My hubby, Chris, spent his early childhood in Ludington, Michigan, where both of his parents grew up. During the years we’ve been together, it’s become one of our favorite vacation spots. The small town is situated on the west coast of the state, right on Lake Michigan. Once the domain of lumber barons in the mid-1800s, the area now offers pristine beaches, acres of forested hiking trails, and a charming downtown filled with eclectic shops and impressive historic homes. Even better, there are endless opportunities for outdoor fun in Ludington.
Hiking heaven in Ludington State Park
Chris and I love everything about Ludington State Park. It’s considered one of Michigan’s best state parks for good reason. Spanning 5,300 acres, it offers incredible natural beauty along with a boatload of outdoor activities such as hiking, kayaking, fishing, camping, bicycling, and tranquil inner-tube floats down the Big Sable River. It’s seriously a vacation all by itself!
Before we had kids, Chris and I took a lot of hikes among the park’s eight marked trails. And now that our kids, Ashleigh and Joshua, were a little bigger, we were eager to tackle some of the shorter trails with them. For their first experience, we opted for the Sable River Trail. We roamed along riverside boardwalks and pathways that led through dense hardwood forest, past marshland, and along dune valleys, breathing in air fragrant with white pine and wildflowers.
We crossed the walkway over Hamlin Dam, watching the large shadows of fish move beneath white foamy swirls below. At one point we had the kids stop and just listen. We helped them identify the different types of birdsong, the scampering footsteps of forest creatures, and the way the wind would make the canopy of leafy tree branches creek overhead.
Surfing Lake Michigan sand dunes
The Lake Michigan area is home to some of the nation’s best dunes, thanks to an abundance of westerly winds that carve the sand into amazing patterns and formations. The kids were doing so well on our hike that we decided to take the connecting Skyline Trail that runs along the edge of a tall dune. This trail is made up of lots of steps and an extensive, elevated wooden boardwalk offering endless views of sand dunes and sparkling Lake Michigan in the distance. One of the coolest parts of this trail is that it leads to a monster sand dune you can run up and down. There was another family already there, and their kids were using “sandboards” designed for surfing down the dunes. A boy from the other family let Joshua give it a try, and he was instantly addicted. We practically had to pry him away from his new friend and the sandboard in order to finish our hike.
Waves of fun outdoors
We had lunch at the park’s Hamlin Lake Beach concession stand. Afterward, we rented a canoe and paddled our way along the eastern shore of the lake, gliding beneath footbridges and weaving our way among tiny islands and shallow bayous, pointing out waterfowl and wildlife along the shore.
Hamlin Lake Beach is perfect for families with really young children because of its calm waters, playground, and conveniently located restroom. But our kids (and Chris!) were itching to play in the big waves of Lake Michigan. So, we headed back downtown.
Lake Michigan’s shoreline is made up of miles and miles of sugar-sand beachfront, and we spent the rest of the afternoon building sand castles, attempting a little kite flying, and jumping in the waves. Actually, Chris and the kids jumped in the waves while I lounged on my blanket, finally enjoying the opportunity to read my book and drowse beneath the warm rays of the sun.
Ludington’s sweetest spot
Every time we visit, we have at least one meal in Ludington’s sweetest spot, the House of Flavors Restaurant. The interior instantly immerses you in its retro, 1950s-style decor, complete with larger-than-life pictures of its 1950s work staff covering the walls. Ludington’s House of Flavors is known for their savory dishes made with fresh turkey, which you can watch roasting on a spit behind glass near the entrance. But they’re even more famous for their homemade ice cream, which they’ve been making since 1937.
Cool fact: In June 2016, the House of Flavors became a Guinness World Record-breaker by constructing an ice cream dessert more than half a mile long.
During our visit, both kids chose sundaes made with their favorite flavors. Ashleigh selected Moosetracks, vanilla ice cream loaded up with fudge and chocolate-covered peanut butter cups, while Joshua chose Superman, a mix of blue moon (their signature flavor), cherry, and lemon that turned his tongue a very interesting color.
I ordered my usual Carmelot sundae—French vanilla doused in a mix of hot caramel and hot fudge, topped with Spanish peanuts. And Chris ordered his usual, as well, the restaurant’s famous Pig’s Dinner: a ridiculously massive ice cream sundae made with four flavors of ice cream and topped with a banana. It’s served in a pig’s trough and covered with pineapple, wild cherry, strawberry, and chocolate sauces. The restaurant gives every diner who finishes one a commemorative pin in honor of it. And let’s just say Chris already has quite the stockpile of pins already!
A Ludington tradition
After dinner, we walked back down to the water to participate in a popular area tradition. We strolled along the pier to stand beside Ludington’s 57-foot-tall North Breakwater Light, now ranked the number one lighthouse in Michigan. It’s exhilarating to watch the giant waves break against the pier, droplets of water flying up and glittering in the colors of the setting sun.
While the sunsets in this spot are always beautiful, what our kids were really excited about was watching the S.S. Badger car ferry cruise back into port, returning from its daily voyage to Manitowoc, Wisconsin. The S.S. Badger has been in service on Lake Michigan since 1953, and it’s the last and largest coal-fired car ferry ever built. However, it now carries leisure travelers and their vehicles instead of railroad freight.
The kids covered their ears to muffle the resounding blast of its horn as it passed by, and then joined the rest of the people waving at all the passengers on board. We stayed until the sun set, the sky turning brilliant shades of pink, orange, and lavender. Then, Chris teased the kids as always with a story from his own childhood, claiming that, “If you listen closely, you can hear the hot sun hiss as it touches the water.”
We never do. But we always try.