The very first trail I step on is sand — and not just a dusting of the stuff either, but the soft, deep, undulating variety you’d expect to find near a beach. In honor of its designation in February as the 61st and newest national park, I’ve chosen to work my way across Indiana Dunes — formerly a national lakeshore — on a sunny Saturday in April, and picked West Beach as my starting point.
It’s a popular place to catch some rays and swim from Memorial Day through Labor Day — and the only beach in the park with lifeguards during the high season. But on this cool, wind-whipped morning I’m interested in hiking. The Dune Succession Trail loop I’ve taken is flat for a few paces and then it charges straight up more than 160 wooden steps to top a wooded dune and (already!) wows me with immediate jaw-dropping views of the vista over Lake Michigan stretching as far as the skyline of Chicago, which is an hour’s drive away.
Continuing down through hardwoods and then evergreens, it’s hard to tell where the sound of gusting wind ends and the noise of lapping waves begins until the trail’s twists and turns finish on the lakeshore. Walking along near the edge of the water that turns from a brooding deep blue farther out to turquoise up close, I’m reminded — as an Indiana resident who has somehow never been on this stretch of beach — of how Lake Michigan serves as an ad hoc ocean in the landlocked Midwest. And I can imagine how this place’s moods might change with the season, the weather and even by the day.
A lot packed into the park
To go so quickly from arriving at the park to seeing virtually forever is the kind of curbside pop that you get right out of the gate with this 15,000-acre, elongated park that runs along 15 miles of Lake Michigan, which is located in an otherwise heavily industrialized area. To get to the western part of the park after stopping at the Indiana Dunes visitor center, I drove by the colossal Port of Indiana, and you’re never far from steel mills and roads here — that’s the other side of the curbside experience. But with beautiful dune-backed beaches galore and 50 miles of trails through varied habitats, there’s a lot packed into this park.
The Trump administration initially opposed the upgrade of Indiana Dunes to a national park. “Our preference is that the designation of ‘national park’ be reserved for units that contain a variety of resources and encompass large land or water areas to help provide adequate protection of the resources, and that in general, similar types of units have consistent designations,” P. Daniel Smith, the acting director of the National Park Service, asserted in written testimony to a Senate subcommittee last year. “Indiana Dunes has more in common with the other Great Lakes national lakeshores ... than with most national parks. Indiana Dunes is the smallest of the four lakeshore units, and the only one of the four that does not include any designated wilderness.”
But while some national parks, like Yellowstone, cover millions of acres, others are smaller than Indiana Dunes, such as the 60th and other newly — and controversially — redesignated national park, Gateway Arch in St. Louis (a mere 193 acres).
The administration eventually relented. and most people agree the name change raises the profile of the park.
When the Park Service was created in 1916, its first director, Chicago businessman Stephen Mather, proposed creating Indiana Sand Dunes National Park that same year, points out Paul Labovitz, who has served as superintendent for Indiana Dunes — the national lakeshore and now the national park — since May 2014. Labovitz says that, acre-for-acre, the park’s biodiversity rivals just about any in the system.
“Biodiversity is a characterization of the different numbers of species of plants and animals in a place,” Labovitz explains. The Indiana Dunes are at the southern end of Lake Michigan, at the western end of the eastern deciduous forest and at the eastern end of the prairies, he points out. Given that kind of ecozone overlap, there are plants here that you’d normally expect to find in the Southwest — one species of prickly pear cactus is a native plant here, Labovitz says. And you can find the cactus growing in dunes next to a plant called bearberry, which is typically found in the Arctic, he says.
A place for bird watchers
For birders, there’s an absolute wealth of species. During an annual four-day birding festival held here each year, participants typically identify about 200 of them — “which is the kind of bird list that you get when you go to places like Costa Rica,” Labovitz says.
He notes that there are nesting sandhill cranes in the park. “Bald eagles are starting to make a comeback, and we expect bald eagle nests any time,” he says.
For the aficionados or newbies, there’s no shortage of variety: all manner of warblers — from worm-eating to prairie warblers — green herons, blue herons, black-crowned night herons, American bitterns, Virginia rails — it’s clear Labovitz could go on.
