Off the Beaten Path, from Illinois to Michigan along Highway 12

Submitted by: Debbie Barkowski

With red, gold, and yellow leaves starting their leisurely descent upon the ground, but before the buzz of leaf blowers begins, it’s the perfect time of year to let wanderlust take control, leading you to the unexpected treasures of a day trip along the southern shore of Lake Michigan.

From Illinois, take exit 19 from I-94, heading north to Highway 12 (also known as dunes highway). As grateful as we are for the improvements along 94, nothing beats the ease of a one-lane highway meandering through the beautiful Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, especially in fall.

If you’re like me, you like to get your work (exercise) done first so that you can enjoy the rewards (food and beer) of a job well done. In this case, our “work” is a scenic hike through the Indiana Dunes State Park in Chesterton. Make it as arduous or as easy as you want depending on the trail you choose and the fitness level of your companions. Not a big hiker? That’s ok – bring your bikes along because there are plenty of beautiful paths for pedaling.


Trail 9 at Indiana Dunes State Park. Photo by Eve Wierzbicki

Trail 9 at Indiana Dunes State Park. Photo by Eve Wierzbicki.


Once you’ve had some fun in the State Park, hop back on Highway 12. Make sure to turn left when you hit Kemil Road and take a detour down what the locals call “tunnel road”, which is gorgeous during the fall! A jaunt by the lake and then head to Dark Star of the Dunes for a bit to try Chef Erik Tannehill’s famous buffalo chicken egg rolls. Or look for the beer drinkin’ deer calling you to enjoy some great food and a craft beer at Bartlett’s Gourmet Grill & Tavern in Beverly Shores. You earned it!

To stretch your legs after filling up your belly, continue east on 12 to Michigan City’s Uptown Arts District (UAD) to visit the shops and galleries that dot Franklin Street. Take a piece of the lakeshore with you by picking up some unique beach glass jewelry at Beach Bum Jewels, or peruse the eclectic clothing and accessories at Urban Soles or Darling. If it happens to be the first Friday of the month – you’re in luck! The UAD celebrates First Fridays, when artists and Michigan City Mainstreet Association members celebrate the arts into the evening. Check out the latest exhibit at the Lubeznik Center for the Arts or stop in and say Aloha to Ester at The Nest, which mixes art, entertainment and unique gifts.

Pushing eastward, you’ll find the Friendship Botanic Gardens. Take a self-guided tour of Michigan City’s historic 100+ sprawling acres of cultivated gardens and trails. On October 16th, the Gardens will host Okto-Beer-Fest. Explore the autumn colors while sampling craft beers from over 15 of the Midwest’s best microbreweries, plus wood-fired pizza from South Shore Ovenworks, burgers, and more.

Friendship Botanic Gardens. Photo by Chad Ulam.

Friendship Botanic Gardens. Photo by Chad Ulam.


After a full day exploring the beauty of the dunes and sampling the food and arts of northwest Indiana, find your way to Three Oaks, Michigan. For some nightlife, catch a show at the Acorn Theater, which is host to musicians, bands, musicals, and comedy shows of all genres.

Just next door, you can toast your adventures with a cocktail made from artisan spirits at Journeyman Distillery. What do I recommend? I thought you’d never ask! Try the Sazerac or Hops & Wheat cocktails, and trust me, try the Detroit style pizza and bourbon bread pudding at Journeyman’s adjoining restaurant, Staymaker.

That’s the way to end a full, early autumn day along the southern lakeshore of Indiana and Michigan.

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(If you are looking for a place to stay overnight, be sure to check out Tryon Farm Guest House, in Michigan City or check the area’s rentals at North Star Properties)

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