Running the Dunes

Mt. Tom, Mt. Holden, Mt. Jackson, Paradise Valley – sounds like a trail run in Colorado, right? But these are some of the highlights of trail running at the Indiana Dunes. Last week, Laima and I had the opportunity to check out the trails and get some of marathon training done on our way home from an overnight stay in Union Pier.

Indiana Dunes Trail Running

I mapped out a roughly 6 mile loop course using two trails, numbers 10 and 8. Not much information was given on the website, though the map does say that 10 is a moderate trail and 8 is strenuous. We parked and started running from the Nature Center, where clean bathrooms and information are available. Finding the start of Trail 10 is a bit difficult, as a 3-way fork was marked with only a Trail 8 marker, but we eventually ran into it with some blind luck. Trail 10 was our path for the first 5 miles, packed and soft sand alternating with some grassy double track and, due to heavy rains the night before, the trail also had some mud. The trail meanders through a forested area that runs along a long marsh, with some undulating hills and a few longer climbs as it turns to Lake Michigan, eventually spilling out onto the beach. We ran along the beach for a few miles before finding the turn back inland along Trail 8. Here’s where things got interesting.

Trail 8 runs roughly from the beach to the Nature Center, and is the basis for the 3 Dune Challenge, climbing up and down the aforementioned peaks of Mt. Tom, Mt. Holden and Mt. Jackson. Flatlanders that we are, we assumed we could run up and down the dunes with ease, completing our loop and getting back to the car with no problems. Our first steps onto the dune put an end to that conceit – at nearly 200 feet in elevation and a slope of 40 degrees, we quickly stopped running and started surviving. Getting to the top gave us some respite, but now we had two more dunes to conquer to be finished. A LONG set of stairs down set us up for the next climb, another downhill, and another climb after that. Even after finishing the 3rd downhill, rolling climbs greeted us as we ran (finally running again!) back to the Nature Center. Strenuous might be an understatement for this trail.

Indiana Dunes Trail Running

If Trail 8 sounds too daunting, Trail 10 does continue along the beach to the bathing area, and you can get back to the Nature Center by following the roads back. That would certainly make for an easier finish. 🙂

Though physically one of the more difficult runs I’ve ever done, this was also one of the most satisfying. The trails offered up so much variety: forest, lakefront, sand dunes. The packed sand was comfortable to run on, while soft sand gave us a serious cardio workout. The 3 Dune Challenge certainly humbled us while giving us great views and a bit of elevation change and who can resist free stickers to celebrate the feat?

If you are in the Chicago area, make time to visit the Dunes, whether for running, a family hike, or swimming in Lake Michigan. It’s a great resource to have so close to home. We will definitely be back, kids in tow – we’ll see what THEY think of the challenge.

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