La PORTE — Home to 15 miles of coastline and 50 miles of trail across three Northwest Indiana counties, the Indiana Dunes National Park offers plenty of sightseeing and recreational opportunities to visitors.
And since it became the country’s 61st national park in 2019, more guests than ever are discovering the coastline’s natural beauty.
Indiana Dunes National Park Superintendent Paul Labovitz discussed the area park’s historic year during a presentation recently to the Rotary Club of La Porte. Labovitz served as guest speaker of the club’s weekly meeting at the Blue Heron Inn, where he talked about the park’s recent successes as well as the challenges it is facing.
Spanning 15,000 acres of woodlands, prairies, savannas, bogs, wetlands, beaches and shoreline from Gary to Michigan City, Indiana Dunes has been part of the national park system since 1966. Formerly known as the National Lakeshore, it was officially designated a full-fledged national park this past February by Congress.
The reclassification is already having a significant impact on attendance figures, with visitation up 20 to 40 percent this past year, Labovitz said.
“[The designation] doesn’t change any of our regulatory authority, but, perceptually, we are like Yellowstone now,” he said.
Even before the name change, Indiana Dunes was already one of the largest parks in the Midwest, with an annual budget of $10 million to $15 million. In 2018, around 3.6 million guests came to Indiana Dunes, visiting either the federal property or the nearby Indiana Dunes State Park, making it the seventh-most visited park in the U.S.
Besides the many beaches and dunes lining Northwest Indiana’s coastline, the park is home to one of the most biodiverse environments in the entire country, with more than 1,400 species of plants growing inside the property, Labovitz said. The grounds also contain more than 350 species of birds, he added.
“A lot of people go to Costa Rica for great birding ... but you can do it a little closer to home and be home by lunchtime,” Labovitz said.
These attractions have made Indiana Dunes one of the key economic drivers in the region, the superintendent said. The park is responsible for bringing in up to half a billion dollars each year.
“It’s easy to look at the coast and look at the steel mills and say that’s where the money is rolling,” Labovitz said. “But what the national park provides is another leg of the stool, of what we consider quality of life for Northwest Indiana.”
With Michigan City home to the park’s famed Mount Baldy and adjacent to other Indiana Dune locations, park officials are working with city leaders to help make the community a stronger gateway to the national park, Labovitz said.
The city of La Porte can also benefit from its proximity to the property, he said. Although not directly connected to the park, La Porte is home to several attractive lakes that would make great attractions for Indiana Dunes visitors looking for somewhere to canoe or fish, he said.
“We would love to introduce kids to paddling, canoeing, kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding and fishing, but Lake Michigan is known as a tough place to do that for someone with entry-level experience,” he said. “We would love to come to La Porte and use your great facilities at Pine Lake to do exactly that.”
Both Michigan City and La Porte could one day connect to Indiana Dunes through a bike trail, allowing people to travel to and from the national park in less than an hour without having to deal with traffic, Labovitz said.
Despite the vast untapped potential the park ground offers, he also sees challenges ahead — most notable of which are ongoing problems from beach erosion.
Like many other portions of the Northwest Indiana coastline, parts of the park are becoming inaccessible due to rising water levels on Lake Michigan, Labovitz said. Officials had to close off a portion of the parking lot at Lake View Beach, with the water coming within several feet of the space, he said.
“Three years ago, there was 40 feet of dune and beach in front of that,” Labovitz said. “We’re probably one good northwest storm away from losing parking spaces.”
The U.S. House recently passed a bill that, if signed into law, would make $50 million in funding available to help solve erosion issues along the Great Lakes. For now, Labovitz and other Indiana Dunes officials can only wait out the problem — and retreat further inland, if necessary, he said.
“The lake is the boss,” he said. “The lake always wins. Don’t kid yourself for a minute that there’s anything you can do to stop Lake Michigan if it decides to come your way.”