indiana dunes national park

After a visit to New River Gorge National Park, we traveled about 9 hours northwest to reach Portage, IN, just outside Indiana Dunes.

These dunes have been on our radar for a while, and they are yet another park, in a 20-hour driving radius from Charlotte (my current personal limit for road trips). This was also our 20th national park! I’ll do a general update soon with more details about where we are at with the challenge and what we think of it so far.

Indiana Dunes National Park is an interesting location because it overlaps quite a bit with Indiana Dunes State Park. It’s a bit confusing to figure out where one park stops and the other one starts. Both have admission but our free fourth grader national park pass did not work at the state park. The dunes are a huge local attraction, since they’re essentially wide beaches on a scenic stretch of Lake Michigan. This is not always the case with local parks: Congaree National Park is pretty much in our backyard, yet not a popular destination for Charlotteans.

We drove up from New River Gorge on July 3, winding our way through Ohio with a couple of interesting stops. My favorite was the Dayton Aviation Heritage site, where we walked around an exact replica of Wilbur & Orville Wright’s bicycle shop and purchased a “lego” model of the original glider, which later proved to be almost impossible to put together. The aviation museum in Dayton is fantastic – definitely worth a stop! We reached Valparaiso at dinnertime and found a great gluten free pizza crust over at the Tomato Bar, plus our first peek at Lake Michigan down by the Portage Riverwalk.

Independence Day dawned sunny and hot, just as it should be (ahem, Acadia trip last year). We got up early and had an incredible breakfast picnic on Kemil Beach all by ourselves (aside from a family taking holiday photos further down). Our berries happily splashed around in the clear cold lake water for a couple of hours. As the beach started to fill up with people and umbrellas, we packed up and drove over to the state park nature center for the next part of our day: the Three Dune Challenge.

The Three Dune Challenge is an essential part of any visit to Indiana Dunes. It has all the best elements of a challenge – a good group activity, a fun way to exercise, and the chance to earn a free sticker! The point of this challenge is climbing the three tallest dunes in the park, on a trail which goes up and down each one. They are not overly tall (compared to a mountain) but quite steep. We took photos at each peak to prove we made it the whole way. It was so much fun! I think North Carolina should have more outdoor challenges!

Working our way across the lakeshore, we stopped at West Beach for a look around. By then it was just past noon and the parking lot was a vast sea of folding tables, portable grills, and boomboxes. We squeezed into a small spot on the sand where Greg & the bigger berries went for a quick swim and a run down the dunes. It’s thrilling to be able to climb around on them! We are used to “stay off” signs at the Carolina dunes.

Back to the Portage riverwalk for our third beach of the day, and then as it started to rain, we drove into Chicago to visit the Pullman Monument (an odd name for what is a terrifically engaging museum about the history of the Pullman company and how they changed the railroad industry in America). The picture below is a life-size replica of a Pullman train car, complete with fake scenery out the window.

We started our drive home the next morning, with one final stop – the Ark Encounter in Kentucky. I’ve heard a lot about this massive ark model but never visited until now! I appreciated the careful attention to detail in every aspect. It’s well worth the admission price. If you ask the kids if they liked it, they’ll start enthusing about frozen chocolate-covered bananas, but actually they loved the whole experience. Hearing thunder in the background as you walk through the ark is a brilliant idea – feels so realistic! Hoping to get back there with cousins one day soon.


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