Best Driving Vacations 2023: Industry and Nature Coexist at the Indiana Dunes

Climb sand dunes and enjoy Lake Michigan’s natural splendor within the shadow of Chicago.

Steve Stephens
A view of Lake Michigan at Indiana Dunes National Park

Like Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Indiana Dunes is located, in part, on land that once contained heavily polluted industrial sites. But the industry still remains at the national park along Lake Michigan, with some of the nation’s biggest steel mills interspersed with park property along the southern lakefront. The result is a fascinating experiment in coexistence: The wild, shifting dunes of the park, some more than 100 feet high, still wind around smokestacks, mills and several small lakeside towns, with the skyline of Chicago visible about 30 miles to the northwest across the water.

Named for the vast dunes left by melting Ice Age glaciers, the park was established as a national lakeshore in 1966 before becoming the 61st national park in in 2019; it’s now noted for the diversity of birds and plants found there. A national park was proposed to save the area’s unique dune ecosystem as early as 1899, but commercial interests hindered preservation efforts. The biggest dune on Lake Michigan’s southern shore, the 200-foot high Hoosier Slide, was actually trucked away for glassmaking. But scientists and conservationists were able to protect other dunes, such as 125-foot Mount Baldy, and natural features, even early on.

Today, the park comprises more than 15,000 acres in several noncontiguous chunks.

The biggest, easternmost parcel surrounds Indiana’s 2,000-acre Indiana Dunes State Park, created in 1925, the first natural area to be preserved in the region. And Indiana Dunes remains very much a cooperative federal and local effort, with the national park even sharing a visitors center with Indiana Dunes Tourism, a local tourism authority.

Industry and nature coexist at Indiana Dunes National Park.

The state park is still the heart of the dunes region, featuring a historic pavilion with restrooms, shower houses and a snack bar for the thousands of sunbathers and swimmers who visit the park’s Lake Michigan beach each summer. Visitors will find eight other beaches in the national park, as well as 50 miles of hiking and walking trails. The trails take visitors through a variety of ecosystems, around and over dunes (including Mount Baldy), through 1,000 acres of oak savannah, across natural fens and marshes, and along Lake Michigan itself.

Visitors can also climb several of the large dunes, although some are off-limits in places with heavy erosion or where delicate native plants grow. Park development itself damaged several natural features at the dunes during the early 20th century. But in recent years, much of that unwise development has been undone, including a scenic and ecologically significant stretch of Dunes Creek that was restored in 2005 after once being covered by a state park parking lot. But industry was by far the biggest culprit in the harm done to the area’s unique lakeside ecology.

One of the best, and most unusual, walks within the park is at Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk, reclaimed from land once used by the former National Steel Co. to process industrial waste. An operating U.S. Steel plant can still be seen there, but so can migrating birds visiting the renaturalized wetlands along the site’s boardwalk.

In recent years, the remaining lakefront industries have done much to clean up their operations due to economic and regulatory incentives, as well as a growing awareness of the ecological significance. The beaches are still subject to occasional pollution alerts, however, so check the park’s website and beach signage for hazards before going in the water.

More examples of the clash between development and nature can be seen at the park’s historic Bailly Homestead and Chellberg Farm, which tell the story of changes people brought to the region even decades before industrialization. James Bailly was the first recorded nonnative resident of the area, setting up a fur-trading post in 1822. His descendants continued to live on the homestead until the early 20th century. The Chellberg family were Swedish immigrants, and their original, 19th-century brick farmhouse can now be toured by park visitors.

Another piece of history can be found at Beverly Shores, where park visitors can see a collection of five “Century of Progress” houses built for and displayed at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair and floated by barge down Lake Michigan to their current sites.

Where to Stay

With several small towns and cities, the Indiana Dunes region offers plenty of nearby lodging options. Name brand hotels and motels can be found across the lakefront. Also available are several charming, small inns, like the Dunes Walk Inn located in the 1881 Furness Mansion in Chesterton, and B&Bs like the verdant At Home in the Woods Bed and Breakfast in Chesterton.,

Suggested Side Trip

A number of charming lakeside towns can be found adjacent to Indiana Dunes National Park and close by. Michigan City, just east of the park, features a 1859 lighthouse and, for visitors looking for more modern action, a large casino. Other towns, such as Chesterton, Valparaiso and Porter, offer interesting galleries, shops, small museums and a number of good places to eat and drink.,,

This story is from the Best Driving Vacations package in the February 2023 issue of Columbus Monthly.