Dunes parks aiming to expand visitor experiences

2014-04-19T22:30:00Z 2014-04-21T09:15:12Z Dunes parks aiming to expand visitor experiencesLauri Harvey Keagle lauri.keagle@nwi.com, (219) 852-4311 nwitimes.com

Officials at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and Indiana Dunes State Park are focusing on expanding the public’s view of their parks as they ready the properties for the busiest season of the year.

"(Visitors) think of just the beach and the dunes," Bruce Rowe, spokesman for the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore said. "One of the things we try to do is let people know that we have 15,000 acres of park and a lot of those are wetlands and woodlands."

Brandt Baughman, park manager for Indiana Dunes State Park, said people have the same misconception about that park.

"We've always had an interpretive presence at the beach," Baughman said. "The last couple of years, we've made a concerted effort to do roving presentations. It lets them know there is a nature center here at the park and that we have 2,170 other acres besides the beach."

More than sand and surf

Rowe said the National Lakeshore, which spans parts of Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties, is one of the most biologically diverse national park properties in the nation, with some 1,400 plant species.

Among the important plants in the dunes region is the wild lupine, which serves as the sole food source for the endangered Karner blue butterfly in its caterpillar state.

In the spring, wildflowers bloom in the woodlands and in the summer, they bloom in the wetlands.

The diversity of the plants mirrors the diversity of the activities available within the National Lakeshore, Rowe said.

"More and more people are seeking hiking and biking and even kayaking opportunities on the lake," Rowe said. "While everyone wants to come out and see the beach and the dunes, we want to encourage them to spend some time seeing other parts of the park."

To help achieve that goal, the IDNL is launching a Passport to the Dunes program this summer. Through the program, people can pick up passports at the Dorothy Buell Memorial Visitor Center or the Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education, which will feature seven to 10 locations within the park.

Participants are encouraged to visit those sites and answer questions only available by physically going to the locations, Rowe said.

"It's not only for kids, but adults and families," Rowe said. "Just go out and hike a trail, see something different."

The program is tentatively scheduled to launch June 14.

In a similar effort, the state park partners with Indiana Dunes Tourism for the Beyond the Beach Discovery Trail, a program aimed at showcasing other features of the parks.

In May, the state park, in partnership with Indiana Dunes Tourism and Friends of Indiana Dunes, will debut the new Three Dune Challenge. The challenge will invite visitors to hike the park's most difficult trail, Trail 8, which includes the park's three highest dunes, Mount Jackson, Mount Holden and Mount Tom.

"It's such a cool hike and it's so challenging," Baughman said. "People don't realize there is that level of hiking here."

Anyone who completes the hike may go to the visitor's center to get commemorative items to mark their accomplishment, Baughman said.

A new bird observation platform up the dune ridge from the beach is scheduled to open in May as well.

Fair-weather friends

Rowe said much of the activity at the National Lakeshore is tied to the weather.

"Obviously, we get more visitors at the beach on hot summer days but if we have nice fall weather, we get people out on the trails as well," Rowe said.

The state park, unlike the national park, charges for parking and other amenities. The national park is barred from money-making efforts.

Every June weekend in 2013 was cold or rainy, Baughman said, which had a direct impact on visitors and income at the state park.

"We really felt the financial impact," Baughman said. "In July and August, we rebounded so at the end of the year, it didn’t impact our bottom line gravely."

Baughman said 2012 "was a banner year."

"It was so hot and dry and that's when people go to the beach," he said. "You'd think there would be a topping point where people would say it is just too hot, but that doesn't prove to be the case. The hotter the better."

The record-setting winter may have lingering effects on the weather in the dunes region through the summer months, federal officials said last month. Lake Michigan reached an all-time record low water level in January 2013, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last month said the lake is expected to be close to average levels this summer thanks to this winter's record cold and snow.

The near-average lake levels should be helpful to the environment, but could also cause extended cold temperatures into the spring and summer months with lingering ice cover. While cooler weather means fewer visitors at the two parks, it does not necessarily indicate a danger for the ecosystems there.

"Just because it's cooler, eventually the plants are going to come out in the order they do and flower in the order they do, just later than usual," said  Noel Pavlovic, research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey's Lake Michigan Ecological Research Station at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. "Things can be delayed, but I don't think we'll see drastic changes."

Baughman said for all the work park staff does to promote various aspects of the park, the ultimate driver is out of their hands.

"For all the hard work we do and efforts we make to get people to come to the park, when it comes right down to it, we live and die by the weather," Baughman said.

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