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From the Amish Country to Urban Whitewater Rafting in Indiana

As the Chicago skyline shrinks into the distance the sand dunes of Indiana’s Lake Michigan’s South Shore, part of what is known by locals as “DaRegion,” begin to loom large.

For five days in the northern part of the Hoosier state, I explored its rich and multifaceted history from a cruise on Cedar Lake powered by a 1915 steam engine to a deep dive into Notre Dame’s famed football coach Knute Rockne’s storied career to a fuller understanding of the background and beliefs of the Amish and Mennonites in Shipshewana.

Predating human history, the southern shore of what is now Lake Michigan was busy creating massive sand dunes. They so impressed Carl Sandburg that he penned, “The dunes are to the Midwest what Grand Canyon is to Arizona and Yosemite to California. They constitute a signature of time and eternity.”  National and state parks were created to protect what man nearly destroyed in the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

The boardwalk on the Dune Succession Trail in Indiana Dunes National Park

Indiana Dunes National Park encompasses 15,000 acres of hiking and biking trails, bird habitats, marshes, bogs and forested areas. One of the most popular hikes is on the Dune Succession Trail which utilizes a boardwalk through a forest rising from the sand. Hikes to the summit of the largest dune, known as Mount Baldy, are allowed only on authorized ranger tours that are scheduled throughout the summer.  

Bikes can be rented from a private concession at the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center. The national park also includes the Century of Progress Homes that were originally built for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair featuring modern appliances, innovative materials and new construction techniques. They were floated across Lake Michigan by barge in 1935 to where they now reside.

Florida Tropical, one of five historic homes located within Indiana Dunes National Park

The hiking and biking options were in part fueled by an amazing array of confectionaries, including world-famous gummy bears from the Albanese Candy Factory and ChicagoLand Popcorn with boosts of more than 250 seasonal flavors including their most popular, Chicagoland Mix, a blend of cheddar cheese and caramel popcorn.

Lodging options in the area range from the Blue Chip Casino Hotel towering over Michigan City to Bed & Breakfasts and campgrounds. Dining opportunities are just as diverse from haute cuisine at Prime Steakhouse in historic Crown Point Square to the eclectic Third Coast Spice in Chesterton.

A sunset cruise on Lake Michigan aboard the Emita II is a perfect way to end the day by soaking in breathtaking views of Indiana Dunes and South Shore while listening to live music cocktails in hand. 

Visitors on a pier in Michigan City

Another northern Indiana water adventure is shooting the Class 2 rapids on the East Race Waterway in downtown South Bend. The waterway started as a channel off the St. Joseph River in the late 1800s that allowed the industry to thrive but was eventually abandoned and filled in. Local leaders chose to dig it out in the early 1980s to create the East Race Waterway. When it opened in 1984, it became the first manmade whitewater rafting course in North America.

A great way to celebrate completing the 1900-foot course with fellow rafters is over beers and creatively sauced tater tots across the street at Howard Park Public House

Notre Dame’s golden dome topped off with The Virgin Mary

While the University of Notre Dame on the outskirts of South Bend was established in 1842 and has a stunningly beautiful campus that provides an education second to none, it was football that firmly put them on a bigger map. This in large measure is due to the Fighting Irish’s famed football coach Knute Rockne.  His stirring half-time locker room speech which included “Win one for the Gipper,” motivated his team to a 12-6 victory over Army at Yankee Stadium in 1928. What became a classic line was a nod to All-American George Gipp who passed away in 1920 at the age of 25 from pneumonia. Notre Dame pays tribute to its pigskin fame with a statue of Rockne in front of their stadium as well as a statue nicknamed “Touchdown Jesus” on top of its golden-domed Main Building. 

A reproduction of the ticket for the September 26, 1931 Knute Rockne Memorial Game. The famed Notre Dame coach was killed in a plane crash on March 31, 1931.

