West Beach is a very popular component of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. During the summer months, crowds throng the beach and bathhouse; during cooler weather, the capacious parking lots are abandoned, and you may have the place to yourself. Whatever the time of year, the trail system sees much less use than the waterfront. Even with the crowds along the beach, bank swallows may set up nesting colonies in the near-vertical sand banks along parts of the beach; look for their entrance holes near the tops of the banks.
Of the trails, the Dune Succession Trail is the most popular, possibly because its spectacularly long staircases are an irresistible attraction. The Dune Succession Trail is a half-mile long; it begins in the foredunes, just beyond the beach. Marram grass is common here; it flourishes in the extremely sandy soil and its dense network of fibrous roots helps hold the foredunes in place. As it continues inland, the trail skirts several intradunal ponds that support their own populations of plants and animals, with many species that are different from those found either in Lake Michigan or further inland. Watch for starry Solomon’s seal here.
Further on is a stand of Jack-pine, an evergreen with short, paired needles. Natural Indiana populations of this species are restricted to the northwestern part of the state; much larger stands occur in Michigan, Wisconsin, and especially in Canada. The plant’s short (2″), closed cones can remain attached to branches for years, waiting for the fires that the seeds rely upon to germinate.
Other trails pass through somewhat flatter areas further inland. The terrain did not start out that way; it is flat because miners hauled the sand away and the natural processes of dune-building are just getting back underway. The vegetation here is rather low, and hiking during hot, sunny summer days can be a sweat and sunburn inducing experience, so dress appropriately and bring water. Exceptions include the northwestern portion of the Long Lake Trail, which passes through a very pleasant interdunal forest, and the southern portion of the same trail, which offer excellent views of the lake, where buttonbush thrives along the shore.