63 Parks Traveler started with a simple goal: to visit all US national parks. Enthusiastic backpacker and public land nerd Emily Pennington saved up, built a tiny van to travel and live in and set out to practice the best of COVID-19 safety protocols along the way. Parks as we know them are changing fast and she wanted to see them before it was too late. Indiana Dunes is her 47th visit to the park.
With its azure waves and immense 15-mile shoreline, the southern rim of Lake Michigan, home of Indiana Dunes National Park, might appear tropical at first glance. But don’t let appearances fool you. That water is cold, even in summer, if you will find out kayaker Paddling through the cool fresh water and families goof off on sandy beaches along the lake.
When I arrived at the park in mid-October, the changing of the seasons was already in full swing, with a strong autumn wind ruffling my hair and picking off my fingertips. The temperate forest burst with flamboyant, fiery colors and dotted the dunes with a confetti of red, orange and gold leaves. The water wasn’t warmer.
The dunes themselves, like much of northern Indiana, are mostly covered with scrub forest and lakefront grasses. Hiking up and down the nearly 200-foot sandhills can feel a lot more like a shady drudgery than an extravagant excursion full of views in a national park.
Though a stroll in this park might not have the granite domes of Yosemite or the rust-hued rocks of Zion, there’s a quieter, more intricate ecosystem at play. One full of biodiverse wetlands, a variety of small mammals and over 350 species of birds (making it one of the top five parks for bird watching). Historically, the Potawatomi and Miami peoples lived near the dunes until the late 16th century, after which French traders moved in.
More recently, industry has threatened the protection of these areas. Henry Cowlesa botanist from the University of Chicago, published an article on the ecology of the area and attempted to designate it as a national park as early as 1916. As World War I raged on development became more important than preservation and the largest of the dunes, Hoosier slidewas carted off to make glass fruit jars.
Unfortunately, economic advancement has often been prioritized, and so is the park borders a power plant and a steel mill. Both were planned and opened before Indiana Dunes became a national lakefront in 1966 and before the area received national park status in 2019.
I hiked up the five miles Cowles Moorweg, past swamps where insects whisper, and down to the lake. As I hiked, I tried to look at the park through a magnifying glass, imagining how the various plants and fungi worked together to create a unique and diverse ecosystem not found elsewhere. Unseen birds chirped in the high branches and my heart raced as I scaled the steep, unforgiving sand.
When I arrived at Lake Michigan, the afternoon sun was warming my face and several couples with dogs were playing in the water. To my left a chimney loomed like the towering city of Oz. I kicked off my shoes, dug my toes into the sand, and dipped my feet in the icy fresh water.
The park left me with a conflicting feeling. Dejected that the industry had impacted a place of such simple beauty, and grateful that caring people had managed to salvage what they could.
63 Parks Traveler Indiana Dunes Info
Size: 15,349 hectares
Location: Northwest Indiana, 40 miles from Chicago
Created in: 1966 (national lake shore), 2019 (national park)
Best for: Short walks, bird watching, fishing, kayaking
When to go: If you are interested in water features, summer (59 to 82 degrees) is the peak season. Spring (31 to 69 degrees) and autumn (35 to 75 degrees) are also mild. Lake Michigan is famous for its winter storms, when temperatures in the park typically range from 20 to 38 degrees.
Where to Stay: The national park operates a campground called just a short drive from the lake shore dune forestwhile the adjacent state park has a separate campsite near. I stayed in Dunewood and appreciated its quiet shady lanes, clean bathrooms and hot showers.
Mini-Adventures: Hike the Cowles Swamp Walk. At 4.7 miles, it is one of the longest in the park and also one of the most ecologically diverse. Stroll through the dappled sunlight in the forest in search of rare birds in unique wetlands, and eventually be spat upon the park’s eponymous grassy dunes that line the shores of Lake Michigan.
Mega-Adventure: Plan a visit to the adjacent one Indiana Dunes State Park. Not only is the park pet-friendly, but some of the best beaches and access to the dunes are right within its boundaries. Play in Lake Michigan, paddle the area’s many waterways, or convince your friends to take on the challenge 3 Dune Challengea 1.5-mile loop with leg burns and 552 feet of elevation gain on steep sand.