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.

Fall in LaSalle Canyon

Blind Canyon

One of the longer hikes at Starved Rock is to LaSalle Canyon, a blind canyon where visitors must hike behind the waterfall to continue on the trail. The water cascades over an overhang carved thousands of years ago by running water. Generally just a soft trickle of water, at times when rain is plentiful, the waterfall can increase in flow.

Winter is one of the best times to visit this canyon. The falls turn to ice and create a wall in the center of the overhang.  Hiking behind the ice falls is spectacular.

LaSalle Canyon

While not the deepest or longest canyon in the park, LaSalle Canyon is certainly worth the hike. The multicolored St. Peter sandstone walls, green leaves and moss create an environment more suited to southern islands. In fact, even in winter, lichen, moss, and ferns often stay green, and I've seen dozens of insects crawling and flying in the snow covered canyons.

Hiking LaSalle Canyon

Once off the main overhang of rock, the water flows on the canyon floor, down a few gentle drops, and finally into a round pool which eventually flows out to the Illinois River. This serene pool is the perfect location for a short rest, or even a backpack lunch.

Autumn in the Canyon

Fall Path

In a matter of moments, it seems, the weather has gone from hot and sunny, to cool and windy - a sure sign of Fall. And with Fall comes colorful landscapes, at least in some places. It seems this year's fall color is selective, vivid is some areas, while lacking in others.

As we walked through the canyons of Starved Rock State Park, we encountered pockets of color peppered around the park. Generally, the fall color happens all around at the same time, depending upon the type of tree, but this year, some maple trees were colorful, while others remained green.

The colorful leaves offer a beautiful contrast against the pale rock-walled canyons.

Autum Trail

A positive thing about the sporadic color changing is the possibility of color later in the month - a longer period of fall color.

Harvest Time

Yellow Dent Corn

Nothing beats a long walk in the country on a sunny day, and at this time of year the crops are ready for harvest. Fields of yellow dent corn dry in the early Fall sun, while their brown leaves crackle in the wind. This is often the only sound heard on the rural roads of LaPorte County, Indiana.

On this day, we heard machinery too - farmers harvesting the bean crop just across the road. A few semi trucks waited their turn for the reaper to fill up and unload the beans into their trucks.

Harvest Time

As I walk past these farms, I wonder if the farmers themselves are harvesting using their own equipment, or rented equipment, or, are they using a harvesting service that does everything for them.  I'm sure it depends upon the farm, but a huge amount of equipment is needed to plant, harvest, and maintain a farm these days. How could anyone afford it all?

Soon, the Yellow Dent corn will reach the perfect stage for harvest as well - it's the black layer, and this is when the corn is mature enough to harvest, and contains the least amount of moisture. If it's dry enough, it can be stored in silos until needed, if it's not, it can be dried before storage.

Probably by next week, the walk down the rural roads will be a lot different. The tall corn that blocked the view of the horizon will be gone, and the only sounds we'll hear will be the birds eating what the combine missed.

Open Spaces

Hiking Deeper Into the Landscape

Stepping just a few meters from the beach, visitors experience an entirely new landscape. Rolling dunes, conifer forests, grassy meadows, and oak savanna all within a short hike from each other. We followed the path along the ridge of the dunes, with gentle slopes to a grassy meadow on one side, and steep drops to the forest on the other. I would estimate this "bowl" to be about 1/4 mile across - a bit larger than it seems at first.

What's interesting is the fact that there are so many more of these rolling hills and valleys just beyond the next dune; the landscape stretches for a very long way, and you can hike most of it along the established trails.

These paths seem more interesting to me because of the varying landscape.  Further inland, the more established dunes are covered in forest, blocking the distant views of Lake Michigan and the other rolling dunes.

Open Spaces

We often look in the distance for lone objects such as trees or shrubs standing in the hills, and attempt to find them using the trail system.  More often than not, we can get close, then look back to see the spot where we were standing originally.  It's always a much greater distance than it seemed.

Then, to find our way back using another path takes us in a different direction. There's no better way to start the weekend than to get lost in the dunes.

