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Indiana: Merrillville, Family Vacation Ideas - Beaches, Bog Walks and Living History. Within an hour of Chicago discoveries are waiting for families with a desire to getaway. Comb the shores of Lake Michigan; ride in a hay wagon to a pumpkin patch, hike, bike or slide in the snow. Count nesting herons or go to a star party. Ride a pony or pet a llama. The fun stuff is waiting.

Discover the dunes along Lake Michigan. Located on the southern tip of Lake Michigan Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is an energizing place to discover with your kids. In addition to 15 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline the park covers more than 15,000 acres and includes 200-foot high dunes, oak savannas, swamps, bogs, marshes, prairies, rivers, and forests. It is an essential feeding and resting area for migrating land and water birds and one area within the complex. From Cowles Bog Trail, the three - mile route encircling the marsh to the miles of sandy shoreline ready for water time the area beckons to be discovered each season of the year. Spot Karner Blue butterflies along the shore and count bank swallows flying from their secret nesting spots inside the dunes. Picnic at Tremont in the warmer months and try cross-country skiing and snowshoeing during the winter. It is a secret place worth discovering with your kids. Bonus points: Dorothy Buell Memorial Visitor Center offers interactive ways to connect with nature and history including touch screen children’s activities and informative video. Access to Ly-co-ki-we and Calumet Dune trails from the center. Not-to-be-missed historic Chellberg Farm a living history spot is part of the complex. (Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore 1100 N. Mineral Springs Road, Porter 1(219) 926-7561 ext. 225 or www.nps.gov/indu/home.htm)

Connect with the countryside. From the end of August to the end of October, Peter Pumpkin Eater - the biggest orange resident at County Line Orchard - invites families to the orchard to pick apples together. Sample apple butter, take an orchard tour, watch bees at work in the orchard, pick your own apples, find your own pumpkin, taste the "perfect" apple, run through the eight-acre corn maze, and interact with friendly farm animals at the Kids Farm. They have baby chicks hatching everyday so it is easy to see every phase of development. Watch goats up in the trees walking along ramps and across platforms. Meet pigs, sheep, calves, donkeys, llamas and emus. Bonus points: Designed for little tykes Little Kid's Barnyard is a farm world in miniature with miniature tractors, tools, wheelbarrows, and even a kid-sized barn. There is even Moo Choo is just for little kids. Need to know: There's another side to the orchard, and it isn't for little kids. Trio of Fears includes a rustic shack at the edge of the woods, a dimly lit path with haunted things, pitch-black passages, a haunted barn and a Vortex Tunnel. (County Line Orchard & The Barn: 200 County Line Rd., Hobart, (219)789-9205, 947-4477 Ex 106 or www.countylineorchard.com)

Get in the saddle again. For parents who are faced with a horse-crazy child this may be the answer. Open weekends all year long Southlake Stables has the perfect horse for a perfect ride. For an easy paced family rural adventure enjoy a relaxing trail ride across 100 acres of Indiana farmland. They even have little ponies for the little folks in your family. Bonus points: From early September to late October they are open seven days a week with pumpkins, hayrides, picnic areas, campfires, concessions, the famous Straw Pit, a tiny tot area and a farm animal petting zoo. Need to know: To make birthday parties and family reunions truly special Southlake Stables has an evening hayride followed by ghost stories around a camp fire. Participants are encouraged to bring hotdogs and marshmallows to roast. (Southlake Stables 1012 E. 109th Ave., Crown Point, (219) 663-3322))

Try living history. Within the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore complex Chellberg Farm represents a typical 1890 - 1910 Swedish and Northwestern Indiana farmstead. Each weekend visitors are encouraged to assist in the feeding of resident farm animals and to learn about daily farm life in Porter County, Indiana. Activities reflect the changing of the seasons and magnify the importance of man’s connection with the area. Each September this is the location of the annual Duneland Fall Festival. Bonus points: This farm is the only national park that actually makes maple syrup each spring. During Maple Sugar Time at historic Chellberg Farm visitors have the chance to experience the sights, sounds, and smells of the sugar bush. (Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore Chellberg Farm, on north Mineral Springs Road in Porter, IN, between highways 20 and 12, (219) 926-7561, extension 225 or www.nps.gov/indu/home.htm)

Count the big birds. Each spring usually in March great blue herons return to their "rookery" to repair their nests. More than one hundred nesting spots along the shores of the little Calumet River provide observers with plenty of nest activity. The herons may be observed until early May when the trees protect the nests. The big birds and their off spring may still be spotted feeding in the shallow waters throughout the area until autumn. (Dunes Highway 20 & Mineral Springs Road, Porter 46304 Indiana Highway 49 & Munson Road Chesterton, 46304)

