Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Mount Baldy (Indiana Dunes)

Lake Michigan from the Mount Baldy dune
1.3 miles round trip, 150 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no entrance fee required

Mount Baldy is the only remaining living dune at Indiana Dunes National Park, making it a must-visit for hikers looking to see a large expanse of sand at this new national park. The short hike around this dune and down to a sandy beach along Lake Michigan is quite enjoyable, although it unfortunately does not visit the sandy summit of this dune, which has been off limits to visitors for years due to sand instability. Hiking the beach at Mount Baldy also gives visitors a chance to reflect on the fate of nearby Hoosier Slide, once the tallest of Indiana's dunes.

I hiked Mount Baldy during a day trip to Indiana Dunes National Park while visiting a good friend who was living in Chicago at the time. The day of our hike was a little on the humid side, with warm temperatures and overcast skies that threatened rain for much of the day. We drove in from Chicago, taking I-94 south and east into Indiana and leaving the interstate at exit 26A for Route 49. Upon exiting, we took Route 49 north for two miles and then made a left turn for the ramp to connect with US Route 12; we took the right fork at the bottom of the ramp to head east on US Route 12. We followed US 12 east for 8.5 miles until coming to a wide rightward bend in the road where the Mount Baldy turnoff was on the left side of the road; we turned left here and drove to the parking lot at the end of the road, where there was parking for at least 60 cars. There were flush toilets at this trailhead.

The back side of Mount Baldy abuts the parking lot. Mount Baldy is a living dune, and the wall of sand on its back end has gradually been shifting inland, swallowing trees in the forest and moving now to the edge of the current parking lot. The sand ramparts visible from the parking lot are perhaps the most vivid reminder of the power of the Indiana Dunes in the national park.

Mount Baldy dune swallowing trees
The trail to Mount Baldy beach started from the entrance of the parking lot. Initially paralleling the road, the trail ascended briefly via a boardwalk staircase before depositing us onto a broad, sandy trail cutting through the forest. The loose sand underfoot here was our main indication that the verdant hardwood forest around us was actually growing atop a sand dune. The trail descended for a stretch before beginning to climb up the forested shoulder of Mount Baldy. The former summit trail for Mount Baldy branched off to the right and led towards the main dune, but this trail is now off limits. In 2013, a 6-year old boy was swallowed by the dune while near the summit of Mount Baldy, launching a frantic three hour rescue effort that fortunately ended with a successful rescue. Park officials later found that decaying trees would leave holes in the interior of Mount Baldy, making the dune prone to collapse, and has since limited the top of the dune to guided tours.

Sandy trail down to the beach
The sandy trail then led uphill to the ridgeline of Mount Baldy dune. Here, the forest ended and a slope of sand opened up beneath us, running down to the shoreline of vast Lake Michigan. Even from this vantage point high above the lake, we could see no end to this inland freshwater sea- just a forever calm mirror reflecting the rays of sunshine piercing the grey pregnant clouds.

The descent down the dune to the lake was the most fun stretch of the hike: a few bounding strides brought us down to the sandy beach beneath Mount Baldy (Conversely, the ascent up this slope during the return was the most physically strenuous part of the hike, as I would backslide a step for every two steps forward). The beach at the base of the descent was quite crowded, with most visitors to Mount Baldy Beach enjoying the water within a hundred yards of where the trail met the beach.

Dune meets the beach at Mount Baldy
The trail ended here at the beach, but it was possible to wander freely along the beach in either direction; unfortunately, the body of the dune itself was cordoned off and inaccessible. We chose to head to the right (east) as the bulk of the dune lay to the east. As we hiked along the base of the towering piles of sand, the crowds evaporated and soon it was just us, the dunes, the lake, and the NIPSCO Michigan City coal-fired power plant in the distance.

Tall dunes and the NIPSCO Michigan City power plant
Lake Michigan is the largest lake entirely within the United States and the third largest of the Great Lakes by surface area (although if Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are considered one contiguous lake- which technically they are- the combined body of water would be the largest freshwater lake in the world by area). The Great Lakes were collectively formed by glacial erosion during periods of continental glaciation in the most recent Ice Ages. The glaciers that carved out Lake Michigan's basin also left a large amount of finely ground glacial sediment, which lake currents in more recent millenia deposited on the eastern shore of the lake. These deposits eventually formed the many sand dunes of Lake Michigan, which stretch from Sleeping Bear Dunes in the northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan to the Indiana Dunes and include notable features like the Saugatuck Dunes and the Silver Lake Dunes.

Mount Baldy dune and Lake Michigan
Although Mount Baldy is today the largest of the Indiana Dunes, the lakefront landscape of Lake Michigan was far different just over a century ago. Before the Port of Indiana and the cities of Gary and Michigan lined this lakeshore, there were massive dunes along the lakeshore, the tallest of which was Hoosier Slide, a 200 foot dune just east of where Mount Baldy stands today that rose above the growing settlement of Michigan City. However, as the Midwest turned into the industrial powerhouse of the world in the early twentieth century, demand grew for industrial facilities along the shores of Lake Michigan. Hoosier Slide- the biggest of all the Indiana Dunes and one of the state's greatest tourist attractions at the turn of the century- suffered an ignominious fate. Industrialists bought up the land where the dune stood and in the early 1900s the Hoosier Slide Sand Company began carting away the dune's sands by the railcar. The sand found of Hoosier Slide found its way into various industrial purposes; in one case, the Ball Brothers- famous even today for their Mason jars- discovered that the dune sand could be used to make beautifully blue tinted glass, so they participated in the desecration of the dune, gradually turning this soaring geological feature into their "Ball Blue" jars for home canning. By the 1920s, the tallest sand dune in Indiana had disappeared and the land it once occupied was acquired by NIPSCO at the end of that decade for a coal-fired power plant.

The state of Indiana established Indiana Dunes State Park in the 1925 to protect a small stretch of the dunefield as locals began to advocate for the preservation of the dunes. However, by the mid-century, the dunes were again under threat as plans were drawn up for the Port of Indiana at Gary. Advocates for preserving the dunes included the poet Carl Sandburg, who declared that the dunes were "eternity's signature" and that the dunes "are to the Midwest what the Grand Canyon is to Arizona." Senator Paul Douglas of Indiana lobbied John F. Kennedy on the matter of saving the dunes, leading to a compromise with a smaller footprint for the Port of Indiana and the establishment of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. The lakeshore was upgraded to a national park designation in 2019, a move championed by senators of both parties from Indiana.

Dunes along Lake Michigan
We ended our hike after walking about a third of a mile down the beach, reaching the eastern end of the Mount Baldy dune. We were within a stone's throw of the NIPSCO Michigan City power plant. In 2021, Indiana was still the nation's third largest consumer of coal power- understandable considering the role that energy-intensive heavy industry plays in the state's economy. However, NIPSCO already intends to decomission the Michigan City coal plant in the coming decade and wind power is growing quickly, so in the future there may not be a concrete cooling tower dominating the Lake Michigan skyline at Mount Baldy. Hoosier Slide is not coming back, but maybe there will be a place for waterborne sands to accumulate once again.

Mount Baldy dunes and Lake Michigan
Mount Baldy and the Indiana Dunes are not the showiest or flashiest of America's natural wonders, but they have a subtle beauty and are today preserved for us because of the dedication and love that previous generations of Midwesterners held for this landscape. If you're in Chicago or the state of Indiana during the warmer months, you should make your way out to these dunes. When you do, be sure to visit Mount Baldy to see this great dune meet the lake and to reflect on the site's complex history.

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