Explore the shores of Lake Michigan, a sandy piece of paradise less than an hour from downtown Chicago. The Indiana Dunes are the state’s top tourist destination.
Wandering the Indiana Dunes is all about dipping your toes in the soft, silky sand, playing in the waves, and climbing “mountains” that offer sweeping vistas of a vast blue “ocean” that is Lake Michigan. From the beach or from the top of the dunes, you can see the mighty Chicago skyline from about 30 miles away.
The Dunes have always been a popular getaway for Chicagoans and Midwesterners alike, but its recent designation as a national park has brought new attention and increased visitation. After 53 years as Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, the area was renamed Indiana Dunes National Park in 2019.
Hugging the southern tip of Lake Michigan from Gary to Michigan City, the park is made up of wetlands, grasslands, sand dunes, oak savannas, hardwood forests, pine forests, and historic sites, not to mention 15 miles of beaches. In the national park is Indiana Dunes State Park. Each park has its own entrance fee and each has a campground.
For orientation, a good starting point is the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center in Porter, just south of the state park and US 20. It has an exhibit hall, gift shop, and a short at the theater. For cyclists, the two-mile paved Dunes Kankakee Trail begins at the Visitor Center and heads north to the state park on Lake Michigan. The cycleway system contains six interconnected trails of varying lengths and difficulty covering 37 miles.
The newly restored State Park Pavilion in Chesterton, dating back to 1930, features a cafe, ice cream shop, banquet center, gift shop and great views from the rooftop bar. For beach lovers, there are changing rooms and outdoor showers. Bird watchers climb up to the viewing platform near the parking lot in hopes of spotting some of the hundreds of species that live or migrate in the area. With more than 1,000 species of native plants and 370 species of birds, the park’s biodiversity ranks fifth out of more than 400 National Park Service lands. The best bird sightings occur during spring and fall migrations.
Hike in the Dunes
In the state park, serious hikers can take the 3 Dunes Challenge, a 1.5-mile trail that includes the three highest sand dunes in the park: Mount Tom (192 feet), Mount Holden (184 feet), and Mount Jackson (176 feet). Those who conquer the trail can purchase a 3 Dune Challenge shirt or hoodie and pick up a free sticker at the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center.
Mount Baldy, the largest dune in the national park, moves about four feet every year, burying everything in its path, including trees. Hikes on the 0.75 mile trail around the western base of the dune from the parking lot to the beach can only be conducted by park rangers. The 126-foot summit of Mount Baldy is closed to hiking because geologists have discovered large holes (vertical tubes) in the dune that were formed by trees covered in shifting sand and then breaking down, leaving an open tube. In 2013, a child fell more than 10 feet into a tube and was buried for four hours before being rescued by a large excavator.
West Beach, with its bathhouses, summer lifeguards and huge stretch of sand, is one of the most popular beaches in the national park. The Dune Succession Trail (also known as Diana of the Dunes Dare) involves walking up and down wooden stairs that wind through mounds of sand near the beach. Hikers are rewarded with beautiful views of the lake and the Chicago skyline.
The national park offers 14 different trail networks covering over 80 km of diverse habitats. To protect the park’s fragile dune ecosystem, explorers are asked to stay on designated trails.
Remnants of the past
Historic sites in the national park include Bailly Farmnamed after a Frenchman who established a fur trading post around 1820, and adjacent Chellberg Farma Swedish colony that interprets the period 1890-1910.
In Beverly, Shores holds the Houses of a century of progress from the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. Transported on barges across Lake Michigan in 1935, the five lakefront homes are within walking distance of each other. Information panels provide details of the structures, which were built to showcase modern architectural design, innovative building materials, and new technologies such as air conditioning and dishwashers. The most luxurious was the Florida House, a flamingo pink Art Deco building with cruise ship-inspired features. It was sponsored by the State of Florida to attract tourists to the Sunshine State. Over the years, the bright pink color of the house has served as a navigational aid for boaters on Lake Michigan. An annual visit in the fall provides a peek inside Century of Progress homes, each privately owned.
Michigan City: Beaches and More
Michigan City, a short drive from the Michigan border, is full of tourist attractions. Lakeside Washington Park offers two miles of pristine beach, one of the largest municipal marinas on Lake Michigan, and the Washington Park Zoo, which has an observation tower offering panoramic views. The Old Lighthouse Museum, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2023, has seven rooms with exhibits on maritime and local history; it occupies an 1858 lighthouse that was converted into apartments for keepers when the new Michigan City Light opened at the pierhead in 1904. Painted red and white, this historic landmark is a scenic symbol of Michigan City and the only lighthouse in state operation, serving as a beacon for international cargo ships and yachtsmen.
From the Michigan City waterfront, the Emita II the tour boat offers 90-minute narrated cruises to the dunes and century of progress houses. Two-hour sunset cruises go to New Buffalo, Michigan.
Other Michigan City hotspots include Lighthouse Place Premium Outlets and Blue Chip Casino Hotel & Spa. Indiana’s gambling destinations closest to Chicago are Ameristar Casino Hotel East Chicago, Hard Rock Casino Northern Indiana (Gary) and Horseshoe Casino Hammond.
Cedar Lake, Crown Point and Merrillville
Tour operators arranging itineraries in northwest Indiana can also include Cedar Lake, 20 miles south of Lake Michigan. Once lined with resort hotels, Cedar Lake flourished from the 1880s through the 1930s as a summer getaway for Chicagoans. The nostalgia of this golden age attracts visitors The Lassen’s Resort Museum on Cedar Lake, a treasure trove of local history housed in a hotel that operated from 1921 to 1944. Once a week, cruises from the museum pier are offered on an old-fashioned steamer, the kind the Dewey Steamboat on Line once carried guests from the train depot to Lassen’s. Built on the hull of a 1913 Great Lakes steamship lifeboat, the Dewey Ship Replica is a project of the Hesston Steam Museum in LaPorte and has been on narrated cruises for the past two years. Cedar Lake, the largest lake located entirely in northwest Indiana, retains its resort town feel, and the town of Cedar Lake has many great restaurants. All but half a mile of the nine miles of shoreline is private.
Crown Point is also worth a visit, the centerpiece of which is the Old Lake County Courthouse, a large red-brick building that now houses the Lake County Historical Museum and a few specialty shops. In well-preserved buildings from the late 19th century and early 20th century, facing and near the courthouse square, are first-rate antique shops.
Some of the main tourist stops in the area include Albanian confectionery in Merrillville, a large candy store that has been making chocolates and the “World’s Best Gummies” for over 30 years. Favorites include triple coated malted milk balls and peanut butter filled chocolates. Free samples are gladly given. Across the highway is another candy house—Chicagoland Popcorn, where sampling and group visits are welcome. The Walker family makes over 250 flavors of gourmet popcorn, from chewing gum and cotton candy to cherry cola and root beer.
More information is available from the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority, Indiana Dunes Tourism, and Visit Michigan City LaPorte Convention & Visitors Bureau.
By Randy Mink, Editor
Main photo – Indiana Dunes State Park. (Photo Randy Mink)