Indiana Dunes National Park: Once Upon a Lakeshore

Marram Grass on Mount Baldy overlooking Lake Michigan, with Chicago in the distance

What’s in a name? Both everything and nothing.

On February 15, 2019, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore became Indiana Dunes National Park, the nation’s sixty-first. The legislation to “upgrade” the National Lakeshore to National Park status, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Gary) with the support of the entire Indiana Congressional delegation (but over the opposition of the National Park Service), had been inserted into the omnibus bill to reopen the federal government after the longest shutdown in history. The legislation, however, added no land to the Park, nor did it change its appropriation budget or increase levels of protection for an exceedingly fragile landscape. Although sites become part of the National Park System in different ways (only Congress holds the authority to establish a National Park while, for instance, a president may unilaterally create a National Monument), since the National Park Service General Authorities Act of 1970, all the units within the National Park System have been managed equally as a single system. But the term National Park holds a special place in the imagination. As Park Superintendent Paul Labovitz writes in the summer/fall issue of The Singing Sands, the Park’s newspaper, “Sixty-one of the 419 [NPS units] are called National Park, and when you think about they way National Park visits are written about and promoted, those 61 are usually the places featured.”

Indeed, Paul.

One of the earliest proponents of creating a National Park in the Indiana dune country was, in fact, Stephen Mather, the legendary first director of the National Park Service, who proposed creating a Park along the southern shoreline of Lake Michigan in 1916, mere months after the National Park Service had been established by Congress. During the previous two decades, the unique biodiversity of the region had become better understood and celebrated, leading to the creation of a movement to protect the dune country. The unique flora and fauna, coupled with the spectacular vistas of the lake from the top of sand dunes hundreds of feet high, made the area the perfect location for a nation’s park celebrating the Great Lakes.

Unfortunately, federal protection for Indiana Dunes would not come until after another fifty years of industrial and commercial development of the region, when the National Lakeshore was established by Congress in November 1966. Even that was part of a compromise that created both the Park and the neighboring Port of Indiana. Happily, the state of Indiana had created an Indiana Dunes State Park in 1926.

The National Lakeshore was expanded four times to the over 15,000 acres the National Park now protects. In 2018, the State and National Parks combined welcomed some 3.5 million visitors.

The Park includes towering dunes and ridges (some of which represent earlier shorelines of Lake Michigan), wetlands (including one so biologically important it is a registered national natural landmark), woodlands, rare tallgrass prairie remnants, parklike oak savannas, and fifteen miles of beach.

Like many other people, Sean’s and my goal is to visit all the (now 61) National Parks. But Indiana Dunes National Park is unique for us since it is a National Park Service unit that we had already visited before it became a National Park. In fact, we’d visited various National Lakeshore sites strung out along the southern shore of Lake Michigan over the years.

January 18, 2013

US-12 runs through the Indiana Dunes region, and at some points runs through the Park as the Dunes Highway. US-12 begins in downtown Detroit as Michigan Avenue, crosses southern Michigan and dips through northwestern Indiana before entering Chicago, where it is the service drive to O’Hare Airport before continuing on to become main street in Cambridge, Wisconsin and the beltline in Madison and then on across the country.

As such, US-12 is a great, far more scenic alternative to I-94 on drives between Chicago and Michigan. And after using it many times over the years when we either wanted to avoid backups on 94 or simply drive through woods, Sean and I finally stopped and got out at Indiana Dunes on a cold January afternoon in 2013.

Plaque dedicated to Stephen Mather

With Nick (whom we’d been friends with for a few years) and Juan (whom we’d just met), we were on our way to a Martin Luther King weekend getaway in Saugatuck, Michigan, an annual tradition that will celebrate its tenth anniversary in 2020.

We had taken Friday off, so the four of us took our time driving around the southern end of the lake.

We parked at the deserted beach at Lake View, got out, and headed down toward the water, gently lapping under low winter clouds.

Parts of the beach that had been water-logged were now frozen into sandy ice chunks, or maybe icy sand chunks.

Hey, Juan.

We would return to a National Park with Juan and Nick almost four years later in our November 2016 journey to Dry Tortugas National Park and Biscayne National Park.

After Lake View, we continued east to Mount Baldy.

Mount Baldy

Mount Baldy, at the far eastern end of Indiana Dunes, is a dynamic dune that soars 126 feet above Lake Michigan and moves at about four feet a year.

Sean reacts to a particularly helpful interpretive sign.

After we parked, we decided to hike the short trail to the dune’s summit.

Michigan City Generating Station from Mount Baldy

From the top, we had grand views of the power plant immediately to the east in Michigan City, Indiana.

Far to the south, a low ridge of hills in the distance was the Valparaiso Moraine, deposited by the immense glacier that created Lake Michigan.

Juan, once a resident of Minneapolis, channels his inner Mary Tyler Moore

At one point while we were taking in the chilly view from the top of Mount Baldy, Juan distractedly walked out to a point toward the lake beyond the signage to go no further. We thought relatively little of it at the time, and Juan chuckled when he realized his mistake on the way back.

Almost exactly six months later, though, on July 12, 2013, a six-year-old boy was swallowed up by Mount Baldy. He vanished after slipping from the top of the dune eleven feet down into a hollow area. It took rescue teams four hours to get him out, and even then they at first thought he was dead before a paramedic realized his heart was still beating. (He’s fine today.)