Discover, connect and unwind. Indiana’s green side is thriving at Taltree Arboretum and Gardens, a 360-acre reserve of woodlands, savanna, wetlands and prairie, with woody plant collections and gardens. The native reserve provides visitors the chance to explore the trails or participate in one of the interpretive guided tours. Within the reserve count butterflies and tadpoles, spot bobolinks, bluebirds, grasshopper sparrows and migrating warblers as well as green herons. Bonus points: With children seeing is believing and Taltree Trek is an educational walk through the arboretum. The Taltree Night Trek which begins 1/2 hour before sunset focuses on nature at night. (Taltree Arboretum and Gardens 71 N. 500 West, Valparaiso (219) 462-0025 or www.taltree.org)

Get lost with your kids. Lost Marsh Environmental Recreation Area has plenty of way to get lost if only for a few minutes. The 330-acre refuge is home to coyotes, beavers, egrets, and ducks. The recreation area has an environmental education center plus both biking and nature trails as well as spots to engage in fishing at George Lake plus bird and wild life watching everywhere. Bonus points: Winter activities such as sledding and cross country skiing. Need to know: In addition to wildlife the recreation area has golf courses and a driving range. (Lost Marsh Environmental Recreation Area 901 E. 129th St., Hammond, (219) 932-4653)

Follow skiing trails cross country. Lemon Lake County Park has about four miles of trail which weaves through a wooded area and open field making it suitable for beginners, intermediates, and advanced skiers. Oak Ridge Prairie County Park has about three miles of trail which also winds across open prairie and through wooded areas making the route ideal for those looking for an easy to moderate challenge. Stoney Run County Park has about seven miles of easy to moderate trail winding through a wooded area which is more suitable for intermediate to advanced skiers. Bonus points: Go ice fishing at Three Rivers County Park from seven am until ½ hr. before sunset. Park staff will post ice conditions at the gatehouse and you do the rest. Need to know: During the winter months, usually from December 1 through late March, assuming the snow falls with gusto sledding hills may be found at Oak Ridge Prairie and Lemon Lake. The hills are do it yourself so bring your own sled or tube. (Lake County Parks at www.lakecountyparks.com)

Go with the snow.
Try out the only ski area in Northern Indianan built on high moraine left behind by the same glaciers that carved Lake Michigan and from the highest point on a clear day it is possible to see Chicago 50 miles away. Pines Peak Family Ski Area in Valparaiso has nine fun ski/snowboard/tube runs and lighted slopes for night skiing. The longest run on the main hill is 1200' with a 150' vertical drop. The all terrain park includes a competition style half pipe, with rails and m-boxes. Need to know: Warm weather activities offered from April to November include Alpine slide, paint ball, and mountain biking. (Pines Peak Family Ski Area 674 North Meridian, Valparaiso, (219) 477-5993) or www.pinesskiarea.com)

Tour the edge of space. The Challenger Learning Center at Purdue University offers one-hour tours of the facility which include simulators, planetarium and constellation shows, space memorabilia and a gift shop where it is possible to purchase astronaut cinnamon apples. (The Challenger Learning Center at Purdue University Calumet, 2300 173rd St., Hammond, (219) 989-3250 www.clcnwi.com)

Count the stars. Merrillville Community Planetarium is located in Clifford Pierce Middle School. It provides ongoing programming about astronomy and the space sciences in a 64-seat auditorium. Each session lasts about one hour. Weather permitting, an outdoor observing session is offered following each program. The planetarium’s Gift Shop is open before and after each show. There are only 64 seats available for each showing. Need to know: Seats should be reserved. Admission to public programs is $3.00 for adults and $2.00 for children. Tickets are available at the door. (Merrillville Community Planetarium 199 E. 70th Ave., Merrillville, (219) 650-5486 or www.mcpstars.org)

Find a park or pick your beach. Parks, many with fishing piers and beaches dot the area around Merillvile. In addition to Central Beach, Kemil Beach, Lake View, Mt. Baldy, Porter Beach, West Beach each with their own benefits additional choices include:
Hidden Lake Park (6355 Broadway, Merrillville., (219) 769-2111) with picnic rentals, swimming, paddle boats and children’s play area;
Whihala Beach (1561 Park Road, Whiting., (219) 659-4015) with a fishing pier, picnic tables, and swimming; D
eep River County Park (9410 Old Lincoln Hwy., Hobart., (219) 844-3188) with a historic grist mill;
Lake Etta County Park (4801 W. 29th Ave., Gary., (219) 769-PARK) with picnic rentals, swimming, fishing, water slides, playground, paddles boats, and an exercise trail;
Lemon Lake Park (6322 W. 133rd Ave., Crown Point., (219) 945-0543) with an arboretum, picnic and barbecue facilities, many sports facilities, and trails;
Marquette Park (1 N. Grand Blvd., Gary., (219) 938-7362) has a beach, playground, aquatorium, lagoon pavilion and picnic area;
Wolf Lake Park (121st St. and Calumet Ave., Hammond., (219) 853-6378) has a beach, hiking trail, fishing, miniature golf, picnic area, playground, batting cages and public boat access. (Lake County Parks at www.lakecountyparks.com)
Content researched and created by Travel Communications Inc. Images by FTF and Lake County Parks. Copyright 2009.
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