated wilderness area in the Lower Peninsula. This 3,450-acre chunk of open and wooded dunes and wetlands is often overlooked by sand-seekers heading north to the vast shores of Sleeping Bear, but that may be the blessing that keeps it wild. Its 7,300 feet of undeveloped shoreline and 14.5-mile trail system are rarely crowded.
The dunes themselves are magnificent—most about 140 feet high and 3,500 years old—and the product of the prevailing westerly winds picking up Lake Michigan's sandy lakebed as the water level fluctuated between 230 feet above sea level to a high of 640 feet, ultimately settling around 595 feet 3,000 years ago. (Today the level is estimated at about 580 feet above sea level.) Along with the striking parallel sand dunes that hug the shoreline, you'll see great examples of parabolic dunes, crescent-shaped dunes whose tips point into the wind. You'll also find blowouts, shallow bowl-shaped depressions empty of vegetation save for grasses along the edge and crest of the bowl.
Trail markers were removed when Nordhouse was named a wilderness in 1987, so hikers eager to see the area's variety of landscape should start at the adjacent Lake Michigan Recreation Area's well-marked Arrowhead Trail. It leads to what used to be called the Michigan Trail, a bluff-top trail that parallels Lake Michigan, leads through forest and, after 2 miles, drops into the open dunes before looping back along the shoreline. Find maps at the Manistee Ranger Station. 412 Red Apple Rd., 231-723-2211.