Terra Galleria Photography

Indiana Dunes: National Park Diversity Beyond the Lakeshore

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Indiana Dunes National Park ranks a respectable 13th of all the 61 national parks by number of visits (averaged over the decade 2008-2017). Most of those visits last a few hours: to be precise, according to NPS statistics, an average of 3h 15 min – the 8th shortest. Those hours are in general spent at the beach. Because those beaches are busy in summer, seeing them deserted and covered with snow and ice was already an experience that went beyond the ordinary, as most people who visit Indiana Dunes miss the incredible shelf ice. However, there is much more to the park than the lakeshore, and this was one of the justifications for re-designating Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore as Indiana Dunes National Park – national parks have multiple resources.

The Dunes

First, the namesake dunes. They are not as sculptural as those found in the desert, because they are mostly covered by vegetation. I saw grass-covered dunes, shrub-covered dunes, pine-forested dunes, and oak-forested dunes. Although low grass-covered dunes line all the beaches, there are only a few high dunes located near the shore. The 1-mile loop Dune Succession Trail at West Beach is possibly the best short hike in the park, as the trail illustrates the four stages of dune development, and due to the proximity to Lake Michigan, its 250 stair steps lead to an excellent high view of the lake and of active dunes. About two hours after sunrise, the sun was high enough to illuminate the landscape, yet low enough to create interplay between light and shadows. I timed my photograph for the moment when the shadow of the ridge fell entirely within a patch of sand, resulting in an unbroken shape.

The most spectacular dune in the park is Mount Baldy. Its name indicates that it is a bald dune, with sparse vegetation opening up sweeping views over the lake. Rising 126 feet off the beach, it is one of the tallest lakefront dunes anywhere, and it is also the most active in the park, burying black oak trees as it moves 4 feet per year.

Mount Baldy was the park’s main attraction, however, following an incident in 2013 when a boy disappeared into a mysteriously formed hole (he was rescued), it was closed for safety and stabilization. Since 2017, dune visits are limited to ranger-led hikes. The half-mile trail that leads around the dune to the beach has no such restrictions. As the lake side of the dune is north facing, snow from the day before still lingered, contrasting with the dune grass.

There is no need to go beyond the parking lot to see the striking inland side of the dune. In fact it is on the verge of covering that lot. To leave some of the mystery of the scene intact, instead of depicting the whole dune, I focussed on a small area where trunks and shadows created a graphic composition of lines.


The redesignation proposal emphasized that more than 1,100 native plant species make the park the fourth most diverse plant ecosystem, only behind the much larger Great Smoky Mountains, North Cascades, and Grand Canyon. That diversity is directly linked to the dunes. As the last great continental glacier retreated 12,000 years ago, fluctuations in water level of the newly-created lake resulted in successive series of shorelines and dunes. The space between the dunes was filled with wetlands. The juxtaposition of the dry environments of the dunes and wetlands, has created diverse habitats. Moreover, the glacier that left the dunes, flowing from the north, transported several northern species to the region. It is a park where you can see orchids, carnivorous plants, and cacti in a small area. It can appear difficult to capture that biodiversity in the middle of the winter, but even the bare vegetation forms conveyed some sense of it.

Fresh snow fell during my visit, and although you’d think that it would hide the land’s diversity, I thought that on the contrary, it helped outline the vegetation. For instance, by blanketing the ground in white, it highlighted the remnants of autumn color in the leaves. The featureless blank sky, usually the bane of landscape photography, helped to that effect. I made it part of the composition by echoing its line with an angled line of snow in the foreground.


There are 14 trail systems with lengths from half a mile to over 6 miles, and they allowed me to sample the diversity of environments in the park beyond the beaches and sand dunes: prairies, globally rare oak savannas, wetlands, forests, and rivers. The bill that redesignated Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore as Indiana Dunes National Park also renamed Miller Woods Trail as Paul H. Douglas Trail. The 3.4-mile round-trip hike is a good introduction to the diversity of the park, as it winds through several of those habitats. The rarest of them is the black oak savanna, in which oak forests meet western tallgrass prairie. Only 0.02% of this globally endangered habitat remains in the Midwest.

The 4.7-mile Cowles Bog Trail is the most rugged and scenic trail in the park, and also its most diverse, combining expansive wetlands, some of the steepest dunes in the park, and Lake Michigan. Starting at the Greenbelt Trailhead south of the Cowles Bog Trailhead provides a more open view of the namesake wetland where Henry Cowles from the nearby University of Chicago conducted his pioneering work that helped establish ecological science in the early 1900s – he literally put “ecology” into the vocabulary. Walking with photographer Kyle Telechan from the Chicago Tribune, I whined with him about how the markers left by scientists marred the atmosphere of the photos. However, looking back at the photographs, I found them to be a useful reminder of the legacy of scientific inquiry that took place in the park, and also that the area is still a rich ground for study today. For that reason, I included one of them in the Indiana Dunes chapter of Treasured Lands.

I wish that the new designation will make beachgoers realize that there is a full national park to explore there, and that it will be the start for a rewarding journey through many of them. While the beach and sand dunes will always be the park’s primary draw for the public, I hope that these images will inspire you to experience more of our latest national park, even in winter!

More images of Indiana Dunes National Park

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