People & Places

Finding beach fun in the north sands: Summer play beckons in the Indiana Dunes

Christine Livingston/Indiana Dunes Touri

A view of Lake Michigan from WEst Beach at Indiana Dunes.
Christine Livingston/Indiana Dunes Touri A view of Lake Michigan from WEst Beach at Indiana Dunes.
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Every day, drivers endure heavy east-west traffic south of Lake Michigan in Illinois and Indiana.

Amid the traffic snarls, few probably realize that quiet forests, wildlife-rich wetlands, beaches, unusual restaurants and a host of interesting cultural and natural places are only a few moments’ drive off the busy roads.

When the last massive glacier ground its way south, it played a trick on future motorists. Ice scooped a 300-mile-long north-south trough in bedrock that eventually became Lake Michigan, causing a future roadblock while creating the Indiana Dunes at the lake’s southern tip.

When you scan a U.S. highway map it’s easy to see the vexing problem the long lake created. Interstates 94, 90 and 80 and U.S. Highways 12 and 20 are all east-west thoroughfares crossing northern states. The lake forced each to dip south to skirt its southern shore before turning back north. With at least five busy highways converging to squeeze past the lake, it’s not surprising that the 60-odd miles from Joliet, Ill., to Michigan City, Ind., are harrying for drivers accustomed to Iowa’s generally light traffic.

What most folks don’t know is that the big, noisy roads penetrate an area of biological richness and scenic beauty. It’s a place for millions of people to enjoy being outdoors.

“Only the Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains, and North Cascades National Parks have greater plant species diversity than the Indiana Dunes area, and that’s because they have huge elevation variation,” said Cookie Ferguson, a naturalist at Indiana Dunes State Park.

Lake Michigan is shaped somewhat like a 307-mile-long, 60- to 100-mile-wide bathtub lying north to south. Indiana Dunes follows the lake’s curve from about the Illinois state line eastward to Michigan City, Ind.

Waves of glaciation formed the giant lake. Ice more than a mile thick ground bedrock into fine sand. As it slowly melted, fierce winds blew sand south, creating tall dunes and sandy beaches.

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After about a five-hour drive from Cedar Rapids, we exited I-94 and stopped at the area visitor center at the junction of U.S. Highway 20 and Indiana 49. Indiana Dunes Tourism operates the center and leases space to the National Park Service. Here, a font of information is available about Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Indiana Dunes State Park, area parks, and lodging and dining.

A display in the center illustrates the diversity of visitors. The Travel Planner guide is printed in 12 languages (Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Hindu, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, and Vietnamese).

From the visitor center, we drove a few miles east on U.S. Highway 12 and pitched our tent at Dunewood Campground. Bike and walking trails are nearby, and the lakeshore is only a mile away.

Quiet woods enveloped us in the shady campground about halfway between the big lake and busy highways. We explored for two days. Area walks brought us to the crest of steep dunes, the lakeshore, several marshes, dense woodlands, and even an amazing naturalistic garden.

Congress created Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in 1966. It has about 15 miles of lakeshore in its 15,000 acres.

Somewhat unusual for a national park are various other private and public lands within or near its boundary. They include Indiana Dunes State Park, the Port of Indiana, steel mills, parts of the city of Gary, Ind., and residential areas. Public beaches are managed by the National Park Service, the state of Indiana and the city of Gary.

Most beaches in the National Lakeshore are “unguarded,” meaning no lifeguards or fees for access or parking. Swimmers enjoy the water at their own risk.

THE LAKE

Water conditions vary by day. On our first day there in early June, a fierce north wind pushed steep waves over 300 miles from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to break on the Dunes’ white sandy beach. Surfers love waves big enough to toss a ship around. Some waves have done more than jostle the ship.

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Tremendous storms sank many ships, and wrecks sprinkle Lake Michigan. Some are in water shallow enough for divers to explore.

When we returned to the beach the next day, the lake’s mood had shifted with the wind. A light southerly breeze barely stirred the water. Canoeing and kayaking would have been pleasant. Boaters can launch from several area marinas but must heed the weather. Some people simply enjoy cruising on a lake that dwarfs any of Iowa’s waters. Other vacationers fish, trolling for popular and tasty salmon and lake trout.

In cool seasons, fish can be caught from shore. But as the waters warm, fish head for the depths; fishing from a boat is more productive.

AVIATION HISTORY

Near the end of the 1800s, the combination of wind and dunes attracted the Wright brothers to attempt flight on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The same conditions and topography brought engineer Octave Chanute to the Indiana Dunes in 1896 to test his glider designs.

For years, the Wright brothers and Chanute shared aeronautical ideas through dozens of letters. Chanute developed the double-wing concept and tested it at Indiana Dunes. A replica hangs in the visitor center. The Wright brothers adapted the design for their first airplane.

