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Detour: Take an Indiana Dunes Day Trip

By Alex Bean on September 11, 2019

Indiana Dunes poster Quincy Station
This vintage poster for the Indiana Dunes in the Quincy ‘L’ station points towards its historic role as Chicagoans’ vacation destination. Photo by Alex Bean

For over a century, an Indiana Dunes day trip has been one of the best detours from our big city. Many Chicagoans still make this delightful trek every summer. In fact, some of the Detours tour guides¬†took an Indiana Dunes day trip recently. We did not plan these separate excursions as research for this post. We just happened to head to the same vacation spot at nearly the same time. It’s not a big surprise that we’re all flocking down the Skyway, though. An Indiana Dunes day trip gives you beautiful natural environments, historic architecture and a relaxing time with friends and family. What’s not to love?

History of Indiana Dunes Day Trips

The Indiana Dunes are the southern-most manifestation of a long stretch of sandy beaches and soaring dunes. This natural landscape stretches all the way up the eastern coast of Lake Michigan. Tourists have flocked to the area’s beach towns and the famous Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes¬†for over a century.

Strong winds from the lake formed the dunes. When wind whipping off the lake hits obstructions, like vegetation, sand particles drop. Over time (a very long time, in fact), these sand deposits grow ever higher – rooted in place by vegetation and their own accumulated weight.

The natural beauty of this landscape, as well as the difficult prospect of constructing solid foundations on heaping piles of sand, preserved the Indiana Dunes from major development. We still might have lost the dunes, though, if not for the parks movement. Both Chicagoans and Indianans were alarmed at the prospect of losing the Indiana Dunes to creeping industrialization in nearby Gary. So the preservation movement swung into gear to save this natural wonderland. Today the Indiana Dunes State Park and Indiana Dunes National Park contain over 17,000 acres of natural landscape.

Ironically, Chicago’s industrial infrastructure provided the essential element for this preservation: people. An Indiana Dunes day trip is made possible by the South Shore Line, which deposits riders directly at the dunes. It was the regularity and convenience of the train service from the Loop which created a market for vacationers and turned the Dunes into a preserved landscape.

The Varied Environments of the Dunes Parks

Indiana Dunes natural landscape hiking trails
Hiking is a must during an Indiana Dunes day trip. Photo by Amanda Scotese.

When you take an Indiana Dunes day trip, you’re literally within sight of Gary and Chicago, yet you can see the world before industrialization. Modernity almost slips away while you swim on the beach, climb to a dune’s peak or stand on a lakeside bluff. Being the Chicago history nerd that I am, it was hard not to reflect that this was the type of landscape on which Chicago was built 200 years ago. In fact, the site which is now the State Park’s beach was once City West – a potential boomtown rival of Chicago. That never came to pass, obviously, but it fascinated me while visiting.

Simply being in nature is enough for many Dunes visitors. Yet there’s a surprising amount of ecological variety in the state and national parks. The sandy beaches, with their stunning views, are the star attraction, of course. Daytrippers fill the beaches to bursting on warm summer weekends. Just behind the beaches are the dunes themselves. Covered in scrub grasses on the lake side and forests on the inland side, these natural wonders provide the perfect venue for hiking and sightseeing. Hiking can take you through all the wonders of the Dunes landscape. The trails within the state park alone take you through dune peaks and ridges, marshes, overlooks, blowouts and boardwalks.

A Forgotten Piece of Chicago’s Architectural History

Florida Tropical House century of progress architectural district Indiana Dunes
The Florida Tropical House in the Indiana Dunes National Park is a beautiful piece of Chicago’s architectural history. Photo by Alex Bean.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I like being able to experience the natural world and go on a good hike. But historic architecture is almost always going to be my favorite part of any detour from Chicago. The new National Park has several historic districts, including an 1820s fur trading post and a Swedish farming enclave that was active for 80 years. I was also surprised to discover that the state park beach was the site of a Revolutionary War skirmish. Who knew?! Fascinating spots, to be sure, but the Century of Progress Architectural District takes the cake.

These five historic houses were constructed for the 1933 Century of Progress Expo’s “Homes of Tomorrow” exhibition. Architecture firms used Modernist aesthetics, like Art Deco and Art Moderne, new building techniques, notably prefabrication, and new-fangled materials, like Rostone. The results never actually became the mass-produced homes of the post-WWII suburban building boom, but they fascinated and inspired fairgoers. After the Expo’s conclusion five of these houses were loaded onto barges and floated 50 miles down Lake Michigan. They’ve gazed the inland sea from dune bluffs for 75 years now. Seeing them before heading home was the highlight of my Indiana Dunes day trip.

The Detour from Chicago Par Excellence

Trips to the Indiana Dunes are a tradition for Chicagoans. Generations have taken the South Shore Line or Skyway across the state line to escape the city. It is our region’s version of the Hamptons or Palm Springs and for good reason. No other area is so close to the city and yet so tangibly distinct. It harbors vast stretches of beautiful terrain and hidden historical curios. Little wonder that half of our guides wind up taking an Indiana Dunes day trip each summer.

– Alex Bean, Content Manager and Tour Guide


Chicago Detours offers guided walking and bus tours of architecture, history and culture to public and private groups. We are a passionate team of educators, historians, artists and storytellers, and are proud to be one of very few tour companies in Chicago that is rated five stars on both Google and TripAdvisor.


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