Congress finally did something right! Earlier this year, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (IDNL) became Indiana Dunes National Park (IDNP), making it the country’s 61st national park and the first in Indiana.
The debate continues on whether Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore deserved national park status (a category that offers far more protections than other National Park Service designations) or should have remained a national lakeshore, but I’m happy with the change. Because IDNP is a special place that is only 50 miles from downtown Chicago. At 15,000-acres, Indiana Dunes National Park may be smaller than our large national parks in the western U.S. such as Yellowstone, Glacier, or Yosemite, but it makes up for it in towering dunes, sandy beaches, and crashing surf; wetlands, rivers, prairies, swamps, bogs, marshes, and quiet forests; biodiversity (more than 200 bird species have been sighted at the park, and it features 1,100 native plants, which places it fourth in plant diversity among all NPS sites); and tons of history. Here are 14 things you can do at the park:
1. Hike its 50 miles of trails on one or more 14 trail systems that will take you along Lake Michigan; along the Little Calumet River; throughs bogs, forests, ravines, bur oak savanna, and wetlands; and to historic homesteads and other sites.
2. View the fall colors by taking a hike on the Glenwood Dunes Trail System or on other trails.
3. Take a swim, build sandcastles, or simply relax on 15 miles of beaches.
4. Climb to the top of Mount Baldy and other famous dunes for beautiful views of Lake Michigan and perhaps even a glimpse of the Chicago skyline.
5. Enjoy a wide variety of interpretive activities offered by the NPS at the park.
6. Savor the wildflowers in the spring, summer, and fall.
7. Visit the Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education (which is open daily, except for federal holidays).
8. Check out the Visitor Center (which is open daily, except for Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day).
9. Go birdwatching; more than 200 species have been identified as living in or passing through the park during spring and fall migrations.
10. Visit historical sites. The NPS says that “there are over 60 historic structures including a National Historic Landmark, the Bailly Homestead. Other notable sites include Camp Good Fellow, the Chellberg Farm, and five houses from the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.”
11. Participate in other outdoor activities such as fishing, boating, and horseback riding.
12. Enjoy winter activities such as hiking, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing.
13. Camp at Dunewood Campground.
14. Attend the annual Indiana Dunes Outdoor Adventure Festival, which will take place Friday-Sunday, October 4-6, 2019, throughout the Indiana Dunes region.
Despite its small size, you will not be able to see and do everything that’s available at the park in one visit. Click here for tips on what to do if you have 1–2 hours, a half day, or an entire weekend to spend at the park.
So, what did I do when I visited our nation’s newest national park? I took a fantastic, nearly 5 mile hike on the Cowles Bog Trail System on a sunny, 90-degree day. According to the NPS, the Cowles Bog Trail, the park’s “most rugged trail…highlights an area of such outstanding plant diversity that it was designated as a National Natural Landmark in 1965. This location, where Dr. Henry Cowles conducted much of his early work in plant ecology and succession in the early 1900s, remains an important focus for scientific study today.” On this trail, which has moderate to very demanding sections, you’ll see ponds, marshes, and black oak savannas, as well as enjoy stunning views of the lake from nearly 200-foot dunes. This trails also features great views of spring wildflowers and fall colors.
It’s important to remember that IDNP is an island of nature and biodiversity amidst industrial northwest Indiana. In some sections of the park, you’ll hear the sounds of trains because the South Shore Line travels through much of the southern portion of the park. (The train provides a great alternative for those who don’t have their own vehicle who’d like to visit.) Some areas of the park border heavy industry, the Port of Indiana, and small, lakeside towns. On the western edge of the Cowles Bog Trail, you can see and hear U.S. Steel’s monstrous manufacturing plant. As you walk on some areas of the beach, you’ll see smokestacks in the distance. But this is the reality for many national park or other NPS sites that are located in developed areas. The bright side of parks like these: at least some beautiful areas were saved. The dark side: why didn’t far-thinking people a century or more ago seek to preserve more of these special places throughout the United States? However, the sights and sounds of industry and trains will be a temporary distraction as you enjoy Indiana Dunes National Park. Most of the trails at IDNP are situated in such a way that you will feel far removed from the modern world.
Pair a visit to IDNP with one to its neighbor Indiana Dunes State Park (IDSP), which is located within the national park’s boundaries. It 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 rare plants and animals. You can do many things at Indiana Dunes State Park, including:
- Visiting its Nature Center (open 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. local time)
- Having a picnic
- Going cross-country skiing (trails available, no ski rental)
- Fishing (smelt only)
- Birding (Dunes Birding Blog )
Click here for my article on Indiana Dunes State Park. In a perfect world, IDNP and IDSP would be combined to enhance the level of environmental protection for the state park and improve the visitor experience.
If 15,000-acre Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, with its 15 miles of shoreline, can be upgraded to a national park, then so should the much-larger (77,000 acres and 42 miles of shoreline) and equally, if not more, stunning Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan also receive this vaunted status. Pictured Rocks can easily be categorized with the great national parks of our country. But don’t take my word for it, take a trip to this North Woods jewel sometime soon. Click here to read my article about one of my favorite Midwest destinations.
Copyright (text) Andrew Morkes
Copyright (photos) Andrew Morkes, unless otherwise credited
When I’m not enjoying Indiana Dunes National Park, I write books and newsletters about careers for teens, as well as for 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.