In 2017, I was all set to visit Indiana Dunes and then, oops, I broke my hand. That derailed the plan and it took me another four years to get here. But I made it, and I am damn happy I did. This place is a beautiful introduction to the charms of Lake Michigan.
Meeting Lake Michigan
The first morning of my stay, I woke up and headed down to the beach. Of course I did. I’m a beach baby. It took me all of two minutes to get my feet in the water and meet Lake Michigan on its own terms. I never feel like I know a new body of water unti I get my feet wet in it.
Technically, I was camping at Indiana Dunes State Park, which is completely surrounded by Indiana Dunes National Park. The State Park is due east of Gary, Indiana and the remaining steel mills there are easily seen from the beach and high dunes (more about Gary and high dunes in a minute…).
Lake Michigan is one big lake, folks. It feels like an ocean when you look north. There’s no shoreline, just water all the way to the horizon. But hold on a second. Shift your view to the west and there’s Chicago! Yes, on a clear day, you can see the skyscrapers of Chicago from here. There’s a commuter rail station just outside the park that goes into Chicago; maybe next time for that adventure.
Adventures with Friends
My big adventure here was meeting up with my old sailing buddy (we’re all old…) Brian and his husband, Warren, for a day of exploring the National Park. Both of them have been Rangers with the National Park Service and I was eager to learn about their favorite lake. Over the course of the day, I learned a lot about the history and geology of this amazing place.
We started our adventure with a stop at Carlson’s for chili cheese dogs and root beer, both of which were delicious! It’s a very old-fashioned place and we could have had car service if we’d wanted it. We chose instead to sit at a picnic table in the shade and plan the afternoon’s agenda.
Fueled up and ready to go, we headed for Mount Baldy. I grew up near Mount Baldy in California, which is quite different from this one! Made of drifting sand that has swallowed these trees and half a parking lot over the last decade or so, it’s a monster of a sand dune. It also has hidden holes in it, made by hollowed out tree trunks so there’s no climbing on this dune without rangers in charge. I could recount the story of the 11 year old boy who fell into one of those holes, but let’s just say he actually got out alive and was fine and leave it at that.
After a drive along the shoreline, complete with “oh, here’s where things fell into the lake” comments, we arrived at Beverly Shores. Which has to be the most unusual beachfront property I’ve ever seen. These five houses were demonstrations of “futures” at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. Aftewards, a developer had four of them barged over to his new housing development (the fifth one was a log cabin that was disassembled and trucked over). Today, the non-profit Indiana Landmarks organization owns them and leases them to private individuals in return for rehabbing and maintaining them.
My favorite was the Florida House, mostly because it has killer views of the lake from atop the bluff where it sits. The house is ridiculously pink (does everyone who doesn’t live in Florida think all the houses there are pink? They are not, just so you know) but if I was inside looking at the view, I wouldn’t care. Because this is that view…
Three Dune Challenge
The next day I felt energetic (or stupid enough) to go for the Three Dune Challenge, a completely made up thing that encourages people to slog up really high sand dunes for marginally interesting views. But, when in Indiana Dunes… so I laced up my shoes and started slogging.
Seriously, these are some major sand dunes. If you look closely in the middle of this photo, you can see the bottom of this sand dune. Yeah, that little thing down there is where I started. When the sand dune rises at a 30 degree angle, there’s going to be a whole lot of sweating and also a whole lot of sand in your shoes by the time you get to the top.
They provide a bench where you can sit and remove the sand from your shoes before going on to the next dune. Or you can enjoy the view. This was the view from the top of Mount Jackson. Not sure it was really worth the work but I went on to Dune 2 and more sand, more slogging.
The view from the top of Dune 2 (also known as Mount Holden) was a sliver of Lake Michigan, and all I could think of was that I had a much better view of it from the beach.
But at least I had a downhill before tackling the final dune, Mount Tom (named after some soldier named Tom Brady, not the Super Bowl-winning guy). This one skipped the sand in favor of stairs. A lot of stairs. I lost count after 100 or so.
And then there were more stairs, but this time, the reward was the campground and a well-deserved cold glass (or three) of water). It wasn’t till the next day that I realized the camp store didn’t have Three Dune Challenge stickers for us finishers. Sigh.
Daytripping to Gary
On another day, I ventured west to Gary, Indiana, mostly because it was there and it was also the home of the Jackson Five back in the day. I wasn’t sure what I’d find, so I just kept driving along the coastline until I hit Marquette Park. I ended up with a nice surprise, or rather two nice surprises.
The first was the southermost point of Lake Michigan, which looks like this. I know, it looks like the rest of the lake, but there’s a sign that says it’s the southernmost point, so I’m going with that. I also learned from the sign that Lake Michigan is the only one of the Great Lakes that is entirely within the United States. I probably learned that in fourth grade geography but I’d forgotten it till I read it on the sign. Did you know the Great Lakes contain 20% of all the fresh water on the planet? That’s cool trivia and it might win you a prize in a bar trivia game some day, so remember it.
The other cool surprise was spotting this 60% scale-model of Tuskegee Airmen plane. Below the plane was a statue and monument to the Tuskegee Airmen, heroes of World War II, despite the racial discrimination they endured both in the service.
The installation here was dedicated in 2016 in the presence of Lt. Robert Martin, who was then 97 years old. In WWII, he flew 65 missions as a Tuskegee Airman, was captured, crossed enemy lines, and flew again. The performance of the Tuskegee Airman during the war was cited by President Truman in 1948 when he signed Executive Order No. 9981, which called for equality of treatment and opportunity in U.S. military forces.
Why this monument in Gary, Indiana, you might ask? In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Gary was 84% African-American. In the last several decades, the city has fallen on hard times and almost one-third of the housing stock is empty or abandoned. Maybe the heroes of the Tuskegee Airmen will inspire kids growing up in Gary.
I really couldn’t get enough of Lake Michigan. The colors can be flat or luminous, depending on the light and time of day. I probably took a hundred pictures of the water in my five days at Indiana Dunes and I like every single one of them.
After a few days of hoping and waiting, there was one beautiful sunset. It’s also the perfect way to end this post.
Want to Know More?
- Indiana Dunes National Park – official site
- Mount Baldy Beach
- 1933 World’s Fair Homes of Tomorrow exhibit
- Gary, Indiana on wikipedia
- Marquette Park
- Tuskegee Airmen National Historical Site – my trip report
The most important thing is to try and inspire people so that they can be great in whatever they want to do.