What’s your pleasure? Camping or canoeing? Hiking or bird watching? Chocolate or steam locomotives? Lighthouses or baseball?
You don’t need to travel to far from home. All of that and more is available to see, do and experience in Northwest Indiana. And each of these must-see attractions is less than a tank of gas away.
Instead of a two-week vacation, why not explore your own backyard over a three- or four-day weekend? You might be surprised at what you’ll find.
Each of these attractions provides a glimpse of the historic and natural diversity that is at the core of Northwest Indiana. Certainly there are others, but these offer a chance to explore the outdoors, learn about the region’s manufacturing past and take in some of the entrepreneurial spirit—shining examples of the determination that makes Northwest Indiana what it is today.
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore contains more than 15,000 acres and 15 miles of beach along Lake Michigan, from Gary to Michigan City. Last year the 44-year-old park hosted nearly 2 million visitors, says Lynda Lancaster, spokeswoman for the park.
“We have the seventh most diverse vascular plant species,” says Lancaster, adding, “those are flowering plants.”
Species such as jack pine, which are found mostly in Canada, and prickly pear cactus, common in the U.S. southwest, are found side-by-side at Indiana Dunes.
The park is home to the endangered Karner blue butterfly and five species of swallow, which dig holes in the steep sandy faces of dunes near 125-foot Mount Baldy near Michigan City.
Lancaster’s previous assignments took her to the mall in Washington, D.C., Denali National Park in Alaska and Glacier Bay in the Pacific Northwest, but she says Indiana Dunes is just as special as more well-known parks. “It is a place that provides an opportunity for people who want to keep in touch with the natural habitat.”
For information, visit their website.
South Bend Chocolate Co.
Who doesn’t like chocolate? It’s a treat any time of the year, and for chocolate lovers, there’s no better place than South Bend Chocolate Co.
Owner Mark Tarner opened South Bend Chocolate in 1991 as a specialty chocolate maker by signing an agreement with the University of Notre Dame. Today, he makes treats for Indiana, Purdue and Michigan as well as the general public.
“We’ve grown over the years,” says Tarner. “We’re in a 100-year-old building and we have a 10,000-square-foot store.”
Not only can chocolate lovers buy Tarner’s products, they can see how they’re made. “We have a hair net tour,” says Tarner, adding that visitors can sign up for a regular free tour or a special paid tour where they get to create their own chocolate concoction.
The factory, museum and gift shop are at 3300 W. Sample St., South Bend. There are 16 other locations, including three on the Indiana Toll Road, seven other Indiana communities and outlets in Michigan and Ohio. For more information, visit their website or call 574/233-2577.
Hesston Steam Museum
Since 1957, Hesston Steam Museum has been attracting steam locomotive fans to its more than 150 acres in northern LaPorte County.
It is a place, says executive director Ted Rita, that recalls another era. Where else can you take the family for a steam train ride through the woods in a full-sized 1929 Shay logging locomotive? Or go for a ride on a quarter-scale team locomotive that operated at Kiddieland Amusement Park in Chicago?
Rita loves steam locomotives and points out that from the mid-1800s until 1950, steam powered the nation. The museum, Rita says, isn’t merely a display. “People can ride it, they can touch it, they can experience it. That’s what makes the museum unique.”
Hesston Steam Museum is at 1201 E. County Road 1000 North, LaPorte. For more information, visit their website or call 219/872-5055 during the week or 219/778-2783 on the weekend.
Hoosier Bat Co.
Former New York Yankees scout Dave Cook has carved out a unique niche. His company supplies baseball bats to major leaguers, T-ballers and players in between.
For baseball fans, the chance to talk with Cook, look around his small showroom and gift shop and tour the factory is a rare look behind the curtain of the major leagues.
Retired Chicago White Sox slugger Frank Thomas used a Hoosier Bat. Today, some 75 to 80 minor and major leaguers use Hoosier bats.
After opening a restaurant in Plymouth called the Hayloft that was in an old barn, one of his regular customers was Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who had a home in nearby Culver.
“I asked him if he had anything in baseball for me to do,” says Cook. “Two weeks later he called.” The offer was to be a scout in Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and Kentucky, a job Cook quickly accepted.
By 1989, Cook stepped away from scouting and started Hoosier Bat, a unique product made with an ash handle, a hickory sweet spot and a maple barrel. He patented the bat and got it approved for use in the major leagues.
Hoosier Bat is at 4511 E. Evans Ave., Valparaiso. For more, information visit their website or call 800/228-3787.
Bass Lake Beach and Campground
Bass Lake in tiny Starke County is Indiana’s fourth-largest lake and it’s home to Bass Lake Beach and Campground, home to 1,500 feet of pristine sandy beach. With a campground directly across from the beach, it has become a popular summer getaway destination for Chicagoans and Northwest Indiana residents.
Brian Callahan of Callahan Co. LLC operates the beach on behalf of Starke County Commissioners. “It’s a popular place for campers and people who just like to enjoy the beach,” says Callahan. He notes that the beach used to be operated by the state, but a few years ago was taken over by the county.
Bass Lake Beach is on Indiana 10 near Knox. For information, visit their website or call 574/772-3382.
