OverviewSleeping Bear Dunes and others...
The dunes are mostly found within Ludington State Park and the neighboring Nordhouse Dunes National Wilderness Area. The state park encompasses 5300 acres of dunes and woodlands, while Nordhouse Dunes clocks in at around 3500 acres and has the honor of being the only federally declared wilderness in Michigan's Lower Peninsula.
Ludington State Park gets most of the attention, due to its facilites and ease of access. Nordhouse Dunes is far less visited and much more rustic and full of solitude than the State Park, though solitude can readily be found in either area.
Any time of year is wonderful to visit the park, as it has different moods during different seasons. Obviously summer brings hordes of people, but also has the most agreeable weather. Spring and Fall have smaller crowds, and attract any hardcore campers who might like to brave the cooler weather, and Autumn especially has wonderful weather and beautiful colors. Winter renders much of the park inaccessible to the average visitor, but brings scenes and colors alive that exist nowhere else in the area.
All in all, the Ludington area is a wonderful place to visit. I would highly recommend it to anyone considering a trip to the Lower Michigan Lakeshore.
Things to Do
The park is a great place for a day trip if you live close enough, and there are plenty of locations (secluded and not) that are perfect for picnicking or just bumming around.
The park's trail system is extensive, and one could easily spend a day on them and only see a small portion of what's available (trust me, I know from experience) The trails range from short loops accessible from the campground to long dayhikes back into the dunes. Personal favorites include the Island trail, Ridge trail and Lighthouse trail. The beach is also open to hikers/walkers who wish to wander along the shoreline for a few miles.
A maps of ski trails within the state park can be found here.
Finally, there is also a designated canoe trail. This is a fun way to spend half a day, and canoes are available for rent at the park.
Nordhouse Dunes has trails, but they are designed for hiking. Skis/snowshoes might work at times, but hiking is the main attraction here.
Getting ThereThe Ludington Dunes are located about 5 miles or so north of Ludington, MI.
Google Map of Park Location
The nearest large city is Grand Rapids, MI which is located about 100 miles and 2 hours from the park.
Drive times from Michigan cities:
Grand Rapids - 2 hours
Traverse City - 2.5 hours
Lansing - 3 hours
Kalamazoo - 2.5 hours
Detroit - 4 hours
Saginaw - 3 hours
Mackinaw City - 4 hours
An alternate approach for those of you west of Lake Michigan would be to take the ferry across from Manitowoc, WI to Ludington. The S.S. Badger runs from roughly ice-out to ice-in, and cuts a lot of time out of the trip (a 3-4 hour crossing instead of dealing with the headache that is Chicago traffic) but will set you back a few pennies (around $300 or so for 2 people and a car round-trip...ouch) Ferries also run from Milwaukee, WI to Muskegon, MI and are a bit cheaper.
Red TapeA Michigan State Parks pass is required to enter the Ludington State Park.
Prices are as follows:
Annual Resident: $24
Annual Non-Resident: $29
Daily Resident: $6
Daily Non-Resident: $8
Senior Annual: $6
Nordhouse Dunes carries a $3/day or $5/week pass. Seasonal passes are available for $20.
Nordhouse dunes carries no camping fees, but it is primitive. They also have regulations about how close you can be to the lake and such.
External LinksLudington State Park: The official state park site. Please see this for all of the answers to your questions.
Nordhouse Dunes National Wilderness Area: An incredibly comprehensive website dedicated to Nordhouse Dunes. A must-see for those wanting to head there.
USFS Site for Nordhouse Dunes: Another, not quite so good site about Nordhouse Dunes.
Wikipedia Page on Ludington: What good would this be without a Wikipedia reference? See the Nordhouse dunes link at the bottom of the page and the external links at the bottom of both pages. Helpful.
Website Dedicated to the Ludington Area