Indiana Dunes State Park was established in 1925 to protect this beautiful area along Lake Michigan.
The Dunes Nature Preserve is contained entirely within the State Park, and presumably established in 1925 as well, although I cannot find a source.
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore was established in 1966, completely surrounding the State Park and substantially increasing the protected area.
In 1974, the park was established a U.S. National Natural Landmark.
And finally, in February of 2019, the National Lakeshore was upgraded to become the Indiana Dunes National Park, the nations 61st national park.
For the sake of simplicity, I'm going to refer to 'Indiana Dunes State Park Nature Preserve Natural Landmark National Park', simply as Indiana Dunes. Good job Indiana, for really making the most of your single National Park.
Back on track:
We wanted to go somewhere wintery for this holiday season. The last two years we've found ourselves in Asheville this time of year, and while we absolutely love Asheville and the surrounding mountains, we were looking for someplace a little different (and snowier) this year. Snowy van camping sounds wonderful in theory, but I did have my concerns (it is an 8,000 pound, rear wheel drive van, after all). We were looking closely at the Finger Lakes region of New York and the Leelanau peninsula area of Michigan. The average weather in both areas is remarkably similar, and both are chock full of wineries, Harvest Hosts, and hiking options. Then, in perfect 2020 fashion, COVID stifled our plans. New York has a mandatory 2 week quarantine period, so that option was out entirely. Michigan has no quarantine, but they also have no 'dine-in' permitted, which means no wine tastings; not the end of the world, but not ideal when going to wine country. To make matters worse, northern Michigan was predicting 4-8 inches of snow over the couple days we'd be there, and that was quite a bit more than I wanted to tackle in LishVan. Next Option...
Indiana Dunes was the only National Park within 500 miles of us that we had yet to visit, and the weather was looking perfect! I found no Harvest Hosts nearby, but a park campground was open, nearly empty, and in the center of all the hiking trails. Since the shower houses were closed for the season, they discount the camping rate substantially. This was perfect for us! I booked a corner site that backed up to a ravine and even provided electrical hook-up! I built the van to function with or without shore power, and this would be the first time we've ever stayed somewhere we could plug in. I added an electric coffee maker and an electric heater to our normal packing list to make the most of this new-to-us power!
We headed out the morning of New Years Eve, and arrived early afternoon. We parked the van, plugged it in, fired up the heater, and headed out for our first hike.
Having 120v shore power was convenient, but not at all required. I built the van with a small 120v system, as I knew we wouldn't use it much. The rooftop AC being the largest component and hardwired, I only added a few outlets. One over the kitchen counter for small appliances, one near the fridge and one near the microwave. I bought a beefy 10 gauge extension cord to carry around with us, and ran everything through a 20 amp GFCI and breaker.
Our refrigerator will run off the battery normally, but it automatically switches over when it senses I've plugged the van in.
We generally cook in the propane oven and make coffee on the propane stove, but the microwave and coffee maker become an option when plugged in.
We have a large diesel furnace, but plugging in allows me to run our electric space heater. I have an oil-filled radiator style heater; by far the safest option in a confined space like the van. I added a small fan behind the heater to move the warm air around. Our van is currently only about 80% insulated, and the electric heater on high kept it just about perfect in the 25-30 degree weather.
The 120v saved us some time cooking and some fuel/propane, but was far from a game changer.
Staying up till midnight would be cool and all, but spending New Years camping in our van at a national park was plenty cool for us!
Unfortunately, what didn't work in our favor was the game we wanted to watch didn't start till 8pm. I had read a noon start time, but upon arriving at the restaurant, I learned that was wrong. The only thing I can think of is when I googled OSU-Clemson Game Time, the first link that populated showed last seasons game details. We watched the Cincinnati bowl game instead. Almost as disappointing as the wrong game, was the restaurant we were in was a bit of a bust. Did you know smoking is still allowed inside in Indiana? We didn't. The place smelled of an ash tray, and in general was just mediocre. Can't win them all.
We headed a bit up the road to a (much much nicer) brewery for another drink and a little more football. It was still raining so heading back to the van wasn't ideal, but it was New Years Day, in freezing rain, in COVID times, so our options were somewhat limited!
We watched the beginning of the next game, and eventually headed back to the van before it got dark. The rain turned to snow, so we headed out for a night hike along the beach. It was pitch black (5pm!) and snowing, so we dawned all our gear and headlamps and headed out. We walked for a couple hours up and down the beach opposite direction from our last hikes, and had a wonderful time!
We finished our coffee and hit the trail as quick as we could to enjoy the fresh snow. This was to be our longest hike, so we headed through the woods and marshland about four miles. For a couple miles, we were the first footprints on the path with the exception of a pair of coyotes that had meandered this way not long before us. Our turn around point was the 1933 Chicago Worlds Fair Century of Progress Architectural District. 5 homes from the fair were relocated to the shore of Lake Michigan by a developer, and later taken over by the National Park Service. Any interesting detail to note, in order to afford the needed restorations, the National Park has allowed private citizens to pay for the restorations, in exchange for a 50 year lease of each property.
We hiked every trail in the campground area and walked more than 6 miles of the beach. We had an absolutely wonderful time at 'Indiana Dunes State Park Nature Preserve Natural Landmark National Park'. I can't help but think that may be greatly helped by the season/weather. I can only imagine the place can get quite busy in the warmer months, and I don't think the 'plus side' of being able to swim would outweigh the negatives of crowds and a busy campground. For a family vacation, perhaps the summer is the time to go, but for our purposes of escaping the day to day and hiking new areas, the winter worked wonderfully, and a long weekend was the perfect amount of time.