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Outdoor recreation in the Region received important play in its own backyard earlier this year with a national designation for one of its Lake Michigan parks.

The 15,000-acre Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore was re-designated in mid-February as America's 61st national park — and the first national park in Indiana.

"In case you haven't heard, the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is now the Indiana Dunes National Park — which is an exciting feather in our cap," said Dustin Ritchea, promotions director for Indiana Dunes Tourism.

Although Indiana Dunes National Park is one of the more popular places for outdoor recreation, there are countless other locations and activities throughout the Region including dozens of year-round offerings through the Lake County Parks, Porter County Parks and LaPorte County Parks departments.

In addition, a number of local communities, including Crown Point and East Chicago, last year opened new ice skating rinks for those wanting to enjoy winter-time recreational activities.

Hammond officials last November cut the ribbon on the city’s new 135,000-square-foot, $18 million sportsplex.

The Indiana Dunes is already Indiana's top tourist attraction with 3.6 million visitors in 2018, Ritchea said. Combine attendance at the state and national parks, and Indiana Dunes is expected to be the equivalent of the seventh most visited national park in the country after Yellowstone.

"It flip-flops with Brown County as No. 1 in the state," Ritchea said. "Now it will be in a very elite group nationally."

Indiana Dunes Tourism launched last year a series of Dunes 101 videos on YouTube and now is looking at ramping up international marketing to Germany and Japan. It also plans to market to pet owners, since the Indiana Dunes is pet-friendly, and to Chicagoans by letting them know they can take bikes on the South Shore Line to Indiana Dunes National Park.

"It's an outdoor adventure just 45 minutes southeast of Chicago," Ritchea said. "It's no longer a bucket trip destination. Now it's a repeat destination."

Other popular programs that are planned this year at the Indiana Dunes include a birding festival May 16-19 that bird enthusiasts are calling the "creme de la creme" of birding activities, since more than 350 species live or migrate through the area.

The Outdoor Adventure Festival, planned for Oct. 4-6, showcases the Region's natural and cultural significance through hiking, paddling, biking and other activities such as geocaching, photography, birding and orienteering, Ritchea said. Orienteering is an activity that requires navigational skills using a map and compass to navigate from point to point in diverse and usually unfamiliar terrain. Participants are given a topographical map, usually a specially prepared orienteering map, which they use to find control points

And guide books, explaining the various park offerings, were recently made available in 12 foreign languages, Ritchea said.

"Last year, we had visitors from 40 countries and all 50 states," Ritchea said.

Lake County Parks & Recreation

One of Lake County Parks & Recreation's newest offerings, opening in the late spring, will be Bellaboo's Imagination Garden, which will be added to Bellaboo's Play & Discovery Center, 2800 Colorado St., Lake Station, said Emily Trisler, communications specialist for Lake County Parks & Recreation.

"Imagine a garden designed for both children and grownups in mind," Trisler said.

The new outdoor offering will include a 60-foot custom-made pirate ship and multilevel decks to explore; a child-sized stream to splash in and caves full of surprises waiting to be uncovered.

"Additionally, performers have their own space in the garden as well. An amphitheater will be just right for kids to take center stage with their songs, dances and silly shows. The entire addition is around 3 acres, leaving plenty of space to run in, hills to roll down and plant lined paths to walk through," Trisler said.

Race the Park Challenge is being planned for May and will be geared to pre-teens, grades six through eight, Trisler said.

The program is a venture born out of the Legacy Foundation's On the Table discussions. The Legacy Foundation is Lake County's community foundation.

The challenge will take place at two Lake County Parks this spring on back-to-back Friday nights including from 5:30 to 7:30 on May 3 at Lemon Lake County Park in Crown Point and from 5:30 to 7:30 May 10 at Oak Ridge Prairie County Park in Griffith.

Middle school-aged kids will sign up as teams (pre-registration is required, and space is limited) and follow clues to race through the park. Along the way they’ll have to overcome various obstacles, and complete challenges that will make them think, work together, get a little messy, and show them parts of the park they may never have explored before.

The Lake County Parks Department added more guided hiking opportunities during the last two years because of its popularity, Trisler said.

Another 50 guided hikes are already on the spring/summer calendar for this year with more in the works in the fall.

The primary purpose of most hikes, is just to get out, go play, and explore the parks and trails we have to offer, but many also feature additional themes, Trisler said. Bird enthusiasts can join in birding-specific hikes, and utterfly and dragonfly lovers will also find hikes and hunts specific to their interests.

Ice skating, a park activity not widely known, has been offered at Deep River Waterpark in Merrillville, since 2005, Trisler said.

The skate area is great for young skaters and less-than-confident adults, as it not only offers the traditional rails to hold onto around the edge of the ice, but also a seating area in the center of the plaza. Skate aids are also available to help unsteady skaters stay upright. If skating is open, so is the concession area, Trisler said.

