Exploring the Dunes

The Path to the Top The high winds and cold temperatures reminded us that winter is approaching. While standing on top of the fore dunes, we felt the full brunt of the weather, but just over the ridge the winds were blocked, and temperatures were much more tolerable. On windy days, the beach all but disappears, so it's a perfect time to explore the secondary dunes, and the nearby woods. Most visitors are attracted to Lake Michigan and the beaches along the shore, but there are so many other aspects of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore that can't be found anywhere else in the area. These are the places I like to explore. To The Woods Certain areas of the park show a perfect dune progression from beach to forest; West Beach is one example. But the progression can be seen to some extent at all the beaches. It's these unusual areas that attract me, the woods that seem to begin at the foot of a grassy dune, almost as if they were planted by hand, purposefully. Why are there single conifer trees in the middle of a Marram grass meadow? These landmarks can be seen from quite a distance, and are often the target of our hikes. I've explored the dunes for many years, most weekends each year, and I still find new things to explore. What's also interesting is the change that takes place over time to places I visit, things are rarely the same twice.

Morning Hike on the Fore Dunes

High Atop the Dunes

A morning hike along the tops of the fore dunes was a great way to start Thanksgiving weekend. Despite the cold temperatures and very windy conditions, we enjoyed the time away from people shopping in earnest for black Friday bargains - they can browse the aisles while we browse the treetops and meandering trails.

The fore dunes are the first line of dunes from the shore. Over the past few decades, these have taken a hit by erosion. Much of the beach below is now underwater, making it difficult to walk on the beach during days with high waves. This is a natural process, that has taken place since the dunes were built by winds, in fact, it's the same process that created the dunes. The dunes change by the day in some places, other places remain untouched for centuries. These are the places where trees take hold and form conifer forests or oak savannas. The winds will probably bury them in time too.

The Foredune

Looking closely at the beach below, we saw two other people on the beach. They are barely visible in the photo above, just emerging from the trees along the shore. I find very few people on the shore in cold weather. I'm often the only person in view for miles around when I visit this place in the winter, and I enjoy the solitude. On calm days, the quiet creates an eerie environment where you feel completely alone, yet you're only a few miles from a busy city, and 40 miles across Lake Michigan to the third largest metropolitan city in America.

We're lucky to have this area set aside for us so close to the bustling cities.

Colorful Litter

Colorful Surroundings

At certain times of the day, sunlight does not enter the depths of the canyons. This provides an interesting contrast between the mono-chromatic rocks and the sunlit, colorful fall leaves. The newly fallen leaves litter the canyon floor, providing even more color to the autumn display.

Fallen Color

The shallow streams of the canyons help to gather fallen leaves, creating a carpet of color on the trail.

Hiking the Colorful Canyon

Every way you turn, the park is filled with color. The trees, the canyon floor, and even the rocks that form the canyon walls. As you progress through the park, the sun changes the angle of the light, and the same canyon takes on a completely different look.

Canyon Pool

LaSalle Canyon Pool
Most large waterfalls create a pool underneath themselves, due to erosion of the falling water.  This very small waterfall in LaSalle Canyon has a rather large pool beneath, sparking questions as to how it was formed. Was the waterfall much more active at one time? Was the main waterfall in the canyon over this spot at one time in the past? Or did some other force of erosion create the pool?

Either way, this tranquil body of water is the perfect spot to rest after a hike into the canyon. In Autumn, the water is surrounded by colorful leaves, and also turns colorful with many fallen leaves floating in the pool.

Path to LaSalle CanyonAs one enters the blind canyon, the series of small waterfalls comes into view. Hikers must walk behind the main waterfall at the back of the canyon, and curve around to the other side to continue their journey to nearby Tonty Canyon.

I enjoy the winter season most of all at Starved Rock State Park. The waterfalls often freeze, creating beautiful ice sculptures some over 80 feet in height. Visiting the park in the warmer months gives me the opportunity to see where the deeper waters are in the streams and natural pools.  Viewing the frozen waterfalls often involves walking close to them, and I need to remember just how deep the water may be at the bottom of the falls. Breaking through the ice into a foot of water is one thing, but breaking through the ice into 4 feet of water makes for an uncomfortable 3 mile hike back to the car.