Monday, June 10, 2019

Indiana Dunes trail explores flora-rich bog

Pink Lady's slipper grows in the Pinhook Bog at Indiana Dunes National Park.
Indiana Dunes boasts among the most diverse flora in the park system. NPS photo.
Pinhook Upland Trail map. NPS map.
Boasting more than 1400 native plants, Indiana Dunes National Park is among the National Park Service’s most diverse sites for flora. A great way to see many of those plants – including some of the more exotic ones – is the Pinhook Upland Trail.

The 2.1-mile round trip lollipop trail cuts through a beech and maple forest while offering a great view of the Pinhook Bog.

To reach the trailhead, from Chicago take Interstate 94 east. In Michigan City, Ind., go south on U.S. Hwy 421 then head left/east onto Snyder Road/W 200 N. Next, go right/south onto North Wozniak Road. In a little more than a mile, turn left/east into the Pinhook Bog parking lot. This part of the national park is not part of its main units along the Lake Michigan shore.

From the lot, go east on the stem trail. The trail surface is packed dirt but can be slippery and muddy after a rain, so be sure to wear hiking boots with good traction.

Beech, maple forest
The subtle changes in elevation so near Lake Michigan result in a variety of ecosystems, which in turn leads to a diversity of plant species throughout the park. Beaches and dunes, wetlands such as marshes and fens, oak savannas and wetland prairies, and hardwood forests, all can be found within the park.

Forests and a bog dominate the stem portion of the trail. At 0.3 miles in, the trail reaches the loop; go left/northeast onto it.

At a higher elevation than the bog, thus part of the loop runs through hardwood forests. Mature beech and maples shade a moraine, a ridge of sediment that was left by the edge of a glacier as it retreated about 15,000 years ago during the last ice age.

Just as the upland forest owes its existence to the area’s glacial history, so does the bog here. A chunk of the melting glacier left behind as the main one retreated depressed the land, forming a kettle lake. When the trapped glacier chunk fully melted, it filled the hole with water while pulverized clay and rock stuck inside it settled on the lake bottom.

The clay prevented the lake water from reaching groundwater or from springs and streams feeding the waterbody. As a result, this trapped meltwater grew increasingly stagnant and acidic over time.

Sphagnum moss
At 0.7 miles, the trail reaches a 33-foot bridge with the bog on the trails’ right/west side. Look for the light-green sphagnum moss covering the wetlands.

Sphagnum moss, which tolerates acidic water, forms floating mats over the lake. This in turn supports ferns, orchids (like pink lady’s slipper), and even strange carnivorous plants such as pitcher plants and sundew. As parts of the bog fill in, blueberry and and holly shrubs can take hold, which in turn opens the way for tamarack and red maple trees to take root.

The 38-foot bridge over the bog, at 0.9 miles from the trailhead, allow hikers to see these plants and many more.

The light-green mats of stringy sphagnum moss stand out in the bog and are even visible from the air. Thanks to compounds in the sphagnum’s cell walls, he moss does not decay easily, trapping water. Be careful to not step on the solid-looking moss – in addition to potentially harming other rare plants that grow atop it, the mats can’t fully support your weight, and you’re sure to get wet.

That’s true even of sphagnum moss that thickens up to six feet deep. If you spot blueberry and holly shrubs growing atop the moss, the mats are the deepest there.

At 1.2 miles in, the trail leaves the uplands for good and reaches a 53-foot bridge over the moss. The Pinhook Bog stretches for 580 acres on both sides of the trail; sphagnum moss covers about a quarter of that area.

Orchids, carnivorous plants
Breaking up the bog’s many green hues are a number of flowers, most notably the pink lady’s slipper. The sole lady’s slipper to lack stem leaves, it can grow up to 18 inches high. Other orchids here are the rose pogonia, which usually can be seen near the end of boardwalks, and the yellow fringed orchid.

