In the new holiday lights at Fernwood Botanical Garden in Niles — back after they went on hiatus in 2008 — a machine pumps the smell of candy canes as you walk past river birch trees whose trunks are wrapped to look like the swirling mints.
And you’ll hear birds. Now remember ,it’ll be after sunset in these gardens and mature woods — so birds will have gone to bed. Instead, you’ll hear the sound of birds from speakers that a recent grant helped to install. Meanwhile, you’ll be walking a 50-foot stretch of paved path where you’ll see where images of birds, cast by light projectors.
“It makes you stop in your tracks,” Executive Director Carol Line says.
Almost 40 stars from three to six feet wide hang in one section of tall trees, placed there with the help of a lift and a local tree company, Line says.
“Lights at Fernwood” runs from 5 to 9 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays from Nov. 26 through Jan. 2 at Fernwood at 13988 Range Line Road. It will be closed on Dec. 24-25.
It brings tunnels of lights and an array of displays, including seven sound areas, that you can spend 45 minutes to an hour absorbing. Line says two professionals who’ve worked on other garden light displays elsewhere, one a landscape architect and one a former garden director, helped to design the display.
They’ve reimagined Fernwood’s former “Lights Before Christmas,” which had been a big draw — and fundraiser — for 15 years until the nonprofit gardens pulled the plug. Line says attendance was waning and the event needed to be rethought.
“We always wanted to bring it back,” she says, noting that Fernwood then directed its attention to a capital campaign and building its Sims Education Center.
Now, visitors circle along about half of a mile of garden paths that are paved or crushed gravel. It starts from the visitors center. Those who can’t navigate the few steps to reach the path from there can use the elevator in the building. The Sims building is the hub for beverages, snacks, fire pits and restrooms. The gift shop at the visitors center will be selling holiday gifts and packaged food.
Fernwood strongly recommends booking tickets in advance to ensure enough parking and safe traffic off of Range Line Road; tickets will be sold at the event only if available. Line says the revenue will help Fernwood to hire specialists and to fuel the budget for its garden master plan, coming off of the financial setbacks of the pandemic.
Several volunteers, plus staff, are making the event’s comeback possible, but there’s room for more volunteers; each volunteer gets a free pass to tour on a night when they’re not working.
Unvaccinated visitors must wear masks when inside the buildings (you can avoid going inside, too). No mask requirement outside. These COVID protocols are subject to changes based on state and county guidelines.
Tickets cost $15 for general admission, $10 for ages 3-12 and free for ages 2 and younger. To order or volunteer or find other details, visit www.fernwoodbotanical.org.
Wellfield Botanic Gardens, at 1011 N. Main St. in Elkhart, hits 1 million lights in this season’s “Winter Wonderland Holiday Lights,” having grown to that target number each year as part of the popular walk-through light display’s five-year plan.
Follow nearly one mile of paths for lights circling the water reservoirs, which reflect their twinkling colors. Warm up at fire pits and with hot and cold beverages for sale. Recorded holiday music will play through the gardens.
This year you can use your tickets for any night or time that the lights are on, unlike last year when you had to book specific time slots to avoid overly packed pandemic crowds. Masks are optional in all spaces at Wellfield. Also returning is the Giving Tree where each night a portion of ticket sales will support a different charity in Elkhart County.
Tickets cost $12, $7 for ages 3-12 and free for those under age 3. “Winter Wonderland” runs Fridays through Saturdays from Nov. 26 through Dec. 12. Then it’s open daily from Dec. 17 to 23, then again on Dec. 26. On those nights, Wellfield closes for general admission at 5 p.m., then reopens at 5:30 p.m. for the light display. The admission gate closes at 8:09 p.m., while visitors can stay until 9 p.m. Visit Wellfield’s website for more information about parking, nearby construction and event details at wellfieldgardens.org. Tickets are available online or at the gate.
