Visitors to Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore will find an opportunity for children to experience some of the park’s wonders at a new Nature Play Zone.
The “playground” doesn’t have traditional fixtures such as slides and swings, explained public information officer Bruce Rowe. Instead, it is a place where children can dig into the sand, probe around logs and enjoy other hands-on nature experiences.
“We have trails throughout the park, but we really don’t want people … doing things that disturb the native habitat,” Rowe said. “This allows children to experience the park in a way that we don’t allow in most other parts due to the fragile nature of our habitats.”
The Play Zone, which opened April 23 adjacent to the Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education, is believed to be the first hands-on play facility of its type in the park service, according to Rowe.
The new nature play area is just one feature of the 15,000-acre park tucked along the southern shore of Lake Michigan, which includes a collection of natural habitats and man-made attractions.
Visitors can observe more than 1,000 plant and animal species in the dunes, marshes and swamps, pocket prairie, sphagnum bogs and several types of woodlands, including a Black Oak savannah that’s home to the endangered Karner Blue butterfly.
Rowe said the park, established in 1966, ranks seventh among all USA national parks in plant diversity.
There also are more than 40 miles of trails providing opportunities for hiking, bicycling and horseback riding. Portions of the 15 miles of lakeshore are open for swimming, fishing and sightseeing.
For most visitors, Rowe said, the primary attractions are the dunes and miles of lakeshore. The dunes, which roughly align in four sets of ridges stepped back from the lakeshore, are dramatic reminders of the retreat of a glacier that covered the area more than 10,000 years ago, Rowe said.
Visitors can follow a marked trail to the top of the most popular and tallest moving dune, Mount Baldy, which rises 126 feet above the lake surface. But one of the most popular routes to the top, the Summit Trail, has been closed to address impact from hikers and allow the re-establishment of native plants, Rowe said.
“You’ll still be able to go to the top,” Rowe said. “You’ll just have to take a different trail.”
Evans also reports for The Indianapolis Star.
About the park
Size: 15,000 acres
Visitors: 1,889,381 in 2012
History: The park, tucked into an urban area not far from Chicago, includes 15 miles of the southern shoreline of Lake Michigan, dunes, oak savannas, swamps, bogs, marshes, prairies, forests and a river.
When visiting: Visitor Center is at 1215 N. State Road 49, Porter, Ind. 46304.
Visitor information: (800) 283-8687.
Of note: The park ranks seventh in plant diversity among all national parks, with feeding and resting habitat for migrating birds, including a rookery for great blue herons.