East of Gary and home to the Port of Indiana, Portage is an industrial city on Lake Michigan.
While the steel industry slump in the 1980s affected Portage like other South Shore communities, the economy has been bolstered by the constant growth of the Port of Indiana (built in 1961) and manufacturing facilities like a Coke bottling plant.
Portage contains a section of the Indiana Dunes National Park, with pristine beaches and lofty dunes that can be traversed on trails and boardwalks.
Portage is a great place to embark on a fishing trip on Lake Michigan, with charter companies based at the marinas on the Little Calumet River.
Or you could head south where the city gives way to farmland, and where family orchards open for U-Pick in fall.
1. Indiana Dunes National Park
The lakefront is a big draw for Portage, and large portions are protected by the Indiana Dunes National Park.
This covers more than 15,000 acres in sections between Gary in the west and Michigan City in the east. In and near Portage there are trails for hikes in the dunes that are both scenic and educational.
The Dune Succession Trail and the Tolleston Dunes Trail are two close by. The beaches are easily the best for many miles around, and West Beach here has lifeguards during the summer.
Just west of Portage in Gary you’ll find the Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education, which can be reached on foot via the Marquette Trail, serves as a compelling introduction to the habitats in the National Park.
The center also has live animal displays, a Nature Play Zone and conducts ranger-guided hikes.
2. Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk Trail
One of the prettiest places in the National Park is in fact a former industrial site.
This elevated spot at the mouth of the East Arm of the Little Calumet River is a fine vantage point where you can gauge the vast expanse of the lake, watch clouds brewing, look over the dunes and identify the Chicago skyline.
There’s a pavilion here with a snack bar open during the summer months. This is also a convenient access point for the various trails snaking off into the park.
The breakwater makes a handy perch for fishing and birdwatching, while the Riverwalk Trail is a long stretch of riverside boardwalk with views of the Port of Indiana.
3. West Beach
A stunning place to relax by Lake Michigan, West Beach (west of Ogden Dunes Beach) is patrolled by lifeguards from the Friday of Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day.
There’s a beautiful sweep of soft golden sand, backed by dunes and with views of the Chicago skyline shimmering in the distance.
Also special is the mile-long Dune Succession Trail, running just behind.
Aided by wooden stairways and boardwalks, this educational route takes you to the top of the dune ridges and down to interdunal ponds as you discover how these dunes have become covered by hardwood and softwood trees over hundreds of years.
4. Tolleston Dunes Trail
One of the most rewarding experiences in the Indiana Dunes National Park is to walk this 2.7-mile trail in one of the park’s four different dune systems.
The Tolleston Dunes are the second-youngest of the four, dating back 4,700 years, to when the level of Lake Michigan was some 25 higher than it is today.
The winding trail will carry up to the ridges for breathtaking views, and a wonderful insight into how the Lake Michigan shoreline has changed over millennia.
In the distance of a few short miles you’ll enter several habitats, including rare black oak savanna and wetlands. A couple of plants that will catch your eye are the wild blue lupine flower and eastern prickly pear cactus.
5. Countryside Park
In the southwest of Portage is a 33-acre park with an interesting historical theme. This land was previously a farm, and you can still find a number of buildings from the Trager Homestead, dating back to 1900.
This is a fitting location for the Portage Historical Society, which maintains the Alton Goin Historical Museum here. Opened in 2003, this has interesting exhibits charting the 200-year history of European settlement in Portage.
Elsewhere Countryside Park has plenty more to enjoy, including access to the Prairie Duneland Trail, a disc golf course, a fishing pond, winter sledding hill, softball field and playground.
6. Imagination Glen Park
The largest space in the Portage park system is Imagination Glen, spread across more than 250 acres on the city’s eastern margins.
Threaded by Salt Creek, this is a wooded park for recreation with plentiful facilities including soccer and softball complexes and two volleyball courts.
There’s also much for cyclists to enjoy, thanks to the extensive Outback Trail system, with a great choice of color-coded routes ranging from “Easier” to “Most Difficult”.
On the park’s east side there’s also a BMX track, while in winter three miles of trails are converted for cross-country skiing.
7. Iron Horse Heritage Trail
There’s a five-mile mixed-use paved path running east-west through Portage, from Imagination Glen Park to Woodland Park. As the name suggests, the Iron Horse Heritage Trail is on the right-of-way of an old railroad.
Bicycling or walking through a beautiful green corridor, often tree-tunneled, with tons of shade during the summer. The grade is gentle, so it’s a fine route for families, with a handful of quiet residential roads to cross.
