Exploring the Newest National Park in Indiana

Indiana Dunes National Park

Indiana Dunes began as a National Seashore in 1966, but on February 15, 2019, it became a National Park. This makes a total of 61 National Parks located in 29 states and two territories. I was happy it had become a National Park shortly before we would be visiting Indiana, so we could check off another one on our list. This was the ninth National Park of our full time RV traveling. Located along Lake Michigan, Indiana Dunes is between the industrial cities of Gary and Michigan City, Indiana. It seemed to be the most urban of the national parks we have visited as there was more nearby traffic and the Park is broken up into sections around population and industrial areas.

Mark asked a staff person at one of the visitor centers what is different now that it is a National Park. She replied: “Nothing, except the sign.” This new designation will raise the distinction of the Park and promote it more to the public. Once we checked into the Visitor Center and got our book stamped (with an old stamp that did not reflect the new status) we checked out what the Park offered. Most people seem to come here for the beaches along Lake Michigan. Within the National Park is the Indiana Dunes State Park where the highest dunes can be found and the most favored beaches. There is no fee to enter the National Park, but if one wanted to visit the State Park, a fee is charged which makes for an interesting situation. Since we were there to see the National Park and also figured the State Park would be more crowded, we decided to just visit the National Park sections. A few places I was interested in seeing required taking a ranger guided walk, for example to see the Pinhook Bog with unusual plants. Unfortunately, this walk wasn’t offered the day we visited. I was also intrigued to see the “heron rookery” with a trail listed on their park map. When I asked one of the volunteer rangers, I found it rather amusing when she reported that there really weren’t any herons nesting out there, it was just a name.

View of the Chicago Skyline

We drove the main park road to see a few of the beaches. This was Mark’s first view of Lake Michigan although I had seen the Lake for the first time about four years ago when my sister and I visited the State of Michigan. Did you know that Lake Michigan is the largest lake entirely in the United States? As we stood on the beach we had a distant view of the Chicago skyline which I tried to capture with my long lens. Mark sent a text to family that this was as close as he ever cared to be to Chicago! I would love to spend some time and explore that City. I have only flown in there twice and once during a work related trip spent the night near the airport when our connecting flight was grounded. Sigh, apparently my Driver is not excited to explore Chicago and has been known to say that he doesn’t like the big cities.

Florida Tropical House

The Park has a unique exhibit of five homes from the 1933 World’s Fair called, “A Century of Progress.” For over 70 years they have stood in this Park along Lake Michigan. They were built to demonstrate “modern” architectural design, experimental materials and new technologies. The houses were brought to the dunes by truck and barge after the Fair’s closing in late 1934 and early 1935. They are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and are leased to private individuals or families who are rehabilitating them at no cost to the government. The bright pink house in photo above is called the “Florida Tropical House.” It has become a well known landmark for mariners.

Spiderwort – one of many wildflowers found at Indiana Dunes National Park

I decided to take a little hike on the Dune Ridge Trail to get an idea of the different habitats that can be seen on some of the dunes. This walk turned out to be a bit of a surprise as I wasn’t expecting to see the amount of trees, shrubs and plant life. In some places I felt as if I was walking in a jungle like environment due to the dense foliage.

Dune Ridge Trail
Dune Ridge Trail

Since I thought I would be walking around sandy dune and sparse plant life, I had worn shorter pants and no socks. As I walked, the loop trail became more narrow and the plants more dense. I was fearing poison ivy or ticks as I tried not to brush against anything. In general, tick bites have been my worst fear while outdoor exploring and this place looked like a ripe location. Other than finding a tick on our bed covering one time, we have avoided any tick encounters of the close kind.

Narrow trail on the Dune Ridge walk

The Park reports Indiana Dunes as one of the “most botanically diverse” of all the National Parks with over 1,100 native plant species. I could certainly see the variety on this trail which I am glad I explored, even though I ended up getting lost for awhile.

One of the more interesting species to be seen here is prickly pear cactus, one of the last plants I would expect to find in Northern Indiana near a Great Lake. The last time we saw prickly pear was in the Arizona desert. I saw small clumps of prickly pear along the trail near Long Lake in another part of the Park.

Finding prickly pear cactus in an unlikely location
Lots of water lilies on Long Lake

At West Beach we found some nice dunes with my favorite view the reflection of the dunes in this pond.

Overall, we found Indiana Dunes to be our least favorite National Park of our full time RV travels. Actually, it is the least favorite of the National Parks I have ever seen over the years. I did not think the Park was as attractive or interesting as others. As a Lakeshore, it is not near as impressive as Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore or Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, both in Michigan with stunning scenery. Perhaps if we had spent more time, explored a few more trails or areas, visited the State Park inside the National Park, our impression would have been different. But, there didn’t seem to be as much to see here and the setting did not seem “National Park worthy.” I do understand though the importance of protecting this natural area in a place with encroaching urban population. In spite of these observations, it was still nice to add this Park to our list.