The stylish Aloft Hotel is ideally located in the heart of downtown South Bend with easy access to Notre Dame, the Century Center Convention Center, museums, golf courses and a variety of dining and entertainment options. Indiana actually is home to the most golf courses per capita in the nation. The hotel is a block away from a downtown favorite, Cafe Navarre, which fuses Old World architecture with a sophisticated interior design and most importantly serves great food.

Dessert wraps up a family-style dinner before a performance at The Blue Gate Theatre.

Another local favorite, especially for hearty breakfasts, is at the South Bend Farmers Market Cafe in a market that dates back a century. Home-grown produce, dairy products, meats, jams, jellies, syrups, flowers, handcrafts, artwork, and jewelry, makes it a great place to stock up and explore.

Continuing east I enter Potato Creek State Park one of the most-visited parks in Indiana. Visitors can hike and bike through mature woodlands, restored prairies and diverse wetlands or kayak around Lake Worster. Many make the park their destination and do extended RV stays or rent cabins.

Amish boys at their vegetable stand in Shipshewana

The final destination of my exploration of northern Indiana is Shipshewana in the heart of Amish country. I check in at the Blue Gate Garden Inn then head to the Menno-Hof information center where the Amish-Mennonite story is told through a film and a series of state-of-the-art museum presentations. 

The Anabaptist movement began in Zurich, Switzerland, on January 21, 1525, when a group of believers baptized adults who made a voluntary confession of faith. The word “Anabaptist,” meaning “to rebaptize,” was attached to this group at a time when the state called for infant baptism.

The Anabaptists sought to restore the church to reflect early Christendom, believing that the church had been corrupted by state control. Being at odds with the church and state put them in harm’s way and they were persecuted and martyred as heretics by these ruling institutions. 

An Amish family on a buggy in Shipshewana

While there is a great degree of variation as to how conservative groups of Amish choose to live their lives in present-day America most do not vote, feeling that the separation of church and state is an important part of the church’s history and the concept of being citizens of an eternal kingdom much more than an earthly one keeps participation in government at arm’s length. They do however pay their taxes and most use banks and credit cards.

Amish often have phones for business or in an outbuilding, but not in their homes believing that it would be a disruption to family life. Mennonites more fully accept modern technology including driving cars.

A fascinating and insightful tour with The Blue Gate through the Amish countryside visits a number of Amish craftspeople including a leather shop, a windchime factory, and a wood-basket shop. Handcrafted quilts and wooden furniture are often sold at Shingle Shops, small, independent stores on Amish farmsteads. A ride through Shipshewana in a traditional Amish buggy is also an available option. Experiencing life for a short time from the vantage point of another man or woman’s carriage seat is eye-opening. 

With the help of many volunteer workers, Menno-Hof had a massive barn-raising to build a structure in 1986 to present the Amish-Mennonite story.

An après-buggy ride stop at JoJo’s Pretzels founded in 1989 by Levi and Joanna King was well worth the tour deviation.  The long line serves as proof that their Amish roots-inspired recipe continues to be a big hit among locals and visitors. Flavors range from dill pickle to cinnamon and sugar along with dipping sauces like Amish peanut butter. I opted for the salt and vinegar pretzel with a cheese dipping sauce and two types of mustard from the mustard bar. 

Tater tots drizzled with blue cheese and buffalo sauce at Howard Park Public House in South Bend

One of the biggest surprises was the amount of entertainment the area offers. The industry grows out of the town’s major flea market in the 1970s. World-class performers taking the stage at The Blue Gate Theatre and other local venues in the area including Lyle Lovett, Tanya Tucker and Don McLean as well as Queen, the Bee Gees, and ABBA tribute bands as also Amish-themed musicals. Before the curtain goes up for the latter visitors can sit down for a homestyle Amish meal featuring pressure-fried chicken, meatloaf, roast beef, mashed potatoes, gravy, dressing, and a choice of corn or green beans. The apple, cherry, pecan and other pies passed around the table helped us put back on any pounds we might have shed on our hiking, biking, kayaking and rafting excursions through America’s 19th state.  

Kayaking on Potato Creek State Park’s Lake Worster

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