After years of campaigning, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is officially the 61st national park and the state's first national park.
"I am heartened that because of the support of our U.S. Senators, the entire Indiana Congressional delegation and numerous Northwest Indiana organizations, we have successfully titled the first National Park in our state," Democratic U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky said in a statement. "This action provides our shoreline with the recognition it deserves, and I hope further builds momentum to improve open and public access to all of our region's environmental wonders."
The designation change was included in the Fiscal Year 2019 Omnibus Appropriations legislation, the same legislation that included a little more than $1 billion in funding for fencing along the border with Mexico.
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore was established in 1966, the result of an effort that started in 1899. Newspaper articles, popular scientific surveys and political hearings were focused on the push to make the dunes a protected and preserved space. In 1916, the same year the National Park Service (NPS) was established, the first NPS director, Stephen Mather, made a serious effort to make the dunes a national park. However, once America became involved in World War I, the country's priorities shifted and "Save the Dunes!" became "First Save the Country, Then Save the Dunes!"
After two world wars and the Great depression, momentum to make the dunes a national park stalled. Indiana established Sand Dunes State Park in 1926, though the park was considerably smaller than a national park. Efforts to revive the park's status culminated in the national lakeshore designation in 1966, the result of legislative deal making by then-Illinois Sen. Paul H. Douglas, who had campaigned tirelessly for the dunes in Indiana to receive protected status.
That authorization put the lakeshore at only 8,330 acres of land and water, but the site was expanded in 1976, 1980, 1986 and 1992, totaling some 15,000 acres of marshes, prairies, bogs, forests and dunes.
The shift to a national park is largely a cosmetic one. Funding and operations are not expected to change, and the Indiana Dunes State Park, which is surrounded by land operated by the NPS, will continue to be operated by the state.
Instead, the national park designation is expected to raise the dunes' profile on state, regional, national and international levels.
"It seems like a relatively small change, but a lot of punch is packed into the word park," South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority President and CEO Speros Batistatos told the Northwest Indiana Times. "People know what a national park is and what experiences to expect at a national park. They have finally aligned our magnificent lakefront to the name it deserves. More people will come visit the dunes, because to the traveling public a national park is more desirable than a national monument or a national heritage site."
The dunes attracted 3.6 million visitors in 2018, and with the attendance combined with the state park, Indiana Dunes National Park could be the seventh most visited national park in the country.
Getting to the park is relatively easy, including via public transit. The South Shore Line, which runs from downtown Chicago to South Bend International Airport, has a Dune Park stop on its route. Bikes, which are allowed in the park, are allowed on South Shore Line trains from April through October.
"It's an outdoor adventure just 45 minutes southeast of Chicago," Indiana Dunes Tourism Promotions Director Dustin Ritchea said to the NWI Times. "It's no longer a bucket trip destination. Now it's a repeat destination."
And repeat visits are a must at this new national park if you want to see it all. Natural areas include prairies, bogs, marshes and a heron rookery hardwood forest with hiking trails. There are 14 trail systems in the park that will take you through all of these natural areas. Camping and picnic opportunities also abound in the park.
Those who enjoy a little history with their nature can visit the Joseph Bailly homestead (pictured above. Bailly was a pioneer fur trader who established a trading post near what is now Porter, Indiana. The farms and cemetery Bailly established are also in the park. You can also visit houses constructed as part of the 1933 World's Fair. This includes the House of Tomorrow, a three-story steel-framed house that has an airplane hangar on the first floor because it was assumed everyone would have airplanes in the future.
If you want something a bit more interactive, visit the park in early March for the annual Maple Sugar Time festival. The festival itself is free, and you can even tap some syrup sap yourself.
Perhaps the biggest, or maybe tallest, draw at the park is a dune. Mount Baldy is a 126-foot-tall sand dune on the southern shore of Lake Michigan. It's considered a "living dune" as it moves or shifts about 4 feet every year. While you can't hike up the dune without an NPS guide for the safety of the dune and yourself, the beach around Mount Baldy is open to the public. It may not offer the views of the Willis Tower in Chicago, but it's still something to see.