Dunes visit yields a hiking lesson

Dunes visit yields a hiking lesson
Aerial view of Indiana Dunes with the tallest dune, Mount Baldy

My friend Sandie and I made the 40-mile trip to the Indiana Dunes National Park last Friday to hike. Researcher that I am, I read about hiking at the park and chose the 4½-mile Cowles Bog Trail, ranked Indiana’s best by AllTrails. It is strenuous enough to make a couple of seventysomethings feel proud of finishing.

Afterwards we stopped at the park visitor center and watched its film about the dunes. Looking at the close-up images of birds and wildflowers and aerial views of the dunes, we noted how much we’d missed seeing. It was the wrong season for many wildflowers — but surely not for migrating birds. Perhaps gazing down to avoid tripping on tree roots kept us from observing. We were aware of steep climbs on sand, but our perspective was the few feet in front of us, not a panorama like you see in the photo above.

In the visitor center we learned that all stages of dunes plant succession can be seen at Indiana Dunes. Nearest the lake are grass-covered dunes that are still active — they can be blown by the wind. Going inland, woody shrub vegetation is found, then pine trees and finally oak forests that stabilize older dunes.

I told a visitor center staffer that until we got close to the beach, the hike seemed much like a walk in the woods that we could have taken closer to home. Lovely woods, but not the unusual scenery we sought. Changes in the ecosystem along the trail were too subtle to register. The staffer advised us to drive a lakeside road and to stop at an observation deck over a marsh where birds are visible. We saw hills of sand as we drove around but by then were too tired to get out of the car at the marsh.

Back home, I read that the Indiana Dunes are the most ecologically diverse area in Indiana and one of the most diverse in the country. The variety of habitats and the proximity to water make the 15-mile shoreline an ideal feeding and resting environment for migrating land and water birds, and more than 350 species have been observed. The plant diversity is likewise rich, with more than 1,100 flowering species and ferns, prairie grasses, bog plants, pine and oak trees, and rare algae. The website indianadunes.com boasts that the dunes have more varieties of orchids than Hawaii.

I decided that hiking websites weren’t the ideal resources to consult in planning the day trip. Seasoned hikers might consider a trail “the best” for reasons other than scenery, such as difficulty and distance. Cowles Bog is rated the park’s most strenuous trail. We could have chosen an easier hike with more obvious dunes attractions. The flat Great Marsh Trail is known for its proximity to birds, and the moderately difficult Dune Ridge Trail for sweeping views. Combined, they are only two miles. As the National Park Service advises on a web page, “You won’t miss out on the spectacular views, wildlife sightings, and connection with nature by choosing an easier trail for your adventure.”

For my next hike in a national or state park, I’ll choose a trail primarily for what can be seen along the way. Hikers’ recommendations will be evaluated with scenery as well as difficulty in mind. While hiking, I hope to remember to pause to look around, especially if I’ve been gazing down to avoid tripping.

Fully appreciating the dunes may require multiple visits to different sections at different times of year. Before I visit again, I’m going to watch the NPS’s ranger-led virtual tours to get a better idea of what to look for, and where.

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  • I went to climb the Diana of the Dunes Trail back in May and the views were gorgeous. There were different clusters of wildflowers on the side of each dune we made it over- here I thought we were just going to climb the once but apparently dunes have a lot of climbs.

  • I'll keep that in mind. Spring is likely the best time to see wildflowers.

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