Morning Hike Along the Grassy Dunes

Morning Vantage Point

A sunny and warm first day of October, so we took advantage of the weather, and headed up the grassy dunes along the southeastern shore of Lake Michigan. We're familiar with these trails, but haven't been on them in a few months - which is unusual for us. Signs of Fall were all around us, but mostly the area was still green, with plenty of wildflowers displaying their blooms before the first frost.

We could see the skyline of Chicago as we reached the higher points of the trail. We were alone, the only three people within sight, looking at the skyline some 40 miles across the lake where millions of people were starting their day amid car horns, trains, and the other noises of the big city. We took a deep breath and continued our hike in the tall, quiet Marram grass, where all we encountered were insects buzzing from bloom to bloom.

Rolling Dunes

It seems once Fall is here, people don't bother coming out to the beaches and paths adjacent.  That's perfect for me, I can walk through nature without interruption, and experience things most others read about in those tall buildings across the lake.

Morning On The Dunes

I wonder if they even notice the sun casting interesting shadows on the ground near them, or if their closely stacked apartments even receive sunlight. Well, millions of people missed what I saw on the first day of October, and what's even more sad, they missed what I experienced.

The Solar Eclipse

Eclipse With Sun Spots

The solar eclipse of 2017 reached 87% in the Chicago area. The morning began partly cloudy, but as noon approached, the clouds became dense, and blocked the sun completely.

Right around 1PM, the clouds broke, and the sun was visible allowing us to watch the peak of the eclipse.

The photo above shows the sun as the moon was moving away from it. Looking closely, you can see a nice group of sunspots to the right of the moon.

Eclipse at 87%

With the cloud cover we experienced, this was the most the sun was blocked by the moon. Still an impressive view for us here in the upper Midwest.


The light clouds actually made the eclipsed sun appear very similar to the moon on a cold, Fall evening.  While still bright, the light from the sun appeared a bit odd, more diffused than normal.

The next eclipse nearby will arrive in just a few years.

The Potholes of Falls Creek Gorge


Deep in rural Warren County, Indiana, lies a hidden gorge with a remarkable sandstone canyon riddled with potholes. This part of the stream is actually called The Potholes, and it lives up to its name. Over thousands of years, flowing water and loose boulders carved the soft sandstone creek bed into round pockets or potholes. Boulders caught in the current of the water moved in small circles when trapped in a depression. This action caused the depression to get larger and larger into the current creek bed.

The water in most parts of the creek is about six inches deep, however, dozens of potholes hold two or three feet of water. Walking around this creek is difficult, as you may need to step into a three foot deep pothole to get around.  Plenty of rain caused the creek to rise, and we tried to keep dry from the knees up, so it was impossible for us to walk the length of the canyon, and had to double back once from the downstream side, and again from upstream.

The walk through the creek was a bit difficult due to the narrow ledges between deep potholes. If one does not watch, a slip into a pothole may cause a fall or injury, but overall, if you expect a challenging walk, and watch, the walk is great fun.

Exploring the Potholes

Colors, shadows, and reflections play off one-another, creating what is described as one of the most beautiful places to visit in western Indiana.  It does not disappoint.

On our way out, we ran into three local teenagers in swimsuits, heading down to the potholes. That is truly the way to experience the potholes - each one is round and smooth, about two to three feet wide and deep - built like small, individual whirlpool baths!

Falls Creek Downstream

If you're lucky enough to find your way to this hidden gem, you'll find a parking area large enough for three or four cars, that's it.  The Nature Conservancy describes the gorge as, "loved to death" over the past few years, so a small parking lot may help insure a low number of visitors.

Punch Bowl From Above

In the Punch Bowl

Past the waterfall and challenging narrows of Trail 3, a short turn-off to a blind canyon appears.  This leads to the famous Punch Bowl, a canyon with a small waterfall that flows into a little, round pool. The waterfall was barely flowing this time, but it's still an interesting canyon to explore.

