Indiana Dunes National Park: Mount Baldy, Great Marsh, and Dune Ridge

Mount Baldy

Yellow Garden Spider in Great Marsh

On August 24, exactly a month after our visit to West Beach, we were back at Indiana Dunes National Park. This time, we were again there as part of our Let’s Go Outside group of mostly Chicagoans who pick places near the city to go for day hikes six times a year. The group had last done Indiana Dunes in July 2015. Four years earlier, we’d run into some issues finding parking, so I suggested to the group via Facebook earlier that week that we try and get an early start. Our plan was to begin at the Park’s far eastern edge, Mount Baldy, and work our way west with a series of short hikes. If people wanted to join us later, they could text and find out where we were. Also, if people needed to get back to the city early, they could peel off whenever they needed to.

Ultimately, there were four of us who explored the Park that day: Sean, Angela, Mary, and me. It was our first time exploring a National Park with Mary!

Good morning. This is our apartment’s back deck.

It had been an intense week, particularly with my resigning from Openlands, so by Friday evening I was wiped out. But thankfully I went to bed early and was up at 6am to make coffee and begin getting ready for Angela to pick us up at 8am. Mary had said she would meet us at the Park.

After so many photos of making campsite coffee on this site, I may as well include one of coffee prep at home.

Hey Elsa.

When Sean woke up, we began preparing Big Ass Beach Hoagies for everyone. 2019 had been our summer to gorge ourselves on the charming You Tube videos produced by Bon Appetit magazine, and Sean had recently become obsessed with their recipe for Big Ass Beach Hoagies stuffed with everything from giardiniera to three kinds of meat. We had met at Whole Foods the previous evening after work to get the ingredients. And a couple glasses of wine.

Angela collected us, and we threw the cooler with the Big Ass Beach Hoagies into the back of her Vibe. Then we drove over to JB’s Deli in Andersonville, our neighborhood in Chicago, to grab some breakfast sandwiches on freshly baked bagels to eat in the car.

It was a perfect day, sunny and breezy, as we drove down Lake Shore Drive toward the Loop.

Angela had been traveling all summer, and she regaled us with stories from Glacier National Park, Alaska, and Seattle.

From the arc of the Chicago Skyway we could see the refineries of northwestern Indiana across the southern edge of Lake Michigan.

Mount Baldy

When we arrived at Mount Baldy some hour and a half after leaving Andersonville, Mary was already there (we’d been dilly-dallying). She’d texted Sean (my service was spotty) to say she was just hanging out on the beach.

Hey security camera.

We set out on the trail to find her.

Common Soapwort

For years since the incident when Mount Baldy swallowed a small boy (he lived), the entire area had been closed to visitors. It was now reopened, but the summit of the dune and the trail to it are still closed, possibly permanently.

Sassafras

The final approach to the beach from the wooded trail was dramatic.

And there was Mary waiting for us!

A group of Mennonites was at the shore enjoying the beautiful day.

The day was so gorgeous that even the Michigan City Generating Station a mile to the east seemed…picturesque. The gas and coal-powered plant is slated to be decommissioned in the coming decade, and Michigan City has great hopes for the site. The plant sits where the Hoosier Slide once stood. It had been the tallest of the Indiana dunes, but its sand was slowly removed for industrial use. Michigan City would like to demolish the plant, mitigate the brownfield that will be left behind, and turn the site into a city park, complete with a new boardwalk along the shore that would connect Michigan City’s harbor with Mount Baldy and the National Park.

That would be completely incredible!

Common Soapwort

Common Soapwort

On this breezy day, we could easily feel how the prevailing northwesterly winds actively strip beach from the Illinois and Wisconsin side of the lake and deposit the sand here to the southeast.

Hey Chicago.

We didn’t linger long before heading back toward the parking lot.

Sassafras

On to the next stop: Great Marsh.

From the Mount Baldy parking area, we drove southwest along Beverly Drive through the Park. To our right, near Great Marsh, we saw through the trees the homes of the enclave of Beverly Shores perched on dune ridges.

We parked in the small lot, got out of the cars, and applied some insect repellent before heading out on our hike. The short, flat hike was a lollipop loop about a mile and a quarter total. Although short, it was packed with things to see on a late August morning.

