Last Saturday my wife and I visited Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, completing our collection of all four national lakeshores (the others being Pictured Rocks, Apostle Islands, and Sleeping Bear Dunes). Unlike the other three lakeshores, Indiana Dunes is in a very urban area. Located at the southern end of Lake Michigan east of Chicago, the park is situated between the bustling cities of Gary and Michigan City and bisected by the Port of Indiana. This area was once a pristine collection of natural coastal dune communities, harboring unmarred coastline, sand dunes, wetlands, bogs, prairies, and forests. It has since been encroached upon and changed by nearly two centuries of settlement, logging, agriculture, and industrial growth.
Congress acted to establish the park in 1966, giving it protected status to preserve what was left. The natural features and wildlife that remain are still rather impressive. The surrounding human development provides an interesting contrast, and seems important in the discussion between conservation and the needs of civilization.
We began our visit at West Beach, first hiking the Dune Succession Trail. Nothing like a couple hundred feet of stairs to start your day:
Once atop our first dune we were able to look out over the area:
Vegetation is an important part of coastal dune communities, and this trail featured dunes in various life stages. Along the shore bare sand and harsh wind create a hostile environment to plants:
Some plants are adapted to these tough conditions. In coastal dunes, the first pioneer species are typically dune grasses. They grow deep roots to reach water and nodules that harbor bacteria and fix nitrogen to make it available to the plants.
Grasses stabilize the soil and add nutrients, making it possible for other plants to then take root:
Eventually even trees are able to grow:
All this vegetation affects the development and progression of the dunes as they migrate inland. While wind works to move them forward, plants work to slow them down.
Indiana Dunes is more than sand dunes, however. Between the mountains of sand, water collects and forms bogs and wetlands hosting entirely different organisms. Our next stop was at Inland Marsh where a couple of white-tailed deer fawns (Odocoileus virginianus, Cervidae) were waiting:
We then moved on to the Great Marsh Trail. Here we saw several cool plants, including this spotted bee balm AKA spotted horsemint (Monarda punctata, Lamiaceae)…
…swamp loosestrife (Decodon verticillatus, Lythraceae)…
…and pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata, Pontederiaceae):
In the Great Marsh there were also wading birds like common egrets (Ardea alba, Ardeidae)…
…and great blue herons (Ardea herodias, Ardeidae):
In the openings were a number of insects, including the ubiquitous late-summer short-horned grasshoppers (Orthoptera: Acrididae):
Our final stop was at Mount Baldy, the largest migrating dune at 126 feet in height. It begins at a blowout at the shore of Lake Michigan:
…climbs to its crest above the surrounding trees…
…and the lee side approaches the parking area:
Until recently excessive foot traffic helped loosen the sand here, resulting in this dune moving faster than anticipated. In order to slow down its progression toward the parking area and US Highway 12, the park service no longer allows people to walk on the lee side. They also planted dune grass to help slow it down.
With the sun getting low, we left Indiana Dunes and made a couple of other sand dune stops at Warren Dunes State Park and Grand Mere State Park in Michigan on our way home. I’ll cover them briefly in the future. After visiting all of these dune locations, by the end of the day I had enough of hiking through sand for one day.