Wednesday, Oct. 01, 2008

Indiana Dunes State Park

The Chicago lakeshore is great, but it's not the dunes. Check out Miller Beach and Wells Street Beach in the Indiana Dunes State Park, about 90 minutes away on the Metra South Shore Line, for some Hoosier sand action. The state park is much more than sand, though. The park system was started in 1916, so the landscape isn't much changed from the original terrain that existed before settlers came in. You can see mature forests, wetlands and prairies, and much of the infrastructure — like the roads, restrooms, gatehouses, and bridges — was built by members of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression.

Raven's Grin Inn Haunted House

With its wrought-iron storefronts and old Victorian structures, the town of Mount Carroll, Ill., already feels like a horror-movie set. This is where you'll find Raven's Grin Inn, a 19th-century mansion that's been turned into a wacky house of horrors. The house belongs to Jim Warfield (he lives in it), and, fittingly, sits just a block away from a cemetery in the small New England-esque town. Warfield saved the house from demolition 20 years ago, and has filled it with a crazy hodge-podge of his freaky old art projects, like "the last Elvis impersonator" who sits decaying in a wheelchair; relics like the "Poe-Lease" car, a black-and-white 1950s-era Hudson car protruding out of the second floor (three other autos also stick out of the house); and plenty of creaky, spooky secret passages. Oh, and then there are the slides: The four-story Bad Dream Bed-Slide takes you screaming from the second floor all the way to the wine cellar in the haunted basement, where sightings of the Lady in White have been reported.

Warfield gives regular tours of the house year-round. But if you dare, you can have your run of the place and play hide-and-seek. That requires groups of 10 people (or just pay for 10 at $10 per person per hour), so bring friends or try to corral some locals. For hide-and-seek, off-season visits and during the month of October, you'll have to call in advance for reservations. Before you make the 140-mile drive, calling ahead is a good idea in general — much like the tour, Warfield's daily messages are a kick.

The Green Line

Chicago's elevated trains are one of the city's most recognizable and entertaining features: Their booming rumbles tipped off Tommy Lee Jones to Harrison Ford's whereabouts in The Fugitive, and driving directly underneath them is like enjoying your own mini-earthquake. The Green Line never goes underground, and the 30-minute path from downtown to the end of the line in Forest Park is a rolling tour of the industrial center that Chicago once was. You'll be able to look down on some of the fire-touched abandoned buildings, junk car lots, graffiti and indeed some thriving industry, such as car repair shops and tuckpointing outposts. There are even a couple parks along the way, including Garfield Park, which has an impressive conservatory.

When you get off at the end the line at Harlem, go out the westernmost exit toward Forest Park; turn right on Circle Avenue and walk a block to Circle Bowling Lanes. The alley opened in the mid-1940s and not too much has changed since — you'll have to keep score by hand. Afterward, walk another block down for the burgers, cheese curds and beer at Goldyburgers.

Starved Rock State Park

In a state that is known for its flat landscape, Starved Rock State Park is an unusual change of pace in the central plains. Take about a two-hour drive south of the city and spend an afternoon hiking the canyon-studded park, which isnamed for a group of Native Americans who fled to the hill and were besieged by the Ottawa and Potawatomi tribes. The tribes starved the Indians atop the butte, thus giving the area its name. Starved Rock became a National Historic Landmark in 1960. On the long drive down stop by Two Brothers Brewery in Warrenville, IL, a family-owned microbrewery churning out some of the best craft beers available in the Midwest. Pick up a six-pack of Ebel's Weiss, a light, crisp Hefeweizen that pairs perfectly with a long day of hiking.