Yellow Coneflower

Butterfly Milkweed

Indiana Dunes National Park is part of what is called the Chicago Wilderness region, a geographical concept defined by Lake Michigan and a series of watersheds centered around Chicago but extending all the way to southwestern Michigan and southeastern Wisconsin. It is also a consortium of non-profit organizations and government agencies, and it more or less defines the regional focus of Openlands. So in that sense, this hike and the wildflowers I was snapping pictures of, felt like something I’d have been doing for my job for the past seven years.

But it wasn’t.

Joe-Pye Weed

Joe-Pye Weed

Large Milkweed Bug on Common Milkweed

Common Milkweed

Yellow Garden Spider (female)

I was lagging behind taking photos when a huge spider off to the right stopped the others in their tracks. It was a gorgeous Yellow Garden Spider having her breakfast.

Photos must be taken!

Common Evening-Primrose

Common Evening-Primrose

This tree had simply toppled over.

A beaver-chewed stump

Bumblebee on Joe-Pye Weed

White-Tailed Deer tracks

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Swamp Thistle

As we walked, we discussed major news of the summer, including the rise of White Claw and other alcoholic seltzer waters and the trailer for the movie version of Cats.

Sumac

Not sure what sort of restoration work was going on here.

Riverbank Grape

Broadleaf Arrowhead

Cardinal Flower

Cardinal Flower

Fiery Skipper on Joe-Pye Weed

Bracken Fern

Red Osier Dogwood

Highbush Cranberry

Orange Jewelweed

Tall Scouring Rush

Woodland Sunflower

Near the end of the hike, we walked out onto the observation boardwalk.

Great Marsh is an enormous wetland trapped between ridges of sand dunes. Although it was extensively drained and altered for industrial and residential development, it remains important habitat and has been undergoing active restoration for over twenty years.

Mallards

From the observation deck we spotted some waterfowl.

Great Blue Heron

Sean tried and tried, but this call-in interpretive system didn’t work.

Joe-Pye Weed

We returned to the cars. We weren’t quite hungry yet, so we decided to do one more short hike before lunch: Dune Ridge Trail.

We drove up Broadway toward the beach. We could tell that the beach parking lots were filling up since this group above parked in the Great Marsh lot and was walking all the way to the beach.

Sure enough, the beach lots were packed, so we zoomed past the Century of Progress homes.

Happily, when we got to the Dune Ridge Trail parking area, which is also a large parking lot for the beach, there were plenty of spots. We hadn’t gotten the memo to drive our orange Jeeps though.

Dune Ridge Trail is three-quarters of a mile long, but offers some not-unimpressive views.

From the parking area, the trail leads directly up onto a wooded dune.

Spotted Beebalm

Burr Oak

Common Milkweed

Once in the woods, we chose to follow the trail counter-clockwise as it ascended a ridge.

Maple-Leaved Viburnum

Bracken Fern

Nodding Onion

Woodland Sunflower

Flowering Spurge

Rough Blazing Star

Black Oak

Soon we emerged onto an open area at the trail’s highest point. We had unobstructed views to the south at more interdunal wetlands and ridges beyond.

Again, not unimpressive.

Goldenrod

We continued on our way.

At the bottom of the ridge, the trail forked. Angela said that the last time she was on this trail, they’d turned right and ended up on an unofficial footpath that led to the backyards of some Beverly Shores homes. Oops.

So we turned left to stay on the established trail.

White Oak

Back at the parking area, we took advantage of the restrooms.

It was time for lunch, so we continued on our way east, heading out on the Dunes Highway to the Tremont Picnic Area, which was wedged in a ribbon of woods between the highway and some train tracks. Geographically, though, it is notable as having been once the southern shore of Lake Chicago, the forerunner to Lake Michigan as the glacier melted.

We pulled out our Big Ass Beach Hoagies, fruit, chips, and other goodies and sat down under one of the picnic shelters. Although some vehicles stopped so their occupants could use the restrooms, we had the area to ourselves for lunch.

Cicada

Well, almost. A Cicada was very upset to be disturbed by Mary’s foot from its preferred place under the picnic table. When it began buzzing, it startled us.

Image: Mary Simpson

Then it was Angela’s turn to surprise us with homemade key lime pie!

Refreshed and full, we looked forward to our afternoon adventures in the newest National Park.

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