Carl Sandburg, one of America's most beloved poets, once wrote: "The dunes are to the Midwest what the Grand Canyon is to Arizona. ... They constitute a signature of time and eternity."

That sense of timelessness can still be felt on the white-sand beach of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, which stretches for 15 miles along the southern edge of Lake Michigan between Gary and Michigan City.

There was a point, however, in the dunes' history when it appeared they would not survive. During the region's industrial boom, several companies hauled away sand in railroad boxcars.

Then, in 1966, the national lakeshore was established to preserve the dunes and their surrounding natural habitats of reclaimed prairies, oak barrens, marshes, bogs and beaches.

Today, about 2 million people visit the more than 15,200-acre park annually. And, in 2011, National Geographic even listed it as one of its Top 10 Urban Escapes in the U.S.

In spite of all the attention, it's easy to find a quiet area of beach in which to relax, whether it's at Mount Baldy at one end of the park, West Beach near the other end or one of the access points in between.

Finding a place to park, on the other hand, can be a bit difficult.

It's only slightly easier, once you've picked up a map and brochure at Dorothy Buell Memorial (Indiana Dunes) Visitor's Center, 1215 N. Indiana 49, Porter, Ind. The map shows where all the parking lots and beach access points are located, but parking at each is limited.

BEACH ACCESS POINTS

Early in the morning, there are only a handful of visitors -- many with pets -- on the beach at the Central Avenue access point.

But the two National Park Service rangers manning the site say the small parking lot usually fills up around noon or 1 p.m. on the weekends. At that point they allow only new vehicles to enter the lot as people leave.

That's why Bart Waldner, of Liberty Township, Ill., chooses to drive nearly two hours most weekends to relax here.

"The limited parking means that there is a lot of space on the beach," he says. "There is no loud music or grills. There are no parties going on like beaches just up the road from here."

Best of all, he waves toward his two German shepherds, "You can move away from other people and the dogs can be a bit loud and nobody is bothered by them."

Pets on a 6-foot leash are allowed on the beach to the east of Indiana Dunes State Park, but pets are not allowed on the beach west of the state park.

The Lake View beach access point, which overlooks the lake from the top of a dune, has picnic shelters and tables available, as does Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk on the west side.

This is the only east-side access point where visitors do not have to hike to the beach. Instead, it lies just across the picnic area from the 40-space parking lot. A park ranger says this makes it a popular beach for senior citizens. Though, the crowd on the beach indicates that families with young children also appreciate not having to haul gear as far.

Like the other access points, there is no lifeguard, but the beach is open enough to allow parents unrestricted views of the water.

While all the access points have restrooms, not all are as near to the actual beach as Lake View's.