What has 15 miles of shoreland, more than 1,100 flowering plant species and ferns (including more native orchids than Hawaii), towering sand dunes, forests and more than 350 species of birds? It’s not a remote tropical island. It’s Indiana Dunes National Park on the southern tip of Lake Michigan in the heart of the Midwest.
There are four major dune complexes at the park, along with a 50-mile trail system and miles of beach perfect for swimming, strolling and sunning. And that’s just for starters.
Work has been afoot since 1899 to preserve this ecological marvel. A portion of today’s park became Indiana Dunes State Park in 1926 (a small state park remains), and Congress formally designated the area as the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in 1966. In the ensuing years, local groups and the National Park Service worked to pass bills that expanded the park to its current 15,000 acres. And in 2019, Congress designated it the 61st national park.
The result of that change has been even more visitation to an already popular destination. In 2018, before designation, the park service reported 1.8 million visitors; in 2021, that number jumped to 3.2 million—with $156.3 million in total spending.
We caught up with Sen. Rodney Pol Jr. (D) and Rep. Patricia Boy (D), whose districts include this national treasure, to ask what the park means to their constituents and learn about other attractions in the area.
Did you grow up near the park? What are your earliest memories of it?
Pol: My earliest memory was my mom taking me for the first time, and it blew my mind. We lived close enough that, when I got older, my friends and I could ride bikes over there. In the winter, it had the best sledding hills. We used to go to the Devil’s Slide. After a couple of runs, the snow and ice would melt and you would get a really solid runway. (Sometimes) you could get enough speed to almost go all the way to the water.
Congress authorized the park as a national lakeshore in 1966, then designated it a national park in 2019. Has that made a difference to your districts?
Boy: Attendance has really grown. In part, that’s because we’re centrally located and easier for people to reach than the big parks out West. And there are a lot of people with National Park Passports who want to come and get their passport stamped.
Pol: Everyone wants to visit one of the newest national parks. And it’s not just out-of-staters. The Dunes is the only national park in Indiana, so more Hoosiers have started to check it out as well.
Do you have a favorite spot you think people should visit?
Boy: It’s an amazing place: wetlands, trails and a great visitor center. But a lot of people really don’t know what Lake Michigan looks like; they think it’s a smaller lake. Years ago, my husband and I took some out-of-town visitors to see the lake, and they were so impressed they didn’t want to leave.
What else is there for visitors to do after they’ve spent a day at the park?
Pol: Don’t leave until you see a Dunes sunset. There’s nothing like it. Then visit the Dunes Pavilion, which has been renovated and has some great restaurants. If you’re a boater, you can go to Marina Shores at Dune Harbor. If you come during a weekend, you definitely should check out the European Market in Chesterton (held every Saturday, May through October). And consider camping; there’s nothing like getting up in the morning back in the woods, and then walking down to the water first thing.
Boy: They should see Washington Park in Michigan City. We think it has the best beach on the lake, with really fine sand and the state’s only working lighthouse.
Joe Rassenfoss is a Denver-based freelance writer.
“My District” gives NCSL members a chance to talk about life in the places they represent, from the high-profile events to the fun facts only the locals know.
The responses have been edited for length and clarity.