Most of my columns have focused on some of the lesser-known places to enjoy nature, like Kankakee Sands and Pinhook Bog.
Today, I’m featuring the 2,182-acre Indiana Dunes State Park, which is not exactly a secret after being named recently as one of USA Today’s 10 Best State Parks (out of more than 6,000 nationwide).
But what you may not know is how to best enjoy the park.
First of all, the entrance fee is $5 per vehicle ($10 for out-of-state visitors), so if you plan to visit multiple times each year, consider buying a $40 annual pass ($60 nonresident).
My favorite times to visit are spring and fall, because the temperatures are mild, there are fewer bugs and there are fewer people. That’s when I most enjoy a hike through the woods. However, summer is my favorite time to walk along the beach or just hang out. The pavilion along the beach serves up food if you get hungry.
Winter is the time to cross-country ski, snowshoe or head to the shore to see the shelf ice formations.
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Weekdays are the least crowded times, but parking is plentiful most weekends. The only times I steer clear (or arrive very early to get a parking spot) are Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day weekends.
My favorite hiking trail is Trail 9, which starts out in the woods and then takes you on a ridge overlooking Lake Michigan. Ever since the park kicked off The 3 Dune Challenge in 2014, I also find myself doing that trail a lot.
The challenge can be done any day of the year. To complete it, you must run or hike a special 1.5-mile course, climbing Mount Jackson (elevation 176 feet), Mount Holden (184 feet), and Mount Tom (192 feet).
For a flatter stroll, check out trails 10 and 2. All the trails kick off at the Nature Center, which is also the site of neat exhibits and regular programming.
Next to the Nature Center is the campground, which features 140 state-of-the-art sites with water and electricity. But you’ll want to reserve a campsite early by calling (877) 622-6746 or by visiting www.camp.IN.gov.
For general information about the park and a schedule of activities, visit www.in.gov/dnr/parklake/2980.htm. The park is on Indiana Dunes Tourism’s Beyond the Beach Discovery Trail (www.beyondthebeachdiscoverytrail.com) because it’s among one of the area’s top natural, cultural and historical assets.