Porter County Parks and Recreation

There are some new offerings this year through the Porter County Parks and Recreation, said Brooke Allen, marketing and public relations coordinator for the Porter County Parks and Recreation Department.

These offerings include:

Gardening by the moon, offered on March 16 at Sunset Hill Farm, in which participants can learn about the history and science of the phases of the moon to plan and plant gardens.

Paint a Birdhouse, also offered in March 2 at Sunset Hill Farm, includes painting a a pre-made bird house to prepare for the return of spring birds.

Health in Your Backyard, offered Aug. 10 at Sunset Hill Farm, will be teaching about useful local weeds and going for an exploratory walk around Sunset Hill to identify them in the wild. Samples of seasonal beneficial weeds will be available and participants will receive a beneficial weed item to take home.

Finally, a pen and ink watercolor class will be offered Nov. 2 at Sunset Hill. Participants will be able to create their own pen and ink drawing and then enhance it using watercolor paints.

"Here in Porter County, we have a variety of great opportunities that will have you make the most of our natural beauty of our area and everything else we have to offer. Whether you want to go out and enjoy the great outdoors, be inspired by nature and see it grow on canvas or fire up the imagination of your students in class or out– there’s a recreational program for all occasions," Allen said.

LaPorte County Parks

LaPorte County Parks had some significant improvements at its parks last year, said LaPorte County Parks Superintendent Jeremy Sobecki.

"At Red Mill County Park we added a 200 foot floating trail across the wetland that is the headwaters of the Little Calumet River. This floating trail allows visitors to get out over the wetland to enjoy the view and observe wildlife," Sobecki said.

The floating trail also completed the trail system making it a loop instead of an out and back, Sobecki said.

Luhr County Park also benefited from the addition of approximately a 1/2 mile of new paved trail and the addition of 15 acres just south of the park, Sobecki said.

"The new land has been planted to native pollinator habitat and is accessible from our existing trails in the park," Sobecki said.

In Bluhm County Park, we extended Lincoln Memorial trail, a paved connector along 350 South. Now park visitors can get from Westville to Bluhm County Park on an accessible walking/bike trail without having to travel on a county road, Sobecki said.

Crown Point

Right before Christmas, Crown Point held the grand opening of the city's new skating rink inside Bulldog Park, a $11 million recreational facility at West and Joliet streets next to Wheeler Middle School, Mayor David Uran said.

The NHL-sized rink remained open during the winter months for skating and ice hockey.

The ice rink is part of Bulldog Park, a 2-acre event center that also will include splash pads, an amphitheater and band shell that will accommodate 1,500 people for concerts and theater performances.

Uran said the ice rink will be removed and the concrete pad will be used as a venue for the city's various festivals, including its Saturday farmers market and Thursday night vintage car cruises during the summer months, so the city will no longer have to close downtown streets to accommodate pedestrian crowds.

The city acquired the land for Bulldog Park about two years ago from the Crown Point Community School Corp., which previously used the land to park school buses.

"We were trying to figure out a way to captivate the audience especially in the winter months," Uran said.

Interestingly enough, Uran said he came up with the idea while sitting down to eat lunch with a colleague.

Uran said he scribbled his ideas on a napkin.

"Eighteen months later, the idea written on the napkin became a real project," Uran said.

Bulldog Park is still under construction but is projected to be completed in April or May.

East Chicago

The city of East Chicago late last year also officially unveiled a 60-foot outdoor ice skating rink at MacArthur Golf Course, 4000 Indianapolis Blvd., during a special December ceremony.

Opening day included an appearance by an ice skating Santa Claus, and honor students from East Chicago Central High School were among the first allowed to enter the rink and skate.

Mayra Acosta, East Chicago's director of parks and recreation, said there has been ice skating in various city parks over the years, but never an actual rink that offers skate rentals.

She said the rink will help fill a void in cold weather recreation activities.

"We here at the city of East Chicago don't have much to do during the winter outdoors," Acosta said.

She said the rink would be open through March, weather permitting.

Hammond

Hammond officials last November cut the ribbon on the city’s new 135,000-square-foot, $18 million sportsplex that took over the majority of the land that used to be home to the Woodmar Shopping Center at 6630 Indianapolis Blvd. in the city’s Woodmar section.

The Hammond Sportsplex has six basketball courts that can be converted into 10 volleyball courts on its north side, two regulation-sized soccer fields that can double as an indoor baseball field on its west side, six indoor batting cages, an elevated, quarter-mile walking track and an observation deck where people can watch events from above. There is also a common area that can be used for community events, a concession area and restrooms/changing rooms.

Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. said the facility is for Hammond and Chicagoland residents Mondays through Thursdays and on weekends he expects it to be packed for tournaments.

General Manager Jim Taillon said the sportsplex has already been booked every weekend through mid-June. He said those bookings include local, regional and national events.

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