OK, so Gary, Indiana might not be in many people’s travel plans, unless they’re coming to pay homage to Michael Jackson at his childhood home.
Gary was hit hard by the collapse of its once prosperous steel industry, and has hemorrhaged residents since the 1970s, in true Rust Belt style. And yet the potential is obvious, especially on warm summer days.
The best beaches in the Chicago metropolitan area can be found on this part of the South Shore, with stirring panoramas looking back to the Chicago skyline and natural splendor showcased by a national park.
1. Indiana Dunes National Park
Touching the east side of downtown Gary is a national park encompassing around 20 miles of lakefront and more than 15,000 acres.
As well as dunes, there’s a wealth of other habitats within these boundaries, including endless beaches, oak savannas, bogs, swamps, prairie, rivers and forests.
You can check out 11 different trails, adding up to 50 miles, to encounter these environments. One, the Dune Succession Trail, explaining how the sandy peaks are colonized by plants.
There’s history too in the Indiana Dunes, at the Bailly Homestead and Chellberg Farm, giving a glimpse of the South Shore’s settlement history going back to the 1820s.
The broad, golden sandy beaches are a big draw, for swimming and sunbathing in summer, and spotting shorebirds during the spring and fall migrations. If you’d like to stay overnight, the Dunewood Campground is open April through October.
2. Marquette Park
This 240-acre lakefront park is surrounded by the Indiana Dunes National Park, and contains beaches, lofty dunes, a lagoon, wetlands, native oak savanna and ponds. Marquette Park fronts the Miller Beach neighborhood, which until 1918 was a separate city from Gary.
The lakefront here has been a beloved recreation spot going back to the last decades of the 19th century, and there’s a pair of stunning early 20th-century monuments in the park, in the form of the Aquatorium (1921) and the Pavilion (1924).
After a long period of decline both of these buildings have been restored, as part of a $28 million redevelopment plan.
This is a fabulous place to enjoy Gary’s lakefront nature, relax on the sandy beach and, on a clear day, look across to the Chicago skyline.
3. Gary Bathing Beach Aquatorium
One sight that will grab you at Marquette Park is this historic shower, bathroom and changing facility, completed in 1921.
On the National Register of Historic Places since 1994, the Aquatorium is important as an early example of precast concrete modular construction, essentially composed of just six basic cast blocks.
In a story echoed around Gary, the structure fell into disrepair later in the century and was boarded up.
Happily though, the Aquatorium was saved from demolition in the early 1990s and restored at the turn of the new millennium.
Now, the building is used for events and houses an aviation museum. This celebrates Octave Chanute (1832-1910), whose glider experiments in the dunes here in the 1890s helped pave the way for the Wright brothers’ first powered flight a few years later.
The museum is also dedicated to the Tuskegee Airmen, the trailblazing group of mainly African American military pilots and airmen who served in World War II.
4. Lake Street Beach
Slightly west of Marquette Park is another spot where you can admire the full beauty of the South Shore lakefront.
If you’re accustomed to the Lake Michigan beaches in the Chicago area, you’ll quickly see why Gary is on another level. Lake Street Beach is a cinematic, clean sweep of golden sand, wide enough to give everyone some space, and edged by more dunes.
There’s a boat launch here in the summer season, and a bike trail links this beach with Marquette Park and the rest of the Indiana Dunes National Park.
The beach is well served by parking, but if you’re coming from the Miller South Shore Line station there’s a beautiful walk through the Miller Woods unit of the national park.
5. The Jackson Family Home
It’s impossible to overestimate the impact that the Jackson family has made on popular culture, and in Gary you can make a detour to the home where it all began.
2300 Jackson Street was the modest two-bedroom home of Katherine and Joe Jackson. Katherine had a job at Sears and played the clarinet and piano, while Joe was a crane operator and guitarist in a rhythm and blues band.
The couple raised ten children here, half of whom would become The Jackson 5 in 1964, founded and managed with an iron rod by Joe.
The eighth child was Michael Jackson (1958-2009) who set the bar for pop stardom over nearly five decades. The house is a private residence, but is understandably a mecca for fans, and is pointed out on road signs in Gary.
6. Dune Succession Trail
Away from the lakefront in the national park’s West Beach Unit is a mile-long educational trail that gives you a fascinating look at the various stages of dune development.
“Dune succession” refers to the process of dunes becoming colonized by plants. You’ll embark on a rollercoaster walk over the top of tall dunes, coated with grasses, scrub, pines, black oaks, basswoods and ashes, and then down past interdunal ponds.
The first section of the trail requires a taxing walk across loose sand, but things get easier once you reach the boardwalk.
At this point there’s a stairway, where if you turn around you’ll get another majestic view of the lake and Chicago skyline in the distance.
You can pick up a leaflet about the walk, with corresponding signs along the trail telling you what to look out for.
7. Gary SouthShore RailCats
Gary has a professional baseball team, one of 12 franchises playing in the American Association of Professional Baseball, a Partner League of Major League Baseball.
The SouthShore RailCats were founded in 2001 and are perennially competitive. At the time of writing they had achieved six 1st or 2nd place finishes in the league’s North Division over the last decade.
Home field is the 6,139-capacity U.S. Steel Yard, opened in 2002 and also hosting local little league and high school games.
