What’s better than a hiking trail that leads you to a beautiful, sandy beach? One that’s only about an hour’s drive from the busy city, that's what. The Cowles Bog Trail within the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, just 45 miles from downtown Chicago, is exactly this kind of treasure.
Here are five great reasons to ditch the city and get there soon:
1. The Trail itself. The horseshoe-shaped series of 4.6 miles of trails is one of the most biologically diverse areas of the national lakeshore park, taking hikers through a fascinating, diverse mix of forest and sand dunes. The terrain changes from flat paths to steep climbs, keeping you on your toes.
2. Wildlife. Red-bellied woodpeckers, beaver, black-crowned night heron, white-tailed deer, endangered Karner Blue butterflies and red-tailed hawks are just a few of the colorful creatures who make frequent appearances in the area. (In other words, have your cell phone cameras ready).
3. Plant life. There’s no shortage of beautiful flora here: columbine, blue lupine, sensitive fern, tamaracks, white pines and black cherry trees, plus cat tails (which are actually an invasive species the National Park Service is working to control) are abundant along the trails. Orchids are being restored to the area, and fun surprises include a few plants you wouldn't expect to see in this region, such as prickly pear cactus.
4. What goes up must come down. The sandy, challenging climbs hikers encounter midway through the trail mean that fun is waiting at the top of every dune with fast and furious runs down the opposite sides. (Hold on to your packs!) Even better: Waiting at the bottom is a stretch of pristine beachfront, where Lake Michigan practically begs you to kick off your hiking shoes, dip your toes in, and stay awhile.
5. A worthwhile reminder. Hikers probably won’t feel like they’ve entirely escaped the concrete jungle (the lakeshore is surrounded by a heavily industrialized area where you can hear a faint-but-steady stream of train whistles, and the adjacent coal-fired power plant is a little too close for comfort). But its proximity to industry is also a good reminder to all of us that without the work of environmentalists (including ecologist and botanist Henry Chandler Cowles, who the trail is named for), areas like these could quickly be swallowed up.