Riding the rails to the Dunes

Dunes grass grows on the Lake Michigan shoreline at Indiana Dunes National Park. (Photo by Aaron Gettinger)

Hyde Parkers have easy access to newest national park

Staff writer

INDIANA DUNES NATIONAL PARK — The newest national park in the country is a leisurely 75-minute trip for Hyde Parkers aboard the South Shore Line.

Indiana Dunes National Park is a 25-miole ribbon of green space with hikes that range from leisurely to challenging, picturesque beaches and abundant cultural activities.

The Dunes became a national park on Feb. 15, after years of lobbying from the Hoosier State’s congressional delegation. Like Redwoods in California, the property is split between state and federal units — ranger Bill Smith said the National Park Service (NPS) meant the dunes to be the first national park created after the NPS was established in 1915, but World War I took the wind out of that effort’s sails.

The state park was established in 1925, and a national lakeshore was created in 1966. The dunes themselves formed as a result of eons of glaciers’ pushes and pulls across a shifting shoreline. Winds picked up and deposited sand into hills. Oak tree forests and savanna blanket the older two dune ranges while the third shifts year-to-year, and drops, dramatically, to beaches and the water.

Indiana Dunes is the fifth smallest national park, even after adding the state park’s acreage to the federal property. Still, the combined park is over 16 times the size of Hyde Park, stretching 25 miles from end to end. The dunes aren’t mountains, but they’re steep enough to cause a smile at summit. And in an area as profoundly starved for wilderness as Chicagoland, they are a treasure.

But, as the ongoing and accelerating biospheric breakdown makes abundantly clear, no natural treasures anywhere are sacred. The national lakeshore was only established because of the Port of Indiana and Burns Harbor, construction of which destroyed several dunes, including Hoosier Slide, the tallest at 200 feet.

The infernal steel mills cannot be ignored. They loom sinisterly over the beach at the end of the Cowles Bog Trail, named for University of Chicago botanist Henry Cowles, 4.7 miles across ponds, marshes, swamps and savanna before up-and-down over sand dunes that cave beneath your feet like a stairmaster from hell.

But then you crest, descend and survey the miniature Modernist skyline across the waves. You may have seen white-tailed deer raccoons, turkey vultures, great blue herons, endangered Karner blue butterflies — and mosquitos — en route. The beach is typically all but deserted and deliciously quiet. Bring a book and the Hyde Park Herald.

Ranger Smith hopes the national park designation will bring in more visitors and federal funding; in the meantime, it will allow the NPS to charge for parking in more areas. Vehicle admission for non-Hoosiers to the state park is $12. Freeway tolls and gas mileage add up. The one-way South Shore Line fare from 57th Street to Dune Park is $8, and seniors over 65 and children under 13 receive a fare reduction.

The parks, however, are not the most pedestrian-friendly properties around, which is both pleasantly expected — one doesn’t presume to walk from one end of Yosemite to the other — and a little irritating, as the walk from Dune Park station to the dunes’ visitors’ center takes 25 minutes. Many South Shore Line trains have bicycle racks, and vehicle-less park visitors could stand to make use of them. The route from Dune Park station to the Cowles Bog trailhead, for instance, is an 11-minute bike ride or a 43-minute walk.

Smith recommended trails within walking distance from the three commuter rail stations serving the property. From Miller station, set in a bohemian enclave of Gary, walk 15 minutes to the Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education, 100 N. Lake St., and 3.2 miles of trails leading to Lake Michigan through wetlands (look for beavers) and woods, all named for the U.S. senator from Hyde Park whose renown transcends state lines. The handsome Gary Bathing Beach Aquatorium, 6918 Oak Ave., a Prairie School-meets-Classical Revival lakefront structure whose symmetry calls faintly to mind the South Shore Cultural Center, can be reached by walking eastward along the beach.

From the Portage/Ogden Dunes station, one can reach the 2.9-mile lollipop-shaped Tolleston Dunes Trail. What starts out flat due to a sand mining operation that supplied the glassworks of Kokomo and Muncie eventually meets a boardwalk before rising and falling amid 4,700-year-old dunes. Look for prickly pear cactuses and watch out for poison ivy. Or walk 30 minutes north to the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk, where Smith promised weekly sunset fires and smores once summer begins.

The Indiana Dunes State Park is a 30-minute walk from the Dunes Park station but worth it for its labyrinthine network of numbered trails. Looping trails 4 and 8, 1.6 miles, completes the “three dunes challenge” with slopes up to 40 degrees that culminate with a climb up 117 stairs to the 192-foot summit of Mt. Tom. Conquering 552 vertical feet (high for typically flat Indiana) earns successful hikers a free sticker from the visitors’ center, bragging rights and gorgeous views.

There are all-reservable campsites at the state park and some reservable, some first come, first served campsites at the national park, but no backcountry camping — though the 6.1-mile hike to the Dunewood Campground is good for solitude. (Bring a map: a successful navigation involves 13 trail crossings.)

For those who appreciate more cosmopolitan attractions, Beverly Shores, Ind., has a flag stop on the South Shore Line. The vacation homes in the wooded dunes are a rough, Midwestern approximation of the Hollywood Hills (if one squints), but be sure to check out the Century of Progress Architectural District along Lake Front Drive: five privately owned houses built for Chicago’s other world’s fair in 1933, intended to show the future of American domesticity.

Downtown Miller has a number of lovely boutiques and restaurants — try surf at the Captain’s House, 6004 Miller Ave, Gary, home to 24 different varieties of lobster rolls taking inspiration from across the country and around the world (the “Wrigley Field” comes dragged through the garden like a Chicago dog) and turf at the Miller Bakery Cafe, 555 S. Lake St. Proprietor Jack Strode says the steaks are butchered from whole sides and aged in-house. He is about to inaugurate a new menu with nods to Mexican cuisine (thanks to wife Ana and brother-in-law Adan) and an emphasis on seasonal produce. Both restaurants take reservations and serve brunch and dinner.

Near the South Shore Line station is the 18th Street Brewery Tap Room, 5725 Miller Ave., named for the thoroughfare through Pilsen, known for its pup grub, India pale ales, pilsners and patio from which you can watch the trains go by. Indulge, then let it convey you safely back home to Hyde Park.