Under four hours going west from Detroit, the Indiana dunes indianadunes.com are just across the Michigan border off of Interstate 94. The lakeshore area includes 15 miles of coastline along the southern end of Lake Michigan, letting visitors feel as though they're vacationing on a faraway beach. September is an ideal time to visit Indiana's dune country when the water is still warm, the crowds have thinned and the temperatures are mild.
Hitting the beach
In all, the dune area includes two parks merging seamlessly into one – the 2,000-acre Indiana Dunes State Park is tucked inside the larger Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore for a total of 15,000 acres of forests, prairies, wetlands and beaches. There are several different beaches, but the most popular is West Beach on the far south and west side of the coastline. Lifeguards are stationed along this beach (just till Labor Day), which has a bathhouse for changing along with picnic tables, shelters, grills and plenty of parking. From the beach, you can make your way to the Dune Succession Trail to a lake overlook – it's worth the 0.9-mile hike for the view, promise! Fees to enter the state park are $10 per car; parking in the West Beach area is $6 per vehicle (there are other free beach access points, but parking is limited).
At the beach, the kids are likely to spend most of their time playing in the sand and then running in the waves. But you can also rent kayaks, canoes, fishing boats and even powerboats at Miller's Marine Center to get out onto the lake. Don't be surprised if you see a scuba diver or two – or snorkelers – in the area. About 600 yards off the shore from the Indiana Dunes State Park pavilion rests the wreckage of the J.D. Marshall, a 154-foot ship that sank in a squall in 1911.
Hiking the dunes
There are miles of trails to explore in the dune area. But if you have to pick only one, make time to take the 3Dune Challenge (Trail 8). A special course inside the Indiana Dunes State Park runs one-and-a-half miles and traipses through Mount Jackson (elevation 176 feet), Mount Holden (184 feet) and Mount Tom (192 feet). The trail, which takes about an hour, includes strenuous 40-degree slopes and plenty of sand to give your legs a workout.
More leisurely trails stretch throughout the state park. Grab a trail map at the park's gatehouse or nature center to find what fits your style. The easiest is Trail 2, which runs along a boardwalk and over a marsh. Besides hiking, help your kids understand how the dunes were formed by working your way through the aforementioned nature center, which houses hands-on exhibits and regularly scheduled interpretative programs. It's open 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday and 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday-Sunday; 9 a.m.-4 p.m. daily starting Sept. 2. There's no charge.
Bison, trains and more
Thirty minutes south of the dunes in Hobart, your kids can get an up-close view of the massive American bison (yes, we're talking buffaloes!). The Broken Wagon Bison farm is a family-owned property that's home to more than 70 of the large mammals. Walk-in tours are available on Saturdays promptly at either 11 a.m. or 2 p.m. through September for $10 per person.
Nearby, another one-of-a-kind activity is the Taltree Arboretum Railway Garden in the town of Valparaiso. Your kids will marvel as the model train winds its way through tracks that pass by mountains, canyons, waterfalls and 30 handcrafted bridges. Admission is $10/adults and kids ages 13-17, $5/ages 5-12 and free/under 4. Open 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Six fun activities in September in Porter County
- Take a cruise: In your car, that is. Along US Highway 30 in Valparaiso, 6-9 p.m. Fridays in the summer, car and motorcycle enthusiasts show off their vehicles. Live music too. Catch the last event Sept. 5.
- Show your muscle: On the last Saturday of the month, catch a cruise in Thomas Centennial Park in Chesterton. The 5-9 p.m. event has vintage, sport and muscle cars. Family activities, too.
- Shop at a European market: Saturdays through October, the Duneland Chamber of Commerce holds the Chesterton European Market where you can find shopping, entertainment and fresh and prepared foods available for purchase. Times are 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
- Celebrate popcorn: Saturday, Sept. 6 is the 36th annual Valparaiso Popcorn Festival in downtown Valparaiso. Held 7 a.m.-6:30 p.m., it includes 200-plus arts/crafts booths, kids games, food and family fun.
- See a show: Open weekends in September, the 49'er Drive-In Theatre shows first-run movies at dusk.
- Go batty: Visit the Hoosier Bat Company to see how baseball bats are made. Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. Tours are free.