My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

They’re Back! Hiking Muskegon State Park

I couldn’t go the entire long 4th of July weekend without at least one day trip someplace farther from home than Bysterveld Park, so I headed over to Muskegon for an afternoon of hiking, and an evening of watching fireworks.

I decided on Muskegon for a couple of reasons. The first one was that the previous two evenings, we had absolutely spectacular sunsets, and I was hoping for a three-peat so that I could get a good picture with something other than a retail development in the foreground.


The same sunset over Lake Michigan would have made a fantastic picture, this one is OK, but hardly what I would have liked to have captured. My back up plan for the Muskegon area was the evening fireworks over Muskegon Lake that they shoot off for the Summer Celebration that is held there. If I couldn’t get pictures of nature’s fireworks, I would get pictures of manmade fireworks. The other reason for choosing Muskegon is that I hadn’t been there in a couple of months to see the eaglets or to continue exploring the trail system in Muskegon State Park.

I arrived at the Snug Harbor boat launch/picnic area around 5 PM, and it was just beginning to cool off a little from the heat of the day. In fact, it felt very pleasant there with a nice cool breeze coming in off from Lake Michigan, as is usually the case during the summer months. I fired up my GPS unit, strapped on my daypack, and put the boat anchor known as my Nikon camera around my neck, and started off down the trail that goes west from the parking lot.

My plan was to hike the Dune Ridge Trail, which I had intended to do earlier this year. But, on the day I was there to hike it, snow conditions made the hiking very difficult to say the least. After struggling along the Devil’s Kitchen Trail to get to the Channel Campground and the south trailhead for the Dune Ridge Trail, I decided to walk back to Snug Harbor on the road instead of any of the trails. It turned out to be a good thing, because the trail is a lot more difficult going the direction I intended to go on that day. The trail guide from the DNR describes the Dune Ridge Trail this way…

“Park either at south end of Snug Harbor of at the Channel Walkway. This trail is for the heartiest of hikers and not recommended for those with heart or respiratory problems. The trail leads you through open and wooded dunes with views of Muskegon Lake, Lake Michigan, inter-dunal ponds, and the Channel with its lighthouses.”

I wouldn’t say it is a particularly difficult trail, but it is through dunes, which means sand, and it is a lot more work than a paved trail or one that is on hard packed ground. On the day I was going to do it before, there was 18 inches of snow on the ground that had been hardpacked, but was then melting, making walking through it extremely difficult. As it is, I would recommend starting out at the Snug Harbor end, rather than the Channel Campground end, unless you want a real workout climbing a couple of large sand dunes to get to the top of the ridge. The trail up from Snug Harbor is through the forest, so the sand is a lot firmer for walking.

First I had to make a slight detour from the Dune Ridge Trail to check out the eagle’s nest. I had only gone a short way when I met the only other people I saw on the trails all day, a couple coming back from the eagle’s nest. We talked for a few minutes, and they told me the young eagles were there by the nest, waiting for the adults to deliver more food. A good sign! I got to the nest, and sure enough, the young eagles were there.

Eaglet near the nest

If you look very closely, you can see the second eaglet just to the left and behind the one you can see well. It was hard to get good shots, since the forest is so dense there, and I didn’t want to disturb the eagles in any way by wandering around below the nest. I didn’t really want the parents attacking me if they came back either.

Second eaglet near the nest

I had an even smaller opening to shoot through to get this picture, I couldn’t see this one’s sibling at all from where I took this picture at.

I’ve written about it before, but it is so great to see the comeback the eagles have made here in Michigan, and throughout their range. I was a teenager before I ever saw a wild eagle, and then it was in a very remote part of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We were never close enough to it to see it very well, not even using binoculars. It made headlines around the state when a nesting pair was found in the lower peninsula for the first time in decades. Now, they’re all over the state, and the parents of the two I took pictures off here have chosen to build their nest near the intersection of two of the busiest trails in a busy state park. When I was talking to the Michigan Conservation Officer earlier this spring while kayaking Muskegon Lake, we watched a couple of eagles fishing while we talked.

I waited for a while, hoping that one of the parents would return with supper for the not so little eaglets, but they didn’t. It was already late afternoon, and I didn’t want to be stuck out on the trail somewhere when darkness came, so I set off for the main event, the Dune Ridge Trail.

It surprised me how dark it was beneath the tree canopy above me as I began the long climb up the side of a dune to get to the ridge. That was a good thing though, the shade was welcome as warm as it was for the climb. I saw a number of birds and animals along this portion of the trail, but it was too dark for photography. This was my first time hiking Muskegon State Park in the summer, it is a completely different place than in the winter when the trees are without their leaves. The trees were so thick that my GPS unit lost its fix a number of times, and I had to stop and wait for it to regain a fix. I needed the breaks anyway. Getting to the top and exiting the forest was like stepping out of a tunnel.

