Indiana Dunes National Park: West Beach

In the summer of 2019, after Indiana Dunes became a National Park, Sean and I planned two day trips there. The first trip was on a hot July day with a bunch of my family who were visiting Chicago from both the Detroit area and Seattle. Our choice for the day was West Beach, a unit of the Park that Sean and I had never been to. It boasts both a beach with a bathhouse and lifeguards and some nice hiking trails.

My cousin Kathrin, who had joined us at Olympic National Park as she looked to move from the Detroit area to the Pacific Northwest, was going to be in Chicago for a conference. She arrived on a Thursday and stayed in our guest room until Sunday while attending sessions on Friday and Saturday. On Sunday, her boyfriend James flew in from Seattle to join her. From the other direction, my cousin Lauren (Kathrin’s older sister); her husband Matt; their sons Dylan (10), Zachary (8), and Tony (3); and my cousin Cindi (Lauren and Kathrin’s mother) drove in from suburban Detroit. All eight of them stayed in an Air B&B near our apartment in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood. To top it off, our friend Andy also drove in from suburban Detroit to stay with Sean and me.

i took Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday off work while everyone was in town. After a welcoming cookout at our apartment on Sunday evening (during which the boys were introduced to both the LEGO city in our living room and Sean’s Nintendo Switch), on Monday we visited Shedd Aquarium and the LEGO Store. On Tuesday we visited Millennium Park, Maggie Daley Park, and the Chicago Riverwalk before going to Sean’s firm’s building to take in views of the Loop and the Chicago River from his firm’s offices on the 37th floor.

Then on Wednesday, July 24, Sean also took off work to join us for a day at Indiana Dunes National Park.

Lauren and I are early risers, so she picked me up and we got to Whole Foods around when it opened at 8am to get some picnic supplies for the day. We didn’t hit the road (stuffed into two cars) to drive out to Indiana until 11am.

We arrived at the Visitor Center a little after 12 noon.

The first order of business for Sean and me was to update the cancellation stamps in our National Parks Passports. We’d gotten the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore stamp back in 2013, and now we needed the Indiana Dunes National Park stamp.

The boookstore didn’t have any of our usual souvenirs (patch, pin, postcards) updated for the name change yet. So we’d have to try back or get them online.

While the adults browsed, the boys availed themselves of the activities, including a puppet show, in the exhibition room.

After about half an hour, we gathered at the temporary sign at the Visitor Center for a photo before heading over to West Beach.

The twenty-minute drive from the Visitor Center to West Beach passed some of the most industrialized areas within the general area of the National Park, particularly the massive ArcelorMittal steel plant.

Hey Dylan.

West Beach is a popular area, and it requires a fee to enter (it may be the only fee area in the National Park…the State Park requires a fee also). The parking area is massive to handle weekend beachgoing crowds, but on a Wednesday it was fairly empty.

From the parking area, it’s a short walk down to the bathhouse.

And from the bathhouse to the beach.

Despite its being midweek, space was at a premium on the beach. This was in large part due to the historically high lake levels in 2019 across the entire Great Lakes system. A cool, rainy spring and early summer combined with successive years of “polar vortex” freezing in the winters have limited surface evaporation. The result is whole sections of lakeshore where there is no beach at all.

Sean and James noticed some beachgoers who were packing up their little sun shelter tent. As we took over their spot, the guys tried to help them get their tent to fold up properly. After ten minutes of trying, they finally just sort of folded it and laughingly thanked the guys for their attempts before heading on their way.

We spread out our blankets and picnic items close enough to some cottonwoods to be in the shade, at least for a while.

Monarch

Cottonwoods

To the northwest, Chicago rose, seemingly right out of the lake itself.

To the west, immediately adjacent to the Park, a steel mill at the Port of Indiana loomed.

Hey Sean.

Lauren, Kathrin, Andy, Cindi, and I had spent a lot of time in the 80s and 90s on the beach of Lake Huron at my Grandma’s cottage. Summer beachgoing traditions continued in the aughts on the west coast of Michigan. It was great to be back to the beach with them in a new context and a new generation.

Hey Kathrin.

The others were content to swim, build sandcastles, and relax, but Sean and I wanted to explore a little bit. We attempted to begin the Dune Succession Trail on the beach side, but the signage was confusing and we weren’t sure where to go.

Eastern Kingbird

So we decided to go back to the trailhead at the parking area and attempt to hike the Dune Succession Trail from that side.

Even the paved path from the bathhouse to the parking area boasted views of several interdunal habitats like ponds and wetlands.

Sean: How can people step over a barrier with a sign on it to keep off?

As a loop, the Dune Succession Trail is about a mile long and goes up and over a series of dunes. We hiked it counter-clockwise, starting at the trailhead at the parking area.

Six-Lined Racerunner

Black Chokecherry

The trail is flat at first, heading straight toward a long staircase up a well-established, wooded dune. I was in hiking boots, but Sean was in flip-flops, and he reported that the sand was very hot. Apparently on hot summer days, the air temperature at sand level on a sunny area of the beach can reach 135 degrees.

As we ascended the staircase, Lake Michigan came into view.

From the viewing platform at the top, we could see the whole West Beach area and the cities of Gary and Chicago beyond.

Sassafras

From the platform, a staircase plunged down the other side of the dune into oak/hickory woodland.

Eastern Gray Squirrel

A staircase let us up the next dune. From here the hardwoods gave way to a more sparsely wooded area on the north face of the dune, with pine woodland below. In the direction we were hiking, the dunes and their ecosystems were getting progressively younger.

Jack Pine

Between the dunes, sheltered in a blowout, we found wetlands interspersed with pines.

The boardwalk/stair system ended, depositing us onto a wide sandy trail.

Virginia Creeper

Poison Ivy

Flowering Spurge

The warm air was rich with the fragrance of pine. It reminded me a bit of the warm piney fragrance of the Sierra Nevada.

A makeshift blockade to keep hikers on the right path

Jack Pine

White Pines

Soon we emerged from the pine woodland into a foredune ecosystem of marram grass and cottonwoods.

And then the trail ended at the beach, west of the main swimming area. To complete the loop, we turned left and returned to our picnic spot.

Happily, Patrick from Openlands texted me to remind me to get some video footage we needed for an Openlands video. I would have completely forgotten if he hadn’t. So I wandered off and captured some clips.

The afternoon was winding down. Andy was going to head to his dad’s in Douglas, Michigan for a short visit before returning to Metro Detroit. That left Kathrin, James, Sean, and me stranded.

Our plan was to catch the 4:45 South Shore Line regional transit train back into the Loop and then meet up with the others for dinner in our neighborhood. Andy dropped us off at the train station before continuing on his way. But the train didn’t come for half an hour. We were among two dozen increasingly agitated travelers wondering what the problem was. There was no announcement of a delay, no indication of a delay online, and even when I called, the customer service person said he could see no reported delay. Eventually, the westbound train showed up. Weird.

Downtown Gary, Indiana

Other than the delay, the hour-long train ride back into the city was uneventful. Back in the Loop, we hopped into a Lyft and back to Andersonville. After showering and cleaning up, we met for Mexican food and toasted a fun day at the beach.

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