Paradoxes are the name of the game at the most biologically diverse area in the National Park system, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.
Here, along the southern tip of Lake Michigan, towering windblown sand dunes crash into the topographic monotony of the Midwest. An easy loop along a 20-mile patchwork of trails lets you breathe it all in at a leisurely pace. Start with the fern-lined Ly-co-ki-we Trail, which begins in sandy forest at the Dorothy Buell visitor center, then weaves through wetlands on its way to the Dune Park Railroad Station. Accompanied by the crescendo of cicadas, you'll likely see herrings and kingfishers in the nearby sea of cattails.
At the station, briefly catch the Calumet Bike Trail headed to the Cowles Bog Trail. Named for the man known as the "father of ecology," the trail demonstrates Dr. Henry Cowles' early plant succession observations. As you hike, you'll be transported back through time as large black oaks devolve into wild grape or sand cherry shrubs, and finally into the original dune colonizers, marram sand grasses.
The biology lesson ends at the Lake Michigan beachfront, a 30-mile strip of giant dunes and peacock-blue water stretching northward. You'll hike only a 3-mile section of beach, so savor the experience and soak your feet in the lake before finishing the walk barefoot.
After climbing the 192-foot vertical sandbox known as Mt. Tom, head for the state park campground. For privacy, pitch your tent at the base of the dunes.
In the morning, Trail 9 takes you through the 1,500-acre Dunes Nature Preserve and up the back of the gigantic "Beachhouse Blowout," where a bowl was carved out of the sand by the elements. The trail continues through an oak-sheltered area along dunes high above the lake, then swoops down through aptly named "Paradise Valley." After an invigorating swim at Kemil Beach, you'll be refreshed and ready for the final stretch back to the visitor center.
Poet Carl Sandberg had it right: "Those dunes are to the Midwest what the Grand Canyon is to Arizona and the Yosemite to California. They constitute a signature of time and eternity."
QUICK TAKE: Indiana Dunes
DRIVE TIME: The Dunes are 45 miles (1 hour) southeast of downtown Chicago, 165 miles (3 hours) north of Indianapolis, and 235 miles (4 hours) west of Detroit.
THE WAY: From I-94, take IN 49 north straight into Indiana Dunes State Park. Or turn off IN 49 onto US 12 to get to the Dorothy Buell Memorial Visitor Center and the Dunewood Campground.
TRAILS: The national lakeshore contains about 40 miles of trails.
ELEVATION: Nada, but dune hiking can be arduous.
CAN'T MISS: Trail 9 through the Dunes Nature Preserve offers a spectacular vista of Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline beyond.
CROWD CONTROL: Both campgrounds are packed with RVs and car-campers through the summer months, but the trails are surprisingly empty.
PIT STOP: Stop at the Duneland Brewhouse (exit 34B off I-94) and empty the sand from your boots.
WALK SOFTLY: Minimize dune deterioration; stick to trails.
MAPS AND GUIDES: The national and state park maps are thorough and free. Dune Country: A Hiker's Guide to the Indiana Dunes, by Glenda Daniel (1984; Swallow Press, Athens, OH), is available at the National Lakeshore Visitor Center for $12.95.
MORE INFORMATION: Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, 1100 N. Mineral Springs Rd., Porter, IN 46304; (219) 926-7561. Indiana Dunes State Park, 1600 N. 25E, Chesterton, IN 46304; (219) 926-1952.