From above, one can see how narrow the short canyon is, and get a sense of scale compared to the larger canyons of Trail 3.

Colorful Reflection

Even without a rush of water falling into the Punch Bowl, the view from inside the canyon is beautiful. The water on the creek bed reflects the colors of the sky, trees, rock, and moss, creating an interesting "abstract painting" on the canyon floor. With every step, the view and colors change - especially on a day when clouds obscure the sun for a short period.

The Narrowing of Trail 3

Trail 3 Canyon
Following the climb up the waterfall, trail 3 narrows considerably, and the stream flows a bit faster due to this narrowing. There are two ways to navigate through this area, and in summer, people seem to stay on the canyon floor and walk through the flowing creek.  There are some grooves and potholes that make the hike a bit tricky in spots, but overall, it's a simple walk.

The Canyon Narrows

The second way is to follow the small steps carved into the canyon wall.  These were obviously carved by those wishing to keep their feet dry, and were probably not intended for those with backpacks.  The steps barely fit your shoe, but there are also some hand holds carved into the rock to help hikers keep their balance. The narrow path on the wall is about 8 feet above the canyon floor, so not too high, but care must still be taken as one slip could result in an injury.

The High Road or Low Road

In the photo above, most people are taking the route through the creek bed. Judging by the look on their faces as I walked up the wall, I think in this case, many people didn't realize there was another option.

The only problem with the high path is when another hiker is heading the other way.  There are very few places to step aside to pass, so people must simply look ahead before they climb up.

Negotiating Trail 3

While this portion of trail 3 is a bit challenging, it's not beyond the ability of most hikers - providing they don't mind wet feet.

Toward the Light

The Dark Canyon

After passing Wedge Rock, the trail turns, widens a bit, then deepens toward the next turn, where hikers must walk up the running stream into a narrow, more challenging channel. The canyon walls are shaded from the sun by the dense canopy of leaves above, creating high contrast patches of light and shadow. The light is very dramatic, and often bright green from the trees above.

Heading toward the light, up the creek bed brings you to a small cascade of water you must walk through. Standing on rocks or logs helps keep your feet dry.

Up the Creek

During periods of rainfall, this portion of the trail can have much more running water. While I've never seen it rushing over the entire surface, I have seen it several inches deep on this incline, flowing down as hikers attempt to walk up. Expect to get your feet wet if you visit trail 3.

Toward the Light

The logs and rocks only provide dry walking area for a while, then one must jump off and look for the shallowest parts of the stream to walk through.  Unless of course, you wear water shoes, which would work well here.

Once past this area, the canyon narrows and funnels hikers into a picturesque channel where there are two options:  Get your feet wet and walk through the stream, or stay dry and climb the narrow path carved into the canyon wall.

The Hike to Wedge Rock

The Approach to Wedge Rock

Following several days of heavy rain, the level of Sugar Creek rose several feet, closing many of the poplar destinations around Parke County, Indiana. All canoe livery services were closed, and many of the trails in Turkey Run State Park were closed due to the high water.

We watched all week hoping the trails would reopen by the weekend so we could hike the canyons of Turkey Run, and upon our arrival we discovered all of the trails were open again.

Our favorite trail is Trail 3, which takes visitors on a journey through a densely canopied canyon. Labeled as rugged, hikers must walk through the shallow stream in areas, up a small waterfall, and over countless boulders. Nothing too difficult, but it's certainly interesting to hike where the trail is actually the creek bed.

Trail Canyon

The first thing one notices is the drop in temperature. The canyon is quite a bit cooler than the surrounding area, even in the summer. The forest above changes as well.  Many more coniferous trees surround the canyon, and deep green moss grows on most surfaces, making the canyon appear to be something from the Pacific Northwest.

The scale of the canyon is also something to take note of.  While certainly nothing of the scope of the American West, these canyons make visitors feel very small indeed.

