Thursday, April 10, 2014

Hiking Indiana Dunes State Park and National Lakeshore, Indiana

Early spring hiking along one of Indiana's finer natural preserves
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in early April
Recently I took a trip out to Chicago and one of the places I wanted to hike and explore was Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and State Park. Compared to Michigan and Wisconsin, Indiana has just 45 miles of lakeshore line along Lake Michigan. However small this coastline may be, it actually quite serene and much different from how most people view Indiana. To those living in the Chicagoland-Northwest Indiana area, the Dunes are a perfect nearby getaway from the metropolitan areas. 

Its not often that you are able to easily access National Park lands by public transit. This is of course due to the fact that most National Park areas are deep in the wilderness. Nevertheless, there are several noteworthy areas which are accessible from massive cities and the Indiana Dunes are one of them. We actually ended up taking the South Shore Line right into the middle of the Park and got off the train at Dune Station. The Ogden Dunes and Beverly Shores stations on the South Shore Line also are within walking distance of the park
Some of the largest dunes on the Great Lakes are preserved here
It was interesting to take a train directly from Millennium Station, Chicago directly to the dunes. One moment we are in the third largest city in the United States and the next we're in a real nature preserve. Coming in early April meant that the area was still essentially in winter-mode but the temperatures were 60 degrees and sunny. There were only small crowds and most of the trails we had to ourselves. It was a perfect little getaway from the city.

The Dunes are managed as local, state and federal lands. Much of the groundwork was done by locals and the area is both a State Park and a National Park. I was surprised to see how large the area actually was. It would probably take several days of hiking and exploring to really see everything. As for us, we were content with walking along the beach and exploring the highest dunes at the State Park just off the Dune Park Stop.
Classic Indiana Hiking
Our hiking began at the swimming beach just past the gatehouse and near the fort-looking structure called the Pavilion and Beach House. This is nearby the Devil's Slide which is a fun area where you can sandboard or tumble down. In the winter, you can slide, snowboard or just roll down it! The beach itself was pleasant enough and I'm sure the swimming is better in the heat of the summer. We poked around the beach and enjoyed the kind-of-sort-of ocean feel to it.

Inevitably I am drawn to climb the highest dunes in the park and this was not too difficult. Here is a trail map. There's something like 25 miles worth of hiking in this state park area and some of the hikes are challenging considering there's less than 200 feet of real elevation gain. Our jaunt took us up the "summit" of Mt Tom which is 192' above lake-level (which is 769' above sea-level). The summit was steep and a sandy hike to get to but there were substantial views at the top. I was impressed.
Summit of Mt Tom
Sandy trail up to the summit from the beach
There is a loop hike that hits all the high dunes and is about 1.5 miles in length (Trail #8 on the map). The other dunes- Mt Jackson and Mt Holden were equally gorgeous. Sure, they are less than 200' in altitude but in an otherwise flat land, the views were great. Certainly they are some of the better "mountains" in the Midwest.

Back down to the beaches, it was nice to sit and relax for a while. Across the lake Chicago could be seen in the distance as well as the shores of Indiana and Michigan. I imagine the sunsets and sunrises here are also pretty! 
Small rivers and brooks are all throughout the park

Wish I could have seen a sunrise or a sunset!
Camping and hiking opportunities are abundant in the park and greater area. I'd actually like to come back and do some trail running, especially on the #10 and #2 trails which circle around the beaches and the interior wetlands. Its so nice that this serene stretch of lakeshore has been preserved for all of us. 

II'm continually impressed by the outdoor adventure opportunities of the Midwest in general. Indiana Dunes was a nice respite from the city but in my travels around all the Great Lakes States and heartlands, I've found there to be limitless opportunities for exploration. While there are some obvious and well-know adventures in Minnesota and the shores of Lake Superior, I seem to keep finding places like Indiana Dunes and the Baraboo Range of Wisconsin which challenge the idea that the Midwest is flat, dull and uninteresting. I'm looking forward to future opportunities to explore more of the area.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!