August 4th, 2021: Indiana Dunes and Michiana
“What’s on the itinerary today?” My mom and I discussed as we looked at the map and Indiana Dunes travel guide.
“I thought we could start off at the park visitor center and go from there,” I suggested.
“Sounds good,” my mom agreed.
The Hilton Garden Inn in Chesterton had a sparse breakfast, especially for those with gluten intolerance. Famished for coffee (and caffeine), we stopped at local coffee chain Biggby, which was across the street from our hotel.
“This coffee is delicious,” I lapped up the Carmel Marvel latte, enjoying the robust coffee flavor paired with creamy froth and caramel drizzle.
“And the blueberry peach smoothie is one of the best smoothies I’ve had,” My mom added in. “This should fuel us for our daily adventures.”
We arrived at the Indiana Dunes National Park Visitor Center just after eleven. I recommend starting any national or state park tour at the visitor’s center to pick up a map and ask the ranger for a good itinerary in the park.
Indiana Dunes National and State Parks hug fifteen miles of the southern shore of Lake Michigan. It’s otherworldly sand dunes and crystal blue waters feel like a waking myth. Over 15,000 acres of pristine, rugged dunes buffers against the waterfront. The dunes some of the tallest in the world, tossed from wind and water moving glacial sands for thousands of years. Mountains of sand, these dunes wander – like coastal dunes in my home state of North Carolina.
The Dunes are living – never stagnant and sustaining life and a biodiverse ecosystem, married with lakes, rivers, sunny prairies, dense marshes, and peaceful forests. This ecosystem helps support life for hundreds of species and creates a wild untamed beauty that demands exploration.
“Indiana Dunes Park system includes the national and state park units,” the ranger explained, highlighting the park map. “The state park is sandwiched between the east and west units of the national park – creating one unified, diverse park system. I recommend exploring both the state and national park units.”
“What is the best way to get to the national park entrance?”
“You don’t get to Indiana Dunes from one entrance. There are several park entrances, grouped by location and access point. Each entrance and unit have its own unique personality. Most entrances are via Highway 12.”
“With only one day for sightseeing how should be structure our day?” I asked as I surveyed the map.
“What are you the most interested in – swimming, hiking, scenic drives, history?”
“We’d love to do a short hike, but nothing too strenuous.” I paused. “We love scenic driving and taking in the history as well.”
“I would start out at the Portage Lakefront and Riverfront first. It is on the western side of the park and features a gorgeous beach and easy walking path along Lake Michigan. You’ll be able to see the Chicago skyline in the distance.” The ranger gave us the directions. “I also recommend checking out West Beach, the Kemil Beach drive and of course make time for Mt. Baldy…it is the highest sand dune in the park.”
“Let’s explore the museum first, then we’ll head to Portage Lakefront area,” I suggested to my mom.
The visitor center museum provides a historical, geologic, and ecological history of the Indiana Dunes area. The Dunes have always been a point of reverence and contention for settlers. As Chicago’s industry boomed, many saw the dunes a dirt pile of sand, ideal for building factories, eliminating the unique biodiversity of the land. Indiana Dunes more than any park I’ve visited shows the battle of land and industry and how they can also work together for a higher good.
As Chicago grew, many naturalists sought to preserve the dunes. The Indiana Dunes are known as the birthplace of the science of ecology – the study of organisms and how they relate to one another and their physical surroundings. Henry Chandler Cowles, a professor from the University of Chicago, studied the unique ecosystems and ecological succession in the Indiana dunes. Professor Cowles, helped form the Prairie Club of Chicago in 1908, wrestling with the region’s industry of steel mills and power plants – helped to preserve the dunes.
The National Park Service was only a month old, when its first director Stephen T. Mather tried to save the Indiana Dunes from development in 1916. World War I derailed his attempt, but environmentalists continued the push. Indiana Dunes State Park was created in 1926 and advocates continued to push for a national park. In 1963, President Kennedy proposed creating both a national lakeshore. This protected nearly 9,000 acres of parkland – which has grown to 15,000 today. Indiana Dunes became a national park in 2019.