“The Gift of Lights” at Potawatomi Zoo in South Bend runs from 5 to 9 p.m. every Friday, Saturday and Sunday now through Dec. 19 with added decorations and lights. Santa will be in the River Run Yurt from 6 to 8 p.m. every night, and visitors can “meet a princess” from 6 to 8 p.m. each Sunday — no extra charge for the visits.
Express train tickets cost $5 for ages 2 and older and include a lighted route, a Christmas present and hot chocolate sample. The train will run as weather permits, while the carousel will not be running in winter. Food and drink will be sold at the café and snack bar, with adult drinks and snacks at the Round Barn Monkey Bar as weather permits.
Admission to “The Gift of Lights” is $11 for ages 15 and up, $6 for ages 3-14 and free for ages 2 and younger. Tickets can be bought at the gate or at www.potawatomizoo.org/lights.
The drive-through “Magic of Lights” at the LaPorte County Fairgrounds and Event Center, 2581 W. Indiana 2 in LaPorte, is now open from 5 to 10 p.m. CST each night through Jan. 2. This display features nearly 1 million twinkling lights on a 1.5-mile route, including the themed areas “12 Days of Christmas,” “Tropical Holidays,” “Santa’s Mountain” and “The Enchanting Tunnel of Lights.” There’s also a “Jolly Holiday Village” where you can park for a visit with Santa and a firepit s’mores package. This light display is a first for LaPorte County, brought in by a private company to several locations around the U.S.
Tickets cost $40-$20 per vehicle, depending upon when they’re purchased, if purchased online or at the gate, and whether you’re visiting on a weekday or weekend. Limo/party bus tickets cost $100-$40 per vehicle. For details, visit magicoflights.com/events/laporte.
The 1.5-mile drive-through “Lights of Joy” display in Shipshewana features more than 2 million LED lights, open every Tuesday through Sunday from Nov. 26 to Dec. 31. Hours are 6 to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 6 to 9 p.m. Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Shipshewana Trading Place and Blue Gate Hospitality partnered with Winterland, Inc. to bring the fourth annual display.
It winds through the grounds of the Shipshewana RV Park. Visitors enter via the grounds of the Shipshewana Flea Market on Indiana 5 (345 S Van Buren St.) and exit onto County Road 200 North. Cost is $20 per vehicle. Tickets can be bought at the gate or online at ShipshewanaLightsofJoy.com.
• Ice skating returns:Howard Park’s ice loop and pond in South Bend is set to reopen for the season Nov. 26 with a day of festivities: ceremonial first skate at 10:30 a.m., free hot beverages and treats from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., balloon twisting and visits by the Grinch and other characters from 1 to 3 p.m., story time with the mayor and others from 3 to 5 p.m., carolers and crafts from 5 to 7 p.m. and skating with tunes from 7 to 9 p.m. To book skating tickets, visit visithowardpark.com.
• #OptOutSide hike: The Hoosier Hikers will host a hike Nov. 26 on 6K or 10K routes through the University of Notre Dame. Hikers will walk with a group based on distance and pace. Registration will begin at 9 a.m., then walking at 9:30 a.m. Cost is $3. Meet up and look for the banner and Volksmarch sign in Notre Dame’s Walsh Architecture visitors lot, which is reached via Eddy Street just north of Angela Boulevard in South Bend. No parking fee because of the holiday. For questions, contact Bob Buzolich at 574-339-9140 or [email protected].
• Free state parks: There will be free admission on the day after Thanksgiving (Nov. 26) at all Indiana State Parks and any Indiana Department of Natural Resources property that normally charges a gate fee. The DNR will hold “Opt Outside” contests on social media, where you can share your Black Friday photos of hiking and other activities at the parks. You’ll be entered into drawings for park passes and other prizes. Details are at on.IN.gov/optoutside.
Follow Outdoor Adventures columnist Joseph Dits on Facebook at SBTOutdoorAdventures. Contact him at 574-235-6158 or [email protected].