Conquering Sand Mountains at Warren Dunes State Park

Last summer on my Indiana trip I  had fun challenging myself on the three dunes challenge at Indiana Dunes State Park, so when I was invited by some high school friends to go to Michigan for a beach day at Warren Dunes State Park, I had an idea that more dune climbing would be in my future.

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I had checked out the park on a Friday as a sort of mini reunion with two high school friends and their kids, and I had so much fun that I enticed my family to make the trek back to Michigan on Sunday.

As I pulled into the parking lot on a Friday, it was clear that this was not going to be an ordinary beach day.  The sky was overcast, the lake had waves so big it looked liked the ocean, and there was a no swimming flag posted.  Oh yeah, and I was wearing a jacket in July.

After a round of hellos and how long has it beens, we redirected our efforts to find a place to hike. A short drive had us at a trail head.  We set off on the packed dirt trail not sure where we would be heading.     

Before long, we reached a turn off that was covered with sand.  As we approached, it rose before us  like a small mountain.  Standing at the base, I watched as people bear crawled up to the top then disappeared over the crest.  This daunting dune looked like it was at an angle of at least 60 degrees.

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My friend’s daughter wanted to climb so we followed.  I kicked off my flip flops and started the grueling trip up.  After about fifteen steps I knew that this was going to be a lot harder than it looked.  For every step forward, I slid back two in the loose sand.  The further I climbed, the more my heart was pounding.  Slowly we ascended the dune taking lots of breaks along the way.  

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Finally we rose above the treetops and  crested the top of the dune to be rewarded with spectacular views of cascading dunes leading the way to Lake Michigan. We all plopped down into the sand to rest before snapping victory photos.

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The return trip was so much easier and a whole lot more fun.  It felt like I was running down the dune as gravity pull me closer to the base.  As I leaned back and let my feet slide through the sand, I was reminded of hiking down the snow covered face of the Skyline Trail on Mt. Rainier.  

I had so much fun hiking this dune that I convinced my family to return on Sunday for another climb.  

Unlike my Friday adventure which was overcast and cool, Sunday was a perfectly sunny day.  

After the nominal entrance fee, we headed straight to the trail head.  I had warned my family that this dune was really steep, and the pictures I had taken really did it no justice.  

We ascended the giant dune again.  This time I chose to wear my running shoes which kept my ankles and feet from hurting, but it did nothing to help my pace.  Like a turtle, I made my way up the dune for the second time in three days, slow and steady.  Even my brother acknowledged that it was a difficult climb.  Finally I crested the top where everyone else was waiting.  

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Instead of turning around and descending back towards the car, we opted to go all the way to the lake.  The hike towards the lake was a nice mixture up gentle ups and downs culminating in that skiing experience I had felt on Friday.  

As we approached the beach, the picture before me had me wondering if I was in the same place.  The empty parking lot was now full of cars, RVs, tents, and people.  Beach umbrellas dotted the sand and hundreds of people splashed, kayaked, and swam in Lake Michigan.  

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We rested near the water for awhile before deciding that it was lunch time.  There were no concessions where we were, and we neglected to bring anything but water with us, so we headed back to the car.  The hike back was mostly flat with only one gentle ascent.  We followed what looked like a path into the trees which ended up being the return loop to where our car was parked.  The trail blazes are few and far between, but it did not make it that difficult to return to where we started since we knew the general direction of where the car was parked.

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Warren Dunes State Park has so much to offer from hiking to the dunes to kayaking Lake Michigan, to soaking up the Michigan sun.  For the nominal entrance fee, we had a blast.  Next time, we will come prepared with a cooler and set up at the beach after the dunes hike.  Watch out Indiana Dunes State Park, I think I have a new favorite for my beaching needs while visiting home.  

 

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Gliding on the Galien River

Next to running, kayaking has become one of my favorite outdoor activities.  I love to pull my paddle through smooth water.  I love the solitude of a quiet river.  I love being surrounded by nature.  I was able to find all of these in New Buffalo, Michigan while kayaking the Galien River.

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After a quick Google search, I found an outfitter that would rent me a kayak for the afternoon.  I packed a cooler, dropped my mom off at work and hit the road.  The rentals didn’t open until 11, so I spent the morning hiking around Indiana Dunes State Park.  From there, it was about 25 minute drive to the kayak launch.

The kayak launch is on the side of the Red Arrow Highway, and I almost overshot it.  Third Coast Surf Shop had a pretty nice selection of canoes and kayaks to rent by the hour or day.  I decided to rent by the hour and spent around 2.5 hours paddling  out and back towards Lake Michigan which ended up being about five miles.  This paddle set me back forty dollars, which I paid upon return.

