P. J. Hoffmaster State Park
P. J. Hoffmaster State Park is located on the shores of Lake Michigan between Spring Lake and Muskegon, Michigan. It is the park to go to if you want to learn more about the Lake Michigan sand dunes ecosystem. The Lake Michigan dunes are the world’s largest fresh water dune system, there is no other place like it on earth. We are blessed to have many state parks along the lake shore, and most have at least something about the dunes and how they were formed, but the emphasis at Hoffmaster is the dunes, and the flora and fauna that make them their home.
First, about the trails, there are many to choose from, some are very short loops, while others take you almost completely around the entire park. There are ten miles of trails overall. They do tend to be well-worn, you’ll be watching your step in places to not trip over the exposed roots, and they are some of the most rugged when it comes to going up and down hills when compared to some of the other parks along Lake Michigan. Most are well-marked, but many people leave the trails to make their own in places, so it would be best to bring a map with you if you want to stay on the marked trails. Here’s a link to a map that is put out by the DNR. There is also 3 miles of Lake Michigan beach that can be walked, in combination with the trail system. I normally do the Walk-a-Mile trail to Lake Michigan, then continue on the beach to the trail that leads to the Gillette visitor center, then back to the parking lot at the Walk-a-Mile trailhead. That is around 4 miles total. A side excursion is to the top of the dune overlook platform, which gives you an outstanding view of the lake, the dunes, and Mount Baldy, one of the larger dunes in the area. When you’re not right on the beach, the area is typical mixed forest, with some very dense stands of hemlock in places.
It is one of my favorite places to hike, it doesn’t get as much traffic as most of the other parks on Lake Michigan during the off-season. That can be a problem in the dead of winter when the snows are deep. Very few people cross-country ski there, as the trails aren’t really well laid out for that, although there is one trail from the campground for the skiers. I have never walked that one, so I can’t comment on it. There are a surprising number of wildflowers along the trail starting in early spring, and they attract many butterflies. It is also a good place for bird watching, especially in the spring and fall when the songbirds are migrating. The woods there make a perfect resting place on their journey. The park can be quite crowded in the summer, as are most of the parks on Lake Michigan when the weather is warm.
As I said earlier, this is the park to go to if you’re interested in learning more about the dunes. There is the Gillette visitor center which has displays on the dune ecosystem, the dune overlook platform, and many displays along the trail from the visitor center to the beach. There is a campground at the north end of the park, but I have never used it since the park is so close to home for me. The park is open all year, but the Gillette visitor center closes over the winter months, you can learn more about it here.