Five carnivorous plants make the bog their home. The tiny spoonleaf sundew has spoon/teardrop-shaped leaves covered in mucilage-tipped tentacles that ensnare insects. Round-leaved sundew also has flypaper-styled leaves, which are round rather than teardrop-shaped. The purple pitcher plant’s leaves curl into a pitcher or cup half-filled with water and juices that trap and digest bugs. Hidden-fruited bladderwort feeds on small aquatic insects it captures in a bladder-shaped trap while the horned bladderwort does the same to small insects atop the soil.

At 1.7 miles, the loop reaches the stem trail. Go left/northwest onto it and retrace your steps back to parking lot.

Insect repellent is a must on this trail. Also, beware of poison sumac, which grows on the bog’s outer edges, known as the “moat”; poison sumac has compound leaves of seven to thirteen pointed leaflets with smooth edges.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Trail ascends chaparral-covered mountain

The  Ramona Trail cuts through the chaparral-covered north flank of
Thomas Mountain.
Ramona Trail topo map
The following article was originally written for and published by the Uken Report.

Day hikers can explore a chaparral-covered mountainside on the Ramona Trail in an easy drive from Palm Desert.

The 5.7-mile out-and-back trail in the San Bernardino National Forest sits near Mountain Center. As the Coachella Valley blisters under the summer heat, the Ramona Trail offers a good escape with temps in the 70s during the morning and rising to the low 80s before noon. The downside is the trail gains 1490 feet in elevation.

To reach the trailhead, from Palm Desert take Calif. Hwy. 74 south into the mountains. You'll drive for about 24 miles on the Palms to Pines Highway. About 0.4 miles past Morris Ranch Road (Riverside County Fire Station 53 is at the intersection of Hwy. 74/Morris Ranch Road), look for a parking lot nestled in the pines on the highway's left side. The trailhead heads from the lot's southwest side.

Starting at 4592 feet above sea level, the entire trail is well-maintained, though it can be rocky and narrow in spots.

In short order, the trail switchbacks as ascending Thomas Mountain's northern flank. Along the way are fantastic views of Garner Valley below, the San Jacintos to the northeast, and the Santa Rosas to the southeast.

Flannel bush, manzanita
The route heads through a classic California chaparral-covered mountainside. Wildflowers often bloom here following rain.

Among the most impressive flowers are the showy yellow blossoms of the flannel bush, which bloom in mid-June. The flowers can get as large as 2.5 inches in diameter, and a number of them appear at the same time on the shrub, which can grow up to 18-feet high and 10-feet wide.

While largely considered an ornamental plant today, flannel bush played an important role in Native American cultures through California. The inner bark's sap was the Vicks VapoRub of its day and could be taken for stomach aches. The wood meanwhile was a used to make furniture and as cordage for nets.

Also common along the trail are manzanita, whose uniquely shaped red branches always stand out. Some of the bush hugs the ground with others grow several feet tall. Look for their blooms in the winter through early spring and their berries from spring through summer.

You’ll also see plenty of ribbonwood mixed in with the manzanita. It’s often called redshanks because of its shaggy shanks—or ribbons—of bark that fall off it. Ribbonwood prefers north-facing slopes, especially around 4000 feet elevation. They do well in chaparral environments, as they often resprout after a fire.

As the trail nears its destination, you’ll notice the chaparral giving way to pines, black oaks and even cedars. The route nicely becomes shaded.

Tool Spring
Watch for where the trail splits, with one path going straight to the Tool Spring Campground and the other heading northwest to the the summit of Thomas Mountain. Go straight on the spur to the springs, where there are picnic tables and restrooms. The springs is at about 6080 feet, and a small stream flows from it, cutting down the mountain’s north slope into Garner Valley.

If you wish to continue to the top of Thomas Mountain, you’re looking a total of 11.5-miles round trip from the parking lot along Hwy. 74.

The trail is named for Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1884 novel Ramona, which is set in the very mountains you’re hiking.

Most of the trail is open to the full sun, so don sunscreen and a brimmed hat. Leashed dogs are allowed on the trail.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks series.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

10 Best Birding Trails in Wisconsin

Sandhill cranes in flight over Fox River National Wildlife Refuge. USFWS.
With Wisconsin’s location along the Mississippi River and two Great Lakes, it’s a natural haven for a variety of birds, especially rare ones.

