When Indiana Dunes in Porter, Ind., jumped categories from national lakeshore to national park this year, it joined the elite ranks of the country's most hallowed natural wonders, 61 sites whose esteemed members include Yellowstone and Yosemite.
The Dunes' climb up the National Park Service ladder is really just a matter of perception. The new title doesn't mean that more resources get pumped into this 15,000-acre swath of marshes, prairies, oak savannas, forests and its namesake sand dunes scattered along a 15-mile stretch of Lake Michigan's southern shore.
But the name change certainly raises the profile of the Dunes, an already popular summer playground that takes on a mellower beauty in the fall. Throngs of beachgoers give way to hikers and motorists in search of fall colors and a serene escape into one of the most biologically diverse pieces of property in the National Park Service portfolio.
Here's a guide to an autumn getaway in and around the country's newest national park.
The top-notch Indiana Dunes Visitor Center in Porter makes a convenient jumping-off point for a couple of drives with divergent themes but one common denominator: plenty of pretty scenery. One route skews toward the sand and sea, aka Lake Michigan, while the other explores cute downtowns and winding country roads. You can find detailed, turn-by-turn directions for both at indianadunes.com/cars.
The roughly 20-mile-long Dunes and Lake drive includes a leafy segment of U.S. Route 12 as the tree-flanked highway slices through the park. Cruising through the tiny town of Beverly Shores is a highlight of the route, which passes directly in front of five futuristic Century of Progress homes that debuted in 1933-34 at the Chicago World's Fair. Pull over for a closer look at these architectural gems.
If you're feeling peckish, make a pit stop at the nearby Goblin and the Grocer, a new breakfast, lunch and dinner joint with a fire pit on its expansive patio.
The slightly longer Downtowns and Country Roads drive spans about 30 miles. It hits downtown Chesterton and Valparaiso, home of the bespectacled, bow-tie wearing king of popcorn, Orville Redenbacher. A statue of the snack-food legend sits in Central Park Plaza. Grab lunch around here — Meditrina Market Cafe is a solid option — before pulling out of town and heading to the best leg of the route, a series of narrow, rural roads that twist and turn under towering trees as you make your way northeast of Valpo (Valparaiso's nickname).
Need to stretch your legs? Both drives lead to Coffee Creek Watershed Preserve in Chesterton. The plant-rich preserve has a well-maintained network of trails, including a 5K loop around the perimeter. Its pavilion, anchored by a pair of massive stone fireplaces, also makes a cozy spot to picnic.
Want to leave the driving to someone else? The park offers ranger-led shuttle bus excursions Oct. 6 and 27. Call the visitor center at 1-219-395-1882 to reserve a spot on the free, two-hour tours.
Dozens of miles of trails snake through the national park and the smaller but equally beautiful state park it surrounds.
Two trails stand out as must-dos in the fall, because they showcase different sides of this national park that boasts more than 1,000 plant species.
One of the trails can be accessed 1.5 miles from the visitor center. The Bailly-Chellberg Loop, measuring a little over 2 miles long, wends through ravines carved thousands of years ago by glacial meltwater. In October, these gorges are typically packed with the yellow leaves of soaring sugar maples that light up like the sun, a striking contrast to the Virginia creeper that adds splashes of blood red to the sylvan surroundings.
The route weaves in history, too. See Bailly Homestead, the nearly 200-year-old former home of trader Honore Gratien Joseph Bailly de Messein.
Another point of interest is Chellberg Farm, where Swedish immigrants once worked the land. These days, the farm's denizens are chickens, turkeys, pigs, goats and cows, making this trail ideal for trekkers with kids in tow. The farm is the backdrop for the Apple Festival, Sept. 21-22, a free celebration of fall's favorite fruit.
On the far west side of the park, the Dune Succession Trail is half as long but easily twice as hard as the Bailly-Chellberg Loop, thanks to the seemingly endless set of stairs that leads to an overlook platform. The payoff is panoramic views to the south of changing leaves — black oak, shagbark hickory and basswood, to name a few — and Lake Michigan to the north.
The national park's Dunewood Campground has more than 60 sites, a few of which are wheelchair-accessible, for $25 a night. Half the campsites can be reserved online at recreation.gov. The other half are first-come, first-served.
In Valparaiso, Valparaiso Inn B&B, in a newly renovated century-old home, occupies a corner lot in the historic district. Five guest suites, starting at $160.