family with kids hiking at miller woods in indiana dunes national park

Indiana Dunes National Park

National Park Number: 61 of 61

National Park Service Site: 128 of 419

We finally made it to Indiana Dunes National Park!

Last September, we visited the last of the 59 national parks we’d set out to see a year and a half before. Our goal was to see ALL of the national parks, but then earlier that year, a new park was announced: Gateway Arch. We didn’t immediately add it to our list, mostly because we didn’t like how it skipped the typical process of being designated an NP and (in our opinion), didn’t (doesn’t) fit the mission of the national park designation. 

But for better or worse (just kidding, it’s definitely for better), we aren’t in charge of making these decisions. So on our way home to NYC, we stopped at Gateway Arch for a new kind of national park experience (read more about that visit here.) 

Then, in February of this year, a new national park was added to the roster: Indiana Dunes National Park. This time we were thrilled. Indiana Dunes protects a unique natural area and every bit deserves its share of the NP limelight. It’s close to huge population centers and right along the I-80 corridor, and we hope the new name draws even more people to learn about this landscape and the importance of protecting it.

dunes at West Beach in Indiana Dunes National Park

To us, national parks near cities are inspiring and vital. Parks like Cuyahoga Valley and Indiana Dunes aren’t Yosemite or Glacier—they’re smaller, generally less dramatic, and come with a different flavor. But as little carved-out pockets of wildness surrounded by civilization, urban national parks show us what conservation can be in the future. No one is going to discover a new Yosemite Valley or Logan Pass in the U.S.; we’ll never get another national park like Yellowstone or Grand Teton. What we can get is a renewed appreciation for a greater variety of landscapes and a commitment to learning from the ecological diversity of our country.

In short, Indiana Dunes made us real happy. Though it was already administered by the NPS prior to its name change (it was designated as a national lakeshore) and was thus a part of our goal of visiting all 419 NPS sites, we wanted to see it sooner rather than later. So we planned a little road trip and set out for Indiana Dunes.

We arrived at the park late in the day and stopped in at the visitor’s center to get the scoop. There we discovered that our one chance at a ranger program was right that moment, and raced over to the Chellburg Farm to catch it.

The program comprised the feeding of the farm animals and a bit of talk about the history of the farm; after throwing grain in the general direction of some chickens, we poked around the little historic house and had a bit of a walk in the woods. And oh the woods! Maybe it’s just because we’ve been in the city so much lately, but those woods looked like just about the prettiest thing we’d ever seen: lush and green and deep and bright with birdsong. 

Our camping spot for the night bordered just such a wood; we stayed in the campground at the state park. We had a few run-ins with a raccoon but nothing too serious (all he managed to get was a few marshmallow dregs off our roasting stick). Mostly we just enjoyed being in a place without wildfire risk so we could have a campfire for the first time in a long time! David’s sister, Katie, had driven up from Des Moines to meet us and since she’s about our favorite person in the world, we were all just enormously happy.

The next morning, we stayed in the park to tackle the 3 Dune Challenge. This highly hyped hike leads up the three highest dunes in the area (all within the state park) and was much different than we expected: even though the soil is completely sandy, these high dunes are mostly forested. We learned more about dune succession during our time in the park—the basic idea is that specific grasses and other small plants are able to grow on bald dunes and their roots stabilize the soil.

As the sand gets more stable and these early plants decompose and change the soil’s composition, different types of plants are able to set up shop—and so on and so forth until you get plants you’d never expect in this kind of soil: massive oaks and hickories, jack pines and basswoods.

In fact, Indiana Dunes is where the father of the ecological succession theory, H.C. Cowles, made his discoveries. He was surprised at the kinds of plants that could grow on the dunes and began his research to figure out how. This forestation caught us by surprise, too, and made for a nice, shady hike, even as we were huffing and puffing up the steep, sandy slopes.

After successfully completing the challenge (for which we later received stickers and postcards at the visitor’s center—it was all very celebratory for a 1.5 mile hike), we posted up at Porter Beach on the shores of Lake Michigan.

The beaches attract the lion’s share of Indiana Dunes’ visitors and it’s easy to see why: on a muggy midwestern day, those cool waves fronted by soft sand are exactly the ticket. It was a little on the chilly side for us to do any plunging, but we had a good time wading in and playing on the shore.

After a bit of beach time, we headed a little farther inland to hike the Cowles Bog Trail. This large wetland isn’t technically a bog at all (it’s actually a fen), so we had the chance to make lots of funny-to-us-and-no-one-else jokes about “false bogs”.

But actually, I led us the wrong way at the outset and we wound up on the wrong trail; a mile or so in, we realized my mistake, turned around, and did a bit of the real Cowles Bog Trail until we ran out of gas.

The next day was pretty stressful, as we took the bus in for a quick oil change and discovered that several spark plugs were out and it was only running on 6 of its 10 cylinders. The shop didn’t have time to fit us in the next day and we needed to leave that night, so later on in the evening, we took the bus over to one of the mechanic’s houses. He was kind enough to replace the plugs for us there in his driveway while David worked at a nearby McDonald’s and the kids and I hung out on his lawn for almost 4 hours. Midwesterners are the NICEST PEOPLE. (We paid him, too, but still. It was incredibly kind.)

But before all that, we had an absolutely lovely day in the park. First we hit Miller Woods for a little loop walk. The lupines were blooming everywhere, it was peaceful and green and just perfect. I think it is our favorite place that we visited in the park.

We meant to bike the Marquette Trail afterward, but discovered that 2 of our 3 bikes needed new tubes (probably should’ve checked that before hauling them a third of the way across the country).

So Katie, David and Margie drove to the end of the trail and Graham and I loaded up on David’s bike and hit the trail. We loved it! The ranger told us before we left that there was a superbloom along the path of a yellow flower (the name of which we can’t remember at all), and it made for a beautiful ride.

The trail ends up near West Beach, which is where we met up with the rest of the fam for Beach Day, Part 2. The lake was much calmer that day and we passed most of the time skipping rocks. Perfection.

Fifty yards or so down the beach is the starting point of the Dune Succession Trail. This was our favorite hike that we did. The trail leads up from the bare dunes facing the lake through the whole ecological succession process, from grassy dunes to ones with increasingly larger plants until you end in a forest of towering oaks and hickories. The hike has lots of stairs and boardwalks so you’re not walking on sand the whole time, and gave us great views out over Lake Michigan. 

We always, always want to have more time for our park visits. Never fails. And Indiana Dunes was no exception. We were so inspired by our short time here. The park was the site of one of the earliest conservation battles; Stephen Mather, the first director of the NPS, pushed for the area to made a national park as early as 1916. While the state park opened 10 years later, most of the land was still left open to development. Finally, in 1966, portions of the land that had been purchased by the Save the Dunes Council came under care of the NPS as a designated National Lakeshore. The formation of the park was a compromise so that several ports could also be built along the same stretch of shore. Some dunes were destroyed for industry, some were saved as a park. 

Conservation is rarely simple, but it’s also not a zero-sum game. We’re so glad for what’s preserved here, and glad too that the name change will bring it more recognition. In terms of names for park sites, we have no clue where things are going to end up. More and more state leaders are pushing for their sites to receive name changes and attract more visitors; we think it’s likely that sometime in the next 10 years, every site run by the NPS will be called a “national park”. And we wouldn’t really be mad about that. The current naming system is confusing as all get-out; although each designation has a stated purpose, you can find exceptions to every “rule” all over the NPS. Maybe a simplification of the process is due. 

Whatever ends up happening, we’re happy to embrace this newest member of the National Park fam, and hope you’ll get a chance to visit it soon :). 

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