Formerly Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Indiana Dunes became a national park in 2019. Once upon a time Congress and the NPS both thought it would be a good idea to distinguish different kinds of units in the national park system, such as parks, recreation areas, lakeshores and seashores, historic sites, and all the rest.
Such classifications never caught on as a matter of management, and since the 1980s all NPS units have been treated the same as units. Instead, the NPS engages in zoning, with wilderness zones, historic zones, intensive-use zones, and the like within units of all types. This makes (say) Gettysburg different than Yellowstone because Gettysburg is zoned for historic preservation while Yellowstone is mostly zoned for backcountry recreation (wilderness).
What does this all mean? It means that NPS units are all “national parks” no matter what their name. This means that Indiana Dunes has always been a national park by law and practice, whether called a "national park" or a "national lakeshore."
Like most of the Midwest units of the National Park Service, Indian Dunes NL does not offer climbing. It does have two “summits,” Mount Baldy and Mount Tom. The adjacent state park also has a "three dunes challenge," and you can get stickers and other souvenirs for bragging about it. The two parks also offers hiking and other outdoor activities.
Indiana Dunes protects exactly what you’d think that it protects - - a range of sand dunes. Beyond that, it’s a pretty weird park unit. It’s fragmented into a bunch of pieces, mostly along the shores of Lake Michigan. There are also some inland bogs and other “natural” areas.
What lies between the various pieces of land? Well, there are some residential neighborhoods, some tracts of vacation homes, railroads, highways, and . . . three steel mills.
The major use of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is for the people of Chicagoland to go to a sandy beach. After all, Chicago has a great waterfront, but it’s not really sandy. The Dunes also get steady winds most of the time - - that’s how the dunes got here, after all - - so Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is a good place for paragliding, kite flying, remote-controlled aircraft flying, and other such activities. There’s also some biking, and hiking, and if you slow down there’s a remarkable diversity of flowers and birds.
It does not offer outstanding opportunities for solitude.
Indiana Dunes is only about two hours from Chicago and Indianapolis, so it gets a lot of use.
The Indiana Dunes were long viewed as mostly wasteland - - you can’t farm or ranch sand dunes. European settlers took more extractive approaches to the land, logging white pines and mining sand for industrial purposes. These destructive activities left their scars on the land.
The more lasting impacts have come from industrial activity. The federal government dredged Lake Calumet in 1870 to serve ships bringing iron ores to steel mills. The Illinois Steel Company built its South Works on the Illinois side of the state line. Standard Oil built a facility in Whiting in 1880, and Inland Steel opened its Indiana Harbor Plant in East Chicago in 1902. US Steel arrived in 1906, and built Gary from scratch. It leveled dunes and sand hills and built docks on the beach, moving as much dirt as the Panama Canal had. Midwest Steel and Bethlehem Steel moved into the dunes around World War II. Their growth depended on construction of another harbor, finished in 1965.
Both industry and the environment attracted people. After World War I, wealthier folk from Chicago began to build second homes near the beach. When the Dunes Highway was built in the 1920s, the region also attracted suburbs such as Dune Acres, Ogden Dunes, and Beverly Shores. The industrial areas needed workers, and the communities of Gary and Hammond are classic rust-belt, working class cities with a host of social and economic problems. All these communities abut the National Lakeshore, and some of their problems spill over into the park.
Building the harbor at Burns Ditch, which is now known as the Port of Indiana, sparked a local preservation movement. The end result was a compromise, with the federal government subsidizing the harbor but also creating Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore as a national park in 1966. It’s a highly fragmented park, interspersed among three steel mills, two power plants, a railroad, high-power transmission lines, and industrial harbors. There’s an outlet mall near the eastern boundary. Residential communities in and among the park include low-income urban areas, wealthy second homes, suburbs, and some rural homes back from the lakeshore a way.
Maybe it shows that we can protect the environment even in dense urban areas. Maybe it shows that we can’t.
The Indiana Dunes played an important role in the development of the science of ecology. Professor Henry Chandler Cowles of the University of Chicago used the dunes as his laboratory in pioneer research into plant ecology early in the 20th century. One of Cowles’ major findings will still be familiar to many SPers, the nature of plant succession. Indiana Dunes provides a good setting for this topic, as the plants that establish themselves first on a sandy dune are succeeded by other shrubs and then trees.
The first plants above the beach are grasses such as Marram grass and Sand reed grass. Thanks to its deep roots, the Marram grass thrives even when buried regularly by new sand, a niche where other grasses do not. The first tree is the Cottonwood, which continues the job of dune stabilization begun by the grasses. Wild grape and, alas, poison ivy also colonize the first slopes up from the beach.
