The Third Coast

Only the short-sighted insist that a family-oriented beach vacation has to include either the Pacific or Atlantic. Need proof? Just ask any Midwesterner...
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Indiana Dunes State Park
MIDWEST SUN & SAND: Indiana Dunes State Park (Craig A. Berg)

There's a common misconception that hitting the beach is a summer pastime reserved for those on our country's two coasts. That Pacific/Atlantic tunnel vision, however, neglects the stunning beaches on our third coast—Lake Michigan and a myriad of smaller lakes in the Midwest.

From rustic to luxurious, there's a lake and a resort for any family. Some are within state parks, some are not, and all offer a never-ending supply of summertime fresh-water fun in the form of boating, kayaking, sailing, swimming, fishing, or just relaxing in a hammock with a good book.

The Best: Indiana Dunes State Park
Sand dunes and Indiana aren't regularly found in the same sentence, but you'll swear you're in Cape Cod when you survey the 15 miles of dunes in Indiana Dunes State Park, a favorite all-ages escape for Chicagoans heading to the great outdoors. The dunes rise so high you can't see past them, and scenic grasses brush up to the three miles of beach bordering Lake Michigan. Activities available in the park include swimming, beachcombing, hiking, picnicking, camping, horseback riding, and exploring the many natural habitats that surround the lake, from maple and oak forests to marshes and bogs. Just make sure to avoid the poison ivy and read the signs about safe areas for swimming, as some spots are known for the strong riptide.

Located at the base of Lake Michigan, near Chesterton, Indiana (and surrounded by some not-so-picturesque industrial shoreline), this lovely 2,182-acre state park features plenty of well-marked trails to help your family explore. Stop at the Dorothy Buell Memorial Visitor Center for a free map and a ten-minute slideshow that will help you get your bearings (the center also has restrooms and a gift shop with postcards, posters, and slides for sale). If you seek time outdoors, try a hike on West Beach's three-mile trail, which passes through a sampling of native environments such as prairie, conifer, and deciduous oak forest zones, and ends at a beach. In all, 16 miles of trails designated easy, moderate, or rugged wind through the park. Swimmers and sunbathers should head for Kemil Beach, a long stretch of beautiful white sand. The one attraction not to miss? Mount Baldy, named for the mounds of sand that blow off in the wind, is the largest “living” sand dune in the park. It's hard to imagine, but those huge dunes are slowly being carried inland with the wind, burying forests in the process. For evidence of dunes on the move, check out the “tree graveyards,” where sand buries the forests and then wind erosion re-exposes them.

How to Get There: The closest airports to Indiana Dunes State Park include Indiana's Gary Regional Airport and South Bend Regional Airport, and Chicago's Midway International Airport and O'Hare International Airport. The Chicago and South Shore Train (www.nictd.com) has stops within the park. If you're driving to Indiana Dunes State Park from Chicago, take I-94 east to Indiana, then I-49 north (east of Porter). Follow I-49 north to Route 12, travel east on Route 12 for three miles to the Dorothy Buell Memorial Visitor Center.

Where to Eat: It's nothing fancy, but there is a concession and campground grocery that's open during the summer months where you can buy wood, ice, groceries, and picnic supplies; there's also a small fast-food outlet. Many choose to bring picnic food. You'll find plenty of picnic areas in the park, some with barbecue pits. If you're staying in downtown Chicago, places to pick up sandwiches and drinks include Corner Bakery at 1121 North State Street at Cedar Street (312.787.1969) or Potbelly Sandwich Works at 190 North State Street at Lake Street (312.527.5550).

Where to Stay: For country charm, try the Springhouse Inn, where you'll find oversized rooms in the heart of the dunes. Rates range from $59 to $119 per night for double occupancy. (303 North Mineral Springs Road, Chesterton, Indiana; 219.929.4600; www.springhouseinn.com)


Published: 11 Jun 2007 | Last Updated: 13 May 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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