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Winter wonderland: Indiana's dunes offer a variety of winter activities

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The shores along Lake Michigan are home to a variety of cures for cabin fever.

Whether a peaceful walk to check out the majestic shelf ice is just what the doctor ordered, or a more adventurous outing like sledding down Devil’s Slide is more your style, there’s something for everyone as long as you don’t mind the frigid temperatures that often accompany Midwest winters.

Here are six ideas on how to take advantage of what the Indiana Dunes national and state parks have to offer this snowy season.

1. Hit the trails

With more than 60 miles of trails zigzagging through the Indiana Dunes National Park and Indiana Dunes State Park, there is plenty to explore year-round. During the winter, however, many trails are transformed into a highway for cross-country skiers.

Bruce Rowe, supervisory park ranger and public information officer for the national park, said he recommends three trails in particular for cross-country skiing: the Glenwood Dunes Trail System, the Tolleston Dunes Trail System and the Paul H. Douglas Trail through Miller Woods.

The Glenwood Dunes Trail System features interconnected loops through gently rolling wooded dunes, ranging from less than a mile to nearly 15 miles in length, Rowe said. Skiers can access this trail system either from the Glenwood Dunes or Calumet Dunes parking lots.

“Tolleston Dunes Trail System is a 2.9-mile trail that winds amid varied habitats ranging from oak savanna to wetlands, and is a good choice for advanced skiers,” he said. “There are some difficult hills that can be tricky to navigate.”

The Paul H. Douglas Trail provides a one-mile easy loop with a small hill to navigate. Skiers can access the harbor belt, which is a former train track, from this loop. The harbor belt is a longer, flat east-west trail, Rowe said.

In addition to cross-country skiing, these trails can be used for hiking and snowshoeing as well, though users are asked to walk to the right of the cross country ski tracks when possible to maintain the trail for skiers, Rowe said.

“We recommend that there be at least a 3-inch snow base for skiing or snowshoeing,” he said.

2. Take on an epic challenge

Winter enthusiasts who want an epic challenge can hike the “3 Dune Challenge,” which involves a legendary climb up the three tallest sand dunes at the Indiana Dunes State Park.

“It’s 1.5 miles of tough trail with 552 vertical feet,” said Michelle Senderhauf, communications director for Indiana Dunes Tourism.

Despite it’s difficulty, the challenge is in fact easier to master during the cold, she said.

“The hike is easier during the winter months when the sand is cold and easier to climb on,” Senderhauf said.

3. Embrace your inner child

Whether you have kids or simply want to feel like a kid, sledding will do the trick.

The Indiana Dunes State Park allows sledding at just one of its dunes — Devil’s Slide. The slope runs from a high point atop the natural dunes down to the lakeshore.

Two years ago, the National Lakeshore designated a sledding hill at the park’s West Beach area.

“This spot, located behind the picnic area, has a large open sandy slope without any dune plants growing on it,” Rowe said. “It is the only area open in the national park for sledding to protect park resources and to keep visitors safe.”

4. Admire the Arctic-like shelf ice

One of the most beautiful sites along Lake Michigan in the winter is the shelf ice. Taking on an arctic appearance, the lake forms ice when the surface freezes. Large platforms of ice can be seen from the beach, where Rowe says visitors should remain.

“Be sure to enjoy this view from the safety of the shoreline and never venture out onto the ice,” he said.

Despite its appearance, the ice on Lake Michigan is not solid, Rowe says.

“In fact, due to the way it is formed through wave action, the shelf ice has numerous air pockets hidden beneath a snowy cover,” he said. “A person can easily fall through the ice and into frigid water.”

5. Attend an event

While the national park usually offers ranger-led programs and hikes on the weekends during the winter, this year, the park will not due to the difficulty in social distancing, Rowe says.

However, the state park will host a few events through the winter, though some are by reservation only.

Upcoming events at the state park include a High Dunes Hike on Dec. 12, a J.D. Marshall Shipwreck History Hike on Dec. 20 and a self-guided Christmas Eve Morning Stroll on Dec. 24.

More information about these and other events can be found at in.gov/dnr.

6. Take advantage of free days

Visitors to the Indiana Dunes State Park can enjoy an added perk during the week.

The state park waives its admission fee on weekdays during the winter, Senderhauf said. This offers the perfect opportunity to take advantage of many of the activities listed above, as well as others such as wildlife viewing and birdwatching — two additional winter activities popular in the park during the winter months.

Admission to the national park is generally free year-round, though an amenity fee is charged per car for the West Beach area during the summer months. However, during the winter months, there is no charge to enter West Beach where the sledding area is located, Rowe said.

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