Get Outside: Indiana Dunes

Indiana Dunes National Park is a recent favorite of mine! It is located in Northwest Indiana along the southern lakeshore of Lake Michigan. It’s unique because of its many sand dunes and proximity to industrial areas like Chicago; Gary, Indiana; and Michigan City, Indiana. It has had a long, complicated history, but it only just became our sixty-first national park in 2019; before that, beginning in 1966, it was a national lakeshore. I remember reading a “New York Times” article about it back in 2019 (you should check out the one written by Henry Alford), but I never expected that I would soon visit it and then visit it again!  

On my first visit, I was really surprised at how quickly we went from driving on busy I-94 to being almost completely alone on the trodden-down trails of the woods and dunes. On this spring afternoon, I basked in the gentle sun, bubbling streams and bright green leaves of the Bailly Homestead, Chellberg Farm and Little Calumet River trails near Porter, Indiana. After that walk, we returned once again to the road and drove up to the tip of the national park, near Michigan City, to see Mount Baldy, a stand-alone, 126-foot-tall sand dune.  

This was my very first time seeing a sand dune, and I was amazed. I had seen small piles of sand before but only at my childhood campground — and those were brought in with trucks! Mount Baldy had existed naturally, due to Lake Michigan’s waves bringing in sand to the shore, for a very long time. However, the National Park Service’s website states: “Due to the breakwall that was built for the Michigan City Harbor […] beach erosion is taking away more sand than the waves are bringing in.” This, coupled with my knowledge of Mount Baldy’s explicit signage to stay off certain parts of the dune and the ignorant footprints next to it, made me sad.  

The areas that the U.S. government protects nationwide now are a far cry from all the land that they could have protected instead of letting developers develop, businesses profit and industries pollute. Indiana Dunes is so special because of how much work went into protecting more and more acres, including restoring areas once thought to have been lost forever. While the erosion on Mount Baldy appears to have come from natural causes, the real culprit is human activity — humans who don’t know or don’t care that they are destroying nature on their way to please themselves. This, of course, is selfish.  

One may say, “But we can always bring sand in to Mount Baldy; it’s cheap” or “Look at the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk. They were able to clean up the pollutants and waste that the steel mill and power plant brought, so, it’s not so bad!” Maybe that’s true, and I’m glad they were able to restore the lakefront in Portage, Indiana. But that’s not the point. Why should we continue to sacrifice nature and environmental justice so businesses can profit immediately, just with the weak hope that someday we’ll be able to make the nature pure again? That’s not how this should work, and I think Indiana Dunes is a perfect example.  

If this area was protected from the beginning, before Gary or Michigan City got developed, I think the outcome of Indiana Dunes would have been a lot better. Alas, it is finally protected now, and more people can visit and learn about the wonders of nature themselves. That being said, I hope these visitors are conscious of the impact that their visit has on this marvelous ecosystem. If you are one of these visitors someday, please remember: leave no trace — that means recycling! 

All of this being said, visiting these places is incredible and ethical if you are not a jerk. On my second visit, I camped in Dunewood Campground near Beverly Shores, Indiana. We had a nice spot with plenty of woods behind us, meaning that we heard many deer and raccoons creeping around at night. We even met a couple who was planning on going to every single national park and was well on their way! This time, we had a picnic by Portage Lakefront; saw the Chicago skyline from Mount Baldy; and walked along Salt Creek, which is a beautiful stream near, but outside of, Indiana Dunes.  

My favorite part of this second trip was hiking the Great Marsh Trail near the campground. We saw an astounding number of birds in the wetland, including sandhill cranes, great blue herons and snowy egrets. We even saw a snapping turtle and a little bunny! Unfortunately, just like Mount Baldy and the Portage Lakefront, the Great Marsh too has had a negative history of human impact. In the early 20th century, the marsh was mostly drained for “residential and agricultural use,” but after restoration began in 1998, the National Park Service happily reports, “The Great Marsh abounds in the diverse animal activity of a healthy wetland ecosystem.” Even so, what once was great with a capital ‘G’ is lost; despite restoration efforts, all that remains is just a portion of the marsh. 

The next time you find yourself being mindful of the nature around you, ask: What impact have humans had on your surroundings? Is anything being done to restore and preserve the environment? And then, instead of waiting around for someone with more supposed power to act, go and pick up any litter you see. We are all capable of helping nature to some extent and of appreciating the world around us. 

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