They range from majestic bald eagles to tiny warblers, from sleek raptors to gawky-looking cranes, from migrating Canada geese to beach-loving seagulls. A hike is an excellent way to get up close to many of them. Ten great day trails to watch birds include:

Bluff Trail: Bald eagles soaring 40 stories above two majestic rivers await day hikers at Wyalusing State Park. The 2.4-miles round trip trail offers great vistas of the confluence for the Mississippi and Wisconsin river valleys, an ideal home for the bald eagles. They have plenty of fish – their favorite food – to catch or scavenge, have deep valleys perfect for roosting to protect against the winter wind and cold, and have lifting breezes from the bluffs upon which to fly over the open waters searching for food. During the March migration more than 200 bald eagles roost in the Prairie du Chien area. Spring and summer mark good times to see bald eagles, which are easy to spot even at a distance; mature bald eagles have a wingspan of up to 7-feet-7-inches, a full foot longer than the height of the average NBA player.

Buena Vista Grasslands Trail: The trail heads through a grasslands sporting the largest population of greater prairie chickens in Wisconsin. About a half-mile of old ATV-made paths run through the Buena Vista Grasslands Wildlife Area southwest of Plover. Blue vervain, bromegrass, daisy fleabane, goldenrod, hoary alyssum, switchgrass, timothy, wheatgrass and yarrow all grow there, a perfect environment for the greater prairie chicken. The threatened bird really isn’t a chicken at all but one of four grouse species native to Wisconsin. Once widespread across the southern part of the state, today the greater prairie chicken can be found in only six central counties.

Great Sauk State Trail: Day hikers can see the largest concentration of bald eagles in Wisconsin on a segment of this trail. Each winter, more than 50 eagles nest along this section of the Wisconsin River from below the Prairie du Sac Hydroelectric Dam to just past Sauk City. As snow covers nearby fields and waterways freeze over, the dam keeps a wide swath of riverway open, attracting eagles searching for a meal of fish. Bluffs deliver thermals to make flying easier and woodlands provide good cover. Start at VFW Memorial Park in Prairie du Sac and walk north on the trail to Dam Heights Road for a 2-mile round trip and more eagle sightings than you’ve probably had before. Note that sometimes the trail closes to protect the eagles; if that happens, walk along the river in VFW Memorial Park to see the raptor.

Harrington Beach: While most go to a beach for sunbathing and swimming, that’s only part of the attraction here. It’s also the perfect spot to watch thousands of hawks and flacons as they migrate each spring and fall. Located east of the tiny city of Belgium on Lake Michigan, the beach runs for about a mile. More than 250 bird species have been sighted in the state park, and the spring and fall migrations dramatically raises the offshore waterfowl population. Red-tailed hawks, Cooper’s Hawk and even the Swainson’s Hawk as well as kestrels and the rare Gyrfalcon have been spotted flying over the beach. The annual hawk migration during the first week in October will include a number of young. Hawks flight is more common in west or northwest wind vectors, especially after a cold front has passed through the area.

Honey Creek Trail: Ground zero for warblers in Wisconsin is the Baraboo Hills. A massive tract of connected forest where native plants thrive, it’s the perfect environment for 31 species of warblers. Among the best trails to see those warblers – as well as a variety of other birds and some great scenery include rock escarpments – is the Honey Creek State Natural Area south of North Freedom. The narrow, primitive trail parallels the stream’s north branch. Honey Creek boasts more than 180 bird species with about 1 out of 6 them warblers. The Wisconsin Society for Ornithology owns the southern half of the wildlife area and maintains a nature center just outside it.

Horicon Habitat Hike: Day hikers can see tens of thousands of Canada geese stopping over on their migration during a spring or an autumn walk on this 1.1-mile loop through the Horicon Marsh State Wildlife Area. The loop heads through grasslands, woods and past wetlands, and while a number of birds can be see on those different habitats, the highlight is the geese. In spring, they begin arriving in mid-February and then in autumn during September, staying about 4-8 weeks each time. The trail partially parallels the Rock River immediately north of Horicon off of North Palmatory Street. Other common birds spotted in the marsh include egrets, herons, marsh wrens, pied-billed grebe, and a variety of ducks.

