Dunes National Lakeshore
Round-trip 77 miles
Aside from acquiring your annual summer stock of illegal Fourth of July fireworks and filling up on cheaper gas, there’s another reason to hit the Hoosier state: the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. A 50-mile skip over the Skyway, the 15,000 acres of hilly beaches and preserved wooded areas are nestled against Indiana’s Lake Michigan coastline. The dunes are so close to home that on a clear day you can spy the Chicago skyline on the horizon.
Before you commence drinking on the sand (yes, alcohol is permitted at most beaches), get oriented at the Dorothy Buell Memorial Visitor Center(1215 N. State Road 49, Porter, 219-926-2255), where you can ask endlessly patient experts all your asinine questions (“What’s a dune?”) and pick up an array of detailed, invaluable maps to beaches, hiking trails and historical sites.
The first thing to note is that there are eight beaches, as well as a national park and state park, the latter of which has its own beach. While most are free, entry into the state park and the appropriately named western-most beach, West Beach(200 N County Line Rd, Portage), costs $6 per car. Don’t be fooled: As any local who’s not a park ranger will tell you, the free beaches are comparable.
Each beach has its own personality. They range from Kemil Beach(Dunes Highway and State Park Boundary Road, Michigan City), a BYOB spot teeming with raucous twentysomethings, to the soft sands of Central Beach(Central and Valley Avenues, Michigan City), a subdued, scantly occupied piece of shoreline. Here, parents build sand castles with their toddlers, middle-aged vacationers toss tennis balls to their golden retrievers, and young couples nurse last night’s hangover on neon towels. Despite the ominous sight of smoke billowing out of a cooling tower à la The Simpsons’ Springfield, the navy-blue water dotted with privately owned boats is somehow free of the gunky seaweed and unidentifiable seafoam to which Chicagoans have unfortunately grown so accustomed.
Hike (or drive, if your calf muscles aren’t up for the challenge) one mile east of Central Beach to arrive at the must-visit Mt. Baldy(Highway 12 and County Line Road, Michigan City), a 126-foot-high sand dune categorized as “living” because it shifts south at a rate of a few feet per year. The trail signs heading to the peak are misleadingly marked “strenuous.” “Strenuous…for the polio-stricken” is more like it—as long as you’re able-bodied enough to march up several flights of stairs without huffing and puffing, you’ll conquer the hill. Gazing down from atop this giant dune—shadows forming on some of its broad, steep sides, the sun shining brightly on others as kids slide or run down them—Indiana suddenly feels like a set for Lawrence of Arabia.
A lakeside lunch is difficult to find (we spotted no concessions) and, sadly, the eats nearest the beach are mediocre at best. For finer dining (as well as accommodations), travel a little farther (10 to 20 miles) from the lake to Chesterton or Valparaiso. Chesterton is home to the popular Gray Goose Inn(350 Indian Boundary Rd, 219-926-5781; $110/night and up), an eight-room bed-and-breakfast in an old English country house. Equally pastoral digs are just down the street at the Waterbird Lakeside Inn & Spa(556 Indian Boundary Rd, Chesterton, 219-928-1501; $99/night and up), where, in addition to some peace and quiet, you can get stress-busting massages and body treatments ($60–$110).
Although Peggy Sue’s Diner(117 S Calumet Rd, 219-926-8524) in Chesterton dishes out decent greasy-spoon breakfast grub, the better restaurants in the area are in Valparaiso, well-known as the home of gourmet-ice-cream maker Valpo Velvet(55 Monroe St, 219-464-4141). Nearby, Spanish spot Don Quijote(119 E Lincolnway, 219-462-7976) serves up flavorful paella. The contemporary American cuisine at Bon Femme Café(66 W Lincolnway, 219-531-0612), one of the only fine-dining options in town, draws crowds of well-dressed locals. Stick to Lincolnway for after-dinner drinks at one of the street’s several bars, including Old Style Inn(5 Lincolnway, 219-462-5600), which is open only until 11pm (10pm on weekdays). The early closing time may come as a shock to late-night lushes, but think of it as insurance you’ll wake early enough to fill your quota of sand and sun—with time to spare for buying Black Cats and bottle rockets.