What outdoor adventures could possibly exist within an hour’s drive of Chicago, and how many of them can you fit into a two-day trip? I managed to pack in biking, hiking, paddling and fishing on my weekend getaway.
My passion for outdoor adventure has taken me across the world, to the top of snowy summits and into the Amazon, and yet for some reason I’d never taken the short hop from Canada’s rocky West Coast to the sand dunes of Indiana—possibly because I didn’t know how much adventure awaited only an hour from Chicago. Once I found out about the 15 miles of sandy beaches and 15,000 acres of preserved dunes, lagoons, forests and trails, I knew I had to take a look. I hopped a red-eye to Chicago and drove out to Chesterton to check it out.
First stop: the Visitor Center. I picked up a copy of the “Dunes Region Itinerary,” designed for a day full of “intense adventure.” With that as my compass, I hit the ground running... Or should I say pedalling.
This two-mile, kid-friendly trail was designed specifically for cyclists and pedestrians looking for easy, dedicated access to Indiana Dunes State Park.
From the Visitor Center, I set off on a rental bike toward Indiana Dunes State Park on the Dunes-Kankakee Trail. This two-mile, kid-friendly trail was designed specifically for cyclists and pedestrians looking for easy, dedicated access to Indiana Dunes State Park. The asphalt trail is mostly level and briefly passes through woodland before paralleling the road that leads into the park.
On my way to the Nature Center within Indiana Dunes State Park, I decided to take a detour to take in the awesome views of rolling waves at the beach. As I took photos, my attention was drawn to a smiling couple walking across the sand. After hellos, we started to chat and I learned that every year they rent a cottage on the beach to relax, wander the park and enjoy local food. We exchanged restaurant recommendations before I headed off. I definitely pictured myself making a return trip with my wife.
From there, I pedalled through the park, past the campground and over to the Nature Center for the next stop on my itinerary: the 3 Dune Challenge. I parked my bike and began my descent and ascent on the region’s iconic trail.
The 3 Dune Challenge seesaws up and down three “mountains” in the park—Mt. Jackson, Mt. Holden and Mt. Tom. The 3 Dune Challenge is only 1.5 miles long, but the combination of steep climbs and the fact that you’re constantly sinking into or slipping down the sand of the dune trail made it an exciting challenge. My trek was accompanied by the sounds of birds, wildlife, barefooted children giggling as they scampered along the path and the pleasant sounds of waves crashing on the shore of Lake Michigan to the north. There were a couple of great vantage points on the trail and a bench or two that were perfect for a lunch break. I was happy to have my camera to capture the beautiful sights.
After finishing the 3 Dune Challenge back at the Nature Center, I cycled back to the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center and dropped off the bike. The next step of my “intense adventure,” according to the itinerary, was to head down the road to Marquette Park for some paddling, bird watching and fly fishing. I had learned a bit about the history of Marquette Park and how the community rallied together to have its 214 acres and historic buildings preserved for all to enjoy. The whole story of the Indiana Dunes area is a fantastic example of this kind of grass roots nature conservancy.
It was great to see two disability-friendly canoe/kayak launches at the lagoon, which make it easier for anyone to enjoy an afternoon paddle. Launching from the dock was a breeze and exploring was a blast. Out on the water, it was hard to believe I was only an hour’s drive from Chicago.
From there I descended into the trail’s oak and pine forest, timed perfectly to arrive at the beach to watch the sun set.
In the afternoon I headed off to West Beach to check out the Succession Trail. The trail was a tour of the changing terrain and bio zones of the dunes of Lake Michigan. I enjoyed the crashing waves and the Chicago skyline beyond at the lookout. From there I descended into the trail’s oak and pine forest, timed perfectly to arrive at the beach to watch the sun set. I wandered up the shore watching the light fade as the water lapped at my feet. It was a fantastic end to an amazing day.
After dinner at the Craft House, recommended to me by the couple I met earlier, I returned to the Inn at Aberdeen, where a comfy bed, double Jacuzzi tub, coffee, snacks and dessert awaited. The Inn is an updated estate house that maintains its 1800s elegance as an 11-room bed and breakfast. It’s a perfect cozy couples retreat and the Jacuzzi and comfortable beds are welcoming at the end of a busy day of adventure.
My quick getaway had come to an end. I couldn’t wait to return with my wife to explore all over again.
Outdoor adenture in the Indiana Dunes