Once the province of Chippewa, Huron, and Ottawa Indians, the crystalline waters and densely wooded shores of Lake Michigan (Michigan is an Algonquian word meaning “great lake”) have served as a mecca for explorers, traders, and settlers. Today, however, this is a year-round haven for nature lovers, retirees, and visitors who come from all over to enjoy the only one of the Great Lakes that lies entirely within U.S. borders.
Anchored on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, the town of Ludington is just a four-hour ferry ride from Manitowoc, Wisconsin. As a result, this quaint fishing port is popular not only with local tourists but also with nearby Wisconsinites, who frequently drop in on their lakeside neighbors for visits. Here you’ll find a trim, neat harbor, open beaches, blue lake water, white sand dunes, and abundant green forest that encompasses the port. For a foreign note, a towering cross overlooks the harbor; it memorializes Pére Marquette, the French explorer and missionary who trekked through the area and is thought to have died nearby in 1675.
From Ludington, head north on Lakeshore Drive to Rte. 116 and follow it to Ludington State Park. Bookended by Lake Michigan and Hamlin Lake, this 5,300-acre park abounds with waterside campsites. Fishing, boating, and waterskiing can be enjoyed at both lakes, and canoeing is possible not far away on the Big Sable River.
Returning to Ludington, the drive takes Rte. 10/31 east, then continues north on Rte. 31 through a mix of farmland and forest. When you reach Forest Trail Road, follow signs to the Lake Michigan Recreation Area.
2. Lake Michigan Recreation Area
Swimming, picnicking, camping, and trails aplenty make this recreation area one of the most popular in the state. But if you’re seeking a little more peace and quiet, you won’t have to go very far. The adjacent 3,500-acre Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness — a glorious untouched mile of rolling sand dunes and interdunal wetlands — is an oasis of solitude. No motorized vehicles are permitted in this federally designated wilderness area, so the only noise you are likely to hear as you stroll along the beach are the sweet sounds of nature.
Back on Rte. 31 the drive continues north through a glacier-sculpted landscape where tiny lakes are surrounded by forest. The region’s natural wonders are explained at the U.S. Forest Service ranger station just south of Manistee, an old lumber town named for the Chippewa spirit of the woods.
Like many busted boomtowns, Manistee has undergone a commercial renaissance in the age of tourism. Manistee’s prosperous past is still visible in the grand Victorian-era buildings that make up its downtown (the entire area is listed on the National Register of Historic Places). An 1883 commercial building houses historical exhibits, while several churches reflect the Irish, German, and Scandinavian heritage of the town’s early settlers. Just north of Manistee lies Orchard Beach State Park, which, from its perch atop a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, offers splendid views. Several miles east of the park, switch over to Rte. 22 and follow it north as it hugs the shore.