VALPARAISO, IN — Indiana Dunes Country is best known for its sandy beaches, towering sand dunes and wooded trails. But with the Taltree Arboretum Railway Garden in Valparaiso being recognized as one of the nation's best, the area is increasingly becoming a destination for train enthusiasts.
Indiana Dunes Country is now home to a train-themed bed and breakfast and restaurants, and there are three popular train museums nearby. As for the Taltree Railway Garden, the train master has seen visitor after visitor leave the arboretum's huge railway garden amazed and impressed.
The railway garden's wonderful waterfalls, elaborate bridges, impressive 14-foot change in elevation, and its more than 3,500 tiny trees and bushes are a hit with both kids and adults. And, it turns out, the railway garden even impressed an award-winning railroad modeler who stopped by to visit.
"He's seen hundreds of garden railways and he was just in awe. He said 'you've taken this garden railway to the next level'," said Jim Melton, who helped bring the model railway to Taltree.
The G (Garden)-scale railway garden - which features seven different train engines pulling a wide variety of different train cars around the tracks at any time - opened in June of 2011. The trains circle on and around what took a massive effort to build, including the installation of 850 tons of rocks, 3,000 feet of track, 500 different varieties of plant life, and plenty of water features, unique buildings and scenes - and, of course, the driving of the golden spike to finish the railroad tracks.
The railway garden, which encompasses about an acre, focuses on the steam era of railroading - up to 1915. To enter the railway garden, visitors pass through an authentic-looking train depot with a gift shop and restrooms, as well as a large space to rent for parties and events. Two more phases of the railway garden are planned for the future, and they will focus on the late steam era and the diesel era - and will feature a track that passes over the heads of guests.
When all three phases are completed, the railway garden will be 2.5 acres and will feature a picnic area. Melton and Taltree founder Damien Gabis came up with the idea of bringing a railway garden to Taltree, and they looked at hundreds of other railway gardens before setting out to build one that was worlds apart from any other. "Everything Damien gets into has to be the very best. He calls it Disney class," Melton said. Taltree's attendance almost quadrupled after the railway garden opened.
The railway garden is user friendly, with a 10-foot wide path around it and plenty of places to sit and watch the trains from different angles. There are also informational signs telling the history of trains in this country's development, and the signs also feature QR codes that smartphone users can scan for more information.
The arboretum also has quite a few train docents to greet people at the door and walk them around. And even if someone isn't into trains, the variety and number of plant life is worth seeing year round. "We wanted a garden that would stand on its own even if the trains were take out," Gabis said.
The trains currently run daily from April to October, plus on weekends during special holiday events. Kids will recognize Thomas the Tank Engine chugging around the bend. People have come from as far away as Florida and Arizona to visit Taltree's railway garden. In this era of computers, television and cell phones, Melton said the railway garden gets grandparents, parents and kids outside together. Taltree is also home to 3.5 miles of trails, a rose garden, a butterfly garden, a prairie, a reforestation area, a pond and summer concerts.
The folks at Taltree say Northwest Indiana is rich in train history and train-related attractions, so visitors who come to Taltree often visit other train attractions, like the Illiana Garden Railroad Society's outdoor garden railroad in Valparaiso. Other great places for train lovers are the Hesston Steam Museum in LaPorte, the Hoosier Valley Railroad Museum in North Judson and the Elkhart Train Museum in Elkhart. For a train-themed overnight stay, Riley's Railhouse Bed & Breakfast, located along railroad tracks in Chesterton, has become a popular stop.
Information about train-related attractions:
Taltree Arboretum Railway Garden, Valparaiso
Hours: 8 a.m.-7 p.m. daily April-October; 8 a.m.-4 p.m. daily November-March
Address: 450 West 100 North, Valparaiso, IN 46385
The Illiana Garden Railroad Society's Railway Garden at Samuelson's Nursery, Valparaiso
Grab your conductor's hat and imagination and head to the large-scale miniature train diorama at Samuelson's Nursery. It's a setting straight out of Americana, with baseball fields, farmland, a gold mine and an industrial switchyard. The 2,000-square-foot display features 600 feet of track and several different trains.
Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays April-October
Address: 295 North State Road 2, Valparaiso, IN 46383
The Hesston Steam Museum in LaPorte
History comes alive at the Hesston Steam Museum as real steam locomotives take you on a spectacular two and a half mile journey through deep woods, past lakes and farm fields. There's also other steam powered machinery to see, as well as a gift shop and a snack shop.
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and holidays from Memorial Day to Labor Day, then open Sundays until mid-October.
Address: 1201 E. County Road 1000 North, LaPorte, IN 46350
The Hoosier Valley Railroad Museum in North Judson
Are you ready to take a journey back to a bygone era? Then visit the Hoosier Valley Railroad Museum. Situated near a former train junction in historic North Judson, the museum offers visitors a unique opportunity to experience the sights, sounds and smells of railroading during its heyday. Visit the museum, browse the gift shop or take a train ride on an authentic caboose pulled by a vintage diesel locomotive.
Hours: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays (museum). Train ride times vary.
Address: 507 Mulberry St., North Judson, IN 46366
Elkhart's National New York Central Railroad Museum
Elkhart's National New York Central Railroad Museum is an ever growing preserver of both local and national railroad heritage. Visitors enter the museum through a 1915 passenger coach. This area introduces a timeline to the local railroad history beginning in 1833 with the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railroad. At the end of the coach, the path leads through the Central System Gift Shop and into the museum's main gallery in an 100 year old freight house complex.
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and noon-4 p.m. Sunday.
Address: 721 S. Main St., Elkhart, IN 46516
Riley's Railhouse Bed & Breakfast, Chesterton
Riley's Railhouse opened in 2011 in a former railroad freight station in Chesterton. It features two guest rooms (the upstairs one opens up to a great view of the passing trains) and a spacious lounge, although the owners are bringing a freight car and two cabooses to the site which, when refurbished, will increase the bedroom total from two to six. The inn is decorated with an extensive collection of train memorabilia.
Address: 123 N. 4th St., Chesterton, IN 46304