Because a highway overpass qualifies as elevation in these parts, Chicagoland skiers seeking the joy of rolling cross-county terrain have to travel — nearby, during the pandemic — to satisfy their topographic envy, a condition satisfied in under an hour with a day trip to neighboring Indiana and its Lake Michigan-hugging Indiana Dunes National Park (free in winter).
There, some 15,000 fragmented acres of rolling lakeside dunes, wetlands and forest are interspersed with steel mills and power plants near the Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor. All would have been nearly lost in the rush to industrialize the coast if it hadn’t been for early conservationists, including the University of Chicago botanist Henry Chandler Cowles, whose 19th-century studies on plant succession in the dunes helped popularize the field of ecology.
The vast, if subtle, biodiversity in the national park — which got a status upgrade from a national lakeshore in 2019 — is largely shorn by the wind or transformed under ice and snow in the winter, the season for lovers of solitude. At the southernmost base of Lake Michigan, the wind-scoured shore, often piled with ice, offers a credible impression of the Arctic during cold snaps.
Because of warming winters, snow is not consistent throughout the winter. But skiers, snowshoers and winter lovers keep an eye on the northern Indiana forecast.
“Because we tend to get more lake-effect snow than in Chicago based on the wind direction, we get a lot of calls when Chicago’s getting snow,” said Bruce Rowe, the supervisory park ranger and public information officer at the park. “They might get a half-inch and sometimes we’ll get a foot.”
So, the first order of winter business is to check the weather. The second is to be flexible as trail conditions may better suit snowshoeing or even hiking (trails are not groomed). The third is to stay on established trails; though inviting, many of the dunes are off limits as fragile ecosystems (there’s one sledding area in the park, at West Beach Trails).
The best ski area, which undulates pleasantly enough for beginner to intermediate skiers, is tucked in the woods at the Glenwood Dunes Trails. The system of interconnected loops ranges from less than a mile to nearly 15 miles. More experienced skiers will appreciate the 2.9-mile Tolleston Dunes Trail that follows the contours of 4,700-year-old sand dunes.