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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Sun, Sand, and Lake Michigan

When I was a little girl, my mom and aunt took me, my brother, and my cousins to the Dunes as an occasional summer treat.  I remember the long walk from the car which seemed to be parked miles away from the lake.  I remember juice boxes, cheese and crackers, and grapes filling the cooler.  I remember the sand burning my feet.  I remember the deep blue of the lake that was as vast as the ocean.

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25 years later I arrive at the Dunes this time sans cooler or crew.  It’s just me.  I stop at the visitor’s center for a map, and a sign proclaiming the Three Dune Challenge captures my eye.  Yes, that sounds like something I might like to do.

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I drive to the trail head, slap some sunscreen on my face, sling my backpack on, and take my first steps towards the mile and a half loop that boasts runners and hikers alike will take two steps forward and one step back through the sand.

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The trail starts off even and shaded, but quickly turns to the first incline.  From this point on, the trail is covered in soft, loose sand.  I head up the first dune to it’s peak, and I’m rewarded with my first view of Lake Michigan from the top of Mt. Jackson’s 176 foot elevation.  It’s a blue sapphire glittering in the morning sun.  The smokestacks of the steel mills are hidden by the trees.  A breeze ruffles the hair on my neck that has pulled loose from my pony tail.  It is so quiet, and peaceful so I sit for a moment on a fallen branch and enjoy the all encompassing silence.

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Then I point my shoes towards dune number two.   The trail quickly descends reminding me of hiking down Mt. Rainier’s snow covered mountain last summer.   My sandals sliding down the soft sand the same way my boots slid through the crunchy snow.  Before long the trail evened out again before quickly angling back up.  This dune is steeper, the sand slips under my sandals as I try to find purchase in the footsteps of those who have traveled before me.  I feel every heartbeat as I ascend.  And then I’m there at the top of Mt. Holden, now 184 above Lake Michigan.

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Once more I continue on the trail knowing that Mt. Tom is the highest dune in this area.  I anticipate more sandy inclines, but this time I am greeted with 105 stairs that will help me to the top of Mt. Tom.  Reaching the top, I am now 192 feet above Lake Michigan, and I can see much more of the Indiana shoreline including the smokestacks disturbing the otherwise pristine view.

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Then it’s down another 105 stairs before being deposited onto the path that dumps me in the campground.  After Sunday’s half marathon this “challenge” didn’t seems so daunting, and the walk back to the car was much shorter than the one’s I remember during my youth.

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Leaving the park I return to the visitor’s center to claim my sticker proving I completed the Three Dune Challenge, and file away new memories next to the ones of my childhood.

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