Has anyone visited this new National Park and have some insight to share on your experiences here? Would enjoy reading about them!

Until next time with more on exploring Indiana!

6 thoughts on “Exploring the Newest National Park in Indiana”

  1. Well, I can add a few things. My father lived in the Dunes, in a section adjacent to the state park back in the 1930s until 1940. He went to that 1933 World’s Fair as a kid and he saw some of those houses as they came over from Chicago on barges. There were no steel mills in the Dunes then. My father and his cousin often hiked the dunes and rode horseback once in a while there. He told me about a hermit known as Diana of the Dunes who had lived there before he did who is well worth reading about since she was a graduate of the U of Chicago and decided to live in nature. He told me of meeting a fellow who had lived nearby by the name of Edwin Way Teale. In 1940, Teale’s book “Dune Boy” came out and it was based on his childhood living in the Indiana Dunes. I have a copy of that book along with six other of Teale’s books. Teale, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Loren Eisely, E.O. Wilson, Lewis Thomas, and Stephen Jay Gould were all “naturalists” (for want of a better word) that I began reading, some as long 55 years ago. My father always loved walking in the woods and observing nature, and it rubbed off on me. He took a position with a company in Michigan City in the mid 1960’s, and so our family moved there, and I spent several year there, often going over to the nearby Dunes. My mother encouraged me to join the “Save the Dunes Council” when I was a sophomore in college, and that was my beginning as a fighter to help save not only the Dunes, but nature everywhere. Soon, I joined a myriad of organizations such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club. But, the Dunes were special because they were nearby and Dad had lived there. So, here is what happened, Bethlehem Steel wanted to build the largest steel mill in the world right in the Dunes. Save the Dunes Council and the efforts of Paul Douglas, Dem. Senator from Illinois and thousands of others interested in dune preservation prevented Bethlehem from destroying as much as it had originally planned to. The Bethlehem corporation had to weigh being a good neighbor with supplying thousands of good paying jobs to area residents. So, they built the plant to be as environmentally friendly as possible with as little damage to any dunes as possible. Water coming out of the mill via its treatment center was cleaner than when it came in from Lake Michigan. Ponds and grassy areas surrounded the various mills within the giant mill. Paul Douglas wanted to save the Dunes because he enjoyed visiting them. And actually about 3 million people at least stop by the Dunes every year. Thanks largely to Senator Douglas’s involvement, the Dunes became a National Lakeshore in 1966. The State park had been there since 1925. The beach along the Dunes parks and Michigan City and Long Beach was always fantastic with “singing” sands. However, I understand that due to the 6-8 feet rise in the Great Lakes the past few years, much of the beach has been eroded. And that is a horrible shame that is connected with climate change. It is the same, actually, with ALL the beaches of the Great Lakes. Many people are now trying to sell their vacation homes that are on the beaches or near the beaches because, well, with no beach, it is not much fun to go down to “the beach”.

    Anyway,the huge dunes of Sleeping Bear are more attractive to tourists, I suppose, but Sleeping Bear is much larger not only in the height of the dunes (they are the highest dunes of the Great Lakes at over 400 feet in spots), but the length of that park is about 30 miles!!! There is much more room for RV’s near Sleeping Bear. But, you have to remember, the millions of people who live in Chicagoland can be at the Indiana Dunes within an hour or so. It is a long drive up to Sleeping Bear. So, it is hard to compare and I can understand that you were somewhat disappointed. I view it as a small respite in the maddening world of mills and other huge manufacturing plants that you will find as you go northwest along the lake to Chicago and up to Milwaukee. I am very happy I was able to spend a lot of time in those Indiana Dunes because those times helped form my concern for nature in this troubled world.

    I highly recommend the books of Edwin Way Teale. He and his wife were two of the original Boondockers!!! They traveled all over America, visiting other naturalists and nature areas in the continental US and Canada. Teale also wrote books about nature that existed on their plot of land in New England.

    Happy Travels.

    Michael in Ohio

    1. Michael, thanks so much for such an amazing and informative comment! I think I learned more from your comments about Indiana Dunes than I did from our visit there! How neat to think that your father lived there and you spent so much time there as well. I also like that it inspired you to be interested in nature and conservation. You make a good point about how important the dunes are to people living in Chicago and environs. As you said so well, this place has been a preserve for so many who over the years have spent time getting away from city life and enjoying nearby nature. As to your comment on the beaches disappearing at Indiana Dunes, I noticed as we traveled around Michigan that the lake levels were high everywhere and therefore less beaches remain. At one lighthouse visit, the beach had turned into a marsh! I will look into Edwin Teale’s books as he sounds like an author I would be interested in. Thank you for giving us a different perspective on our visit there. It really added positively to my impression of Indiana Dunes.

  2. Interesting commentary, as usual! Just wondered how that health issue is coming along that interrupted your trip.

    1. Thanks for your comment Arlene and we really appreciate your concern! Yes, things are going well and we plan to stay here in No. California a little longer before making any plans for further traveling.

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