Woodland Park at the western trailhead is a picturesque, wooded space home to an oak savanna habitat, the Veterans’ Memorial, a sledding hill, two playgrounds, a dog park and community center.
8. Founders Square Park
This park sits at the foot of the Portage water tower on Main Street, which has been the site of spectacular residential and commercial development in the last ten years.
Previously the square was surrounded by open space but now there’s a dynamic but attractive urban environment, with apartment buildings, townhouses, shops and services.
At the center, Founders Square Park is like a town green, offering a great place to have a picnic, and hosting community events in summer. A popular amenity for kids in summer is the splash pad, with its interactive sprays and jets.
9. Schoop’s Hamburgers, Portage
Going back more than 70 years, Schoop’s Hamburgers is a 1950s-style diner chain unique to the Calumet Region of the South Chicago area and Northwestern Indiana.
The original Schoop’s opened in nearby Hammond in 1948 and there are 16 locations, all clustered in a relatively tight geographical area.
Of course, the signature menu item is the classic hamburger or cheeseburger, which has a smash-style, hand-formed patty. Barack Obama ordered four when he stopped at this very location on the campaign trail in 2008.
Schoop’s also has a vast breakfast menu, from omelettes to pancakes, waffles, French toast, biscuits and gravy and all manner of combo specials and sides.
10. Fishing Charters
On the East Arm of the Little Calumet River there’s a string of little marinas, and these are the base for a number of fishing charter companies.
March to September, Lake Michigan is a world-class destination for trout and salmon fishing, and you can do this with expert guidance from an experienced skipper.
A few operators to keep on your radar are M&M Charters, Rainmaker Charters and Brother Nature Charter Fishing. If you’d just like to admire the dunes and lake scenery, many of these charters also offer cruises.
11. Blastcamp Paintball & Airsoft
If you’re into competitive shooting sports there’s a highly-rated paintball and airsoft center, across more than 20 acres with 13 buildings.
What really gives Blast Camp an edge is its genuine military history, preserving a Cold War-era Nike Missile site, built as a last line of defense for Chicago in the 1950s.
Numerous structures remain from that time, including five radar towers, barracks, a generator room and mess hall.
For serious players there’s a massive pro shop stocked with the latest equipment, and the paintballs used here are custom-made and less likely to sting.
There are even low-impact paintballs, suitable for players as young as eight years old.
12. County Line Orchard
Go south of Portage and you’ll soon be in the countryside, with several farms close by that are open to the public in fall. County Line Orchard is barely ten minutes away and has a lot going on in September and October.
You’ve got U-Pick Apples from more than 30 varieties, U-Pick pumpkins, U-pick sunflowers, live music, a gigantic corn maze, kiddie rides and a Kids Farm, with a straw maze, pedal tractors and animals like pygmy goats and little pigs.
You can check out the bees that make everything possible at the orchards at the Bee Yurts, and can even identify the queen. There’s also a Gift Loft for everything from apparel to homewares, and a bakery making fall treats like apple cinnamon donuts and pies of every kind.
13. Emagine Portage
In 2021 Portage became the first Indiana location for the Michigan-based movie theater chain, Emagine.
This 16-screen cinema was run by the Goodrich Quality Theaters until 2020. Emagine Portage has an IMAX screen four stories tall, 80 feet wide and with seating for almost 500.
This was the first screen of its kind in Northern Indiana, and opened with the rest of the complex in 2007.
All of the theatre rooms feature stadium seating and large screens, and when we wrote this list there were plans for new recliner seating, and a theatre bar for specialty cocktails and quality wine and beer.
There’s a classic, family-owned roller-skating rink in Portage, open for birthday parties, public skate sessions, skating lessons and seasonal events.
Accompanied by an arcade, the rink is open until late on weekend evenings, with a DJ and a snack bar for pizza. Sk8World takes pride in the exceptional quality of its skating surface, for a smooth roll and safe grip for those who like to express themselves on the rink.
You’re allowed to bring your own skates, and rentals were $5 when we wrote this article.
15. Duck Creek Golf Course
Golfers have a good selection of public courses within an easy drive of Portage. One to keep in mind is the unpretentious Duck Creek Golf Course just to the south. This 18-hole par 70 is noted for the high quality of its greens.
With some thick woods and plenty of water bordering the holes, it’s a track that rewards people who can simply hit the ball straight.
Duck Creek weaves past several holes, including the 10th, 15th, 17th and 18th, while lakes come into play many times, but especially on the approach for the 13th, where the green has water on three sides.
The course’s Bar and Grill is open in the evenings, Monday to Friday, and does a fish fry on Fridays, serving lake perch and shrimp.