It is a playground for Chicagoans and a national treasure, attracting visitors to explore the dune mysteries first-hand, while soaking in the clear sapphire water.
As we drove into the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk entrance, I could see the beauty of the lake contrasted by a fire smoking plant right next door. In the distance, Chicago could be seen – like a mirage.
My mom and I spent about 30 minutes walking on the relaxing Lakefront beach and trail that juts into Lake Michigan and a small lighthouse beacon. The Burns Waterway drains into Lake Michigan creating a marshland habitat.
Standing on the walkway we could peer into the unique marsh habitat of the waterway – tall grasses and clear water peacefully lapping as a habitat alcove. We noticed lots of minnows and some fish swimming in the water.
On the beach, families were enjoying fun in the sun – building sandcastles and swimming in Lake Michigan. This is a popular site for locals and tourists alike for a day at the beach.
Leaving the Portage area, my mom and I drove east on Highway 12, detouring towards Kemil Beach area and Lake Front Drive. This beach is more rural and offers good dune hiking. My mom and I focused on the Lakefront Drive, which meanders by the Century of Progress historic homes. This is one of the best Lake Michigan drives in the area – allowing a fully accessible way experience expansive lake views from your car.
This portion of the park is set against neighboring Beverly Shores and real neighborhoods of lakefront dwellers. One local sign was for a cat crossing – which made this feline lover smile.
“Let’s tackle Mount Baldy, then would you be open to driving into Michigan, before coming back to the park around sunset?”
“Michigan isn’t far from here, barely 30 minutes and they have a great state park we can explore.”
Mount Baldy, standing 126 over Lake Michigan, is the largest “living” dune in the National Park. It is a dynamic dune moving about four feet every year, burying everything in its path, including trees.
We pulled into the sand dusted parking lot and changed into hiking boots. Dune hiking is best with bare feet or hiking boots. Flip flops won’t do here. The main part of Mt. Baldy is closed to foot traffic as it can lead to increased erosion. Not to mention the dunes can be unstable, with sinkholes.
Marram grass on the upper beach is the real dune stabilizer. This dune grass and its root system help anchor mounds of windblown sand.
My mom and I followed the park dune path – a steep, yet scalable trail offering amazing panoramas of the dune system and Lake Michigan below. Standing here – the water a Caribbean blue, I forgot I was in Indiana, hundreds of miles from the ocean…this view felt like paradise.
Finishing up at Mount Baldy just after 2 p.m., my mom and I headed northeast, passing through Michigan City, Indiana before crossing into the state of Michigan. While we’ve flown into Detroit, neither of us had been outside the airport. Michigan is only a few miles from Indiana Dunes and has been known for spectacular roadside views of its namesake, Lake Michigan.
“I did some research and Warren Dunes State Park in Michigan is renowned for its dunes and beachfront,” I told my mom as we crossed the state line. “The state park is only 35 minutes from Indiana Dunes and an easy and picturesque detour.”
We meandered the back roads and small rust-belt towns of Southwest Michigan, turning west into the park entrance just after 3:00 p.m. CT (although we’d crossed in ET in Michigan). The road to the main park lot was cornered by vast dunes. The sun blazed, the lake sparkling like diamonds.
Parking our car, we walked down to the beach, where hundreds of beachcombers recreated – taking in the sun and surf. Warren Dunes is over 1900 acres of beachfront fun – including 2 miles of shoreline and six miles of hiking trails.
Colorful beach umbrellas provided shade in the hot heat. Food trucks offered fresh pizza to burgers and ice cream.
“It is easy to see why this is one of the most popular beaches in Michigan,” I noted as I took some photographs with my Canon Rebel.
“The dunes are massive here – hovering around 260 feet.”
Our stomachs were growling a bit, so ate a Kind Bar and grabbed a water from the car. If we had more time I would have loved to jump into the water and soak up the sun.
“Let’s head back to Indiana Dunes,” my mom suggested. “We can go to the Indiana Dunes State Park – and go from there.”
