Indiana Dunes

Leaving Indiana Dunes Better Than You Found It

A weekend of traveling sustainably and making a difference

By Robert Annis

Most people don’t realize how remarkable the Indiana Dunes are. Although I’m a native Hoosier, and I’ve lived in the state nearly my entire life, I had no idea that despite its relatively small footprint, Indiana Dunes is the fourth-most biodiverse national park in the country. Across its 10,000 acres, there are more plants and animal species than in Yellowstone.

During my past visits to the dunes, I’ve either been too busy lazing on a beach or trying to conquer the Three Dune Challenge to consider the smaller things that make the area truly unique. I was thrilled if I saw a bald eagle flying overhead, but now, I’m even more impressed knowing it is just one of nearly 400 bird species passing through the dunes every year. While I’ve admired the gorgeous wildflowers springing up in May, I didn’t know there was a multitude of other flowers — more than 1,000 different plant species sprinkled throughout the park’s beaches, forests, and bogs. I didn’t realize that the Paul H. Douglas Trail wound its way through one of the last black-oak savannahs in the United States—you can imagine my newfound respect.

But that’s the Indiana Dunes. Inside the park, you can spot prickly-pear cactus and a patch of ferns only six feet apart from one another; yet both live in two entirely different biospheres. Nowhere is this seen more than at Pinhook Bog, where biodiversity is king. This primordial bog is filled with carnivorous plants, orchids, and some of the most unexpected environments in the Dunes. Impressive is an understatement, but the bog is so fragile you will need to hike it with supervision on ranger-led tours. These special places need our protection.

Between Indiana Dunes’ recent name change and the pandemic contributing to an increase in outdoor adventure travel, visitation to the area has boomed. But this change has prompted several important questions: How will record numbers of visitors impact the plant and animal life? Are the Indiana Dunes in danger of being overcrowded? And how can I visit without “loving it to death”—better yet, can I leave it better than I found it?

the Dunes,
Our Communities

The short answer is yes. Yes, I can make a difference. This isn’t the first time the Indiana Dunes have faced a crossroads. At the turn of the last century, much of the natural landscape was destroyed to create farmland, power plants, and steel mills. Massive dunes were flattened, and the sand was shipped away in the name of industrial progress.

But over the last few decades, agencies like the National Park Service and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, non-profits like Save the Dunes, organizations like Indiana Dunes Tourism, and the neighboring communities have worked tirelessly to repair that damage and prevent future “mistakes.” 

The Great Marsh is one example. After being drained for farmland years ago, the area around the Great Marsh is being restored to its natural state. Because wetlands naturally filter contaminated water, restoring the Great Marsh will also protect water quality. There are many other restoration efforts underway regionwide.

For visitors and locals, traveling sustainably in the Indiana Dunes can be as simple as staying on established trails, taking trash with you, and not picking native plants or wildflowers growing throughout the park. Many of the plants, such as Pink Lady's Slipper Orchids, are incredibly rare and can’t be found elsewhere in the area. For those interested in growing native plants at home, three local plant nurseries sell similar native species.

Dropping-In to Volunteer

Protecting the Indiana Dunes doesn't have to be about what you shouldn’t do; you can actively help — and have a little fun — by participating in the weekly Drop-In Volunteer Program! This program is a collaboration between Indiana Dunes Tourism, the state and national parks, Shirley Heinze Land Trust, and other groups throughout the area that offer volunteer activities. These groups all coordinate their efforts to offer a wide variety of activities for those looking to give back.

On a recent, chilly Saturday morning, I pulled into the parking lot at the historic Chellberg Farm expecting to see only one or two others. To my surprise, I was met by nearly three dozen other volunteers. Sure, the work wasn’t glamorous—pulling weeds and prepping the farm’s massive garden for planting—but it was worth it, and it laid the groundwork for a huge community benefit.

First established by the Chellberg family in the 1860s and later donated to the Indiana Dunes National Park, the farm is now almost entirely run by volunteers. Many of the same volunteers I worked with will also plant vegetables in the coming weeks. By the end of the summer, their efforts will yield a harvest that will be split between the volunteers and local food banks. Walking into the garden, the amount of work seemed overwhelming at first. But thanks to the number of volunteers, we were able to knock it out in just a few hours. While everyone was working hard, we were also having a good time caring for the park.

During other Saturday morning drop-in sessions, volunteers might also collect trash or remove invasive weeds like honeysuckle and bittersweet along the trails. 

For years, non-native trees were cut down and burned. Now, to better use the park’s finite resources, the invasive trees are cut into planks using the park’s sawmill. The wood is used for fence posts and replacement planks inside the farmhouse. According to Volunteer Program Manager Jim Whitenack, affectionately known as “Ranger Jim” to visitors, these practices and volunteer efforts save about $1.5 million in taxpayer dollars last year

A Sense of Community and Ownership

Locals feel a sense of ownership for the Indiana Dunes. While many residents have been coming to the beaches and trails for decades, Vern Brown is a more recent transplant who has fallen in love with the area, making it his home.

“The dune trails are close to my house, so I hike at least once a week,” said Brown. “It’s a great way to decompress, and it puts you at peace, especially during the winter—when it’s so quiet.”
-Vern Brown

Since moving to the area, Brown has opened two businesses—the Duneland Distillery and the Chesterton Brewery. Stopping at the brewery for a beer and a burger, I took in the surroundings. Nearly every seat in the dining area was taken, but I luckily found a lone stool open at the bar. There was no shortage of taps—the brewery serves up more than a dozen varieties of beer, from IPAs to pilsners to stouts. Brown and his partners are committed to sustainability. They donate $1 from every bottle of Duneland spirits sold to Save the Dunes and arrange for a native tree to be planted in the area. He also donates the spent grain from the Chesterton Brewery that he co-owns to the Chellberg Farm to help feed the livestock. It’s all his way of supporting sustainability and giving back to a community and place that’s already given so much to him.

Making It All Worth It

My favorite hike in the Indiana Dunes National Park is the Cowles Bog Trail. It might be the best representation of the area’s biodiversity, so much so that it was designated as a National Natural Landmark (interestingly, it’s not actually a bog—an enclosed wetland filled mainly with rainwater—but rather a fen fed by groundwater). The trail winds through woods filled with oaks, hickories, and cottonwoods until it meets sand dunes and the beach. In the summer, the trees will sprout leaves as wildflowers spread across the forest ground. When I visited, the woods were bare and quiet, leaving me in a silence only broken by my thoughts.

As I hiked up the steep, sand-covered hills, it felt like I was working twice as hard, slipping a step back for every two steps forward. I thought of the similar struggle toward achieving sustainability — toward protecting the special places we all love. When I finally reached the beach and saw the Chicago skyline rising above Lake Michigan, I knew the hard work and effort were worth it. The Indiana Dunes reward all of us, but also ask for something in return. It’s up to us to answer this call. We have a responsibility to protect them, for ourselves, and for future generations. 

Robert Annis is an award-winning outdoor travel journalist appearing in publications and websites, including Geographic Traveler, Outside, Hemispheres, Lonely Planet, Afar, the Chicago Tribune, Togo RV, and Hidden Compass. You’ll often find him either pedaling the backroads and trails of the Midwest on his bicycle or hunched over his laptop in his camper van working on his next piece.