Porter County tourism officials are kicking off the Beyond the Beach Discovery Trail -- an endeavor to get the 3 million visitors to the Indiana dunes each year to tour some of the 50 other sites throughout the rest of Porter County and surrounding areas. Times staff writer Ken Kosky set out to explore the discovery trail to see what's good for tourists and region residents.
Before the Beyond the Beach Discovery Trail guide even was completed, Porter County tourism officials provided The Times a draft of the guide -- and its more than 50 local attractions -- to allow staff writer Ken Kosky play the part of a tourist.
There are so many sites listed that it would be difficult for a resident or visitor to see all the area has to offer during a weekend, or even a week. That's exactly the message the tourism folks are trying to spread.
"We have this great economic engine (the dunes) sitting in our backyard. ... The goal is to get people deeper into the county," said Lorelei Weimer, executive director of the Porter County Convention, Recreation & Visitor Commission.
The goal of the Beyond the Beach Discovery Trail is to get the millions of people who visit the Dunes each year to stick around Porter County to enjoy other outdoor recreation, see museums and historical sites and enjoy dining, shops and lodging.
Weimer said if people are going to spend nearly $3 a gallon on gas to drive somewhere, that area better have restaurants, shops and attractions they can't get in their own area.
Porter County also is rebranding itself from "The Casual Coast" to "The Indiana Dunes, Nature's Masterpiece" to further take advantage of the natural wonder that draws people here. Weimer notes that unlike attractions such as colonial Williamsburg, Va., which people are likely to visit once, attractions like the Dunes entice people back time and time again.
A different perspective
To make Beyond the Beach work, tourism officials hired an independent consultant to identify the local attractions that would be of interest to visitors.
The trail guide is designed to get people to the sites of their choice, with directions provided to each site and with each site being marked by signs designating them as part of the trail. To add to the experience, tourists can get instant Twitter updates telling them information such as when flowers are blooming or when a certain bird has been spotted.
The trail features a lot of different things to please a lot of different people, said Christine Livingston, niche market director for the Convention, Recreation & Visitor Commission.
There are places for families to play, expanses of nature for nature enthusiasts and cultural attractions like the Memorial Opera House, she said.
The trail is split into three regions -- the Dunes Region, Moraine Region (Valparaiso and surrounding areas) and the Kankakee Region (along the river).
Livingston said the trend has been for Dunes visitors to spend more time in the county, and the Beyond the Beach campaign should further that trend -- especially for nature lovers.
For example, at Forest Park in Valparaiso, Steve Martinson, Valparaiso parks horticulture superintendent, pointed out the prairie and forest restoration projects that would interest nature enthusiasts. Down the hill is Ogden Gardens, a botanical garden that features a Japanese garden with a 22,000 gallon koi pond.
Livingston said Porter County -- with all its attractions, along with ample dining and lodging -- has what it takes to be a destination like Chicago, Indianapolis or New Buffalo, Mich.
"I believe Porter County can be that type of destination -- overnight, weekend, one-tank trip," Livingston said.