When Lake Michigan cools and the leaves begin to turn, the sand-and-sun destination of the Indiana Dunes lets its woods-hiking, bird-spying, bike-riding side take center stage.
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The 3 Dunes Challenge Trail blends boardwalks and sandy paths
3 Dunes Challenge Trail
| Credit: Kevin J. Miyazaki/Redux

Mount Jackson, Mount Holden and Mount Tom, draped in blankets of marramgrass, cottonwoods and jack pine, rise nearly 200 feet from the flat stretch of Lake Michigan shore.

The trio inspired the 3 Dune Challenge, a 1.5-mile trail meandering up and down the mounts. And a challenge it is, with slippery sand underfoot and steep inclines. But where the trees part at the summits, the rewarding view shows off 15 miles of lakeshore and, across Lake Michigan, the Chicago skyline.

Native flora, like marramgrass, and fauna, like the Karner blue butterfly, thrive in the Indiana Dunes.
Credit: Kevin J. Miyazaki/Redux

The 15,000-acre Indiana Dunes National Park and 2,180-acre Indiana Dunes State Park both nestle on the southernmost droop of Lake Michigan, just 60 minutes southeast of Chicago by car or South Shore Line train. When nature begins to tuck in for the winter and the lake's water grows too chilly for swimming, the Dunes still bustle with activity. Local towns Porter, Chesterton and Beverly Shores serve up slow-smoked ribs and outdoor markets and act as gateways to the shore's diverse ecosystem of beach, dunes, wetlands and woods.

Birders travel to the Indiana Dunes in the fall, following the migrating birds as they head south.
Indiana Dunes
| Credit: Kevin J. Miyazaki/Redux

Birders come to the parks hoping to check a new species off their must-see list. At Cowles Bog, Forster's terns,  blue-winged warblers and ring-necked ducks find a temporary home on their annual trek to warmer climes this time of year. The bog lies along the 9-mile crushed-limestone Calumet Trail. Pedal across a landscape of lowland ferns and blushing sassafras that takes on a sunset-rivaling tawny glow each autumn.

However you explore the parks, enjoy the brisk fall wind off the lake, the waving grasses on the dunes, the changing colors all around. Everything feels a little wilder here in fall, and that's how it should be.

Indiana Dunes
Credit: Kevin J. Miyazaki/Redux

Two-Day Itinerary for a Fall Getaway in Indiana Dunes

Day One

Begin at the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center for information on both the national and state parks as well as educational displays and orientation videos. Drive to the 1930s Beach Pavilion for a first look at Lake Michigan and to climb the nearby Devil's Slide dune.

Other vertical challenges include the 3 Dune Challenge trail and the Longshore Birding Platform. As you wander the dunes, look for blue-winged warblers, red-headed woodpeckers or any of the dozens of migratory birds visiting at this time of year.

For lunch, stop back by the recently renovated pavilion, which now has a pizza restaurant and grill, an ice cream parlor, a general store and rooftop bar.

In the evening, stay casual with a half-rack at adults-only Wagner's Ribs in Porter. (The former bar kept the 21-and-over rule.)

Spend the night at one of the four guest rooms at At Home in the Woods Bed and Breakfast. Guests enjoy dips in the large swimming pool and watching wildlife from the deck. Nature trails on the 4-acre property wind through gardens and a wetland near Chesterton

Day Two

Start your day at the European Market in downtown Chesterton, where artisans and small-scale farmers gather to sell their wares. The Rolling Stonebaker often shows up and makes wood-fired pizzas in a retrofitted Studebaker.

Back at Indiana Dunes, miles of trails lead through wetlands, woods and sand dunes. Fans of history will enjoy the Bailly Homestead and Chellberg Farm for a glimpse into 19th-century life in the dunes area or the five 1930s-era "modern" Century of Progress Homes along Lake Front Drive. (One day each September, park rangers open the homes for tours; the rest of the year, take a self-guided walking tour to see the exteriors.)

Get off your feet and onto a bike for the 9-mile Calumet Trail. Birders especially will want to explore the Cowles Bog Trail to try to spy some of the feathered autumn visitors. The trail runs through the wetlands then turns toward lakefront bluffs for a cross-lake view of the Chicago skyline.

After your day's adventures, head to Shoreline Brewery, where the slightly industrial exterior belies a warm pub interior. Sample craft brews, like the Shoddy Dock IPA and Singing Sands oatmeal stout, along with classic pub fare like creamy mac 'n' cheese and Black Angus burgers.

For more information: Indiana Dunes Tourism