Chicago To the Dunes: Sand & Steel

One of the most biodiverse areas in the country, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore endured an incredible century-long fight between industrialists and naturalists. Now, towering dunes and a steel industry make a dynamic weekend ride.

Bicycle Adventurers: We rolled deep! 14 of us with myself, Anna Henschel, and Cody Tracy as the leaders.

When: Summer is ideal, barefooted and swimming!

Accommodations: We camped at the Dunewood Campground at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, which does not take reservations and is about a couple miles from the nearest sand dune, though it is a well-spaced and wooded campground. The campground at the Indiana Dunes State Park does take reservations, is a bit more expensive, is not as well spaced between sites, is five miles closer to Chicago, and is right in the heart of the sand dunes.

Distance: Day one, we rode 65 miles and day two, 60 miles,

Bonus tip for this adventure:

  • Do yourself a favor and ride the famous south route on the well done trail system there (Erie Lackawana, Oak Savanna, Prairie Duneland), then dive into that sooty strip of steel mills through the heart of Gary, Indiana on day two — such stunning contrasts!
  • Run up and down as many dunes as you can without face planting! Keep an eye out for the itty-bitty Chicago skyline on the horizon once you arrive. 
  • Barlett’s for dinner. Shorebird Cafe for breakfast. Get to Leroy’s Hot Stuff if you can!

Day One

We rolled away from Buckingham Fountain at 8:00 AM just as the dark clouds overhead started to leak. We rode south on that “beaut” of a trail known as Chicago’s Lakefront to Calumet Park where we took our first break, about 14 miles in. We love history and nature. Like, a lot, so we broke down some of the historical context of the Indiana Dunes and the epic, nearly 100-year battle for the parkland. 

Just as we saddled up again, it started to downpour. There were some questions concerning the whereabouts of the nearest train back to downtown! We persevered and got a brilliantly timed flat just as the storm hit its apex. We sheltered in front of a school, fixed the flat, and rode in light rain for the next three hours, taking a break every hour and a half to grab a snack and break down some more history. 

We took the southern route (with the awesome trail system), which added about five miles to the day — well worth it as nearly the entire ride was on paved or limestone trails winding through beautiful natural habitats such as marshes and oak savannas. 

At mile 50, we broke for lunch at a bar and grill called Cagney’s in Hobart, Indiana. Good beer options, decent food, and you can smoke squares in the bar if that’s your thing — real old school like. 

Rolled the last 15 miles to the campground. The sites were huge! The facilities nice and clean. Set up in the glow of a beautiful sunset and rolled the half mile over to Barlett’s which is a lovely, slightly fancy place with great food and beer. No hard looks at our sweaty t-shirts and cut-off shorts appeal. 

Closed out the night with a lovely campfire complete with s’mores and some nips off the Jim Beam.

Day Two

Woke to a glorious day of bright blues skies patched with pure white, cotton-ball clouds ... so sweet especially after such a wet day one. We rode the backcountry roads about eight miles to Chesterton for a classic diner breakfast at Shorebird Cafe, formerly Peggy Sue’s. 

Hit Highway 12 into a serious headwind — not a nice road (fast traffic), though with a huge shoulder. We were only on it for about five miles. Then we dipped into Ogden Dunes, hit a teensy bit of singletrack right into the heart of West Beach — probably one of the most well-preserved dune habitats in the entire park! Hiked it, saw our destination, Chicago, as a small bar graph on the horizon, jumped in the lake, and rode out. This stop was one of the highlights as the dunes are so bursting with biodiversity as well as sweeping views, though it did put us nearly two hours behind schedule. Cruised the scenic Marquette Trail out of the park. Then, the flat tires began. One dude got three flats in 30 minutes, and yes we checked the tire each time for the culprit. 

Arrived to downtown Gary for a break at one of the main plazas with a cool sculpture celebrating the town’s history as a steel powerhouse. Gary is such an interesting place with an even more interesting history. Huge parts of it are abandoned now, calling to mind a post-apocalyptic novel. A few folks had to drop off in East Chicago to grab the South Shore train back to Chicago as we were a bit behind and that headwind was something fierce! I loved riding through the historic towns of Whiting and East Chicago: true industrial towns. Cruised through a half-abandoned steel worker neighborhood fashioned after a British village — all sitting in the shadows of a fully operating plant. At one point, we were on a road called Industrial Drive and had a humongous steel mill to our left and an oil refinery to our right and strange smells all around. There was even a pipe spewing out steam maybe 15 feet from us and sirens going off! 

Coasted up to the historic Calumet Fisheries on Chicago’s South East side for a late dinner around 9:00 PM. Ate our smoked salmon and fried fish smorgasbord in view of a rising river bridge and the 13-story Skyway bridge. We rolled through some of the cool Southside neighborhoods, past Steel Worker’s Park, and talked about the Memorial Day Massacre in which the area’s steel workers fought and died for a union nearly 100 years ago. Finally, we hopped the Lake Front Trail, giddy. Watched that sparkling skyline grow before our eyes! Someone snuck out a bottle of champagne upon our arrival back to Buckingham Fountain around 10:00 PM! 125 miles in two days. Great adventures make home a victory.

Day Three

Suggestion: It might be nice to just chill at the Dunes on day two, then ride back on day three.

Your favorite local bike shop? Smart Bike Parts in Chicago, Illinois. Eric and his crew will simply make it happen.

Bike overnight tips and tricks?

  • If your legs get too tired or you’re running behind schedule due to all the great highlights along the way, you can always hop on the South Shore train with your bike and head back home, though be sure to do your research as not all stations nor trains take bikes. 
  • A good easy choice for my gear was strapping a milk crate to my bike rack with hose clamps. My backpack fit snugly with all necessary camping gear. The crate is great for quick access and provides an easy transition from biking to hiking. Garbage bag it up if it rains. Bungee it down for less rattle. 
  • Do a little research on the nature and history of the area before you go! Such a rich area in both. The Shifting Sands documentary is a good place to start.
  • My friend and I also created an entire website for this overnight ride, plus many others in the Lower Lake Michigan Basin Area. You’re more than welcome to join us on a ride. Just contact us or check it out for yourself. We are a volunteer group incorporating as a not-for-profit called Out Our Front Door: www.outourfrontdoor.org.

2 responses so far ↓

Kathleen - Jan 22, 2018 at 8:22 PM

What a great ride. I've wondered about riding through Gary since someday I want to do Chicago to Kalamazoo. I enjoy industrial archeology a lot too. 'll look at those trails more closely. Thanks for posting.

Dan - Jan 23, 2018 at 1:11 PM

I once rode US 12 from Michigan City to I-94. Most of the ride was quiet and scenic. The west end at I-94 was busy and chaotic. Next time I'll turn around at Ogden Dues.

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