Indiana Dunes State Park: Beautiful Beaches, Peaceful Forests, and a Biodiversity Hotspot

Less than an hour away from Chicago there is a wild and beautiful place that features nearly 200-foot sand dunes rising above 3 miles of beautiful Lake Michigan beach, as well as black oak forests, bogs, creeks, marshes, and other natural wonders filled with more than 1,000 plant and animal species. No, this is not Indiana Dunes National Park (which is a wonderful place, too), but its neighbor Indiana Dunes State Park (1600 N. 25 E. Chesterton, IN 46304, 219/926-1952). The park, which consists of 2,182 acres of wonderful, was established in 1925. You can do many things at IDSP, including:

1. Visiting its Nature Center (open 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. local time)

2. Having a picnic

3. Going cross-country skiing (trails available, no ski rental) and snowshoeing

4. Viewing the spring wildflowers or fall colors.

5. Fishing (smelt only)

6. Going birding

7. Visiting the J.D. Marshall Preserve, which is based around the J.D. Marshall shipwreck site; the ship sank on June 11, 1911 

8. Going camping

But I was there to hike and find solitude. And that is exactly what I found on a sunny, 90-degree day with a heat index of 104 degrees.

Indiana Dunes State Park has 7 trails (16 miles in all) to choose from (additionally, the 9.2-mile Calumet Trail travels along its southern edge). There are easy, largely flat trails (Trail 2), moderate trails (Trails 3, 4, 7, and 10), and rugged trails (Trails 8 and 9). Click here for more on the trails.

I chose Trail 9, which travels 3.75 miles through dense forests, wildflower-filled meadows, marshes, and tall dunes. The hike was both relaxing (the woods and the beautiful lake vistas) and taxing (climbing the dunes and walking through the sand), but well worth it to anyone who is in relatively good health. (Note: You can also significantly shorten your hike by completing only a portion of each trail, so don’t let the total distance of some of these trails deter you.)

Trail 9 does not take you to the beach (Trails 4, 7, 8, and 10 do), but there are several spots where you can follow a short trail from the top of the dunes to the shore. That’s what I did when I reached Furnessville Blowout. A blowout is an area in a sand dune ecosystem where wind has eroded bare areas of sand in a location that is otherwise covered by vegetation. 

I headed from the cliff to the beach. I’d left a city of 2.7 million people not even 45 miles away the day before, and I quickly discovered that I was the only person on the beach, and it felt very good. Just the sound of the waves, the blue sky, the bright sun, the hot stones and sand underfoot, and the occasional gull and butterfly gliding overhead.  

I sat on a log near the shore and had lunch. And when I finished, I spent an hour in the solitude.

I walked amongst the hot rocks and sand, occasionally cooling my feet in the water.

I searched for fossils, shells, and pleasantly-shaped rocks.

I marveled at the various pieces of driftwood and wondered about their origin.

I waded again in the lake, and I saw what I thought was a pretty flower floating in the waves, but quickly realized that it was a downed butterfly. I gently scooped it out of the water. It’s wings looked damaged, and I thought it was dead, but then it began moving in my hand. I placed it in a shady spot on the beach.

I sat back down on the log and stared at the waves. The lake changed color—from blue, to light green, to grayish—as the clouds occasionally obscured its rays.

Fog kept building above the still-cold lake water and tried to work its way on shore. I knew Chicago was just across the lake, but I couldn’t see it because of the haze—and that was fine with me. 

The sun beat down relentlessly. Thunderheads built above the water.

I looked around and instead of seeing and hearing people and cars and motorcycles and lawnmowers and jackhammers (a 6:30 a.m. treat currently happening next door to my house every morning lately), I saw the area as it was for thousands of years–rocks and driftwood, dunes and grass, the occasional bird and butterfly. And the only sounds I heard were the lapping of the waves on the shore and the occasional gull.

I thought of everything and then nothing as I soaked in the solitude.

I emptied my mind of troubles and just lived in the moment—the feel of the hot sand on my bare feet, a smooth rock in hand, the sound of the waves, the stunning dunes behind me.

Eventually, it was time to go. I checked on the butterfly, but was surprised to see it was gone. I’d like to think that it did not become gull food, but rather that it’s wings were not as damaged as I thought. No matter. It was out of my control no matter what I desired.

I climbed to the top of the dunes and resumed my hike. Trail 9 provides excellent views of Lake Michigan. I eventually reached the Beach House Blowout, an area of stunning beauty. Six-lined racerunner lizards repeatedly scampered away from me as I hiked along the trail.

Atop the dune, the wind was like a blast furnace, so I took a lot of water breaks. Several different species of dragonflies flew close by, then landed on plants and flowers near me. They seemed as curious about me as I did about them. They’re so amazing to observe!

As I walked the narrow dune path, I saw the lake and the blowout on one side and the tops of the trees below on the other. It was a beautiful sight, and I was glad that I made the effort despite the blistering hot day.

The trail gradually descended into the forest, and the temperature felt 10 degrees cooler. I enjoyed the last mile or so of my hike, taking a portion of Trail 10 that ran past a beautiful marsh as a shortcut. It began to rain—just enough to cool me off and wet the trees and plants.

I finally reached my car and headed out of Indiana Dunes State Park. In just 40 minutes, I’d be in south suburban Chicago to pick up my son from grandma’s house. A new tent I had delivered there was waiting to be assembled in her backyard. For our next camping trip—perhaps even to Indiana Dunes State Park.

Copyright (text/photos) Andrew Morkes, Founder & Author of Nature in Chicagoland

After visiting Indiana Dunes State Park, check out its neighbor, Indiana Dunes National Park. Click here for my article about this Indiana gem.

When I’m not visiting Indiana Dunes State Park and other nature destinations in Chicagoland, I write books and newsletters about careers for teens and adults who want to change occupations. I also write college-planning books and newsletters, including They Teach That in College!?: A Resource Guide to More Than 100 Interesting College Majors, 3rd Edition. You can learn more about my newsletters and books by clicking here.

My new book, Nature in Chicagoland: More Than 120 Fantastic Nature Destinations That You Must Visit, will be published on June 29, 2021.

2 thoughts on “Indiana Dunes State Park: Beautiful Beaches, Peaceful Forests, and a Biodiversity Hotspot

  1. I’m. So glad you enjoyed this hike and all the flora and critters
    but I was very content exploring the many nuances of a/c.
    Loved your description – it reminded me a bit of Walton Pond
    narrative.j

    Liked by 1 person

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