The Run Down

Visiting the Indiana Dunes National Park is usually a summertime affair. When there's fresh snow on the ground, however, it's an entirely different experience that might have you thinking these Midwest winters aren't so bad after all. Take the kids an hour south of the city for an easy winter hike up sand dunes and through patches of pine forests that lead you out to Lake Michigan. Afterward, on the way back to the city, treat the family to a feast at a seafood shack on the side of the road.

1. Hike @ West Beach Trails

2. Seafood Eat @ Calumet Fisheries

1. West Beach Trails

We’re starting things off at the West Beach Trails, consisting of 3 looping trails connected inside the Indiana Dunes National Park.  Here are a few things to note.

– While there’s typically a fee to enter, it’s free in the winter.

– The main parking lot has access to all three trailheads.

– This guide focuses on the Dune Succession Trail Loop, highlighted below.

– If there’s enough snow on the ground, bring it with you because this is the only place where sledding is permitted in the Indiana Dunes National Park. There’s a gnarly sand dune labeled on the map below.

– The trail consists almost entirely of stairs and a wooded boardwalk. There are a lot of steps, so depending on how much energy the kids have to expend, this could be good or bad. If the kids are young and you’re going to be doing a lot of carrying, here’s a Wirecutter article reviewing baby/toddler hiking backpacks.

We start the hike at the entrance of the Dune Succession Trail Loop. It’s right next to the parking, and what awaits is an easy 1-mile loop with a big payoff about halfway through. After a few moments into the hike, you’ll catch a glimpse of the first significant part of the hike. This staircase goes up 250 steps to the top of a forested dune. Here’s a view from a lookout platform at the top of the stairs. Remember, we said to bring a sled? After this hike, you can make your way to the giant sand dune on the left side of the picture below. By Chicago standards, it’s basically a mountain, and you’ll get some serious speed going down it. Once you reach the top of the platform, the stairs continue on a winding path through these woodlands. The heavy snow muffles the sounds of the forest. It’s quiet and peaceful, and as you keep going, the only thing that breaks the silence are the sounds of waves crashing as you get closer to Lake Michigan. You could literally record the audio of your footsteps and the waves on your phone and use it as a sleep aid in the future — that’s how restorative this walk felt.

We’re halfway through and made it to the first big payoff. The forest opens to a sweeping view of Lake Michigan and the pine forest below.

Keep following the stairs; they will lead you directly into the pine forest. At this point, it’s hard to believe we’re anywhere close to Chicago.

Here’s a view looking back at the stairs that led us here.

Eventually, you’re back at sea level, and the trail takes you to Lake Michigan. From here, you can take a left and follow the beach until you hit a second set of stairs that will take you to a paved road that you can follow to get back to the parking lot.

If you want to continue, there are two more trails that will take you another hour or so to explore.  There’s also the sledding hill to check out if you brought your sledding gear.

2. Calumet Fisheries

You’ve probably worked up an appetite after your hike. On the way back home, there’s a route you can take that has you passing a shack next to the 95th street bridge by the Calumet river. This is not any shack; this is a seafood shack that has been operating on the South Side since 1928.

Here are some tips to keep in mind.

– Cash only

– No seating inside, but if you’re comfortable with it, lots of folks eat in their car parked on the side of the road.

– If you’d rather take it home, all the food holds up exceptionally well.

While the neighborhood around Calumet Fisheries has seen its ups and downs and industries around it have opened and closed, this family-operated seafood shack is still going strong. Perhaps that’s a testament to the good eats you can find here. Speaking of food, you’ll find an extensive selection of smoked fish prepared on-site in their smokehouse. We’re talking about trout, sable, salmon, sturgeon, and herring, to name a few.

For the kids, they have a selection of fried seafood options like smelt, scallops, and shrimp. If you need a fried food recommendation, fried smelt is the way to go. I like to think of them as french fries of the sea.  They are small freshwater fish fried whole and eaten with a little bit of hot sauce or tartar sauce.