Roads Rivers and Trails

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Off the Beaten Path: The Midwest

by: Ben Shaw

Part 2 of a 5 part series:

This week we’re hanging around our home in the Midwest to hear about some of my favorite long weekend spots. We can’t always get away for a week out west so here’s some of my favorite wilderness areas, beach spots, and hidden gems, right here close to home.

Sylvania Wilderness, Michigan

Backpacking, Kayaking, Canoeing

The Sylvania Wilderness is an awesome little spot tucked away up in the Ottawa National Forest. It’s comprised of 18,327 acres of protected wilderness filled with miles of trails and dozens of different lakes to traverse and explore. I found this little gem when the boundary waters proved to be a little too far away for a long weekend. One thing I can tell you is that going in late August can be a coin toss, not only can the heat be brutal, but blackfly season is in full swing and those suckers can bite…. At just under eleven hours away, if you have five days and love to paddle, this is a destination I would recommend to anyone. Added bonus, next to no crowds.

Best time to go: May-October

Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness, Michigan

Backpacking, Beachbumming, Hiking

Like many of the finds on my list, this spot popped up while I was on the move during a larger trip. My group and I were heading back from a week in Michigan’s upper peninsula and we needed a place to crash for the night. The east coast of Lake Michigan is riddled with beaches, awesome sights and

amazing sand dunes (it’s even got two stops on this list), but this is one of my favorite spots in the entire state of Michigan. Nestled just up the coast from the town of Ludington, Nordhouse sits in the Manistee National forest occupying 3,450 acres of amazing freshwater coastline, pine forests and massive sand dunes. Nordhouse Dunes is the only wilderness in the southern peninsula of Michigan and is open year around to the public, although the unpaved road might be hard to access in the winter snow. The cost for an overnight camping permit is a measly $5 per day or $15 per week if you really want to hang out on the beach. Be warned, with only a mile hike into the easiest to access section of beach Nordhouse can get crowded during the peak season of June-July. If you’re determined to get away from the crowds though, a short walk north or south along the coast will land you on your own little slice of paradise where you can play in the water and watch some of the most amazing sunsets.

Best time to go: May-October

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Kayaking, Backpacking, Car Camping, Hiking

I’ve actually been to Sleeping Bear three different times, twice when I was a kid and another time about two years ago. The area covers 71,187 acres open to hiking, kayaking and other activities. Just like Nordhouse, Sleeping Bear has some amazing shoreline and awesome views out across Laker Michigan. Unlike Nordhouse, Sleeping Bear Dunes is a little bit tamer for the family looking for a long weekend destination and has some better setup facilities. The lakeshore also boasts historic lighthouses and in 2011 was named the most beautiful place in America. There’s really not a bad time to visit Sleeping Bear and if you’re anywhere near Traverse City, I highly recommended the short detour out.

Best time to go: June-October

Charles Deam Wilderness, Indiana

Car Camping, Backpacking, Kayaking, Hiking

I wouldn’t have guessed there was anything too terribly exciting hiding around in Indiana, but the Hoosier NF provides 203,000 acres open to recreation with 266 miles of trail to explore. It’s also home to Indiana’s only wilderness area, the Charles C. Deam wilderness, encompassing 12,000 acres with 57 miles of trail and many more miles of unofficial trails leading to hidden ruins and hundred-year-old cemeteries left over from when the area was inhabited by farmers before the Great Depression. The area is also home to Lake Monroe, the largest lake entirely in Indiana.

One of my favorite things to do is to get up early on a Saturday and head west to the Axsom Branch Trailhead, from there it’s a moderate 4 mile hike out to the shore of Lake Monroe where you can sit and enjoy the day along the water, swimming and watching fishers and other boats go by. As the sun starts to set on the other side of the water you can begin the hike back to the car or if you’re a backpacker you can setup camp near the lake shore and enjoy a night under the stars.

Trust me when I say this, Hoosier NF holds way more awesome hiking on top of this, so if you get a chance, definitely check it out.

Best time to go: Year Round

Garden of the Gods Recreation Area, Illinois

Car Camping, Backpacking, Climbing

Not going to lie, I got confused the first time I read about Garden of the Gods because I thought it was in Colorado (there’s two and I’ve been to both). Garden of the Gods is about 6 hours southwest of Cincinnati in the Shawnee National Forest, and takes up 3,300 acres of canyons, rocky cliffs, and about 40 miles of trail. It’s a great spot for a weekend trip or even a day trip, if you’re up for a long day… My recommendation is to hike counterclockwise around the rock formation and end your hike on top for some pretty good views of the surrounding area. Although this is a great spot year-round, I highly recommend late fall and early spring, you’ll avoid the crowds, water is abundant and there’s plenty of great camping spots to choose from if you’re backpacking.

Best time to go: Year Round

Porcupine Mountains State Park, Michigan

Car Camping, Backpacking, Climbing, Kayaking, Fishing

The Porcupines are another of my favorite spots in Michigan, and I have several of them. If you haven’t caught on, I really like Michigan…. The state park sits in the upper peninsula of the state of Michigan along the south shore of Lake Superior and protects 60,000 acres of public land and wilderness areas. The area can experience some freak storms, but they typically move out of the area pretty fast. The biggest draw in the Porkies is probably Lake of the Clouds, a 133-acre lake situated in the middle of the park, it’s a paradise for backpackers and backcountry fishermen. Other notable spots are Mirror Lake, the Laker Superior Trail and Summit Peak which offers 100-mile views on a clear day. With over 90 miles of trails and countless backcountry campsites and yurts this should be a must visit for any backpacker. In my opinion, the best time to visit is late September into October as the air begins to cool, the breeze comes in off Lake Superior and the leaves begin to change colors, it can almost feel like New England up there…

Best time to go: May-October

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Car Camping, Backpacking, Kayaking

The lakeshore protects 42 miles of pristine Michigan coastline along Lake Superior as well as 73,236 acres full of waterfalls, hiking trails, amazing beaches, steep bluffs and little lakes scattered all around. The best way to see the coast is from the water by boat, you can either charter a tour out of Munising or get a backcountry permit and kayak north along the shore. Be forewarned, its 11 miles of steep rocky cliffs before you reach the first beach you can land on so know the water and weather conditions before you go. On top of all the opportunities for adventure on the water, there’s over 100 miles of trails open to backpacking and day hiking journeys. The best option is to start from the east side of the park along County Highway 720 and head west towards the lake. If you want a quiet day along the beach head north to twelve-mile beach, if you’d prefer waterfalls and steep rocks cliffs, then head south to Chapel Beach, one of the best spots along the shore. Heads up, permits can be tough to get so try to apply early online.

Best time to go: May-October

Explore more locations from the Off the Beaten Path Series: South, Southwest, Northeast, Midwest, Northwest