Dunes Gone Wild: Fall Getaway to Indiana Dunes
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.
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 11⁄2-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.
"Sometimes, in the morning, the sun just lights Chicago up like a jewel," says Kenneth deGroh, who built a terraced deck outside his duneside home here to showcase the sight.
"Here" isn't just the trail; it's also the 15,000-acre Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and Indiana Dunes State Park within it. 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.
A boggy corner of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore comes to life when a tumult of gossipy birds settles down for the night. Forster's terns, blue-winged warblers and ring-necked ducks make Cowles Bog their temporary home on their annual trek to warmer climes this time of year. And following them are the binocular-bearing bird obsessives, looking to check a new species or three off their must-see list.
Ruth Thuston, one such birder from Chicago, stands on the boardwalk trail in the bog and lifts her field glasses for a good look at a red-headed woodpecker flitting through the oak tree branches. "That woodpecker is … pretty common here but rare other places," she says.
The bog lies along the 9-mile crushed-limestone Calumet Trail. Cyclists pick up the trail near the definitively folksy Camp Stop General Store (stop in to rent a bike or stock up on s'mores fixings) just inside the state park, then pedal across a landscape of lowland ferns and blushing sassafras that takes on a sunset-rivaling tawny glow each autumn.
The bright coral pink Florida Tropical House adds another pop of color to the scene. One of five Century of Progress Homes built for the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago, it was later shipped across the lake to rest in the national lakeshore. (One day each October, park rangers open the five homes for tours; the rest of the year, take a self-guided walking tour to see the exteriors.)
A lucky break finds The Rolling Stonebaker serving wood-fired pizzas out of a 1949 Studebaker fire truck parked nearby. No luck? Head into one of the small communities like Porter, where the smoky, saucy baby back ribs at Wagner's Ribs are fall-off-the-bone tender, or brick-paved Chesterton, where vendors at Saturday's European Market sell the makings for a picnic: berries, breads, artisanal cheeses.
One ideal spot to dine is beneath the soaring arches of the national lakeshore's Moorish-influenced beach pavilion. It's where Ron Goetz brings his children, Landon and Sophia, to rest after a bike ride through the park.
"It's been awesome," Ron says. "We try to come out every fall. We like the weather, all the color, the trees, the sand dunes. It's different." He shrugs and the family sets out to clamber up, and tumble down, the nearby Devil's Slide dune.
Indiana Dunes Trip Guide
➤ Getting there To drive, take Interstate-94 for easy access to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Indiana Dunes State Park and nearby small towns. Or the South Shore Line commuter rail from Chicago stops at the Dune Park Station near Indiana Dunes State Park.
➤ For more information Indiana Dunes Tourism (219) 926-2255; indianadunes.com
Day one | Begin at the Indiana Dunes State Park Nature Center near the entrance of Indiana Dunes State Park to pick up trail maps and sign up for the saw-whet owl banding program. When an owl is (gently) captured, you'll receive a text invitation to see it banded for research. Until then, stop by 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 Bird Observation Platform (worth it to spot blue-winged warblers, red-headed woodpeckers or any of the dozens of migratory birds visiting at this time of year). Stay casual with a half-rack at adults-only Wagner's Ribs in Porter. (The former bar kept the 21-and-over rule.) The refurbished Duneswalk Inn at the Furness Mansion maintains spare but sophisticated and comfortable guest rooms.
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 State Park, 16 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 1930s-era "modern" Century of Progress Homes along Lake Front Drive. (It's outside the state park but within the national lakeshore.) Get off your feet and onto a bike for the 9-mile Calumet Trail. If you didn't bring your own ride, rent one at the Camp Stop General Store in the national lakeshore. 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. Michigan City's Old Lighthouse Museum invites visitors to climb to the lantern room and to learn about local maritime history. Shoreline Brewery's slightly industrial exterior belies a warm pub interior. Sample 12 craft brews, including the Shoddy Dock IPA and Singing Sands oatmeal stout, along with classic pub fare like creamy mac 'n' cheese and Black Angus burgers.