The lee sides of the dunes are a biological wonder. They are often drier, sheltered just a bit from the lake’s moisture. Jack pines and bearberries, both of which are not usually found this far south, are common here. Where the wind blasts through a gap in the dunes, or where human activity has disturbed the natural ecology, you can also find “blowouts.” These are areas at early phases of dune succession even though they are well back from the beach and should be at later stages.
The lee sides of the dunes also provide flatter areas and bowls that collect ponds and wetlands. I’ve found ferns twenty feet from cacti in this area. Many of the ponds are intermittent, and attract species that can survive both wet and dry, such as Baltic rush, Kalm’s lobelia, and Kalm’s St. John’s wort. The area behind the dunes includes some permanent wetlands, bogs, and swamps. The largest of these, the Great Marsh, is the object of a large restoration effort.
Many ponds are found in forests that can be quite cool, perhaps 10 degrees cooler than the dune and early succession areas. The canopy tree of the succession communities is the Black oaks, but these forests also have hickories, basswoods, ash, sassafras, dogwoods, and witch hazel.
Too many people, too much industry, and a fragile, unique ecosystem make for strange neighbors. The story of the Karner Blue butterfly provides a typical example of the issues in the dunes today. In 1992, Midwest Steel wanted to enlarge its hazardous waste landfill in an area next to the park. However, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found an endangered species in the proposed landfill, the Karner Blue butterfly. This species is pretty picky about where it lives because its larvae feed only on lupine. With an endangered species on the land, Midwest Steel would face an uphill battle to build its dump.
The company decided to negotiate with environmentalists instead. It created a new Karner Blue habitat back from the mills, in a region south of the Dunes Highway. They removed 35,000 trees to create a savanna of the type that lupines favor. Midwest Steel also planted 7,900 lupine seeds and 3,000 other plants in this region, as well as transplanting 1,613 lupines. Because lupines have deep roots and usually die when transplanted, Midwest Steel used huge tree spades to move these small flowers. The lupines survived, and apparently brought some butterfly eggs with them because the Karner Blue butterfly is now found in the new savanna - - which the company donated to the park.
Your typical visitor to Indiana Dunes heads to the beach, perhaps climbing a dune to get there. Some arrive by sea, especially at the western end. Not so many take advantage of the many opportunities back from the beach, but the nature-loving tree-huggers of SP will probably want to head for those places.
There are lots of hiking trails throughout the dunes. Unfortunately, most of them are pretty short, in the 1-5 mile range. Serious hikers will string a bunch of these hikes together. You might also slow down, bring binoculars and a camera, and see what you can find.
The area provides numerous opportunities for biking. There’s a dirt-and-limestone trail that’s about 15 miles long, parallel to the Dunes Highway between Cowles Bog and Mount Baldy. Long stretches get pretty soggy when wet. From Cowles, you have to go out on the highway to connect to additional park units by bike. There are some other trails on the far west end, with various opportunities for parking. These trails often track the back fences of suburban backyards.
Because of the wind from the lake, paragliding, kite flying, and other such things are popular along the north edge of the dunes.
The Indiana Dunes have two preserved areas, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and Indiana Dunes State Park. I’ve emphasized the federal lands, which have a more environmentally-oriented mission. The state park emphasizes recreation, with RV camping, family cabins, a beach house, and other amenities for urban escapees.
Fees vary, check the websites. The state park charges $5 at the gate, in addition to fees depending on which amenities you use.
The National Lakeshore has one campground in the east-central stretch of the park. This has mostly car and RV sites but these have decent spacing and reasonable amounts of foliage. As a result, you have moderate privacy at the car sites.
There’s also a walk-in area with sites scattered through the woods, up to a quarter mile from the parking lot. Most of these sites are within sight of one another. The walk-in area can attract some partying on the weekends, though alcohol is prohibited in the campground.
Special Information for Dogs! Unlike most units of the U.S. National Park System, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore allows dogs in many areas. Dogs love to bring their people to the summit of Mount Baldy before cooling off in Lake Michigan. Check the park website for details.
From Chicago, you can use the Northern Indiana Commuter Transit Train to access Ogden Dunes, Dunes Park, and Beverly Dunes. You can walk in to various destinations from those stations, or better yet, bring a bike.
From Chicago or Michigan City, Indiana, you can use the Dunes Highway to reach any point in the park. Because of traffic and urban density (i.e., stoplights), the 20-30 miles from Chicago will take you 1.5-2.5 hours. Do not ask me how I know this.
If you're driving, it's fastest to use I-94 from either direction. Several exits work, but the exit labeled for the National Lakeshore and the State Park will also take you to the brand new visitors' center.