Nearing the top

Then came my first views of Lake Michigan from the top of the dune.

Lake Michigan

It was gorgeous up there!

Lake Michigan

And to think there are people who want to spoil this wonderful view by building a bunch of ugly wind turbines out there in the lake.

There was a bench there at the top, and I sat down for a couple of minutes, taking in the views and resting from the climb up there.

The entrance to the Muskegon Lake channel

After cooling off a little, I set off up the trail again, for the trail continued to climb, but through more open country, not the thick forest that I had been hiking through. I say climb, because overall, the trail does continue to gain elevation, but there is a lot of up and down to the trail as you walk along the tops of the dunes. One thing you’ll see is the exposed roots of trees where the sand has been blown away.

The roots of an oak tree exposed in a "blow out"

This is the result of what is known as a “blow out”. A blowout forms when a patch of protective vegetation is lost on a dune, allowing strong winds to “blow out” sand and form a depression in the face of the dune. That’s why it is important to stick to the marked trails when walking through the dunes. I know it is hard to believe, but it only takes a few people trampling the dune grass down to allow the wind to take over and form one of these blow outs. If the grass isn’t allowed to regrow, then eventually the trees will die, the dune will become completely unstable, and the sand will blow around completely uncontrolled, changing the shapes of the dunes.

Actually, the dunes are always moving, a few grains of sand at a time. Wind and rain move the sand around enough as it is, they don’t need our help in getting the sand moving. It’s one of the really interesting things about sand dunes, watching how much the topography can change in just a few short years of wind, wave, and rain action. Dune grasses, bushes and trees take root and anchor the sand in place for a while, then the vegetation dies, and the sands reshapes itself into new patterns and the cycle repeats itself, over and over again.

Sand dunes covered in vegetation.

Here’s a couple of more pictures of the low dunes between where I was and Lake Michigan.

The low dunes along Lake Michigan

And another.

The low dunes along Lake Michigan near Muskegon

I was started down by the time I took these last two pictures, by down, I mean dropping in elevation overall. The Dune Ridge Trail is all up and down, through the sand. It wasn’t particularly hard, but I was working up a good sweat, so when I came to another bench, I took a good long break to cool off and empty the sand out of my sandals, at least temporarily. That turned out well, for I had just dropped my pack and sat down when the alarm sounded on my GPS unit, telling me the battery was about dead. I was in the middle of changing the battery when a family of swans went flying by in the distance.

Swans in the distance

I have several other shots of just the swans without the aging factory in the background, but I chose to use this one because it sums up the Muskegon area so well.

When the first white men came to the Muskegon area, they found a wilderness paradise along the shores of Lake Michigan, Muskegon Lake, the Muskegon River flowing into the lakes, surrounded by large tracts of forests. Lumber was the first industry to rise up in the Muskegon area, it was the perfect place for the early lumber industry. The area was heavily forested to begin with, and the Muskegon River flows through the heart of what used to be Michigan’s forest lands. The river gave the lumbermen a great way to transport logs to sawmills along the shores of Muskegon Lake. In turn, Muskegon Lake is the best deep water port on the west side of Michigan, making it easy to transport the finished lumber by ships to the big cities spring up all around the Great Lakes, such as Chicago and Detroit. In fact, most of the lumber used to rebuild Chicago after the Great Fire came from the 16 sawmills that used to be in the Muskegon area.

Other industries soon followed, along with the destruction of the wilderness paradise and a legacy of harmful pollution, much of which remains to be cleaned up. It took us 200 years, but we finally figured out that we were destroying the environment. During those 200 years, nature held on by a fingernail, waiting for us to come to our senses, I hope we have.

While much of the pollution from the past remains to be cleaned up, we have made great strides in the last few decades in reversing the destruction of the environment, and restoring some of what we took from nature. It hasn’t taken much, just a few parks and natural areas for nature to do its thing, and the results are amazing. Give nature an inch and it will take a mile. That’s one of the great beauties of nature, how resilient it is.

So now we find ourselves at a crossroads, and we have to choose which path to take. You’ll notice I said “a” crossroads, not THE crossroads, for I hope we never get to THE crossroads, where the survival of the planet and/or the human species is at stake.

I have a draft of a post started on that subject, so I’ll leave off here for now, besides, I’ve got a hike to finish before dark, and it’s getting late. Where was I? Oh yeah, taking a break and changing the batteries in my GPS unit. After watching the swans fly off over the horizon, and getting my GPS unit up and running again, I set off once more to finish my hike. Not far from where I took my break, the map shows where there is supposed to be an inter-dunal pond, but it seems to have dried up. I found that surprising, as wet as this spring was, but that’s the way it goes in the dunes, everything is always changing.

