At the southernmost point of Lake Michigan, Indiana Dunes National Park — the country’s newest national park — is a world of contrasts.
That was on full display as I stood on a beach north of the park’s Miller Woods and scanned the horizon.
My mom and I had just hiked through the oak- and lupine-filled woods and over rolling sand dunes without seeing another human.
But at the beach, we looked west and saw a series of industrial buildings and piers from Gary, Indiana, and the Port of Indiana. In the distance, about 30 miles northwest, we could see Chicago’s skyline, a floating silhouette on the lake’s horizon. To the east, an excavator worked along the beach near a handful of sunbathers. We had heard its mechanical churning while we hiked, along with the hum of trains and traffic in the distance.
But directly in front of us, the yellow sand beach stretched untouched, a sliver of wild backed by marram grass and spindly oaks on steep dunes. Water from Lake Michigan lapped lazily against the sandy shore, and a refreshing breeze cooled my face.
“Here we are, this ecologically diverse place, where you can literally see Chicago from the beach, this juxtaposition of this great natural place in the midst of this giant city infrastructure is mind-boggling,” Paul Labovitz, the park’s superintendent, said over the phone later as he surveyed the same scene.
It wasn’t entirely serene, but it was an island of nature in an otherwise heavily developed place — a slice of wild along 15 miles of Lake Michigan shore about two hours from Milwaukee, with a new elite national park title to boast.
National park worthy?
When Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore officially became the country’s 61st national park in February, it generated a lot of talk — both positive and negative.
For Midwesterners, it put a national park within easy driving distance, in an area of the country that until then was mostly a blank spot on the national park map. The next closest national park, Cuyahoga Valley in Ohio, is 300 miles away.
“The rest of the National Park Service keeps trying to reach diverse, urban audiences, and that’s not a problem here,” Labovitz said. “We are a place that can introduce people to the national parks in a fairly easy way.”
For some outdoor enthusiasts, it was a stain on the national park system. How could this strip of land, flanked by steel mills, a port, railroad lines and a major interstate, be considered in the same ranks as places like Yosemite and Yellowstone?
The fight to gain national park status was a long one, dating back to the beginning of the national park service.
In 1916, Chicago businessman Stephen Mather, the first director of the NPS, proposed a Sand Dunes National Park. But World War I turned the country’s attention to industry, and the land was developed for such uses.
But the push to preserve the dunes didn't completely die, and in 1926 Indiana Dunes State Park was established. In 1952, Dorothy Buell, who grew up in Menasha, Wis., established Save the Dunes, a nonprofit that continues to work to preserve the area.
Buell teamed up with Sen. Paul H. Douglas of Illinois to tie the deal to create the Port of Indiana to making the dunes a national lakeshore, and in 1966 it finally came to pass.
A few years ago, Labovitz said, the documentary “Shifting Sands” sparked renewed interest in pushing for park status. In February, President Trump signed an appropriations bill that included the name change.
The debate over whether Indiana Dunes deserved to be a national park was mostly a semantic one. The park will not get any more funding or regulatory power. If anything, it might stretch the park’s finances even more, as signs need to be changed from lakeshore to park and an influx of visitors will strain services.
But the change puts Indiana Dunes in an elite group of 61 national parks around the country, an upgrade that means more publicity and visitors to the area, bracketed by Gary on the west and Michigan City, Indiana, on the east.
Labovitz has already noticed an uptick in visitors, despite an unseasonably cold and wet spring. Memorial Day visitation was up 20% from last year, he said. He also noted that the new status and related attention could help get more funding from non-governmental sources.
“Northwest Indiana has a new feather in its cap, and we all have an opportunity to use the Indiana Dunes to increase our economic development,” Lorelei Weimer, the executive director of Indiana Dunes Tourism, said in a statement in March.
The organization noted that tourism generated $50.5 million in economic impact in the area in 2018, and they expect that to grow with the new national park status.
“It’s really invigorated people in the region here who are proud of the place,” Labovitz said.
Those who still doubt if the area should be a national park likely have not visited.
They likely don’t know that deep in Miller Woods, you can find solitude among wild lupine, the only food for the caterpillar of the endangered Karner blue butterfly. It grows in the woods' rare black oak savanna, which once covered 50 million acres in the Midwest but now covers just 30,000.
They probably don’t know that Indiana Dunes’ 15,000 acres is home to 1,400 plant species, good for seventh most diverse among National Park Service units.
