PORTER, Ind. — When Indiana Dunes jumped categories from national lakeshore to national park earlier this year, it joined the elite ranks of the country's most hallowed natural wonders, 61 sites whose esteemed members include Yellowstone and Yosemite.
The Dunes' climb up the National Park Service ladder is really just a matter of perception. The new title doesn't mean more money or resources get pumped into this 15,000-acre swath of marshes, prairies, oak savannas, forests and its namesake sand dunes scattered along a 15-mile stretch of Lake Michigan's southern shore.
But the name change certainly raises the profile of the Dunes, an already popular summer playground that takes on a mellower beauty in the fall. Throngs of beachgoers give way to hikers and motorists in search of fall colors and a serene escape into one of the most biologically diverse pieces of property in the National Park Service portfolio — all within an hour's drive of Chicago.
Here's a guide to an autumn getaway in and around the country's newest national park.
The top-notch Indiana Dunes Visitor Center in Porter makes a convenient jumping-off point for a couple of drives with divergent themes but one common denominator: plenty of pretty scenery.
One route skews toward the sand and sea, aka Lake Michigan, while the other ventures away from the coast to explore cute downtowns and winding country roads. You can find detailed, turn-by-turn directions for both at indianadunes.com/cars.
The roughly 20-mile-long "Dunes and Lake" drive includes a leafy segment of U.S. Route 12 as the tree-flanked highway slices through the park. Heading in the direction of Kemil Beach and cruising through the tiny town of Beverly Shores is a highlight of the route, which passes directly in front of five futuristic Century of Progress homes that debuted in 1933-34 at the Chicago World's Fair. Pull over in one of the 15-minute parking spaces for a closer look at these architectural gems.
If you're feeling peckish, make a pit stop at the nearby Goblin and The Grocer, a new breakfast, lunch and dinner joint with a fire pit on its expansive patio.
The slightly longer "Downtowns and Country Roads" drive spans about 30 miles. It hits downtown Chesterton and Valparaiso, home of the bespectacled, bow-tie wearing king of popcorn, Orville Redenbacher. (The annual Valparaiso Popcorn Festival is Sept. 7.) A statue of the snack-food legend sits in Central Park Plaza. Grab lunch around here — Meditrina Market Cafe is a solid option — before pulling out of town and heading to the best leg of the route, a series of narrow, rural roads that twist and turn under the shadow of towering trees as you make your way northeast of Valpo.
Need to stretch your legs? Both drives lead to Coffee Creek Watershed Preserve in Chesterton. The plant-rich preserve has a well-maintained network of trails, including a 5K loop around the perimeter. Its pavilion, anchored by a pair of massive stone fireplaces, also makes a cozy spot to picnic.
Want to leave the driving to someone else? The park offers ranger-led shuttle bus excursions Oct. 6 and 27. Call the visitor center at 219-395-1882 to reserve a spot on the free, two-hour tours.
Dozens of miles of trails snake through both the national park and the smaller but equally beautiful state park it surrounds.
Two trails stand out as must-dos in the fall, simply because they showcase such different sides of this national park that boasts more than 1,000 plant species.
One of the trails can be accessed 1.5 miles from the Visitor Center. The Bailly-Chellberg Loop, measuring a little over 2 miles long, wends through ravines carved thousands of years ago by glacial meltwater. In October, these gorges are typically packed with the yellow leaves of soaring sugar maples that light up like the sun — a striking contrast to the Virginia creeper that adds splashes of blood red to the sylvan surroundings.
Vibrant foliage isn't the only reason to lace up your boots; the route weaves in history, too. Visit the site of a nearly 200-year-old homestead that belonged to some of northwest Indiana's first settlers, the Baillys, who are buried nearby. Another point of interest is Chellberg Farm, where Swedish immigrants once worked the land. These days, the farm's denizens are chickens, turkeys, pigs, goats and cows, making this trail ideal for trekkers with kids in tow. The farm is the backdrop for the Apple Festival, Sept. 21-22, a free celebration of fall's favorite fruit.
On the far west side of the park, the Dune Succession Trail is half as long but easily twice as hard as the Bailly-Chellberg Loop, thanks to the seemingly endless set of stairs that leads to an overlook platform. The payoff is panoramic views to the south of changing leaves — black oak, shagbark hickory and basswood, to name a few — and Lake Michigan to the north.
You can get to this trail, as well as some other ones, by parking at West Beach in Gary. West Beach is the only part of the national park that charges a fee: $6 per car from Memorial Day to Labor Day. (For most of the year, visitors also pay a nominal fee to access Indiana Dunes State Park, home to the area's three tallest sand dunes. Climb them all — a collective 552 quadriceps-scorching feet — and get a commemorative sticker at the Visitor Center.)
Be prepared to get some sand in your shoes on the mile-long loop that traces the various stages of dune development. And although it doesn't qualify as fall colors, the view of Chicago's skyline less than 30 miles in the distance is pretty sweet any time of year.
The national park's Dunewood Campground has more than 60 sites, a few of which are wheelchair accessible, for $25 a night. Half of the campsites can be reserved online at recreation.gov. The other half are first-come, first-served. Spots get snapped up quickly by 9 a.m. on summer weekends, but demand typically softens in the fall. Facilities include restrooms and showers but no electrical hook-ups. Urbanites can even take a train to their camping adventure: The Beverly Shores stop on the South Shore Line that leaves out of downtown Chicago's Millennium Station is a quarter-mile north of the campground, which will stay open this year until Nov. 4.
Folks who like trains more than camping may want to bed down in Chesterton at Riley's Railhouse, an old freight-station-turned-bed-and-breakfast. Stay in a restored rail car or the main building, which is loaded with train memorabilia. You'd better really love trains because they'll be passing close by, and they're not necessarily quiet. Rates begin at $140.
In Valparaiso, a new B&B came on the scene last fall. Tucked away on a corner lot in the Historic District just a few blocks from the many restaurants, bars and boutiques downtown, Valparaiso Inn B&B opened in September after an elaborate renovation at this stately home that's over a century old. Five guest suites, starting at $160.