Inter-dunal pond?

As you can see, the water is gone, and the trees and grasses are taking over. I don’t know if sand filled in the pond, or if the trees around the pond absorbed all the water the pond used to hold.

Looking off to the east, I could see Muskegon Lake, and the Milwaukee Clipper tied up at what I think is its new home.

The Milwaukee Clipper

First named the Juniata when it was built back in 1904, she was known as “The Queen of the Great Lakes” because of the luxurious accommodations available for the first class passengers. Since it was built, it was remodelled several times, mothballed, remodelled again and put back in service, then mothballed again, moving from city to city and place to place while people looked for a place to moor it permanently, and finish converting it into a floating museum. You can read more about it here at the website for the group restoring the ship.

 By the time I made it down out of the dunes, and to the south trailhead at the Muskegon State Park Channel Campground, I was whipped, despite my two short breaks earlier. I’ll tell you, walking the dunes is a lot easier in the winter when the sand is frozen in place than it is on a hot summer afternoon when the sand slides out from under your feet every time you try to step forward. As I walked along through the campground, I couldn’t believe how close together the campsites were, not for me, that’s for sure. I found an open site and picnic table, and took another break, including a bite to eat since all that walking had made me hungry. I sat there long enough to dry out as well, it hadn’t rained, that doesn’t happen when there isn’t a cloud in the sky, but I was soaked with sweat. I don’t like the heat, and what had seemed like pleasant temperatures in the shade at the Snug Harbor trailhead were a lot hotter on top of the dunes in direct sunlight most of the time.

Afternoon was giving way to evening, and I still had to take the Devil’s Kitchen trail back to Snug Harbor and my vehicle, hopefully before dark. I know the Devil’s Kitchen trail fairly well, I have walked it several times, but never in the summer. It’s an easy trail to hike, much easier than the Dune Ridge Trail. It was too bad I was in a bit of a hurry though, it is a completely different trail in the summer than in the winter and early spring, as are most places.

Shelf fungi on a fallen tree

 I was finding a few things to shoot pictures of along the way, but between it being late in the day, and the heavy shade, I could only capture a few of them when I was able to use the flash.

Unidentified Fungi

 I sure wish that I hadn’t killed my Canon a couple of weeks ago, I would have gotten some even better photos with it.

I made it back to Snug Harbor not too long before sunset. As I was putting my pack away, and finishing off the last of my water, a couple of park employees drove by while patrolling the park. The stated closing time for the park is 10 PM, and I asked if that applied that evening as well, due to the fireworks. They said that they did make an exception for the fireworks, and that every one was welcome to stay until the fireworks were over. Great news, I didn’t have to find another place to view the fireworks from! Since there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, there wasn’t any spectacular sunset like I was hoping for, but there were some great man-made fireworks to be seen.

Fireworks from the Summer Celebration at Muskegon, July 4, 2011

 It was cool watching them from the other side of the lake and seeing their reflections on the water while they were going off.

So there you have it, my 4th of July hike in Muskegon State Park. Starting out watching young eagles near their nest, hiking through both dense forests and semi-open dune grasslands, seeing historic places and ships, topped off by an evening of fireworks, all on a beautiful summer’s day. Is it any wonder I keep going back to the Muskegon area despite the  industrial ugliness that lies on the other side of Muskegon Lake?

One thing I forgot.

USS Silversides

 One of the other attractions in the Muskegon area is the USS Silversides, a World War II era submarine that is now moored permanently in Muskegon. You can see it from very near the south trailhead for the Dune Ridge Trail and the Channel Campground in Muskegon State Park.

The 4th of July, when we celebrate the birth of this nation, when some imperfect men sought to form the perfect country. We should never forget the past, those who fought and died for our freedoms, those who continue to guard us and our freedom, and the sacrifices they have made.

And that brings up yet one more thing we should never forget either, and that is how we have the power to destroy the environment if we don’t learn from our past mistakes. The Muskegon area should serve as the poster child for that, for we turned a wilderness paradise into an industrial waste nightmare. I am not opposed to industry, I for one don’t want to live like our stone age ancestors did. But, that doesn’t mean that we should destroy the environment for the sake of industrial development as we did in the past. My day started out watching eagles that have returned to the area and thinking to myself how great it was that they’re back. I hope that there is never a future generation that witnesses the return of the eagles. Yes, they’re back, let’s hope they get to stay this time!


3 responses

  1. What a great trip- park-hopping is fun 🙂

    July 8, 2011 at 3:34 pm

  2. Pingback: More hating on my Nikon « Quietsolopursuits's Blog

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