International Crane Foundation Trail: Wisconsin boasts the only place in the world where all 15 of the world’s crane species reside. The trail at the foundation’s center outside of Baraboo underwent a $10 million renovation in 2019 (with a grand opening in spring 2020) to place the often endangered species in enclosures more like their native habitats. Among those in captivity here is the whooping crane, of which fewer than a thousand exist. While essentially a zoo, the foundation’s center performs several important functions aimed at keeping cranes flourishing in the wild, including breeding and conservation awareness. The trail past the various enclosures runs about 2 miles; admission is charged to walk it.

Seagull Bar Trail: Day hikers can see gulls galore as walking a mile-long sand bar on Green Bay. There’s no formal trail at Seagull Bar State Natural Area in Marinette, but a hike along the shoreline comes to 2.2-miles round trip. A number of migrating shorebirds stop over there each spring and fall while diving ducks congregate during severe weather. The most common bird you’ll see, though, is the gull, which despite the natural area’s name really isn’t a “seagull” at all but several different species from the same bird family, which is closely related to terns. Locally, ring-billed gulls hang around in summer while the larger herring gull spends the winter.

Tiffany Bottoms State Wildlife Area: The broad floodplains along the Chippewa River as it flows into the Mississippi River makes it more easily to traverse by boat than foot. Still, three primitive trails in the wildlife area give some access to this 13,000-acre wildlife area, one of state’s largest continuous bottomland hardwood forests. Because of the protected space’s vastness, it's a particularly great birding area. About 185 bird species have been identified in the bottoms. among the most common are cuckoos, lark sparrows, the endangered red-shouldered hawks, ruffed grouse, spotted sandpipers, vireos, warblers, and wood ducks. Among the many rare species found here are bald eagles, great egrets, Harris’s sparrow, Kentucky warbler, and the yellow-crowned night heron. The hills and bluffs surrounding the river bottoms are the best place in Wisconsin to find overwintering golden eagles.

YCC Trail – Day hikers can view sandhill cranes and other migrating waterfowl from an observation platform on this trail at Crex Meadow Wildlife Area north of Grantsburg. Autumn marks the best time to hike the 0.75-mile loop that passes a refuge smack dab in the middle of the wildlife area. While thousands of ducks and geese inhabit the refuge, the 10,000 or so sandhill cranes are the most spectacular of the arrivals. They can grow up to four feet tall with wingspans of up to seven feet wide. Migration seasons vary from year to year, but sandhill cranes generally can be spotted from April through mid-May on their way north and mid-September through October on their way south. Be sure to bring binoculars.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Great Marsh Trail makes for top birding trail

A Great Blue Heron sits near the Grand Marsh Trail at Indiana Dunes National
Park, America's newest national park. NPS photo.
Day hikers can see a number of the famous birds attracted to the Indiana Dunes National Park by hiking the Great Marsh Trail.

The 1.26-miles lollipop trail, with a spur to the observation deck, gains a mere nine feet of elevation as it traverses a marsh alongside Lake Michigan. Thanks to a recent restoration of the wetlands, migratory birds – including sandhill cranes and great blue herons – stop over there every spring and autumn.

To reach the trailhead, from Chicago take U.S. Hwy. 12 east or from Michigan City, Ind., go west on the road. Upon reaching Beverly Shores, Ind., turn north onto Broadway Avenue. Park in the South Lot on the street’s right/east side. The largely grass trail (some patches are packed dirt) heads out from the lot’s east side.

Interdunal wetland
The Great Marsh is an interdunal wetland, a water-filled depression between two sand dunes. It’s the largest wetlands complex in the Lake Michigan watershed, stretching for several miles between Burns Harbor, Ind., and Michigan City.

At 0.3 miles, the trail comes to the first junction. Go right/east on it. The marsh is on the trail’s left/north side.

