A Glimpse into Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore
by Pamela Domash, ’05
Sand dunes. Marshes. Forests. Trails. A working nineteenth century farm. Camping. Wildlife. All a little over an hour from Chicago, just outside Gary, Indiana at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Who would have guessed?
The Midwest is better known for its expansive farmland than wilderness reserves but in Indiana, sandwiched between the Chicago skyline on one horizon and steel mills on the other, a bewildering reservoir of nature is tucked away. Most people who come to the National Lakeshore do so in the hot summer months, taking advantage of the beaches that the Lakeshore offers. Living near Lake Michigan does have its benefits, after all. But the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore holds a lot more than a few beaches.
My grandparents live on the outskirts of Gary, just a few minutes from Lake Michigan (literally, I’ve walked there more than once). I’ve been to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore more times than I can count, so I went back for one of my most encompassing visits to refresh my memory on the National Lakeshore… and explore areas I hadn’t been to for years or even knew existed.
The National Lakeshore best brings to mind the beaches and of course, the dunes. It was a bit of a shock for me to realize how few people have ever been to a sand dune. Maybe they don’t even know what one is; or that there are dozens of these dunes here at the lakeshore. Most are open to climbing, and scrambling up a sand dune turns out to be even more enjoyable in the colder months, since the sand isn’t scorching hot from the summer sun and the dunes aren’t packed with kids and beachgoers.
The dunes are spread out along the lakeshore, and at the northern part of the National Lakeshore sits Mt. Baldy, a giant sand dune. A sign nearby boasted it stood 600 feet high, but the Dunes’ website registers it at 126 feet above water level. Either way, it’s big, at least in Midwest terms. I’d never been there, even though I’ve been to the lakeshore hundreds of times in my life. It’s much taller and wider than any other dune in the lakeshore. I scrambled up the trail and was amazed at the flat, expansive top. You could play a game of soccer up here.
Mt. Baldy is famous not only for being huge but for moving inland. And rapidly. At almost four feet a year, Mt. Baldy is shifting away from the shore. Bereft of shrubbery and trees that many of the dunes have, there is little to keep Mt. Baldy intact. That’s one of the amazing things about sand dunes; they are constantly changing, although not always for the better. You can see it on Mt. Baldy; one side slopes down steeply towards the parking area, while the other descends gently towards the shoreline. Signs implore visitors to step lightly around the tufts of grass that are helping stall the dune’s movement. It’s easy enough to move around them, and most people do.
At West Beach further to the south, the coast will soon be packed with beachgoers as the hot summer months hit. In March, the dunes are nearly empty and I can scramble up to the top without anyone in sight. The beach isn’t far away. From West Beach, when it’s clear, you can see the skyline of Chicago to the left and the steel mills to the right. Today, it’s hazy and I can only see the dim outline of skyscrapers, although the steel mills are clearly silhouetted. It’s mid-March, but shelf ice still lines the lake shore. The ice is still incredibly wide and thick (which doesn’t mean it’s safe to walk on, ever, unless you enjoy plunging into the freezing lake at any moment, or having a piece break off with you on it and drift out to sea), but the size of the ice is confusing for those of us who are used to the open lakeshores of the summer months.
Swimming is out, but maple syrup is in; March means the Maple Sugar Time Festival. At Chellberg Farm, maintained as a nineteenth century working farm, rangers and volunteers show the evolution of gathering maple sugar and offer some to test. This is the only national park that makes maple sugar. They had a bucket set up in nineteenth century fashion to let visitors taste the sap straight from the tree. We were told that the sap is about 98% water when it comes out of the tree and that’s exactly what it tastes like.
Beautiful March days still make for muddy hiking in the upper Midwest, but most times of year the trails, while only a few miles long, still make for fun outings. If you hike in the dunes, you’ll get quite the workout (who says climbing uphill in sand isn’t difficult?) and although one of the most popular trails on this beach, the Dune Succession Trail, is undergoing construction, depriving me of the chance to climb a dozen flights of stairs to get up one of the larger sand dunes, the scattered forest and farmland are quite enjoyable. Here at the Bailly Homestead (where the first non-native Indiana resident resided) and Chellberg Farm area of the park, the trails offer picturesque wooded paths instead of steep sand. After a watery excursion to the Bailly Cemetery, I opted to walk back to the parking area around the empty country roads. It’s easy to reorient and we got back with significantly less mud splatter. Since Chellberg Farm has been kept as a working farm, the barn, house, and fields are in order, and walking along the roadside, one can look over the fields and experience nineteenth century Northwest Indiana.
In this scattered and varied lakeshore, there are a variety of places I did not get a chance to see this time around. The Marquette Trail, built just a few years ago over old railroad tracks, is a pleasant walk along an isolated stretch inland from the lake. It’s probably used more by locals than visitors, but I’ve scared dozens of deer, leapt over random snakes, and kept an eye out for wayward turtles. Its location near a large wetlands area simply means that you look away from the homes on one side that peek through the trees and out at the wide acreage of wilderness on the other.
Further inland, there is a heron rookery, where the Great Blue Heron are visible from March to early May as they rebuild there nests. They stick around the park for the rest of the warm months, and you never know when you’ll run into one. Several bogs and marshes scatter around this low lying area, and there are trails around them and plenty of chances to catch more wildlife. Wildflowers are abundant in this sandy region, and offer a far more extensive variety of species than one might expect in this predominantly industrial region. And for even more options, the National Lakeshore surrounds the much older Indiana Dunes State Park, which hosts trails, woods, dunes, and wildlife.
For as long as I can remember, I have been exploring the sand dunes in this region, spotting turtles sunning on the roads, deer darting through trees, and skipping stones on the lake. I tell my friends I’m going to Gary, Indiana all the time. They have never quite figured out why that’s an exciting prospect. If only they knew what they were missing…
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