While it’s true that West Beach is one of the more popular destinations at the Indiana Dunes, it’s also true that you lose the crowds rather easily once you escape to the 3.6 miles of hiking trails that loop through the area.
Located just 40 miles southeast of Chicago, West Beach is a perfect spot for a quick escape from the city. After you’re done climbing big dunes and scouting out water birds and unusual plants, you just might be compelled to pull out the picnic basket and change into your swim trunks (if the weather is warm enough, that is).
If you’re a first-time visitor to the dunes, you’ll soon learn that this park occupies a very unlikely piece of real estate. Who would have thought to put a good-sized national park smack dab in the middle of an area with the highest concentration of heavy industry in the nation? Well, in any case, I’m glad they did. And once you’re away from the beach, the nearby smokestacks tend to be forgotten.
Catch the hiking trail on the east side of the beach, and you’ll follow a long series of stairs and boardwalks that bring to mind the artwork of M.C. Escher. The stairs lead you to a series of high dunes topped with marram grass, jack pine, and cottonwood trees.
Coming off the dunes, the trail runs alongside a small lake fringed with cattails and blanketed with lily pads. Look for egrets, great blue herons, and kingfishers from the viewing deck alongside the trail.
Near where the trail crosses the park road, prickly pear cactuses grow in dense clusters; closer to the woods, milkweed plants and small sassafras trees push up through the sandy soil.
The final section of this trail climbs a dune ridge under a thick oak canopy. Small patches wetlands sit at the foot of some wooded ravines. Eventually, you’ll reach the top of the final dune for another spine-tingling view of the lake and the surrounding landscape. All that’s left now is running (or rolling) down the dune to the parking area below.
The National Park Service offers driving directions and a good map of the trail. During summer, the park charges an entrance fee for West Beach.
Learn more about hiking in the Chicago region by checking out 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Chicago, recently published in a second edition.
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