An hour later, around 4:30 p.m. we pulled into Indiana Dunes State Park – a jewel of conservation and recreation. It is one of the oldest state parks in the country and helped ensure the preservation of the dunes for generations. Spread across 2000 acres, the state park includes a glorious beachfront, dune trails, camping and a nature center and pavilion.
“Yum, that ice cream looks delicious,” I noticed the beachfront Dari Dip ice cream counter. Dari Dip is a local ice cream and food joint – known for delicious grub and rich ice-cream.
“I’m ready for a snack, want to order us some, while I grab a picnic table with a lake view?”
It took fifteen minutes, but the delicious cherry milkshake and mom’s sundae were worth the wait. Cold ice cream in the summer heat was just want we needed.
Indiana Dunes State Park features a variety of habitats, including beach, sand dunes, black oak forest, wooded wetlands, and button-bush marsh. The State Park is renowned for its birding – from herons and bittern and beyond.
Together these areas contain some of the most diverse flora and fauna in the Midwest. These living dunes wander – like Mt. Baldy – slowing blown inland, burying forests as they go. In fact, you can see tree graveyards, places where forests have been buried by sand then more recently been re-exposed by wind erosion. Mt. Tom is visible from the beach and is the tallest dune in Indiana – soaring over 190 feet.
The State Park has great hiking trails, but I was content to relax by the water just enjoying the view and spending time in prayer. I enjoyed watching families build sandcastles and jump in the ‘coastal’ waters. I highly recommend this park as a destination.
With the sunset due in 90 minutes, my mom and I decided to drive west on Highway 12 to take in another dune view – this time at West Beach. Located on the western side of Indiana Dunes National Park, West Beach is known for its roaming sands, relaxing beach and the mysterious of Alice Mabel Grey ‘Diana of the Dunes.’
West Beach is a great place to encounter plant succession, how plant communities replace each over time – creating an intricate biodiverse network that sustains the dunes.
West Beach is the home to Diana’s Dune. Diana of the Dunes was a legend in her own time. Born in Chicago as Alice Mabel Gray, newspapers tagged her as ‘Diana of the Dunes’ because she chose to live among the dunes – a lifestyle they compared to the Greek mythology ‘Diana.’ She was a well-educated woman who studied at the University of Chicago and worked for a time at the US Naval Observatory in DC as a computer. (In Alice’s time, a “computer” was a person who did mathematical calculations as a profession.). She studied in Germany and traveled in Europe. And yet the dunes called her…she had a profound change of heart and left Chicago for life in the dunes. Her story includes love, heartache and mostly her last impact on helping to preserve the Indiana Dunes for our generation. Recommend this book.
The Park service now has the ‘Diana Dare,’ where you can climb ‘Diana’s Dune’ and learn her story.
The sun began to fade into amber light of faint orange and yellows. My mom and I were beginning to get famished after only ice-cream and a Kind bar since breakfast.
“I hear Valparaiso has some good restaurants, plus I’d love to check out the university. It’s a twenty-minute drive from the park.” I thought suggested. I’m a huge college basketball fan and Valpo has been known in the past for its upstart March Madness teams.
When we arrived a Valpo – we noticed lots of cool restaurants and shops lining the downtown streets, but what we didn’t expect was the symphony. The downtown was completely packed as the local symphony was performing an outdoor concert. I love classical and pops music, but unfortunately, we could not find a parking spot anywhere in Valpo….so we returned to our Indiana home base of Chesterton.
Luckily, we stumbled upon the Gastro 49 Pub in downtown Chesterton. This local eatery has an extensive beer and wine list as well as a diverse menu. My mom and each ordered a burger and split chips and queso. The food was top-notch, and we had a wonderful waitress. I highly recommend.
Exhausted from our jam-packed day, my mom and I retired to the Hilton Garden Inn for a relaxing evening. I enjoyed catching up on my cozy mystery and crossword puzzles. While my mom did sudoku. Tomorrow we are heading back to Illinois and Chicago…