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WATCH NOW: Tourism booms at Indiana Dunes, spurred by pandemic, national park designation
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WATCH NOW: Tourism booms at Indiana Dunes, spurred by pandemic, national park designation

The National Park designation and then the coronavirus pandemic have driven record tourism this spring to the Indiana Dunes, already Northwest Indiana's top tourism draw and one of the Hoosier State's most visited attractions.

The economic impact of tourism to Porter County generated an estimated $62 million more in economic activity in 2019, after the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore was named America's 61st National Park, one of the country's newest.

And the numbers only went up with the onset of the pandemic as visitors sought natural getaways with built-in outdoor social distancing.

"The name change and pandemic had a significant amount of visitation," said Lorelei Weimer, executive director of Indiana Dunes Tourism. "There was so much media about the name change. Then the pandemic hit and outdoor recreation was on the top of the mind. The governor shut down much of the state, but the Indiana Dunes National Park and the Indiana Dunes State Park didn't shut down, which drove people to our destinations."

Hikers can stray from the 3-dune challenge and descend Mt. Holden to the Lake Michigan shoreline.

Record attendance

A record 9,567 people visited the Indiana Dunes Welcome Center in April of this year, up from 3,633 in April 2020, Weimer said. A record 7,622 people went in March, up from 2,340 in March 2020.

"What we discovered during the pandemic was that people started coming year-round even though winter is the off-season and spring is the second-worst for attendance, with summer being the strongest and fall the second strongest," she said. "But it didn't take nice weather to draw the beach people. We started to see a lot more people come for hiking and everything else the dunes offer."

Attendance numbers at the Indiana Dunes Visitors Center, an inexact but more broadly representative metric at 1215 Ind. 49 in Porter, saw an 83% increase in attendance in 2019 after the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore was named the Indiana Dunes National Park, a more-than-century-long goal that the National Park Service's first director, Stephen Mather, first advocated for in 1916 when he called for the creation of the Sand Dunes National Park along the south shore of Lake Michigan.

Lauren Bell, left, of Tacoma, Washington, and Caroline Vining, of Annapolis, Maryland, hike up the steps on Mt. Tom.

About 60% of the visitors came from outside the state of Indiana, with about 20% coming from the local Northwest Indiana area. Revenue at the neighboring Indiana Dunes State Park, which charges a gate admission, rose 21% during the same period.

International visitors have been growing, and visitors from Illinois grew last year, largely because of the shutdown in that neighboring state.

"Right now the majority of visitors are staying within the Midwest and driving in," Weimer said. "We're an eight-hour drive from much of the country's population."

The 3-dune challenge involves a great deal of trudging through sandy trails up and down three large dunes.

Not just beaches

Trails took off in popularity during the pandemic, including at Cowles Bog, the Three Dunes Challenge and Trail No. 9 at the Indiana Dunes State Park, which has been named one of the most scenic trails in the country by USA Today's 10Best.

"We've been amazed at how many Three Dunes Challenge T-shirts we've sold," Weimer said. "We were told don't waste your time trying to sell T-shirts to kids, but we've even been selling them to youth in the smallest sizes. People have gotten engaged on that trail and posted it. One hiker carried his older, dying dog up there. It means something to everyone. It's a challenge, and you can't beat the views."

Visit Michigan City LaPorte Executive Director Jack Arnett, whose tourism agency markets the east end of the Indiana Dunes National Park, said visitation was expected to increase this summer because of pent-up demand.

The Chicago skyline is easily visible from the top of the recently renamed "Diana's Dune."

"Everything was shut down last year, but now people have the opportunity to come back and stay," he said. "We have the third most vacation rentals in the state in LaPorte County. Come stay in one of our many bed-and-breakfasts."

The Indiana Dunes National Park saw a spike of more than 20% in attendance last year, National Park Service spokesman Bruce Rowe said.

"It was so much of a spike in attendance at the beaches we had to bring in state police and local police to patrol some of the beach areas and the parking lots," he said. "With the Chicago beaches reopening, we're not sure if we will see that again this year. But it wasn't just the beaches. We saw a spike on all the outdoor portions of the park. We definitely saw a spike in the trails, including the trails away from the beaches."

People flocked to places like the Dune Ridge Trail, the Baily Homestead, the Chellburg Farm and the Miller Woods.

"There's been a spike in all trails, even those not even connected to the beaches," Rowe said.

Building on momentum

Indiana Dunes Tourism, Porter County's tourism arm, has been trying to build on the momentum by adding new attractions like the Diana of the Dunes Dare at West Beach that shines a light on the history of the free-spirited beach-dweller Alice Gray and the Flower Quest that highlights the more than 1,000 types of flowers that can be seen while hiking through the Indiana Dunes.

"The biodiversity alone is one of the reasons without question that it should be a national park," Weimer said. "It's the fourth most biodiverse national park in the country."

A bee flies around and pollinates the flowers along the trail by Mt. Holden at the Indiana Dunes State Park.

The Indiana Dunes National Park, combined with the Indiana Dunes State Park it surrounds on all sides, draws about 3.7 million visitors a year. Weimer said that ranked 7th nationally among the national parks, just behind Yellowstone and just ahead of Acadia in Maine.

Even though other travel destination options have been opening up as coronavirus vaccinations increase, Dunes visitation is expected to remain elevated this year.

"The Indiana Dunes Birding Festival quickly sold out," Weimer said. "People have been pent up for more than a year, and they're anxious to get out."

Since so many people make visiting all the national parks a bucket-list item, the Indiana Dunes are positioned to draw more visitors, especially from the Midwest, East Coast and international markets. The top states for visitors were Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio in 2019.

Visitors also flocked in from more than 64 countries led by Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Italy. Canada surpassed Germany for the first time after the Dunes National Park designation, Weimer said.

"Indiana is the crossroads of America," she said. "It's very easy to get to. It's within eight hours of driving distance for something like 50% of the country's population, and people who fly into Chicago can visit to get the national park service."

Return trips

The number of Chicagoans visiting might decline this year since the city has opened up its beaches again. 

But the pandemic exposed more people to the majestic nature of the Indiana Dunes, and they're likely to return, Weimer said.

"This isn't a one-and-done destination like Williamsburg, where if you've seen it, you've seen it," she said. "There's so much to do with the beach, the hiking and the outdoors that it lends itself to repeat visitors who come back. People see they can't do it all in a day or a weekend."

Addison Graham, left, and Evan Hazzard, both of Sullivan, Illinois, rest on a tree at West Beach. The two journeyed north from central Illinoi…

Travel is projected to pick up nationally this year, and that trend could bring more people to the Indiana Dunes, benefiting nearby restaurants, hotels and shops, Weimer said.

And in addition to the tourism boost, the national park designation remains a point of pride for the Region, she said.

"This gives an opportunity for local kids from urban areas to have their first big national park experience they wouldn't otherwise be introduced to," she said. "When the national park status was under discussion, I got a letter from Chicago that was very disturbing to me — that seemed very snobbish. It was complaining steel mills cluttered our landscape. If anything, that shows nature and industry can co-exist.

"There's so much nature you can appreciate. People here have always understood we have something special, but the national park designation just shows how special it really is."


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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.

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