This piece is part of a series of articles submitted to The Local Tourist through a cooperation with a 400-level travel writing class at Purdue University.
By Kayla Groen
I looked all around me to see the forest walls envelop my car like a tunnel, and when I made it to the other side, I felt transported to another world.
The sky opened, and I found a view of a rolling prairie guarded by a forest on every side. Five minutes before, I was racing down the highway, and then I was standing in the heart of a secluded nature preserve.
Gabis Arboretum is nothing short of a hidden oasis in the heart of northwest Indiana that’s a short road trip from Chicago.
What is an arboretum?
An arboretum is a collection of tree species, much like a botanical garden is a collection of plant species. Gabis Arboretum, while a collection of many kinds of trees, is known for its oak preserve.
Over 72 different oak species, including species from North America, Europe and Asia, can be seen throughout the arboretum and the Oak Islands exhibit.
Gabis Arboretum, resting on 300 acres, opened to the public in October 2001.
The idea for the preserve began in 1997 when the founders, Damien and Rita Gabis, developed a plan for a place in northwest Indiana that would promote conservation, enjoyment of nature and public education in topography, horticulture and ecology.
As a nature lover, exploring all the different tree species within the arboretum was thrilling. My favorite tree at the arboretum was the Council Oak, the oldest tree and bur oak at the arboretum at over 350 years old.
The trunk was massive, but the vast number of branches and its overall shape and form was enthralling. The inner child in me wanted nothing more than to climb up as far as I could, but smiling to myself, I resisted the urge.
The trails at the arboretum wouldn’t classify as a typical hiking experience, but one of the unique aspects of the arboretum is its composite environment of three ecosystems: prairies, woodlands, and wetlands.
The terrain isn’t rugged, but I found walking the smooth trails to be stimulating because of the chance to journey through the different ecosystems all in the same place.
I’d be hiking through oaks, maples and hickories watching squirrels and birds hop from tree to tree, and in the next moment I’d be walking a narrow path through the tall prairie grasses watching the bumblebees pollinate the native wildflowers and the fescues sway with the wind.
The wildflowers that dominate the landscape are the purple and yellow coneflowers, cardinal flowers, blazing stars and black-eyed susans.
The trail I most enjoyed was the Bluebird Trail, which not only includes the Council Oak, but also the Window on the Wetland outlook. This iconic spot overlooks the wetland habitat where Great Blue Herons and Green Herons come to catch fish and wade through the water.
Just when I thought I wasn’t going to catch a glimpse of any wildlife, I spotted a blue heron flying overhead and watched it gracefully touch down in the pond. It was simply magical.
Both within and apart from the trails, there are many things to explore. Ellen Kapitan, the programs manager for Gabis Arboretum, said there is always something different to do and see depending on when you visit.
“All our various natural landscapes, including our matured forest, restored wetlands and restored prairie, are full of beauty,” Kapitan said. “The prairie changes every day; I’ve learned to love it every day because it’s always something different.”
Gabis Arboretum also contains seven formal gardens, including the Railway Garden, Adventure Garden, Rose Gardens, Native Plant Garden, Meyer Memorial Pavilion Garden, Welcome Garden and TreeSong Music Garden.
Each offers its own exhibit of trees, plants and different activities. At the Adventure Garden, I loved saying hello to the rabbits, chickens, goats and turkeys that are all in pens within the garden, and at the TreeSong Music Garden, I loved trying all the musical instruments designed to reflect the sounds of nature.
While all the gardens are beautiful, the Railway Garden was my favorite and is one of the largest attractions at the arboretum.
It’s a multi-million-dollar outdoor G-scale model train garden that expands one acre, and it features seven train loops with miniature waterfalls and ponds, conifers and ornamental plants.
The garden’s theme showcases historic displays that recount the history of America’s steam engines through eras including the western expansion and the Civil War.
Related: grab lunch or dinner at nearby Don Quijote and you’ll feel like you’re visiting Spain.
“You’re enthralled by the trains, and you get a trip through history,” Kapitan said.
When I visited, I found it impossible to see everything in one glance. The garden is so large that I found myself catching new scenes and cameos every time I walked a lap around the garden.
While there are many other things to do at the arboretum, what I loved most was fulfilling my love for nature and being outside experiencing the trees, plants and wildlife of such different ecosystems in one place.
“Watching the insects fly from flower to flower or watching the birds are ways to take a step out of the every day,” Kapitan said. “This oasis of a green space is in an area subject to develop for years, in between cities, but this space for animal and wildlife habitats and a resource bend for the community encourages the community to enjoy nature.”
The arboretum made me feel connected to nature in so many ways. The smell of the crisp, fresh air made me feel alive, and the feeling of getting to “discover” new things always makes me excited.
Even though the trails have been there, and other people have walked them, the adventurous sense in me felt like I was the one exploring them for the first time, and I loved it all.
Related: explore more things to do in Valparaiso Indiana
Gabis Arboretum is located at 450 W 100 N, Valparaiso, IN; website