Most Dunes visitors come to savor the long white beach. By midsummer, Lake Michigan’s waters are comfortably warm for swimming. With Chicago and its suburbs nearby, thousands of people crowd the beaches for a refreshing dip and cool lake breezes. Crowds are common, and finding a parking place is challenging.

Solitude on the beaches is rare. But we had it to ourselves in February a few years ago as we walked amid jumbled ice cakes tossed up by winter storms.

ECOLOGICAL DIVERSITY

A series of glaciers is responsible for the area’s natural diversity. They created the beach and dune sands and dumped rocky debris in a series of moraines slightly to the south. In between rows of dunes and moraines are wetlands. Abrupt changes in elevation, solar aspect and soil type set the template for plant and wildlife diversity. It is a biological meeting place for species from East and West, North and South.

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In the forest, we found sassafras trees, an aromatic Eastern species that once provided the flavoring for root beer. The Dunes form the western edge of the sassafras and beech tree range. The area has isolated pockets of white cedars, a tree common hundreds of miles farther north. Prickly pear cactus, more common to the arid West, grows on sandy dunes.

Plant diversity and geography mean world-class birding. On a May visit, we spotted hooded warblers while walking a boardwalk through a marsh and many other warbler species as we ascended a timbered dune. Herons and egrets were easy to spot in wet areas, while terns and gulls cruised past us as we sat on the beach.

HIKING AND BIKING

Hiking also is popular in the Dunes. We went vertical on the Three Dune Challenge in Indiana Dunes State park. Starting at the campground, we hiked a trail that took us 192 feet up to the top of Mount Tom, then down and up two more times to reach the tops of Mount Holden and Mount Jackson.

Those heights might not sound impressive, but footing is on loose sand, and that gives muscles and lungs a workout.

Views from the top of these giant dunes are spectacular. Along the massive curve of Lake Michigan, we could see Chicago’s skyscrapers appearing to rise from the water, steel mills, and piers to the east around Michigan City.

Most trails are fairly level and not strenuous.

Many visitors follow boardwalks through wetlands and forests. Some don’t even require walking. Several water trails are on both Lake Michigan and inland canals, rivers and lakes. They are popular with water boarders, canoeists and kayakers. The area also has paved bicycle trails.

COMMERCE, INDUSTRY

Industry meets nature in the Dunes area. Giant steel mills supply metal for many industries. Ore is transported from Minnesota on immense ships. We spotted trains loaded with rolls of sheet steel leaving a plant. The steel eventually will be fabricated into car hoods and trunks. Sand is the raw material for glass.

TRAINS

Lake Michigan didn’t force only roads to curve south of it. It did the same for railroads, and today train enthusiasts come to the Dunes to watch freight, commuter, and passenger trains roll through. The South Shore Interurban is an electric passenger train connecting Chicago with South Bend, Ind. Several restaurants are near tracks and are popular eateries for train enthusiasts.

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In the quaint town of Chesterton, Ind., is Riley’s Railhouse, where guests can stay overnight in a renovated 1914 train station.

Also worth a stop in Chesterton is Lucrezia’s Cafe. Shoppers can enjoy the locally owned Chesterton Feed and Garden Center, which offers flowers and seeds for the garden and bird-feeding supplies.

Brincka CROSS GARDEN

Brincka Cross Garden provides a surprising walk. For decades, partners Bill Brincka and Basil Cross used microclimates within their forested land to blend popular domestic perennials and trees with native species. We strolled through places called Hostas on a Grand Scale and Magnificent Magnolias.

After their deaths of Brincka and Cross, the garden was bought by Portage County Parks and is open to the public. The best flower viewing is in spring, but blooms greet visitors the entire growing season. Surrounded by naturalistic gardens is the Brincka-Cross House. The gardens are open to casual visitors, and anyone wishing a formal visit may sign up for occasional guided tours of the house and gardens.

CAMPING AND EATING

Indiana Dunes can be enjoyed as a day’s visit, but a longer stay allows visitors to fully absorb the ambience of the area and explore its diversity.

The National Park Service operates Dunewood Campground. It is well suited for tents and small RVs. Reservations are not accepted, but it usually fills up only on weekends and holidays.

The campground in Indiana Dunes State Park is open year-round. It has hookups for RVs and accepts reservations. Hotels, motels and restaurants tend to cluster around interstate intersections, but most are a short drive from the lakeshore.

Christine Livingston of Indiana Dunes Tourism said: “We are unique in that our commercial development is not directly on our shoreline. This is special. It lets us preserve the fragile dune and swale ecosystems and provide many access points for people to enjoy biodiversity here.”

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