Indiana Dunes
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Wilderness and Wonderland

A weekend of adventure through the Indiana Dunes

By Quincy Koetz

I treasure every trip I take to the Indiana Dunes. As an avid outdoorsman and traveler living in Chicago, I love being so close to a destination for many of my favorite pursuits: hiking, biking and kayaking. While the dunes themselves are magnificent, I wanted to also spend time on excursions in the surrounding area. I planned a weekend trip filled with outdoor adventures. Driving down, my car looked like it was packed for a month-long expedition!

The front side
and the dark side

A brown wooden sign for the Dark Side Trail at Imagination Glen in Indiana Dunes, Indiana
A man mountain biking on the Outback Trail at Imagination Glen in Indiana Dunes, Indiana
A man bikes toward a wooden sign at Imagination Glen in Indiana Dunes, Indiana
A man bikes a steeply angled wooden walkway at Imagination Glen in Indiana Dunes, Indiana
A man stands next to his mountain bike at Imagination Glen in Indiana Dunes, Indiana
Trails named “Riches Revenge” and “Rollercoaster” are the best that single track mountain biking has to offer.

My morning began at my favorite place for mountain biking in the Midwest: the Outback Trail at Imagination Glen. This remarkable trail system has easy and very difficult trails, but I love riding both. There are two areas with different characteristics—the Front Side and the Dark Side. I started the day pedaling across and over the rolling and flowy novice trails of the Front Side, remembering that riding along the creek in the morning is also a perfect time for wildlife viewing. I took my time on these trails, enjoying the quiet and pristine nature.

Later on, I was white-knuckle riding down the thrilling trails of the Dark Side. Steep berms, tight switchbacks and quick drops left me breathless with excitement. Trails named “Riches Revenge” and “Rollercoaster” are the best that single track mountain biking has to offer. This place never gets old to me no matter how often I ride here.

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Relaxing pursuits

Having satisfied my adrenaline craving, I turned my attention to some more relaxing pursuits in the afternoon. The Kankakee River runs farther south of the dunes and is a different but equally tranquil place. Dunn’s Bridge has been the starting point for a few kayak and fishing trips for me in the past but today I was content to simply walk and enjoy how pleasant it was to watch a river roll by. I also chuckle at the thought that the bridge was built from the iconic Ferris wheel from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. My explorations continued at Kankakee Fish and Wildlife Area. Driving along the Ten Mile Road loop offered abundant viewing of herons and ducks.

I stayed the night at the Hampton Inn of Portage, which was a good decision. I liked the contemporary, comfortable accommodations but also appreciated the convenience of being just 20 minutes from nearly every adventure I wanted to complete on my trip.

A wooden bridge leads into lush green wilderness in Coffee Creek Watershed Preserve in Indiana Dunes, Indiana
Lush green trees line the water in Coffee Creek Watershed Preserve in Indiana Dunes, Indiana
Lush green trees lean over the water in in Coffee Creek Watershed Preserve in Indiana Dunes, Indiana
Lush green wilderness lines the creek in Coffee Creek Watershed Preserve in Indiana Dunes, Indiana
Lush green wilderness lines the creek in Coffee Creek Watershed Preserve in Indiana Dunes, Indiana

Gets the worm

It was a rare morning where Lake Michigan’s waters were as smooth as glass and almost perfectly reflected the azure skies.

I’m not often one to rise early on a Sunday but as soon as the sun was up I found myself hitting the hiking trails. Early morning in Indiana Dunes State Park is a sublime sight. Shorebirds were easily spotted as I hiked alone on the beach. Turning south and heading into the backcountry, I spotted cactus and pine trees growing together—a natural phenomenon of the dunes area but a curious sight nonetheless. Pushing farther into the woods, I climbed a few dunes before arriving on the summit of “Big Blowout.” The view was phenomenal! It was a rare morning where Lake Michigan’s waters were as smooth as glass and almost perfectly reflected the azure skies. My camera nearly ran out of charge before 10 a.m.

After lunch I went to Coffee Creek Watershed Preserve, which was one of the most surprising discoveries of my trip. Thinking it was going to be a quaint little park, I found its riparian wilderness to be full of wildlife and wonder. Graced with the delightful presence of warblers, I knew I was quite lucky. Warblers, I’ve learned, are prized by birders in their sight and song. Elusive though unique in their calls, they are observed more often by sound than sight. But early birds aren’t the only birds to see in Indiana Dunes.

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With Lake Michigan in the background, a man hikes the sand dunes in Indiana Dunes, Indiana
A man hikes on sand with hiking poles in Indiana Dunes, Indiana
A man hikes across sand in Indiana Dunes, Indiana
A man hikes across sand in Indiana Dunes, Indiana
A man hikes up a steep sandy trail surrounded by tall grasses in Indiana Dunes, Indiana
A man hikes through tall grasses with green trees in the background in Indiana Dunes, Indiana

Evening birding

A man looks through binoculars in Indiana Dunes, Indiana
A man takes a picture on his phone with Lake Michigan in the background in Indiana Dunes, Indiana
A man stands on a sand dune looking over the beach and Lake Michigan through binoculars in Indiana Dunes, Indiana
A man looks at Lake Michigan through binoculars in Indiana Dunes, Indiana
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Early in the evening, I arrive at the Great Marsh Trail in Indiana Dunes National Park. This is a trail I’ve casually hiked before; however, I’m returning to it now as a novice birder. My newfound enjoyment for birding is one that was almost exclusively fostered by the dunes area. Lake Michigan has a profound “funneling effect” for birds, especially when they are southbound in the fall. To the delight of both experienced and amateur birders, there is an extraordinary diversity of species that numbers in the hundreds. Though I’ve hiked this trail many times in the past, a pair of binoculars and a basic knowledge of birding made this time feel magical.

I thought how much of a luxury it is to have such an adventurous destination so close to the hustle and bustle of Chicago.

I finished my weekend at the National Park and was able to get some evening birding at the Longshore Birding Platform, which has a panoramic view of a forest, savannah and beach. As the sun set, the city lights of my home came to life—visible to the west across Lake Michigan—and I thought how much of a luxury it is to have such an adventurous destination so close to the hustle and bustle of Chicago. A deep sense of gratitude also came over me as well. With more than 100 years of conservation efforts, I’m glad that people continue to ensure the dunes remain wild for generations of explorers like me.

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Find your Adventure

Outdoor adenture in the Indiana Dunes