Indiana Dunes National Park: Worth the drive from Chicago?

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The south end of Lake Michigan is crowded with industrial areas and steel mills.  It makes the idea of a National Park seem especially appealing.  Who wouldn’t like to escape the sprawl of factories and railroad tracks for a peaceful walk on a dune-lined beach?  I thought Indiana Dunes National Park might be a worthwhile detour from Chicago.  Here’s what I found.

Location

There are several places to access the Lake Michigan shoreline in northern Indiana.  Many areas not occupied by steel mills or residential communities are preserved as parks — managed either by local towns, the state, or by the National Park Service.  Indiana Dunes National Park offers several access points.  I stopped at Ogden Dunes, northeast of Gary, and Mount Baldy.

Ogden Dunes can be accessed from exit 15 or 19 off Interstate 90.  Signs will direct you to County Line Road, where you’ll cross US 12 and make your way into the park.

Mount Baldy is just west of Michigan City on US 12.  You’ll make a sharp right turn just after leaving town.  This road will lead you to the parking area.

My Visit

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that early March is not the best time to do almost anything in northern Indiana.  It’s cold, and possibly snowy, and everything looks dead.  So you might have a better experience later in the year.  Even so, I was in the area, and I wanted to see the dunes.  So I first headed out to…

Ogden Dunes, Indiana Dunes National Park

From the parking area, a pathway will take you towards the beach.  I think, during busier parts of the year, you’d pass through the visitor center on your way to the shore.  I ended up following a side trail that skirted around the building.

Once at the water, I discovered a beach that was… okay.  Remember, it was March, so it’s no surprise that there was a buildup of ice and snow along the shore.  There wasn’t any way to actually get to the water without trudging through this slushy mess, and possibly falling through it.

One of the most interesting things to see was the Chicago city skyline.  The Loop is about 28 miles away, as the crow flies.  If you timed your visit to a sunrise or sunset, you might get a much more impressive photo from here.  But on any given day, it’s still quite impressive to see.

Back at the parking lot, you can see more dunes, but I don’t think you’re supposed to climb on them.  There are, however, several other trails you can follow.

With the day coming to an end, I was hopeful that the grey skies would break into a beautiful sunset.  So, I went in search of a good place to photograph it.  I drove all the way into Michigan City, but couldn’t find a suitable spot.  Michigan City does have a nice waterfront park, complete with a walkway out to a lighthouse.  But, parking was expensive, so I decided to look for some place with a free view.  I ended up backtracking out of town, to…

Mount Baldy Beach

Mount Baldy rises 126 feet above the surface of Lake Michigan.  There’s a trail to the top of the dune, but it’s off-limits, unless you’re on a ranger-guided hike, which are only offered during the summer.  That said, it would be very easy to ignore the signs and hike to the top.  I thought about it, but with sunset quickly approaching, I figured I’d stick to the suggested path.

A creepy trail takes you through a small wooded area on your way around Mount Baldy. Maybe it was just creepy because it was getting dark, and getting colder.  Let’s just say I moved along quickly.

The trail emerged on the side of a dune…

… where I found an okay view of the sunset.  Since this beach faces north, and sunsets typically (but not always) occur in the west, I had no chance of finding a better perspective.  Also, the trail along the side of the dune, which led from this spot down to the beach, was dangerously narrow.  I decided to settle on the view from here.

Oh, and did I mention that you can still see Chicago’s skyline from here?  Look very closely.  It’s almost 40 miles away from Mount Baldy.

Wouldn’t it have been nice if this sunset had lined up right behind the city’s skyline?  I’d guess that on a certain day of the year, it will probably happen.

The Bottom Line

I’ll have to be honest, I’m not sure I would make the same choice again, to spend a day in northern Indiana, instead of an extra day in Chicago.  The dunes were nice, but probably not worth an out-of-the-way effort.  Still, if you’re in the area, and you’re looking for a nature break, it’s worthwhile to check them out.  And, everything might be much nicer in the summer months.  Less ice and more green could make everything much better.

Drivelapse Video

Here’s a look at the drive from Gary to Indiana Dunes National Park, and on to Michigan City.

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