After the dune-eats-boy incident, the Park Service closed the Mount Baldy area entirely. The dune’s summit remains closed today. Mount Baldy is hemmed in by Lake Michigan, by the boundary with Michigan City, and by the area’s parking lot, restricting its natural movement. Research by the Park Service since the 2013 incident shows that as the dune moves, it is capable of creating and covering holes, one of which the little boy slipped into. So the dune is closed in the hope that naturally occurring dune grasses and other plants will help to stabilize it if people aren’t trampling it. And because it’s dangerous.

We like to imagine that Juan barely escaped with his life that January afternoon.

Our visit to Mount Baldy that day was short, and we continued on to our long weekend of fun in Michigan.

August 27, 2013

Sean and I both grew up in Michigan. He grew up mere blocks from Lake Saint Clair. As such, we both have the Great Lakes Circle Tours writ large in our minds. In the mid-1980s, Paula Blanchard, First Lady of Michigan, hatched the idea of creating designated auto-touring routes around each of the five Great Lakes. Over the next three years, her husband, Governor Jim Blanchard (D) sort of basically strong-armed five states and the Province of Ontario to join the Michigan Department of Transportation in establishing and putting up signage to indicate scenic auto routes around each of the lakes. For instance, in Chicago, the official Lake Michigan Circle Tour enters the city on US-41, continuing along the Lake as it turns into South Shore and Lake Shore Drives. It is Foster Avenue between the Drive and Broadway and then runs up Broadway to Sheridan Road, continues on into Evanston and the North Shore. Then through Wisconsin, into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, across the Mackinac Bridge, and down the west coast of Michigan, ultimately back to US-12 through Indiana Dunes.

In August of 2013, Sean and I took nine days to drive the entire Lake Michigan Circle Tour, camping or staying in hotels or B&Bs along the way. (We plan to do the Lake Superior Circle Tour in 2021 and hopefully the Lake Huron Circle Tour someday as well. On our over-1,000-mile road trip, we camped in Newport State Park and Hiawatha National Forest, we backpacked in Manistee National Forest, and we stayed in downtown Charlevoix and Saugatuck, Michigan. We also visited Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore and Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

(As an aside, the best argument I’ve heard against making Indiana Dunes a National Park came from my friend and colleague, Craig, a great lover of the Indiana Dunes, who argued that there are only four National Lakeshores on earth: Indiana Dunes, Sleeping Bear, Pictured Rocks, and Apostle Islands. The four are gems tied to the Great Lakes and are themselves more special and rarer than the National Parks. It was a good argument, but now that it’s done, I say Congress should make the other three National Parks too.)

Sean and I stopped briefly at Central Beach at Indiana Dunes on the final day of our sojourn around the lake. He was feeling under the weather and we were ready to get home. But we didn’t want to just drive past.

After Central Beach, we stopped by the Visitor Center and stamped our National Parks Passports.

June 6, 2015

On a Saturday in early June 2015, I visited the Miller Woods unit of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore without Sean, for work. It was part of an active day of events for Openlands, including a paddling event on the Little Calumet River, a school garden clean-up in the Hegewisch neighborhood of Chicago, and a bird walk for the Birds in my Neighborhood program at Indiana Dunes. As Director of Communications, I was out and about capturing photos and videos at all of them.

At the time, the Birds in my Neighborhood program was run by my buddy, John, who would join us in 2018 for Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

Miller Woods

That June day, students from Lavizzo Elementary on Chicago’s far South Side and their families were enjoying a guided bird walk. I caught up with them on the trail.

Sundial Lupine

Spiderwort

Wild Columbine

Coreopsis

Beaver lodge

July 11, 2015

Common Milkweed

One of the things I was most excited about seven years ago when I started working at Openlands was getting to know great places to go outside in and around Chicago. Growing up in Detroit and its suburbs, I had a good sense of the Metroparks and other places to go outside around southeastern lower Michigan. But after seven years in Chicago, particularly without a car, in 2012 I’d not yet gotten to know that Chicago region (as opposed to Wisconsin, Michigan, and other Great Lakes states).

Wild Blue Phlox

So with some friends, Sean and I created a Let’s Go Outside group, which chooses six places a year, one a month between May and October, to go outside for day hiking or paddling or such within about two hours of Chicago. From an original handful of people, it’s swelled to a 55-member Facebook group.

Common Cattail

In July 2015, our place to go outside was Indiana Dunes, and a group of about a dozen people made their way to Miller Woods. This time we hiked all the way out to the shores of Lake Michigan.

Sassafras

Black Oak

Winged Sumac

Coreopsis

Butterfly Milkweed

Wild Blue Phlox

Pasture Rose

In addition to the oak savanna I’d seen the month before, the full three-mile hike passed ponds trapped between ridges of wooded dunes.

Pasture Rose

Buttonbush

It was odd to see ponds of freshwater just a thin ribbon of sand dune away from one of the largest lakes on the planet.

Once we got to the beach, we relaxed on the sand.

But even though our group had had the trails to ourselves, we certainly weren’t alone on the beach. The water was full of boats and…Jeeps?…taking in some sort of air show.

After hanging out for a while, we returned via sidewalks to where we’d all parked. Our intention was to continue west to sites in the National Lakeshore, but there was very little parking available. So after searching for parking near Lake View, we gave up and headed over to Shoreline Brewery in Michigan City for lunch and beer.

It would be another four years before Sean and I would go hiking at Indiana Dunes again. And by then it would be a National Park.

1 thought on “Indiana Dunes National Park: Once Upon a Lakeshore

  1. Pingback: Indiana Dunes National Park: Mount Baldy, Great Marsh, and Dune Ridge | As They Are: Exploring the National Parks

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