Just Dune It

2/24/2017

Spring 2017

Mountainous dunes, exotic orchids and birds galore reveal the true beauty of Indiana.

Many think of Indiana as a place to race cars, see great basketball and take in the heartland. But with the onset of spring, it’s also a good time to consider visiting a lesser-known charm of the 19th state – the captivating landscape of the Indiana sand dunes. Tucked away on Lake Michigan’s coast in northern Indiana, meandering, statuesque sand dunes extend 15 miles along the water as part of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Overall, parkland stretches thousands of acres – 13,000 acres are part of National Park Service land and 2,000 are part of Indiana Dunes State Park. While touring in your Subaru, the official car of Indiana’s 2016 Bicentennial Torch Relay, stop to experience the beauty up close. You can hike along 70 miles of trails, walk barefoot on sandy beaches, climb towering dunes and spot rare bird species in spades.

Great Blue Heron.
Great Blue Heron. Photo: Katrina George / NPS

Birders’ Paradise 

There’s far more than sand to this story. Textured, swaying, melodic marshes become nesting layover spots for many of the area’s migratory birds. Consequently, Indiana dunes country is home to almost 370 bird species that live or migrate throughout the region, and the area is recognized as globally significant for birding. More than 100 years ago, geese, ducks and wading birds congregated in the 12-mile Great Marsh, which was considered the largest interdunal wetland on the Lake Michigan shoreline. Increased construction over the years reduced the marshes, and indigenous wildlife suffered, but efforts have been underway to reverse course. So far, restoration has seen the return of mallards, wood ducks, great egrets, blue-winged teal and green herons.

Cottonwood trees on the sandy West Beach shoreline of Lake Michigan.
A threatened Showy Lady’s Slipper orchid, native to northern North America, blooms in early June to early July along Indiana’s lakeshore.

A Long Time Coming 

If natural beauty makes your spirits soar, the dunes are a can’t-miss destination. Established as a national park in 1966, today Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is a hugely popular attraction. The Dunes began forming, however, thousands of years ago – when strong winds blowing off Lake Michigan picked up sand grains, rolled and bounced them in a process called saltation, and deposited them grain by grain inland. The beaches are sublime for walking, collecting shells, flying kites and seeing exotic plants − including more native orchid species than there are in Hawaii. Inland, visitors can enjoy nature preserves, forests and wetlands. Additionally, scattered among 15 adjacent cities and towns are charming places to dine and drink, shop and stay overnight.

Photo: Jeff Manuszak / NPS

Landmark Status 

The movement to protect the dunes area was launched in the early 1900s by a group that included Dr. Henry Cowles, a University of Chicago professor and botanist who appreciated the unique and intricate ecosystem. One way the group’s legacy of wildlife conservation is commemorated is Cowles Bog, an 8,000-year-old wetland woods rich with birds and designated a National Natural Landmark. To inspire kids to learn more about the dunes, the Dunes Learning Center in Chesterton offers educational programs for children throughout the year.

Photo: age fotostock / Alamy Stock Photo

Local Spirit 

Since 1983, grapevines for local wines have grown in the area. Several wineries are worth visiting, including: Anderson’s Vineyard and Winery in Valparaiso, with 32 varieties of wine; Chesterton’s Butler Winery and Vineyards, with specialty wines such as late-harvest vignoles; and Running Vines Winery, which features dry light to sweet wines. Attracting equal attention these days are craft breweries and brewpubs, including Figure Eight Brewing, Ironwood Brewing Co. and Four Fathers Brewing, all in Valparaiso. For a truly unique experience, try Misbeehavin’ Meads − they create about 48 different meads, a brew popular in the ancient world made by fermenting varietal honey with water and other ingredients, like fruit and spices.

The Florida Tropical House in Beverly Shores, designed by Robert Law Weed, was featured in the Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago from 1933–1934.
The Florida Tropical House in Beverly Shores, designed by Robert Law Weed, was featured in the Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago from 1933–1934. Photo: Michael Snell / Alamy Stock Photo

Back to the Future 

Launched to celebrate the city’s centennial, the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair offered an astounding array of crystal ball visions of the future, drawing nearly 40 million visitors. Five then-futuristic homes from the fair were brought to Lake Front Drive in Beverly Shores, Indiana, in 1935 to promote a new housing development. So far, preservationists have remodeled four to their original style. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, they can be viewed during a tour from the National Park Service each October. Coincidentally, the region possesses a quasi-1930s aesthetic, as members of the Civilian Conservation Corps built many of the area’s roads, gatehouses and bridges during that era.

The sands of time may move on, but the Indiana dunes are sure to remain an enthralling destination for many years to come.  

Start your visit at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore Visitor Center. You can watch films to learn about the area, shop in a bookstore and enjoy exhibits.

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore Visitor Center.
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore Visitor Center. Photo: Colin Miller / NPS