There’s a place in Dune Acres, very close to Chesterton, Indiana, that offers the body, mind and imagination both respite and ignition. It is a time capsule. Whether you are going for the first time, or the fiftieth, this place transports you elsewhere- to another time, another era. Where exactly you go is very much up to you.
You might go back to the early 1900s, when a professor at the University of Chicago named Dr. Henry Chandler Cowles frequently brought groups of students and scientists on hikes through the area to study the incredible biodiversity of plants, animals and ecosystems. Through his work in the Indiana dunes, particularly in this locale that would later be named for him, Dr. Cowles helped to establish the field of ecology.
Most likely though, you’ll end up somewhere in the Mesozoic Era. Each turn in your path could just as easily reveal a dinosaur track, or a fellow hiker. You'll wonder where that feeling comes from, and begin to ponder your subconscious link between ferns and the movie Jurassic Park as you take in all the beauty around you.
Regardless of where it’s taken you in your mind, the path ahead will lead you down a 4.7-mile trail to the beach and back. Though the name might suggest otherwise, the centerpiece of Cowles Bog is technically a fen, which is the alkaline version of a bog. Though you will not see the fen from the trail, there are more than enough incredible landscapes to encounter, including ponds, marshes, swamps, black oak savannas, and the beach of Lake Michigan.
From the trailhead, you wind through the wetland and forested ecosystems at a slight incline. The wildflowers and cacophony of bird calls draw your feet further up the path. You might see signs of beavers or frogs, or other wildlife as you climb higher and closer to the apex of your journey.
As you aproach the halfway point of the trail, there is a half mile stretch where things start to get a bit steeper, and you wonder which hill will finally reveil what you know hides just over the horizon. Finally, the trees part and you catch your first glimpse of Lake Michigan. The smell of the lake on the open water breeze hits your face and forces you to pause and take a deep breath. If you’ve come on a sunny day, you feel it’s rays for the first time since you entered the trail. You’ve successfully trekked a couple miles, you’re feeling pretty good, and the steep walk down the dune you stand
atop seems an adventure that you dive into without a second thought (after taking a few photos of the gorgeous view of course). Step after step, like skiing on snow, you glide down the dune leaving footprint sized sand slides in your wake.
Soon the sand levels out and your focus zeros in on the water, the enjoyment of your severe decent left behind. For a few minutes, it is only a small sliver of cobalt on the horizon. But beyond the marram grass, beyond the mounds of sand, the path leads you past all obstacles and the lake is spread out before you. In just a few feet, the sound profile changes, from the wind through the grasses and distant trees, to the cyclical lapping and breaking of the waves. This is the highlight of the trail for many. There are thousands of rocks to be examined, and some even bring a lunch to enjoy while regrouping for the trek back.
After enjoying your fill of Lake Michigan’s soothing company, it is about this time that you will begin to look back at the path you’ve taken to get to the lake, and will remember that carefree decent down the dune.
Perhaps there will be some stairs to get back up, you'll muse as you begin to head back towards the trail. You soon discover that there are no stairs, and due to erosion from those who came before you, there is a fairly vertical ascent in your near future. You stare up and your eyes rake over the intermittent tree roots peeking out of the sand that will be your footholds and salvation. You start to climb. Mainly because there is no other choice aside from living on the beach, which honestly isn’t sounding too bad right about now. Depending on your fitness level, the next several minutes involve a few breaks to catch your breath, and eventually a sense of tremendous accomplishment once you finally reach the summit.
While reminiscing fondly of the gradual inclines found on the first half of the trail, you solder through the many hills on the second half. Apparently, most dunes don’t do gradual. The return trip is just as lovely, but you find you aren't stopping quite as often to take photos of every flower and iridescent beetle. If you happen across a pond full of tadpoles though, all bets are off. Depending on where you parked, you have the option to cut back to where you started to get the Cowles Bog trailhead, or you can connect to the Greenbelt trail (which is mercifully flat and even) to access that trailhead’s parking which is used for overflow on busy days.
So is the Cowles Bog trail worth all that work? This account may sound a bit harrowing at times, but it is by far one of our favorite trails, as long as you come prepared. Bring plenty of water, wear sun and insect protection, take your time, and perhaps most importantly, know what you’re getting into. There are shorter loops on the trail that avoid the beach all together, and perhaps that could be a fun goal to work towards on your hiking journey. However you decide to enjoy it, the Cowles Bog trail is a gorgeous way to spend half a day in one of the most biodiverse areas of the Indiana Dunes National Park.As always, be sure to recreate responsibly, and pack out all your trash. Enjoy the trail!
For more information about this trail: https://www.nps.gov/indu/planyourvisit/cb16.htm#CP_JUMP_5034447
Historic photos courtesy of the Calumet Regional Archives, Indiana University Northwest