You’ll be immediately impressed by the array of wildlife in the Great Marsh. Coots, mallards, wood ducks and geese are abundant here. During the annual migrations, wading birds such as herons and egrets stalk the shorelines. Kingfishers, red-winged blackbirds, tree swallows, and warblers also are abundant. Another surprise: sometimes beavers can be spotted playing in the marsh’s channels.

In 0.1 miles, the trail reaches the loop’s beginning. Continue straight-right/east, which takes you onto slightly higher ground.

Sandhill cranes, Great Blue Herons, egrets
Sandhill cranes are easy to pick out when they stop over on their migration. Tall and graceful, the slate gray bird has a long neck, legs and wingspan. Their wings can stretch up to 2.2 yards across from tip to tip.

After another 0.3 miles, the loop reaches its northwest corner and re-enters the marsh.

Another large migrating bird using the Great Marsh are Great Blue Herons. Slightly larger than sandhill cranes, the gray-blue bodied bird has a barely longer wingspan. They often wade along the shoreline picking off small fish but being opportunistic will eat everything from insects to snakes.

In 0.1 miles, the trail comes full circle. Go right/west back onto the stem trail.

Egrets – a type of heron with white plumage – also inhabit the marsh. Other than the coloring, they look virtually identical to the Great Blue Heron. Indeed, the word “egret” comes from the French “aigrette,” which means “silver heron.”

About 0.1 miles later, you’ll reach another junction. Instead of continuing on the stem trail, go straight/left/west onto the boardwalk.

For almost a century, virtually none of the wetlands birds could be found here. During the early 1900s, the wetlands was drained through a series of ditches so that the land could be used for farming and housing. As the wetlands disappeared, the water table dropped, allowing trees to take over the interdunal area.

Wetlands restoration
In less than 0.1 miles, the boardwalk reaches a spur leading to the observation deck. This is a great spot to break out the binoculars and camera.

The National Park Service in 1998 began restoring the wetlands. This including filling ditches and plugging culverts that drained the marshes, erecting levees with spillways, removing the non-wetlands trees, and replanting the sedges and grasses that existed when the wetlands existed.

After taking in the sights, retrace your steps back to the parking lot.

Wear boots with good traction, as the trail can be muddy and slippery. No pets are allowed on the trail.

Note that the North lot is handicap parking only. A short wheelchair-accessible trail runs from the lot to the overlook of the marsh.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Trail offers great views in Idyllwild, Calif.

Tahquitz Rock  is visible from the Summit Trail.
Map of Summit-Hillside Trails Loop.
This article was written for and originally appeared at the Uken Report.

The best way for Coachella Valley hikers to escape the summer heat is to gain elevation. One good nearby spot to do that is the other side of Mt. San Jacinto in Idyllwild.

Nestled in the foothills at a little more that 5000 feet up, the quaint town offers a number of great trails, especially at the Idyllwild Nature Center. While there, try the 2.6-miles round trip Summit-Hillside Trails Loop. Morning is the best time to hike as temperatures generally are in the 70s.

To reach the nature center, from northern Coachella Valley, take I-10 west to Banning then go left/south on Calif. Hwy. 243 to Idyllwild; from central or southern Coachella Valley, take Calif. Hwy. 74 south then turn right/north onto Hwy. 243 to Idyllwild. The center is at 25225 Calif. Hwy. 243 at the end of a driveway. Both the nature center and its trails are part of the Riverside County park and open space system.

From the nature center parking lot, go right/west and follow the path around the building’s side. In about 0.1 miles, go right/west.

You’ll soon start hearing a variety of different songbirds. Several of them settle in the park between March through November before snow sends them migrating.

In another 0.1 miles, you’ll come to a trail junction; continue straight/southwest. At the next junction in 0.1 miles, you've reached the Hillside Trail; go right/west onto it.

The Hillside Trail crosses Lily Creek, which usually is dry by late summer.

After about 0.2 miles, you’ll arrive at the Summit Trail. Go straight/west onto it; this is the beginning of a loop. Steep and the most difficult portion of the hike, this trail definitely is an aerobic climb.

But the effort is worth it, and not just for your heart. You’ll pass a number of rocks/boulders to scramble over, which will be a joy for any kids with you. There’s also a good view of the 800-foot high Tahquitz Rock, the larger of the two granite crags above Idyllwild that are popular with rock climbers.

