Ludington State Park is the most popular state park in Michigan, and after our visit in summer 2019 I can see why!
You could spend weeks because there are so many options – it’s hard to choose what activity to do first when you visit Ludington State Park, which is a good problem to have.
I gave up counting the number of “-ings” you can do here: camping, hiking, biking, boating, fishing, hunting, backpacking, swimming, wading, tubing, stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, canoeing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, birding, lighthousing (totally a word) and so much more!
Ludington State Park is located along the shore of Lake Michigan near, you guessed it, the town of Ludington in northwest lower Michigan. The 5,300-acre park, situated between Lake Michigan and Hamlin Lake, is simply beautiful and lends itself to being a prime vacation destination.
And it’s been this way for generations. My grandparents camped here regularly in the 60s-70s and talk fondly about their time at Ludington State Park. My parents took me many times when I was a toddler. There is something magical about the woods, water, and beaches that keep families coming back year after year.
History of Ludington State Park
The origin of Ludington State Park begins around 1852 with the village of Hamlin. Hamlin was a small logging community along the bank of the Big Sable River near where the river enters Lake Michigan. A dam was built, creating Hamlin Lake, to control the flow of lumber from the nearby forests to the Hamlin sawmill and finally out to the barges waiting to take the boards and shingles to places like Chicago.
It was a bustling village in the 1870s with boarding houses, sawmills, stores and a schoolhouse. But twice the dams broke, flooding and washing away portions of the village. After the second break in 1912, with the lumber industry dying, there was no need to rebuild the community.
However, with the Hamlin Lake shoreline now a prime spot for resorts, private homes and businesses, a concrete dam (still present today) was built in 1914 to keep the lake levels steady. (A more complete history of the area, lumber industry, and village creator Charles Mears, can be found on this website.)
In 1933, the Civilian Conservation Corps established Camp Ludington-Pere Marquette with nearly 300 men to create Ludington State Park. The CCC literally built the camp from the ground up, including trails, buildings, campsites, roads, and picnic areas. They also planted dune grass and trees and constructed erosion control structures to stabilize the soil from all the logging damage.
Ludington State Park was completed and officially dedicated in 1936.
If you’re into laying on the beach or playing in the water there are two great choices – Ludington State Park boasts 7 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline and 5 miles along Hamlin Lake.
Along Lake Michigan you’ll find a large white sandy beach for sunbathing, playing beach volleyball or building sandcastles. A short ADA-accessible walkway to the beach and a mobi-wheelchair are available (which we noticed a family using the day we visited.)
Be sure to visit the historic Lake Michigan Beach House, constructed in 1935 by the CCC for the park’s grand opening. It underwent a major renovation in 2013. Today, the Beach House has interactive interpretive displays and an outside veranda on the top level, with concessions and changing facilities on the first floor.
If the Lake Michigan beach is too crowded or the lake is a bit too chilly, head over to the other side of the park to Hamlin Lake. Since Hamlin Lake is inland and shallower it tends to be warmer. While the beach is smaller, there is a nice playground, pavilion, picnic tables, and watercraft rentals.
A unique feature at Ludington State Park is the one-mile of the Big Sable River that connects Hamlin Lake to Lake Michigan. A popular activity is using an innertube, SUP or kayak to float down the river.
Big Sable Point Lighthouse
One of Ludington State Park’s most defining and well-known features is the Big Sable Point Lighthouse. At 112 feet tall, it has been guiding sailors since its construction in 1867. The lighthouse has seen many restorations through the years and was the last Great Lakes lighthouse to be automated. Big Sable Point is listed on both state and national historic registers.
For a small fee, visitors can climb the 130 steps in the tower to the top for a spectacular panoramic view of Ludington State Park and Lake Michigan. The original keeper’s quarters at the base of the lighthouse serve as a museum and gift shop.
Getting to Big Sable Point Lighthouse is a bit of a hike and you need to be well-prepared. The lighthouse is approximately 1.5 miles from the main parking lot, from which you have to park and walk (or ride your bike) down a sandy path. Since there is no shade and it gets hot you’ll want to bring a hat, sunglasses, and a water bottle.
As it’s 3 miles roundtrip, we also recommend good walking shoes/sandals – flip flops would not be a good choice. You also can walk along the beach from the Beach House, but high water levels lapping against steep dunes mean you could be walking in the water part of the way.
A few weekends a year, bus transportation is available for an extra fee and they hold concerts at the lighthouse. Check out the Sable Points Lighthouse Keepers Association website for more details.
Trails, Trails and More Trails
With 5,300 acres of park land there are plenty of hiking opportunities throughout Ludington State Park. There are eight separate marked trails totaling more than 20 miles through dunes, woodlands, and wetlands.
A paved walking and biking path runs alongside the Big Sable River connecting the campgrounds, two beach areas, dam and amphitheater.
During the winter, cross-country ski and snowshoe trails are available throughout the park, along with a heated shelter at the trailhead.
A one-of-a-kind 4-mile canoe trail can be found in Hamlin Lake. However, when we visited in 2019 the water levels were so high the markers were underwater in many cases, making it hard to follow.
Fishing, Hunting, and Boating
Fishing is a very popular activity in the Big Sable River and Hamlin Lake. Fall is good for salmon, lake trout and steelhead.
During appropriate seasons, two-thirds of the park is open to hunting and trapping.
An official boat launch with plenty of boat parking is located above the dam in Hamlin Lake for motorized boats. For kayaks or canoes there are a number of unimproved access points for Lake Hamlin and Big Sable River.
Amphitheater and Interpretive Programs
Ludington State Parks offers a wide range of events year-round for guests of all ages. Guided hikes, interpretive programs, recreation activities and music concerts are just a few ways to spend your time.
We especially loved the free Saturday night concerts in the outside amphitheater hosted by the Friends of Ludington State Park. All summer long they bring in different Michigan-based musicians. Donations are suggested and welcomed to help with maintenance and programming in the park.
Camping at Ludington State Park
Due to the park being so popular all summer long it is extremely difficult to get a camping spot. This is definitely a park you’ll need to book 6 months in advance the minute reservations open. And this is despite the fact that there are 4 different campgrounds in the park.
The three modern campgrounds are Pines (99 campsites), Cedar (106 electric and 8 non-electric sites), and Beechwood (147 sites). All feature modern restrooms and 20/30 amp, though a few sites have been upgraded to 50-amp service. There is no privacy between sites, and site sizes vary throughout the campgrounds.
A fourth camping option is available one mile north of the Pines Campground – the Jack Pines rustic, walk-in-only campground with 10 sites. Only a vault toilet and a hand pump are provided. This campground may be closed at times due to high groundwater levels.
Three mini cabins are available for rent, one each in the three campgrounds. Each cabin sleeps four and is furnished with a microwave and small refrigerator. You need to bring your own linens, cookware and food.
What a Magnificent Park!
Although Ludington State Park is the most popular, it doesn’t ever feel overly crowded like many of the other well-visited state parks. Due to its size, there is plenty of room for visitors to spread out. Even though the Lake Michigan parking lot fills up quickly on weekends, there are hundreds of other parking spots throughout the park.
Since there are so many activities, we spent two days visiting Ludington State Park and still didn’t experience everything! This is a park where we recommend at least a week if you can get camping reservations, and a park you should visit at different times of the year.
Highlights of our trip included kayaking on Hamlin Lake, watching the tubers float by from the grassy picnic areas tucked among the trees along the Big Sable River, and, of course, the climb up the lighthouse for the breathtaking views.
If you haven’t been to Ludington State Park, you need to add it to your must-visit list.
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