Sunday, July 28, 2013

P.J. Hoffmaster State Park - Norton Shores, Mich.

One of the biggest draws to the Lake Michigan shoreline in Michigan is the abundance of sandy beaches. P.J. Hoffmaster State Park in Norton Shores delivers one of those beaches in a big way, and also features sand dunes, a campground, numerous hiking trails and a top-notch visitor center. On top of that, this park draws fewer visitors than its state park counterparts to the north (Muskegon) and south (Grand Haven), which makes for a quieter, less hectic overall experience. I'd been to the main day-use beach here many times, but in June I finally had a chance to camp here and take in some of the hiking trails.
Our campsite was spectacular, and with almost 300 to choose from there's a site for every need. With a chance of rain, I rigged a tarp over a tent using the trees in the area, but we never saw a drop. Fire rings are at every site and the bathrooms are modern and clean. My two complaints about the park are that cleaning of the bathrooms took place from 10-11 AM (which delayed us leaving by an hour and seems like an awful choice at the busiest time of day), and that alcohol is prohibited. I can understand wanting to keep noise down and keep the park family friendly, but I can't have a beer or two around the campfire? Ridiculous.
We set off on the Homestead Trail in the late morning. At 3 miles, this is the longest trail in the park, and winds through woods before reaching the shoreline and looping back through near the visitor center. The trailhead is at the southeast corner of the visitor center parking lot - which is reached from a separate part of the park from the campground.
 


The trail winds through wooded areas and clearings, and shows off the back side of the dunes before eventually reaching the shore. There are countless intersections, and no real way to tell if you're consistently on the right path or not. My guess is we walked at least an extra half mile while trying to stay on this loop. The visitor center should have up-to-date maps available, and the area is featured in the hiking book shown below.
Ahhhh, the sandy shore of Lake Michigan is in sight! From here, it's about a half mile of beach walking before the trail turns back in towards the visitor center.

The park is well known for its wildlife, especially birds. We saw the usual gulls, as well as a lone duck and the sandpiper shown in the bottom picture.
Now this is the kind of view people come here for! A dune in all of its glory, seen from water's edge.
The trail connects with the dune overlook trail via a boardwalk, which is a nice break from trudging through sand. A side trail near the visitor center leads to a steep flight of stairs, and a view of the dunes from above. Mt. Baldy, the best known dune, can be seen from a lookout behind the visitor center.
We reached our car and the visitor center in 1.5-2 hours time, and were glad to have gone in prepared for the heat (water, sunscreen) and bugs (DEET). This was a great hike and I'm glad I finally saw more of the park than just the beach.
The two-floor Gillette Visitor Center has displays on the top floor explaining everything one could possibly want know about the dunes, while focusing on the area's wildlife downstairs. There are usually activities for children, and a large window on the back wall gives great views at the many birds and small mammals that stop by.
Frogs, snakes and turtles were able to be viewed in a side room downstairs. I have also hiked the park's "Walk-A-Mile" trail, which is found by the swimming beach, and have found it to be much more scenic in the fall months than in the summer. It also feels like much more than a mile when you're hiking it. Hoffmaster State Park is a great park for families with children, fans of Lake Michigan and hikers. With three great trails of various lengths, there's something for everyone. Perhaps in the future with more use these trails can be marked more clearly and maintained regularly.


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