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Looking For Summer Fun? Five Top Activities At The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore

Pitcher Plant. Source: Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Pitcher Plant found in Pinhook Bog. (Credit: National Park Service)

Pitcher Plant. Source: Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Pitcher Plant found in Pinhook Bog. (Credit: National Park Service)

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By John Dodge

CHICAGO (CBS) — My biggest wish for Father’s Day was to see my children at peace and happy.

Along with some summer fun for dad, too.

One of the best ways for my family to achieve this blissful state and share in the joy of good family time is to get everybody outside.

This past Sunday, we drove to Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore for a day of mellow adventure.

Best gift ever.

One doesn’t need a special occasion to visit the park, which is just east of Gary–or just more than an hour’s drive from downtown Chicago.

Here are five (there are many more) things to do at the Dunes:

1) Visitor’s Center: It is always a good idea to start here. (Take exit 26/State Road 49 North from Interstate 80-94). Be sure to ask a ranger for a map and recommendations for a hike. Also be sure to watch a short movie about the park and browse the exhibits. My kids have a National Parks Passport book, and they got their passports stamped there as well.

2) Junior Ranger: Children under the age of 13 can become a Junior Ranger by completing an activity book, which is available at the visitor’s center.

The activities are based on the child’s age, and they encourage families to select places to visit within the park.

Upon completion, the kids raise their right hand and are given the Junior Ranger oath by a park ranger. They also get a badge, patch and certificate.

Ben, 12, and Julianna, 9, have done this program at a half-dozen National Parks. (The photo shows them after getting their ranger badges at Yosemite.) It is a great way to get them engaged.

Junior Rangers Julianna and Ben.

Junior Rangers Julianna and Ben.

3) Pinhook Bog: This is a real treat. It is the only quaking bog in the entire state of Indiana, with natural features you won’t find anywhere else.

For example, we saw two types of carnivorous plants. They don’t eat people, but feast on insects.

Another interesting fact: Because the water has a high acidity level, bacteria cannot thrive in the water. So, any animal (or any person) who falls in and doesn’t make it out alive doesn’t decompose. The ranger we spoke with said no people have ever been discovered in the bog, but they do have examples of other bodies found in bogs in Europe. Some are believed to be hundreds of years old.

The bog is separate from the main park and is only open certain times of the year. To access the bog’s features, visitors walk and a floating plastic path on the water. Check with the rangers at the visitor’s center for directions. If it is open, it is worth the drive.

4) Dune Ridge Trail: Among all the National Parks, the Indiana Dunes ranks No. 7 in terms of ecological diversity.

The dunes have sand dunes, obviously.

In the short, moderate hike, we were able to view marshlands, forests, and dune grasses. We even saw evidence of a controlled burn, which eliminated non-native plants and the base of oak trees. In its place were thriving ferns.

5) Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk: This area opened in 2008 and was formerly used by a steel corporation as settling ponds for industrial by-product and a sewage treatment facility.

Now, visitors can take an easy stroll along paved paths to the beach. There is a very clean pavilion with a snack bar. There is also a fishing pier along a 900 foot breakwater.

What about the other beaches? That, of course, is the big draw here. There are 15 miles of sandy shoreline and plenty of beaches to choose. Ask a ranger for recommendations. If you are looking for a good book to bring to the beach, here are some recommendations for you.

The closest beach to the visitor’s center is the large beach within the Indiana State Park and there is a $5 to $7 entrance fee. There is a large parking lot at this location, while parking can be limited at the other beachers.

The state park is actually in the middle of the national park. The national park is totally free.

Why did you guys skip Mt. Baldy? Unfortunately the highest dune in the park remains closed.

There is much, much more to see.

Pick something that works for your family and enjoy a day of peace and happiness.