The Ultimate Guide to Indiana Dunes National Park
So, how did tiny Indiana Dunes become a national park? It doesn't boast impressive rock towers like Yosemite or Zion. No sweeping vistas like Yellowstone or Glacier. As far as scenery goes, even its most ardent champions admit it can be a bit, well, plain.
But its charms are much more subtle. Located on the shores of Lake Michigan, Indiana Dunes is the fourth-most biodiverse national park in the country, despite a relatively small footprint compared to others in the park system. Visitors come to admire wildflowers each May, but not many know the colorful spring blooms are just a few of the more than 1,100 different plant species found in the park's forests, bogs and beaches. A prickly pear cactus and a batch of ferns might live 6 feet apart, but they exist in two totally different biospheres—proof of the wonder found within the park's 15,000 acres.
Though many Chicagoans drive the hour along Interstate-94 to sun themselves on sandy beaches, Michael Bielski—an environmental science teacher at Chicago's Oak Lawn Community High School—says that many of his students and their parents don't realize there's a national park so close. Some students have never even taken a walk in the woods before visiting the park, but now with an opportunity to learn from nature, they can become better stewards of the land.
"Students are not only getting a firsthand lesson on biology, but they're also gaining important life experiences," Bielski says. "It's opening up a whole new world of opportunities and career considerations they may not have known existed."
Plant nerd and science geek stuff aside, there's plenty of fun for all interests, at both the national park and its neighboring state park of the same name. Scramble up a dune (where allowed), kick back on a beach or take a swim in Lake Michigan. Indiana Dunes might be the Midwest's newest national park, but its allure is as ingrained as its sandy shores.
PLAN With the Windy City less than 50 miles from Indiana Dunes, summer is the busiest time in the park as hordes of Chicagoans flood the beaches. Most visitors stay parked on their towels though, so even when the park is at capacity, the hiking trails will rarely be crowded. Late spring and early autumn are the best times to visit if you're hoping for fewer people and still-great weather. Birders might want to hit the annual birding festival each May.
PACK None of the trails require much more than a pair of sneakers or trail runners. The wind coming off Lake Michigan can make it seem 10 or 20 degrees colder, so bring additional layers, particularly in winter or early spring. Of course, swimsuits, sunscreen and some sort of shade are a must for the beach.
DRIVE Given the park's relatively urban nature, you don't need to worry about four-wheel drive. If you want to hit one of the beaches during peak season, make sure you go early; parking lots tend to fill quickly.
RIDE If you don't feel like getting behind the wheel, the South Shore Line—a train that runs between Chicago and South Bend, Indiana—has four stops throughout the park, with some trains allowing bicycles on board.
FLY Most visitors fly into Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, a 90-or-so-minute drive from the park. South Bend International Airport in Indiana is the closest option at just under an hour drive, but offers fewer flight options.
COWLES BOG TRAIL Designated a National Natural Landmark, this nearly 5-mile trail might best represent the park's different eco systems, winding through marshes, swamps and black oak savanna. The trail hits its midpoint on the beach, where hikers are rewarded with a gorgeous view of the Chicago skyline rising above Lake Michigan.
PINHOOK BOG This short hike passes by some of the park's most unique plant life. Two highlights are the orchids—Indiana Dunes has more species of them than the state of Hawaii—and the crowd-favorite carnivorous plants. To better protect the plants, you can only hike the bog on ranger-led tours.
HERON ROOKERY TRAIL In late April or May, wildflowers like prairie trilliums and the lovely (but toxic) Dutchman's-breeches burst into color along this 3-mile trail. If you're lucky, you might also see the aptly named spring beauties; the individual flowers bloom for only three days. Hike in the morning to catch their petals unfurling when the sun's rays first hit. The Heron Rookery name is a bit of a misnomer—the huge population of great blue herons that once nested here has moved on in recent years. However, other birds still thrive here, including kingfishers, woodpeckers and warblers.
MOUNT BALDY Visitors can no longer climb Mount Baldy, the park's most famous dune, except on a ranger-led hike, but the 126-foot-tall sandy monolith is still worth admiring. (Note: Ranger-led hikes are held on summer weekends.) Fun fact: It moves up to 12 feet southeast every year.
BEACHES Between the national and state park, there are eight beaches along Lake Michigan's shore. Pick one and settle in for the day. All have restrooms (some seasonal) and West Beach, Lake View Beach and Mount Baldy Beach have picnic shelters.
BAILLY HOMESTEAD More than 60 historic structures are protected by the park, including the Bailly Homestead, a National Historic Landmark. The property was home to Honore Gratien Joseph Bailly de Messein, an independent fur trader who contributed to the development of Indiana's Calumet region. The imposing 19th-century home still stands, as well as rustic log structures and the family cemetery.
Check in: Accommodations at the Spring House Inn may be a touch dated, but few spots will put you closer to the action or provide such a calming environment to relax in afterward. Rooms are fairly large and reasonably priced. Or stay in a revamped vintage motel at Al & Sally's. Larger groups can rent the motel's Guest House, which sleeps eight and has a full kitchen.
Camp Out: Only about a mile from the beach, the prime location of Indiana Dunes State Park's campground means sites sell out fast for the summer. While the state park campground is open year-round, the national park's Dunewood Campground (no electric hookups) is open seasonally, from April to October. Not only are the restrooms impeccably clean, but they also have hot and cold running showers.
THE 3 DUNE CHALLENGE In the neighboring state park, the 1.5-mile 3 Dune Challenge encourages visitors to climb a trio of tall dunes—a combined 552 vertical feet. The route itself isn't the most scenic in the park, so head down one of the trail offshoots to take in the beach.
49ER DRIVE-IN The 49er Drive-In Movie Theatre in Valparaiso, Indiana, was named one of the nation's best. The box office opens an hour before dusk.
TAKE A HOME TOUR Several futuristic homes built for the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago were purchased and shipped to Beverly Shores, Indiana, where they remain today. Driving or biking through the so-called Century of Progress Historic District is a must-do for fans of modern architecture. An annual tour is typically held the last weekend in September.