Jasper-Pulaski Wildlife Refuge
Things are quiet right now at Jasper-Pulaski Wildlife Refuge, but come fall, it will be a crowded, noisy place with thousands of sandhill cranes stopping by during their annual migration.
Jason Gilbert, assistant manager of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources property, says the peak for sandhill crane migration is mid- to late November.
“We have 8,000 acres here and most of it is marsh,” says Gilbert. “There aren’t a lot of hiking trails, which is why we ask everyone who visits to sign in at the headquarters and then go to the public viewing area we have nearby.”
Site manager Jim Bergens says as many as 35,000 cranes can be on site at any one time, but the usual number is about 16,000 during the annual migration.
“It’s a really exciting time when they are here,” says Bergens.
The elegant, gray stork-like birds were down to only a few nesting pairs some 50 years ago, but efforts to protect the species have worked and now they have become a popular Hoosier attraction on their annual migration from Florida and Georgia to Wisconsin, Minnesota and southern Canada.
Jasper-Pulaski’s headquarters is on Indiana 143, about a mile and a half west of U.S. 421, near Medaryville. For information, visit their website or call 219/842-4841.
Deep River Water Park
The idea of a county-operated water park was controversial in 1995. Not anymore. Deep River Water Park is 15 years old, and is on target this year to host a record 240,000 visitors.
“The park department decided to enter into a business development because we knew there had to be a mechanism to sustain itself,” says Sandy Basala, superintendent of visitor services for the Lake County Parks Department. With 12 parks, she says something was needed to generate revenue.
“Some people thought it would be too cold for a water park, but at that time, the Dells in Wisconsin were a major attraction,” says Basala.
When the park opened in 1995, projected attendance was 140,000, but more than 200,000 people went through the gates. “In 2004, we almost doubled in size and we added ice skating in the winter,” says Basala.
The attractions include a 500,000-gallon, heated wave pool, an 800-foot Bayou River Ride, the Play Zone for children, and Mayor Byrdovich’s Courthouse, a family play area.
Deep River Water Park is at 9001 E. U.S. 30, Merrillville. For more information, visit their website or call 800/928-7275.
Tippecanoe River State Park
One of the best places for canoeists in Northwest Indiana is Tippecanoe River State Park in Pulaski County. Property manager Kevin Snyder says canoeists find Tippecanoe River a nice place to enjoy a summer weekend.
“People love the trails and the wildlife they find here,” Snyder says, adding that river otters, beavers and eagles are common sights. “Of course, if you do come, make sure to bring some bug spray. The mosquitoes can be bad at times.”
With more than 2,800 acres within the park, Snyder says there are 20 miles of hiking trails, 107 campsites with electric hookups and cabins to rent for $35 a night. “All you need to bring is a bedding and food,” he says.
Last year, Tippecanoe River State Park attracted 200,000 visitors. “This is a really lovely place. It’s laid out pretty nice and it has a fierce following of folks who show up on a regular basis.”
Tippecanoe River State Park is at 4200 N. U.S. 30, north of Winamac. For more information, visit their website or call 574/946-3213.
Old Lighthouse Museum
Indiana’s only lighthouse museum is in Michigan City’s Washington Park. Its fascinating history includes the story of Harriet Colfax, one of a handful of women light keepers and who maintained Michigan City’s light for more than 40 years.
Her logbooks were so detailed they are a part of the collection in the National Archives.
Jackie Glidden, chief curator at the 152-year-old museum, calls it “a jewel.”
“The thing people need to see is the Fresnel lens,” she says. “This is Indiana’s only federal lighthouse. People who come here are amazed at the quantity and quality of the material we have and how well things are done.”
The Old Lighthouse Museum is on Heisman Harbor Road in Washington Park, across the parking lot from the U.S. Coast Guard Station. For more information, visit their website or call 219/872-6133.
Studebaker National Museum
Studebaker National Museum in South Bend is home to much more than classic cars. “People find it hard to believe that we have the largest presidential carriage collection in the United States,” says Petty Soderberg, assistant director of the museum.
They were the presidential limousines of their day. The four on display were used by Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Benjamin Harrison and William McKinley. They are among 120 horse-drawn wagons and carriages, automobiles and military hardware built by Studebaker from the 1860s to the 1960s on display at the museum.
Studebaker, which started as a wagon maker, was the backbone of the South Bend and northern Indiana economy for a century before it closed in 1966.
The Studebaker National Museum and the adjoining Center for History are at 201 S. Chapin St., South Bend. For information, visit their website or call 574/235-9714.
Other Sites to Consider
Albanese Candy, 5441 E. Lincoln Highway, Merrillville (219/738-2333); Shrine of Christ’s Passion, 10630 Wicker Ave., St. John (219/365-6010); University of Notre Dame, 112 N. Notre Dame Ave., South Bend (574/631-8638); 49er Drive-In, 675 N. Calumet Ave., Valparaiso (219/462-6122); Hoosier Valley Railroad Museum, 507 Mulberry St., North Judson (574/896-3950); Fair Oaks Dairy, 857 N. County Road 600 East, Fair Oaks (877/536-1194); Barker Mansion, 631 Washington St., Michigan City (219/873-1520).
Northwest Indiana Tourism Information