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Waiver signed, I sat in the kayak and was off.   The murky brown water offended my eyes since it was not the crystal clear spring waters I was used to paddling.  Despite the ugliness of the water, I was still surrounded by the beauty of nature.  Cattails stood sentinel guarding the river bank.  Lily pads floated in bunches dotted with yellow flowers.  Marsh grasses waved in the breeze.  I glided by three snapping turtles sitting in the sun doing what looked like turtle yoga, their feet stretch out to the maximum length.  As I rounded a bend of marshy grasses, seventeen mallard ducks floated by the front of my boat.  But what really caught my eye was a fast moving patch of grass.  At first I thought that it was just some debris catching the current the same as I was.  When the grass began swimming faster than the kayak, I knew it was an animal, and upon closer inspection, I spied a muskrat.  He must have been taking some marsh reeds to work on his house.   Camera 360Camera 360

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At about two and a half miles out, I found a nice boat ramp to haul out and eat lunch.  After stretching my legs and filling my belly, I turned around and headed back towards the launch.  On the return trip, I passed many families that seemed to be kayaking for the first time.  They were making tons of noise, so the animal sightings ceased.  Before I knew it, I was gliding under Red Arrow Highway and returning to land.  I returned my kayak, said goodbye to Michigan, and aimed the car for Indiana.  Not a bad way to spend a Midwestern day.

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Fall Colors and Michigan Wine

I haven’t seen the leaves change in the Midwest since around 2004.  So when my brother set his wedding date in late October, I knew I would get to see my favorite season.  Geoff and I arrived a few days before the wedding and convinced my parents to take a road trip into southern Michigan to hit the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail.

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Setting foot on the grounds of Hickory Creek Winery was like stepping into a Norman Rockwell painting.  Corn fields in soldier straight lines waited to be harvested.  Vintage tractors perched on the edge of the driveway beckoning a photograph.  The trees that hadn’t yet become skeletons were fiery shades of red, golden yellows, and russet browns.  Red apples littered the ground in front of the red barn that held the tasting room and processing center.  But the most Midwestness of the scene was the tire swing begging me to take a seat and, of course, a picture.

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We had Hickory Creek Winery to ourselves, and for $5, we were supposed to be able to sample four wines, but since we were the only customers there, our hostess let us sample as many wines as we wished.  My two favorites were the 2013 Chardonnay and their Laughing Labs Rose’.  For every bottle of the Laughing Labs they sell, a portion of the sale goes to the Midwest Labrador Retriever Rescue.  Needless to say that after sampling about eight or nine wines, my mom and I were feeling pretty good.  So with my dad as chauffeur, we jumped back in the car to head to our next destination, Tabor Hill Winery.

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Tabor Hill was just as lovely as Hickory Creek, but more crowded.  Here my mom and I started with the wine tasting before the four of us took a break for lunch in their restaurant.  I sampled their Pino Gris, Lake Michigan Shore Rose’, Classic Demi-Sec, but my favorite was the Cherry Wine.  This bottle made the trip back to Florida.

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As Mom and I tasted, Geoff and my dad scoped out the chocolate truffles they import from Fort Myers, Florida.  Geoff bought us a box which didn’t last past lunch time.  The peanut butter and jelly and chocolate caramel being the favorites.

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Lunch at Tabor Hill, while a little pricey, was delicious.  They had everything you could imagine from Southwest salads, to gourmet burgers, to Shrimp Po’Boys.  The favorite of the table though was homemade potato chips drizzled with cheese, hot sauce, and blue cheese crumbles.

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After lunch we scoped out the grape vines yellowing in the autumn air before heading to Round Barn whose logo looks oddly like a smiling cheshire cat.  At Round Barn there is a wine tasting room that also serves vodka and other liquors.  In addition they have a brewery which you can buy by the glass or growler.

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Mom and I started with the winery.  At this point in the day, I stopped taking really good notes about what I was drinking.  I do know that I came home with a bottle of Farm Market Cranberry wine, which I am saving for Thanksgiving, and a bottle of DiVine Black Walnut  Creme which is sinfully delicious.  I can’t wait to open that bottle and make mixed drinks!  The only disappointment of the day was the DiVine Vodka which is made from grapes but tasted like gasoline.  I guess I’ll be sticking to potato vodka, besides, who knew vodka could be made from grapes?

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Our last stop on the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail was Lemon Creek Winery.  Here we only had about twenty minutes before they were closing, so the wine tasting was very hurried.  Our limited time didn’t stop me from picking up a bottle of their Silver Beach Sauterne.

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I would highly recommend steering your car in the direction of the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail in the fall for a sampling of great Midwestern wines and fall colors.  We only made it to four wineries, but there are eleven to visit and all within about 20 miles of each other.  For five to ten dollars at each location, we were provided with generous samples of wines made right on the property, and a few places even threw in a wine glass to boot which of course can be used for discounts on future trips.  Bottles of wine ranged from around $12 to $30 with many places offering discounts with multiple bottle purchases.  If we ever make it back to Michigan for a winery day, I would pack a picnic lunch as the only place serving food was Tabor Hill.  Most importantly, bring a designated driver (thanks Dad) because it’s very easy to overindulge.

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