Upon reaching the hilltop, the trail briefly levels out. From the summit there are great views of treetops stretching seemingly forever. Mt. San Jacinto rises to the north and blue Lake Hemet to the southeast.

After about a mile on the Summit Trail, you’ll reach a three-way junction. Go left/northeast onto the Hillside Trail. You’ll descend from here for a moderate workout through fragrant, green terrain.

In 0.6 miles, the Hillside reaches the junction with Summit Trail where you began the loop. Go right/east. You’ll recross Lily Creek; at the next trail junction, go left/north and retrace your steps back to the parking lot.

Once back, be sure to stop at the nature center, which offers displays on local wildlife and the Cahuilla Native Americans who have lived in this area for the past 2000-2500 years. Be forewarned that the nature center is not open every day and closes near evening.

Though plenty of pines line the route, a few yards here and there aren't shaded, so don sunscreen and wear a brimmed hat.

A fee is charged to enter the park. Dogs also can hike the trail but must be leashed, and a nominal entry fee is charged for their entry.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks series.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Trail heads to Palm Canyon’s upper reaches

Dense growths of red shank can be found on the Palm Canyon Trail high
in the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto National Monument.
Palm Canyon Trail - Upper Reaches Segment topo map
The following entry originally was written for and published by the Uken Report.

With the arrival of summer's triple digit temperatures in Palm Springs, it's time to go hiking where it's a little cooler - like the other end of Palm Canyon.

Where Palm Canyon Drive ends at the foothills really is just the bottom of a canyon that stretches more than 18 miles into the mountains above. You can hike near the canyon’s cooler upper reaches in the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto National Monument.

The segment of the Palm Canyon Trail described here runs 4.8 miles round trip. It’s a good hike for an early summer morning, but the heat will pick up as you close on midmorning.

To reach the trailhead, from Calif. Hwy. 111 in Palm Desert, take the Pines to Palms Highway (Calif. Hwy. 74) south for 18.2 miles. In the Ribbonwood area, turn right/north onto Pine View Drive. The trail begins where the asphalt runs out, about a fifth of mile from the Hwy. 74 turnoff; park along the roadside.

A narrow path that used to be a jeep trail heads north from the asphalt. You’re at 4360 feet elevation. In contrast, Palm Canyon Drive at the other end of the canyon in Palm Springs sits at about 600 feet.

At 0.1 miles, the trail curves right/east and from there generally goes downhill as shimmying over and around the rolling terrain.

Upper Sonoran Desert
The Coachella Valley’s southern slopes boast vegetation common to the Sonoran Desert’s higher elevations. This is the westernmost end of that desert, which covers southeast California, southwest Arizona and northern Baja California and Sonora in Mexico. In contrast, the top of the valley’s northern slopes are firmly in the Mojave Desert.

Among the most common of the Upper Sonoran vegetation you’ll see along the trail is red shank. In fact, this segment is dense with the large shrub, so named for its bark color. If hiking July through September, you can see its cream-colored blossoms that grow in clusters. The shrub can reach up to 18 feet high.

Another common Sonoran plant here is mesquite, which can grow up to 50 feet tell if there’s ample water. Unlike the red shank's ribbony bark that is easy to peel, the mesquite’s bark is smooth, though when older it grays and the texture appears shredded. Young mesquite branches often are green and photosynthetic. Its leaves fold shut at night.

Yucca also can be spotted here. The trunk only rises about four feet at best, though its blooms, which occur in summer to autumn, make it stand out. When not in bloom, the yucca is easily identified by its dull dark green leaves that can grow up to a yard long as they curve inward, tapering in a circle around the trunk.

Also on this segment of the trail but less common are the California juniper and pinyon pine.

The California juniper’s fragrant needles are bluish-gray and scaly with their cones looking like small bluish berries. It can reach up to 26 feet high when next to water.

The Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountains are one of the few places in the United States where you can see the Pinus monophylla californiarum, one of three subspecies of pinyon pine. The pinyon is the world's only 1-needled pine, and the californiuarum subspecies is found along this trail. Its cones are are about two inches in length but broader than long.

