How to do Indiana Dunes National Park.
Standing on one of Mount Baldy’s peaks on the south shore of Lake Michigan in the Indiana Dunes National Park, it was easy to see the beautiful Chicago skyline gleaming in the distance. The ranger pointed out various points of interest while going over the science of “living dunes” — Mount Baldy is one, as it moves every year — and then he said something that changed the tone of the presentation. Living dunes that are large enough can “swallow” old-growth trees, and then through a weird interaction between sand and bark that scientists are still studying, the hollowed-out tree turns into a cylinder that people can fall into.
That was the perfect moment to introduce the importance of rangers as guides and to dissuade people from wandering into restricted areas of the dunes. The national park is more than the dunes, though. More than 300 species of birds either live in or migrate through the area, making it a destination for birders from all over the world. The plant diversity is greater than that of Yellowstone, so much so that the Cowles Bog Trail has been designated a National Natural Landmark since 1965. The shore is dotted with beaches as well, and bike and hiking trails abound. It’s a fairly comprehensive vacation destination for the whole family.
Where to Stay
Just outside Michigan City — the best place to stay if you’re going to the park — is The Brewery Lodge and Supper Club, a cozy, warm refuge tucked into the woods but easily accessible. The lodge has an excellent restaurant on site, and quiet time, which is enforced, starts at 11 p.m. The rooms are spacious and well-appointed, and you’ll find plenty of outdoor seating to enjoy morning coffee in the Indiana woods.
Where to Play
Indiana Dunes National Park and Indiana Dunes State Park (the state park is contained within the national park) offer activities and attractions for the whole family, ranging from science-themed hikes to beach fun, bicycling, bird-watching and picnic areas. The dunes themselves are the greatest attraction, and learning about living dunes while standing in a parking lot that will be swallowed by the dune within a year is the best kind of show-and-tell education available.
Blue Chip Casino and Spa. Indiana has a cluster of Native American casinos in Southshore, and Blue Chip’s presence in Michigan City makes it easy to grab a spa treatment or spend time at the tables and slots.
Harbor Country Adventures. The Emita II is a double-decker cruise boat that offers sunset tours of Lake Michigan seven days a week. The boat departs from Michigan City and features live entertainment and a full bar for cocktails while you watch the sunset.
Where to Eat and Drink
Sophia’s Famous Pancakes. For breakfast, head over to this diner-style destination that’s a favorite among locals. Yes, it has pancakes of all kinds, as the name suggests, but you’ll also find crepes and blintzes, the latter of which are a must.
El Cajete. Opened by the Bernal family in 2012, this casual Mexican restaurant is the ideal local spot for lunch. It has a large selection of Mexican favorites, but the huaraches are the star.
The Brewery Lodge and Supper Club has excellent food in a casual, comfortable setting. The owners also have Zorn Brewery — thus the name — a local operation offering traditional styles made with lovely balance. The food consists of supper club classics with some unique twists, such as the elk burger, which is a must for someone at the table. It also serves fresh oysters, chops, steaks from a local rancher and house-made desserts.
The easiest route is to fly into Chicago-Midway and arrange ground transportation or fly into South Bend and do the same. Both are close enough to be convenient in a rental car.