Dune Succession Trail in the West Beach area of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore offers a mile-long look at the stages of dune development, starting with a beach on the shore of Lake Michigan and ending with a boardwalk through a forest that has risen from the sand. The loop has 100 feet of elevation change, covered by 250 boardwalk steps. In addition to the ecology lesson, the self-guided nature trail delivers great lake views.
Start from the large parking area for West Beach and walk north on a paved walkway toward the shore of Lake Michigan. Pass through the park beach house and walk down a short boardwalk to the sand. Blue water and a view of the Chicago skyline to the west may seduce you into abandoning the hike all together. Resist the siren song and walk east along the beach for about a tenth of a mile to a sign pointing inland for Succession Trail. Turn right off the beach, knowing that Dune Succession Trail is easy to follow from this point on.
The next quarter mile is somewhat slow going as you trudge through loose sand. Once you reach the boardwalk, travel becomes easier. Climb the steps and look over your shoulder for an excellent view of Lake Michigan. Go up and down the steps for the next third of a mile through an oak forest that has risen from the dunes. At the end of the boardwalk, it is another tenth of a mile over sand to return to the parking lot and complete the loop. Stay on the trail to protect the dunes and avoid poison ivy.
There are eight numbered markers along Dune Succession Trail corresponding with entries in a pamphlet that accompanies the hike. Ask for a copy at the entrance gate for West Beach. The guide explains how a beach can become a forest over time. The process starts with persistent grasses that grow in the wind-swept sand. Grasses are accompanied by cottonwood trees, which can tolerate being buried by dozens of feet of sand. As the scale tilts in favor of the trees, Jack pines, black oaks, basswoods, and ashes thrive, creating a cool canopy along the shore. At the end of the nature trail, you will understand how a forest can develop from sand dunes over hundreds of years.
Dune Succession Trail is a short, relatively easy, and educational. Indian Dunes National Lakeshore is located on Lake Michigan in the northeast corner of Indiana near the cities of Gary and Michigan City. Indian Dunes National Lakeshore is a only 40 miles from Chicago. There is a $6 fee to enter the West Beach area (as of August, 2011), but no permit is required to hike Dune Succession Trail, so get out and enjoy.
To get to the trailhead: Take Interstate 96 to exit 26 and drive north on Route 49 (from Interstate 90/84 take exit 31 to pick up Route 49 farther to the south). Drive 1.6 miles north of I-96 to Route 12 and turn left. Proceed 8.6 miles to County Line Road and turn right. Make an immediate right on West Beach Road, drive past the entrance station to the large parking lot and begin hiking north toward the lake.
From the west, take Interstate 90 to Route 20 and drive east 3.2 miles to County Line Road, Turn left and drive 1.2 miles north to West Beach Road.
Trailhead address: 300 West Beach Road, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Gary, IN 46403
Trailhead coordinates: 41.622533, -87.207974 (41° 37′ 21.11″N 87° 12′ 28.70″W)
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This 78-site campground in Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is open seasonally from April to October.