At 0.3 miles, the trail passes stone cairns and curls right. Be careful not to accidentally take a little-used connecting trail that goes left/west.

Palm Canyon views
Views of Palm Canyon’s upper reaches soon appear as the trail gently meanders downhill for the next mile. At 1.2 miles, the trail descends to a four-way junction. Watch for the Palm Canyon Trail sign.

You have the option of taking the canyon bottom route or a ridge top route. The canyon bottom can be overgrown at times, and the ridge top route offers better views, so take the latter route.

At the ridge, the trail crosses a flat area and widens to a jeep trail. The view down into Palm Canyon to your left/west is quite impressive, even when though the intermittent stream running through the canyon 220 feet below is dry in summer.

Soon the trail narrows again as it alternates running along the ridge top or the canyon’s side.

At around mile 2.4, the trail switches to the ridge’s west slope away from the canyon as descending toward Omstott Wash. This marks a good spot to turn back if interested only in a day hike. If looking for a longer walk, continue onward; you’ll reach the wash at 4.2 miles.

While the lower canyon segment of this trail in Indian Canyons is popular with hikers, the upper reaches make great mountain biking country, so keep an ear out for the whir of passing two-wheelers.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks series.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Trail offers beach, breakwater, fishing pier

Lake Michigan and a breakwater stretch beyond the Portage Lakefront and
Riverwalk at Indiana Dunes National Park. NPS photo.
Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk map.
Click for larger version.
Ah, the beach – sunbathing and swimming, flying kites and building sand castles, enjoying a summer sunset or taking in the dramatic approach of a storm. All of that and more is possible for those visiting the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk at the new Indiana Dunes National Park.

A 0.9-mile loop allows hikers to explore the beaches, dunes and a waterfront at the facility. There’s also a fishing pier and 900-foot breakwater leading to a lighthouse that can be added to the walk.

To reach the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk, from Chicago head east on U.S. Hwy. 12 or from Portage, Ind., go north to the highway. Then take Hillcrest Road north and turn right/east onto Midwest Steele. At the roundabout, go right/east onto Riverwalk Drive. Park in the second lot, which is on the road’s left/west side.

Dunes and beach
At the lot’s northwest corner, walk north on the paved, wheelchair accessible trail. You’ll pass some small, reclaimed dunes on a brownfield reclamation site. Believe it or not, as recently as 2008, this was the site of a steel corporation’s settling ponds for industrial byproduct and a sewage treatment facility.

Today, the dune habitat and Lake Michigan beach is a major stopover for migrating birds. Throughout the summer, you’ll spot surfers taking on the waves while others catch a tan on the beach sand. In winter, shelf ice forms along the beach’s edge, attracting sightseers.

You can swim Lake Michigan, even when no lifeguards are on duty, but be aware that rip currents and waves can make the water hazardous. You also can cook on the beach but must use one of the provided grills at a picnic shelter or an an approved carry-in grill (which must have a noncombustible container with an enclosed bottom and enclosed sides with a minimum depth of 2 inches); any charcoal must be cooled and disposed of in a noncombustible container or removed from the area. Glass containers cannot be used on the beach. Also, rocks and shells may not be taken from the beach.

Pavilion and fishing pier
On the beach’s east side is a 3,500 square foot public pavilion seasonal snack bar, restrooms, and a glass wall where migrating birds can be watched from the warmth of the indoors. There’s also a breakwater that heads to a modern beacon light marking the Burns Waterway, which is the East Arm of the Little Calumet River. The lighthouse marking the other side of the entry is a pretty sight.

The trail next curls past the pavilion and offers a spur to a fishing pier. With a permit, you can fish after hours.

Next the paved route heads north along the waterway. Part of the trail is a wooden walkway along the river.

At your parking lot, the trail crosses Riverwalk Drive to it. The pavement also continues south to another lot on the road’s east side. The breakwater and riverwalk portion of the hike are closed from the last Monday of November through March 1 and at any other time if ice or snow are present.