Some of my earliest memories are playing in the Lake Michigan sand dunes. In fact, my mind is filled with sandy memories of family and church picnics at the sand dunes at Washington Park in Michigan City, Ind. This was our favorite place to play.
I was born and raised in Michigan City and the dunes were our destination for family outings when I was a small child. We ran up the sand dunes, rolled or slid down and then dipped in the cold water of Lake Michigan. Often we walked through the zoo and allowed the monkeys to stare back at us and at all of the other odd humans who were gawking, laughing and pointing at them.
At the southern tip of Lake Michigan, the sand dunes were formed into a unique ecological habitat during the last ice age into what is now the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore Park and the Indiana Dunes State Park. Combined, the area is approximately 25 miles long and 5 miles wide near Chesterton, Ind.
The Indiana Dunes Lakeshore Park is not contiguous, but is divided into several parcels that surround the Indiana Dunes State Park and the Port of Indiana plus numerous privately owned homes and small towns. An estimated 1,400 plant species are found within the park boundaries. Many of the plants and animals are unique to the dunes.
Although I have hiked the Oregon Dunes and the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, neither of those parks holds the allure and memories that I have for the Indiana sand dunes.
The National Lakeshore Dorothy Buell Visitors Center is located at the intersection of Indiana Hwy. 49 and U.S. Hwy 20. There is parking for several large RVs at the visitors center. Directly north of the Lakeshore Visitor Center is the entrance to Indiana Dunes State Park. Along U.S. Hwy. 12, you’ll find several access points to the beach or to other components of the Lakeshore National Park.
Miles of hiking trails are available in the two parks. Mt. Baldy, at the east end of the park, is the only sand dune that visitors are allowed to climb, the other dunes are off limits due to eroding sands.
Recently, I camped in the National Lakeshore and the state park campgrounds for more than three days each. The state park campground is located close to Lake Michigan and the sand dunes. It is very active with large, spacious, well-defined sites, each offering 50-amp electric, but no other hookups. A wastewater dump site and freshwater are available at a central location. Large, clean restrooms and hot showers are centrally located as is a children’s playground. Well-marked trails lead to the nature center, Lake Michigan, the back dunes and a wetlands area.
The National Lakeshore Campground is located one mile north and four miles east on Indiana Hwy. 12 from the visitor center, and is more than a mile from Lake Michigan. It has no hookups, although a dump station and freshwater source are available about one-third mile away. The campsites range from small, asphalt pads to spacious, isolated sites.
During my two brief stays at Lakeshore, the tent campers outnumbered RVs by a ratio of four to one, while the opposite is true at the state park campground. For seniors and RVers with an annual or senior pass, the 50 percent discount fee is $9 per night at the national park campground while the lowest rate at the Dunes State Park is $20.33 per night.
Reservations may be made online for the state park, but advance reservations are not possible at the Lakeshore Dunes Wood Campground. Indiana residents may pay $5 per day or $20 per year entrance fee for access to the state park and the lake. Out-of-state residents are charged $10 per day, although campers pay the entry fee on the first day only.
The parks are accessed easily from the east or west via I-94, U.S. Hwy. 12, U.S. Hwy. 20 or from the Interstate 80/90 toll road. Access from the south is via Indiana Hwy. 49, but from the north is not quite so easy because arrival is only by boat or by swimming.
For those who enjoy walking the beach and watching the waves roll in, there is plenty of space and time to enjoy the water. There are hiking trails, a large covered bath house and a nature center at the Indiana Dunes State Park. One mile north of the National Lakeshore Campground there is a parking area that offers an easy walk to the beach.
Separate events attracted my attention while strolling the beach recently. Two young scientists were taking samples of the sand as they searched for indigenous sand mites that were first discovered at this location in the 1980s. As a former aquatic microbiologist their equipment and activity motivated me to inquire and discuss their current project.
The second event was a wedding on the beach and the wedding party was being photographed as we descended the dunes to the beach. We later joined the after-wedding party at the mobile, stone-fired pizza vendor a mile from the beach. No, you don’t have to be a scientist or be in a wedding to enjoy the beauty of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, but these events do indicate the diversity of activities that may take place on the beach.
A fun activity for families involves a visit to Chellberg Farm where people can see maple tree sap being collected for conversion into maple syrup. Rangers demonstrate the process of boiling the sap into syrup, and samples are available.
Other inviting day trips from the dunes includes trips to nearby cities which can be easily reached by car or small motorhome. Michigan City, LaPorte, Valparaiso, Chesterton, Gary and points south and west are within a few hours drive. I recommend a trip on the South Shore Railroad, which runs from South Bend, Ind., to Chicago and there are several stations within the confines of the national lakeshore.
I took a trip to Millennium Station in Chicago. Leaving from dune park, the trip took about 1.5 hours, and there were stops at the Museum of Natural History, University of Chicago and Wrigley Field. A guided tour of some of the architectural wonders of old Chicago made the trip a worthwhile venture for me. Others may wish to go east to South Bend and visit the University of Notre Dame campus or the Studebaker Museum.
You are invited to come to the shores of Lake Michigan and enjoy the ecological uniqueness and natural diversity of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore Park.
For more information on Indiana Dunes State Park, visit www.in.gov/dnr/parklake/2980.htm
For more information on Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, visit www.nps.gov/indu/index.htm