Thursday, May 1, 2008

Car-free Camping in the Indiana Dunes

[Originally published in Time Out Chicago 8 22 06:]

by John Greenfield

The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore might be the most beautiful place in the Hoosier State—which, to some, might not sound like much of a ringing endorsement, especially since it’s flanked by steel mills and power plants. But this nearby national park features 25 miles of natural beach, hiking trails through forests, prairies and marshes. And, of course, there are the dunes themselves: massive mountains of fine sand, perfect for a sliding barefoot sprint and leap.

Bring your tent, sleeping bag and hiking gear and head to Millennium Station at Randolph Street and Michigan Avenue to catch Metra’s South Shore Line train (round-trip ticket, $11). The South Shore does not allow conventional bikes onboard; however, folding bikes are permitted and would be useful for exploring the greater Dunes area. It’s a relaxing, scenic, 90-minute train ride to the Beverly Shores stop and National Lakeshore Dunewood Campground. You can chat up your fellow passengers, and, best of all, alcoholic libations are permitted, so you can start to unwind early with no risk of a DUI.

The train stop, a historic ’40s structure, is handily located next to convenience and liquor stores, where you can stock up on supplies and firewood. From there it’s a quarter-mile hike south to the campground ($15 a night) in a serene wooded area. The fact that sites don’t have built-in driveways is a bonus; you won’t have to compete with Winnebagos and generator-powered TV sets.

Pitch your tent and go explore. The campground is near the Dunewood Trace hiking trail that leads to the Dorothy Buell nature center and other trails. It’s also a pleasant one-mile walk down a quiet road to a low-key beach where you can swim, sunbathe and pick pebbles to your heart’s content. The waves can get big enough for body surfing, but watch out for dangerous riptides. A couple miles east of the campground is Mount Baldy, the largest of the dunes. Visitors who tackle the steep, sandy climb out of the parking lot are rewarded with a spectacular view: Northwest of the lake you can just make out the towers of the Chicago skyline.

Every visit to the Dunes is different. Last time we went, a folk singer in the campground’s amphitheater performed a set of songs about Great Lakes maritime tragedies. When we cried out for “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot, he happily obliged. Then we walked down the road to the Beverly Shores Policeman’s Ball, a benefit for the tiny town’s handful of cops, held inside the firehouse. Friendly conversation, pulled-pork sandwiches and Jell-O shots were plentiful, and afterward the party headed to the lake for a bonfire on the beach. You can’t do that in the big city.

For more information on Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, contact the National Park Service (219-926-7561 ext 225,


Lisa Mitchel said...

Having done this I must add that it's also a family/kid-friendly way to travel and camp as well, especially if you have a good backpack the kid can ride in!

Clark said...

And in the winter, that trail from the campground becomes a 7 mile cross-country ski track (classical only) that will take you all the way west to the Dune Park station on the South Shore Line.

So whatever the season, it is possible to have a nice point-to-point hike or ski, thanks to using the South Shore.