This was the scene for a memorial service for Michael Jackson in 2009, attended by 6,000 people, including much of the Jackson family.
RailCats games are family events, with all kinds of promotions and giveaways, raucous between-innings entertainment and dazzling fireworks.
8. Bellaboo’s Play and Discovery Center
Established by the Lake County Parks and Recreation Department, Bellaboo’s Play and Discovery Center sparks children’s creativity and social and cognitive development through play.
There are nine subtly educational settings, all highly interactive and tactile, full of things that can be moved and handled.
A few environments include a supermarket, pizza parlor, construction zone, water tables, an art studio, dinosaur dig and performance area.
Elsewhere, kids can ride a pedal cart, dress-up, try cooking, explore the garden, climb a “tree-pee” and build with blocks, all in a safe, open-ended environment.
The center has a cafe with seating for 180, surrounded by the play areas, as well as five birthday party rooms and a space just for infants and toddlers.
9. Marquette Park Pavilion
The other arresting sight in Marquette Park is the pavilion, opened in 1924 and constructed by Max & Sons, the same firm that built the Palace Theater in downtown Gary.
The refined Marquette Park Pavilion was designed by prolific Chicago area architect George W. Maher (1864-1926), and mixes Prairie School and Renaissance Revival styles.
Despite several renovations, the most recent in the 2010s, this building is still eligible for the National Register of Historic Places and shines as an accessible events venue for everything from weddings to civic functions.
10. Abandoned Buildings
Now, while Gary’s current population is around 70,000, this is a decline of 110,000 from the city’s peak in the 1960s. The upshot is a lot of abandoned buildings.
It is estimated that around one third of all the houses in Gary are empty, and the total of derelict structures may be as high as 13,000.
While not everyone’s idea of a good time, this decay does kindle a certain fascination, and it’s easy to see why urban explorers, street artists and photographers are drawn to Gary.
In the downtown area, a few imposing abandoned monuments on the National Register of Historic Places are the Union Station (1910), the Palace Theater (1925) and the City Methodist Church (1925).
As ever, Gary’s dilapidated buildings are best viewed from the outside as many are hazardous and structurally unsound.
11. Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education
In the Miller Woods unit of the Indiana Dunes National Park you’ll come across this facility offering an introduction to the park’s diverse habitats and natural history.
The Paul H. Douglas Center is in a gorgeous spot, with water on two sides, and with trails leading north to the lakefront or east to the national park’s other units.
Inside are informative exhibits about the dune, oak savanna, swale and wetland ecosystems all around, as well as terrariums with live animals like turtles and snakes.
Along with trail access, there’s a nature play zone outside. Keep an eye on the center’s schedule for ranger-guided hikes, lectures and many more activities in the national park.
12. Erin’s Farm
There’s a non-profit animal sanctuary and rescue center just south of Gary in Hobart. As well as giving a long-term home to animals from abusive or negligent environments, Erin’s Farm has an educational vocation, teaching children and grownups about appropriate and ethical animal husbandry.
Visiting Erin’s Farm, which is on 33 acres, there’s plenty of opportunity to interact with the residents, which include pigs, goats, cows, chickens, rabbits, cats, sheep, horses and some exotic animals like a cockatoo and a Patagonian mara.
One or two-hour farm tours are available for a small fee, or you can check the farm’s facebook page for details of an upcoming open day.
13. Southlake Mall
For a shopping trip, your best bet is to head south of Gary, and in a few short minutes you’ll come to the only mall of its kind in Northwest Indiana.
Owned by the Westlake group, Southlake Mall opened in 1974 and has around 150 stores and service businesses.
A run down of the many household names here includes Macy’s, Foot Locker, H&M, Victoria’s Secret, Lids, Hot Topic and Claire’s.
For dining and snacks there’s a slew of food court favorites like Sbarro, Auntie Anne’s and Mandarin Express.
Another reason to make the trip is for the 12-screen AMC Classic movie theater, on the lot, just next to the main building.
14. Hard Rock Casino Northern Indiana
The South Shore is a major gaming destination, with casinos in Hammond, East Chicago and right here in Gary.
For some 25 years the local gaming license was held by the Majestic Star Casino, two riverboats in Buffington Harbor.
In 2021 these shut down and the license was switched to the brand new Hard Rock Casino, a few miles inland, just off Interstate 94. High rollers and laid-back gamers will be pleased with the massive casino floor, which has 1,800 slot machines and table games.
For the latter you’ve got more than 80 different tables, with poker, blackjack, craps, roulette and much more.
There are five dining establishments here, including a Hard Rock Cafe, as well as two bars and a packed program of live entertainment.
15. County Line Orchard
For a day out in fall, this farm a short way away in Hobart has plenty going on in September and October.
Across many acres, County Line Orchard grows more than 30 apple varieties, from Gala to Pink Lady, each coming into season for U-Pick or to be purchased from the farm store. The orchard’s website has a guide to tell you what’s in season.
On top of that there’s a pumpkin patch, impressive bee yurts, U-Pick sunflowers, a corn maze, barrel rides and a petting farm with pygmy goats and little pigs.
There’s live music, mostly on weekends throughout the fall, and you can pop into the bakery for seasonal treats like apple cinnamon donuts and pumpkin pie.