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Indiana Dunes State Park: A Beachside Treasure in the Landlocked Midwest

BY: Stephanie McDaniel | Jul 18, 2013
Indiana Dunes State Park: A Beachside Treasure in the Landlocked MidwestThe vastness of Lake Michigan can be startling to visitors from the coasts, who might not expect to see something so much like an ocean in the landlocked Midwest. Though it doesn’t boast the crashing waves of the Atlantic, the Great Lake’s gentler currents make it ideal for a summertime swim. One of its most sought-after stretches of coastline is Indiana Dunes State Park, a beachside retreat where the scent of sunscreen, the sound of lapping waves, and the touch of cool, clear water make the oceans seem downright superfluous. Surrounded by the 15-mile National Lakeshore, the Indiana dunes encompass 3 miles of sandy beaches, three mountainous sand dunes, nearly 17 miles of hiking trails, and 2,182 acres of hardwood forests, swamps, and marshes. Great Lake, Better Escape The choked air of the city seems a distant memory after just a short drive into the park, where the highway’s litany of billboards gives way to trees and massive sand dunes. Just beyond the cash-only entrance kiosk ($5–$10 for cars; $2 for bicyclists and pedestrians), the beach comes into view. And what a view it is. At the peak of summer, the shoreline is flecked with striped umbrellas and colorful beach towels. Swimmers splash about in the water, and surfers clutch their boards as they scan the horizon in search of good waves. The scene is nearly identical to what you might find at Myrtle Beach or Cape Cod, though the smell of saltwater is conspicuously absent. The lake’s tidal stream funnels warm freshwater into eddies that are shallow enough for small children to enjoy. Some parts of the coast, however, are off-limits to humans of all sizes, seeing as how they’re protected habitats for native wildlife. After spending the morning at the beach, you can wash the sand off your feet at the vintage beach house pavilion nearby. A handful of changing rooms within the pavilion make it easy to switch out flip-flops and swimsuits for pants and hiking boots. A Trail for Every Tourist Several trails depart from the nature center, but don’t leave until you check out the exhibits on local flora and peer through the wildlife observation window. The trails themselves serve as a quiet, serene counterpoint to the park’s crowded beaches. A popular destination for experienced hikers, Trail 8 is a strenuous 1.5-mile climb that scales all three of the park’s tallest dunes: Mounts Tom, Holden, and Jackson. Rising 192 feet into the air, the summit of Mount Tom is a great place to snap pictures of the distant Chicago skyline. Other trails offer a more moderate challenge, twisting through acres of black-oak forest and alongside swaths of grassland. For a close-up view of native flowers, cross the murky waters of the marsh on a boardwalk or take an easy path through the woods, where wildflowers and ferns abound. Birdwatchers shouldn’t miss the observation tower on Trail 10, where they might catch a glimpse of a red-tailed hawk or a great blue heron stretching its wings above the wet prairie. Many of the trails have intersecting points, so it’s both easy to switch paths and difficult to get lost. Regardless of which trail you choose, don’t forget to bring bug spray to fend off the forest’s mosquitos. Park rangers also recommend that hikers stick to the marked trails to help protect the dunes. Where to Eat and Sleep: Park Amenities Inside the beach pavilion, an onsite concessions stand serves fast food during the summer. For visitors who pack their own food, the park has installed picnic tables and grills in the wooded areas closest to the beach. Though the park is perfect for a day trip, longer excursions are possible if you book a spot in the campgrounds. Hidden in a secluded nook just beyond the beach trail, the grounds contain 140 sites laid out on sand, with plenty of electrical hookups, picnic tables, and drinking fountains to accommodate everyone. How to Get There By Car: Take I-90 East from Chicago’s Loop. Drive time is approximately one hour. By Train: The Chicago South Shore Line departs from Millenium Station and arrives at Dune Park Station. From the station, it’s a half-mile walk to the park entrance and another 1.5 miles to the beach.