Climbing Wedge Rock

Wedge Rock was the first formation of significance of Trail 3 on our hike.  A large rock torn from the canyon wall thousands of years ago by water and ice expanding over time.  The rocks appear like giant tumbled dominoes, and the trail wanders directly under one domino.  Viewed from the trail, the tip of the rock formation seems to be about 35 feet up, and very difficult to reach, but walk around the back of the rock, and it's a relatively easy walk up a 30 degree slope to the tip. The coniferous tree at the top has managed to grow despite the lack of soil, and the meandering roots can be seen winding their way around the rock to reach water.

On Top of Wedge Rock

It wouldn't be a trip through Trail 3 without a careful climb to the top of Wedge Rock. The view of the canyon is great from this vantage point, as it sits right on the turn in the trail.  While at the top, this can certainly be a dangerous place to walk or sit, however, the climb up the root-covered rock is quite easy and safe.

Nature's Sandcastles

Lush Dunes

Walking along the foot of the Central Beach dunes is a bit more difficult these days. Lake Michigan waves often reach the dune itself now that most of the beach is gone.  This wave action will cause more of the dunes to crumble into the lake, at a faster and faster rate.


These dunes change every day, and the small details can change by the moment.  As ground water moves down to the clay bottoms of the dunes, it finally finds its way to the end where it seeps out and falls to the beach. A bit of sand is carried by the water, and in places, sand stalagmites form where it falls. Much like the sandcastles kids build by letting very wet sand pour out of their hands to make towers, the sand creates collections of little towers. These towers may only last a few minutes until a wave wipes them out.

Natural Castles

These towers were washed away by a wave moments after this photo was taken.  I imagine they were created in about an hour by the dripping water, unlike their stone cousins the stalagmites, which take thousands of years to create.

Always looking for something new and interesting along the national National Lakeshore, and nature never disappoints.

Balanced Rock

Balanced Rock

Tucked away, just off the East Bluff Trail stands Balanced Rock, a formation created by the weathering of the cliffs of Devil's Lake State Park.  Water seeped into the cracks in the very hard rock and eventually cracked the rock.  Pieces fell away leaving behind several rock formations along the bluffs.

A View of Balanced Rock

This formation looks like a man made monument, yet it's a natural formation. It stands about ten feet tall, and overlooks the lake below.

The chunks that fell away litter the foot of the hills on both sides of the lake.  It's hard to image this place thousands of years ago when many of those boulders were still part of the bluff.

The Path Down

A short .4 mile trail, Balanced Rock Trail is described as a difficult, steep climbing trail, and it certainly is. Well worth the effort, but care must be taken when moving from stone step to stone step.  These steps were created by moving the boulders around a bit and adding some reinforcing concrete in some areas, keeping the experience as natural as possible.

Negotiating the Boulders

Narrow passages and winding switchback trails lead down the bluff through the boulder rubble. This rubble looks like gravel from a distance, but as you hike through it, you realize the rubble averages about 4 feet in diameter.

Trail on the Edge

Baraboo Hills

Devil's Lake State Park's East Bluff Trail winds up the bluff to most of the well-known rock formations in the park.  Devil's Doorway is just off the main trail, and has a very short loop trail for the best viewing of the formation.

Most trails in the park take advantage of the natural rock formations in place, or rocks stacked to create stairs to make the climb safer especially in slippery weather. These narrow trails take hikers very close to the edge of the bluff, and in some cases, if the visitor is daring, right to the drop-off, where a slip could mean a fall of hundreds of feet.

Trail on the Edge

This narrow flat trail gives the best view of Devil's Doorway, and has a small buffer of rock between the path and the steep drop-off.  This didn't stop a young man from jogging down the trail, and then taking two short jumps to the rock at the edge. It was drizzling, and the rocks were a bit slippery, we were certain he would slide right off the edge; luckily he did not, and just stood on the edge enjoying the view.

Above the Soaring Birds

You can see the platform he was standing on, and how there is nothing to stop his fall for well over a hundred feet at this point. I was amazed at how many people simply decided to get a better view by climbing on the rocks without regard to what was (or wasn't) below them. Some of the areas of the trail down were challenging enough for most hikers, without the danger of falling hundreds of feet to the bottom of the bluff.