“The park is one of the most ecological diverse places in North America,” Labovitz said, noting that it sits at a crossroads where northern arctic climate meets southern arid, eastern deciduous forest meets prairie, and at the southern tip of Lake Michigan, which serves as a major bird migration route.
They likely don’t know that even with steel mills billowing smoke in the distance, a day on the beach of Lake Michigan is as good as one on an ocean — with less salt and fewer sharks. Or that for millions of people in so-called flyover country, distant national parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone are difficult and expensive to get to. Indiana Dunes is just a train ride away from Chicago — the South Shore Line makes a couple stops in the park.
They likely don’t know that the national lakeshore attracted an average of more than 1.8 million visitors annually over the past decade — more than Bryce Canyon, Arches and Sequoia national parks.
But it’s not all about visitors and money.
It’s about preserving a rare and important landscape and getting more people to see it and care about protecting it.
On our last day at the national park, my mom and I joined a guided hike up Mount Baldy, the park’s tallest living dune — living, meaning it’s moving, about four feet per year. It's already buried buildings and half a parking lot in its path.
Our hike started at the east side of the dune, where just a strip of that parking lot remains. Signs warned against climbing the dune. It is closed to visitors except for ranger-led hikes.
Before we began walking, the ranger explained how the dunes were formed. As glaciers retreated from the area more than 10,000 years ago, they left behind sand. As the glaciers melted and formed the Great Lakes, the sandy shoreline changed, and wind and waves shaped the sand into dunes. The ridges and swale landscape is like those at Wisconsin’s Point Beach State Forest and Kohler-Andrae State Park, but on a larger scale.
The park’s older dunes are farther from Lake Michigan’s current shore and are stable enough to support oak forests. The Dune Ridge Trail near Kemil Beach is a good spot to see that landscape.
Closer to the lake, the dunes are still moving and less stable, with some marram grass that helps stabilize them. Some, like Mount Baldy, have large bare spots.
Signs throughout the park warn visitors to stay off the dunes and stick to designated trails to prevent erosion. All of Mount Baldy is closed except for the ranger hikes.
It's not just for the dune’s safety. Mount Baldy has dozens of unstable areas and small holes. In 2013, a 6-year-old boy fell in one and was buried under sand for more than three hours. He survived, but the park closed the dune to study and map the holes.
Mount Baldy’s beach has since reopened to visitors, but the trail up the west side of the dune is open only on ranger-led hikes, held on Fridays at 5 p.m. in the summer.
The hike up the dune is a short uphill trek that includes a stretch on loose sand. But everyone in our group — from kids to older adults — was able to make it.
From the top, it was obvious how the dune got its name. To the east, grass and small trees circled a large bowl of barren sand. The ranger asked us to not wander beyond specific boundaries and be careful not to trample on the marram grass, which helps stabilize the dune.
We could walk a little northwest, to a scenic point above Lake Michigan where we snapped photos of the lake and dune.
“This is so cool! We live in Indiana and we never get to do this!” someone shouted from the point.
Not many people do. Like other spots in Indiana Dunes, Mount Baldy is a rare landscape. And like other national parks, it must serve two, sometimes conflicting masters: preservation and recreation.
But when that balance is found, even with power plants in the background, it’s a special experience worthy of national recognition.
More information: Indiana Dunes National Park is free to visit, except for West Beach, which has a $6 expanded amenity fee per car. The visitor center is at 1215 North State Road 49, Porter, Indiana.
Chicago’s South Shore Line makes stops in the park, all wheelchair accessible. Its western terminus is Millennium Station, also accessible, on the southwest corner of Randolph Street and Michigan Avenue in Chicago. See mysouthshoreline.com.
The park has two free accessible shuttles in the summer that travel between Dunewood Campground, the USGS Great Lakes Research Center and Kemil Beach; and the Miller Train Station, Marquette Park, the Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education, 5th Avenue and Lake Street, and Lake Street Beach.
The park’s Dunewood Campground is open April 1 to Nov. 1. Thirty-four sites are reservable in advance, and 33 are available for walk-ups, including a handful of walk-in sites that are a short walk from the parking area. There are no electric or water hookups, but there are restrooms and showers. Sites are $25 per night.
Pets are allowed throughout most of the park, but they must be on a leash no longer than 6 feet, even when swimming in the lake. They are not permitted in the lifeguard swim area of West Beach, the Glenwood Dunes Trail, the Pinhook Bog Trail and the park's nature play areas.
For more, see nps.gov/indu.
Even more park info: Trails, beaches and more things to do in Indiana Dunes National Park
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Indiana Dunes National Park: Newest national park may be most diverse