Written for the first open group write at Wisebread Living Large on a Small Budget: Things to Do for Under $5
Come discover the wonders of Lake Michigan’s southern shore. If you are looking to escape city life in Chicago for an afternoon or weekend or driving along Interstate 94 or 80/90 through Northern Indiana and needing a break, why not stop in Porter County, Indiana. No need to deal with traffic at all if you are coming from Chicago. The South Shore Commuter Train provides service from Chicago to New Buffalo, Michigan with a stop just outside the gates to the Indiana Dunes State Park. Train schedules can be found here.
The biggest attraction year round attraction in Porter County is the South Shore of Lake Michigan and the Singing Sands of the Indiana Dunes. Thanks to hee Indiana Dunes State Park and the Indiana National Lake Shore the lake shore in Porter County remains largely undeveloped an open to public use. What do these areas and others in Porter County offer?
Let’s start with Indiana Dunes State Park . To keep the cost under the $5 limit we will need to assume that you have Indiana tags on your car ($5 per car gate fee), or that you are walking/biking into the park ($2 per person gate fee). Fees for other situations can be found here. Park admission is also covered by an Indiana DNR Annual Entrance Permit or Golden Hoosier Passport.
If the weather is hot when you visit the park you can cool off with a dip in Lake Michigan. A free swimming area with life guard on duty is available from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The white Singing Sands of the beach offer plenty of room for picnics and building sandcastles. Additional picnic areas are available throughout the park. Many of the pavilions can be reserved. A word of warning, the Fourth of July is a very, very busy time in the park. In this case the early birds might not only get the worm but they might be the only ones to make it inside before the park reaches capacity. Restrooms, a gift shop, and a concession stand are available at the swimming beach and a camp store is located in the campground.
Within the park more than 16 miles of trails wind through the 1,530 acres of the park that encompass a variety of habitats including: beach, sand dunes, black oak forests, woodland wetlands, and button-brush marsh. Trails range in difficulty from easy to rugged. Trail 2 is especially good for observing early spring wildflowers and ferns; later in the spring the best wildflower viewing moves to Trail 3. Trail 8 is the most challenging and takes you over the top of the three highest dunes in the park. Trail 10 is the longest and includes views of the “Big Blowout” and the “Tree Graveyard.” A word of caution, be sure to pick up a trail map before heading out as most of the trails are not loops so you will need to plan your route. Trail maps are available both inside of and outside the door of the Nature Center.
If you prefer to observe nature from a more climate controlled location or maybe just need a place to warm up, cool off, stay dry during an unexpected shower, or avail yourself of modern plumbing, stop by the Nature Center. In the observation room you can enjoy the sights and sounds of nature thanks to three walls of floor to ceiling windows and microphones outside with speakers inside. A variety of feeding stations just outside the windows draw both furry and feathery visitors. The center has a small play area for children and lots of exhibits to occupy those who prefer action to observation. Things can be a bit busy when a rare bird has been spotted but most of the time the observation room and library are peaceful places to watch the natural world. When you stop by be prepared to be dazzled my nature’s beauty and often entertained by the antics of the creatures that stop by. You might see:
an itchy squirrel
a variety of woodpeckers:
For more things you might see you can visit my Indiana Dunes Nature Center photo set. If the wildlife is being secretive top by the front desk and ask about the videos that are available for viewing and inquire about programs that might be scheduled for the day. Programming ranges from night hikes to ghost stories around a fire to crafts demonstrations, and much more.
Don’t let the end of summer keep you away from the Dunes; there is plenty to see and do even when the temperatures drop and snow flies. From both inside the Nature Center and along the trails, bare trees make searching for winter visitors of the feathery sort much easier. You might also find yourself delighted by the artwork of Mother Nature when sudden temperature drops create a fantasy world of ice and frost. When conditions permit portions of the trails are opened for cross country skiing and snowshoeing in addition to hiking. However it is at Devil’s Slide that you will find the most thrilling winter fun.
The places that make up the Indiana National Lake Shore are more spread out but even easier on your wallet with only West Beach having an admission charge.
You can learn more about what is happening at Indiana National Lake Shore through its newspaper, The Singing Sands.
The possibilities in Porter County don’t end with the Dunes.
From the South Shore Rail Station you can easily access the Calumet Trail. This 9.1 mile trail with a crushed limestone surface provides a venue for walking, jogging, bicycling, and even Cross Country skiing in the winter. If you are planning to walk, jog, bike, or ski the trail be sure to pack some water as none is available along the trail thought there is a small store at about the half way point. Additional Greenways Foundation trails in Porter County are shown on this map. Even more trails are available at no cost at the Coffee Creek Watershed Preservation area between Chesterton and the Indiana Toll Road, NOTE ADD Assuming your bring water from the tap at home, there is no cost for this option other than the transportation to Porter County.
Of course, nothing says you have to walk fast or far in any of these areas. Coffee Creek is a great place for a picnic while enjoying the view:
You can even bring along your best four-footed friend though pets must remain leashed. You might also consider bringing along a kite as there is plenty of open space or your fishing pole as catch and release fishing is allowed. Coffee Creek is also a good place for birding and other nature observations, relaxing, and painting/photography.
Similar activities, minus the fishing, can be found further south at Taltree Arboretum west of Valparaiso off of US Highway 30. Unlike Coffee Creek, there is an admission charge for Taltree. The admission charge is $5 unless you are a member of another garden or arboretum that participates in the American Horticultural Society Reciprocal Admission Program; participating gardes are listed in this brochure.