But you don’t have to be a birder or botanist, either, to appreciate the obvious variations in habitat inherent in the park. As a national parks enthusiast, I’ve hiked and backpacked in many of the iconic ones, including Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Acadia in Maine. But I’m a little miffed I’ve not given this place its due, since it’s only about 150 miles from where I live in the Indianapolis area. Now that it’s officially a national park, it’s overdue. So I’ve set an ambitious agenda for my Saturday to do just that. I’m not only interested in hiking up and down dunes (and I do a lot of that — all well worth the effort), but I duck into wooded areas, wetlands, hike prairies and marshes — and of course lots of beaches, too.
That’s something park officials suggest doing — checking out all the diversity this place has to offer. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with swimming in warmer weather and hanging out on the beach. It’s just that there’s lots to see and do here.
“We have great bike trails. We have great hiking trails. We have an equestrian trail. We have camping. We have great fishing. We have great paddling — canoeing and kayaking — either on the lake itself or in some of the small rivers that connect with the lake,” Labovitz says. “There’s a lot of things you can do here beyond laying under an umbrella in the summertime.”
Visitors are encouraged to check out what the park has to offer in every season, from peeping spring wildflowers to cross-country skiing, snowshoeing over the dunes and seeing the frozen waterfront when temperatures fall. (Bring your own skis and snowshoes, as there are no rentals available in the park.) “The lake landscape in the winter is spectacular with shelf ice,” Labovitz says. It’s also always in flux and the ice is very unstable, so visitors are strongly cautioned not to venture out onto the ice.
Hiking the dunes
I’ve chosen to spend my time covering as much ground as possible on two legs. And while trails up dunes can be strenuous, of course, there are some pancake flat hikes, too — like the Great Marsh Trail — and in general most tend to be fairly short, usually venturing no more than a few miles from a trailhead, if that. What’s more, the rewarding views are always just around the bend.
As it turns out, what probably ends up being my favorite hike — the Cowles Bog Trail — is also Labovitz’s top pick. Named after the ecological sciences pioneer Henry Chandler Cowles, who brought much attention to this unique natural area, Cowles Bog features so much plant diversity that it was designated as a National Natural Landmark in 1965, a year before Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore was established.
The lollipop loop itself is a microcosm of all the park has to offer with marshes, ponds, swamps and black oak savannas, eventually snaking steeply up wooded dunes to a blockbuster panorama. Industry is always right over your shoulder in this park — and it is especially so here with the steel mill and power plant next door to Cowles Bog; but the juxtaposition of development and captivating natural landscape serves as a practical reminder of why preservation is so critical in a place like this. The sweat equity put in to crest this trail affords a stunning bird’s-eye view of Lake Michigan. Dropping down to the lakeshore, it feels like I’ve discovered a side-door entrance of sorts to nearly deserted waterfront (as opposed to say, just pulling up to a parking lot and walking onto a crowded beach).
If you can’t get enough of the dunes — or even if you just want to take in more scenery, and like to get up high — Indiana Dunes State Park, which is within the national park’s boundaries, is another must stop. In total, the Indiana Dunes national and state parks draw about 3.5 million visitors annually, Labovitz says, with about 1 million coming to the state park. Besides people traveling to the park from the populous northwest Indiana and Chicagoland region surrounding it, Indiana Dunes also sees its fair share of visitors from across the country and around the globe, often people who are traveling to the Chicago area and day trip to the park.
I capped out my day of hiking by completing what Indiana Dunes Tourism touts as the “3 Dune Challenge” — taking Trail 8 in the state park to the top of the three tallest dunes in the area, which crest at 192, 184 and 176 feet respectively. Climbing the dunes in rapid succession is strenuous, but it’s not mountain climbing, and it’s still (possibly) family-friendly, depending on your time allotment and fitness level.
After the dune climb, I had to make one last stop. No doubt, it’s cliched to end the day with a sunset, but don’t miss it here. I landed at Central Beach, toward the eastern end of Indiana Dunes National Park, after my full day of hiking. And with the powder blue sky above wispy clouds, layered on pink, then lavender, meeting the deep blue brooding creases of lake surf as the sun dipped below the horizon right next to the Chicago skyline, it didn’t disappoint.