Part of Indiana Dunes was upgraded from a National Lakeshore to a National Park on February 15, 2019, including over 15,000 acres of sandy wonderland.
In addition to the now National Parklands, there are over 2,000 acres of State Parklands to explore.
Even though it’s a smaller park, comparatively speaking, it is one of the most diverse in all of the National Parks system.
You’ll find 15 miles of beaches in the National Park, as well as more sandy Lake Michigan real estate within the State Park.
Just a heads up— the setup of the park is a little different and can be a little confusing when planning a trip for first-time visitors. The State Park is actually surrounded by National Parklands, and this area does require a separate entrance fee.
Also, a note of caution when preparing for your visit to Indiana Dunes: Because this park is closer in proximity to urban areas like Chicago, there are industrial areas nearby. You will be able to see them, sometimes, in your view from the beaches, but do not let this deter you from visiting.
There is plenty here to see, but be prepared that this is not the same experience as you will have in parks like Yellowstone or Yosemite. Appreciate Indiana Dunes for what it is, and you will be delighted.
Where are the Indiana Dunes?
The state of Indiana includes 45 miles of shoreline along the southern tip of Lake Michigan. Indiana Dunes includes 15 miles of National Park land and over 3 miles in the State Park.
You’ll be able to reach the park grounds easily with about an hour of driving from Chicago, Il, or South Bend, IN.
Unlike many of the other locations in the National Parks System, this one is really easy to get to by flying to Chicago and renting a car if you are out of driving distance.
If you’re on a parks road trip, you’ll probably have to drive at least 4-5 hours from any of the others to reach this one.
How much does it cost to visit Indiana Dunes?
To begin the summer 2022 season, Indiana Dunes National Park changed the entrance requirements for all park areas.
As of March 31, 2022, there is now a $25 entrance fee per vehicle for any of the national park sites. This entrance pass, once purchased, is valid for 7 days.
America the Beautiful and annual national park passes are accepted at Indiana Dunes National Park.
Indiana Dunes State Park, however, does have a daily entrance fee based on vehicle license plates. There is one road providing access to the park and a gated entrance where visitors must pay fees.
For vehicles with Indiana license plates, a $7 fee is required. For all others, a $12 fee for daily entrance should be paid at the gate.
You will need to purchase separate entrance fees if you want to visit both parks. The national park passes do not cover visiting state park lands, and vice versa.
Best Things to Do in Indiana Dunes
Explore the beaches. Hike the trails. Go for a bike ride. Get out on the water. There are plenty of things to do at Indiana Dunes if you just start looking.
Begin your Visit at the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center
To get the lay of the land, we recommend visiting the park Visitor Center first thing.
This is a great place to learn about any special events or trail closures, which could either enhance or detract from your visit!
Pick up any park maps you may need, or ask for suggestions about any must-see spots for the time of your visit.
They do have a couple of short films teaching about various aspects of the park if you’re lucky enough to catch a clip.
Also, remember to get your National Parks stamp while you’re there!
Take the Diana of the Dunes Dare and Explore the Dunes Succession Trail
The Dunes Succession Trail is definitely one of the best hikes in Indiana Dunes National Park.
You’ll find the trailheads at the West Beach Parking lots.
On the hike, you’ll experience all of the different stages of the dunes, just like Diana came to know and love. You’ll also learn more about her on the hike!
It can be as short as a 0.9-mile loop or as long as 3.4 miles, depending on your preferences and time constraints, with other combinations in between.
The trail does include a significant number of stairs on a wooden boardwalk-type trail, as well as walking on sand.
For a longer hike, park back at the first, but small, parking area by Long Lake and take the West Beach Trail around to the staircase. This route will likely avoid some of the crowds on the outer portions.
Although it is a little longer, after the climbs, you can plan time to stop, relax on West Beach, and enjoy the views of the lake.
Take the 3 Dunes Challenge at Indiana Dunes State Park
Although this hike is entirely in the State Park, requiring fees, this hike is highly publicized and accesses three of the tallest dunes in the area.
Over 1.5 miles, with much of it walking on loose sand, you’ll have to climb over 550 feet, including 192 feet to the top of Mount Tom.
At the top of each dune, you’ll be rewarded with beautiful views of the dunes and the lake beyond.
Bring more water than you think that you’ll need for a 1.5-mile hike; the climbs are steep and the sand can be scorching.
On the same note, be sure to wear proper footwear for this one. You don’t want to get to the top of the dune and end up with sand burning your feet and a broken flip-flop.
Relax on a Beautiful Sandy Beach
With 18 miles of beaches between the two parks, there is no shortage of areas to explore by the water.
While some, like the State Park Beach and West Beach, are busier than others due to their ease of access and amenities, all feature soft sand and beautiful clear waters.
Spend an hour or all day enjoying the sun and sand, watching a storm roll in over the lake, or taking in the Chicago skyline in the distance.
Go for a Bike Ride
Nearly 75 miles of bike trails weave through the National Park, separated into 6 trails of varying lengths for most abilities. All but the 19-mile Calumet bike trail are paved.
For a shorter, more family-friendly ride, consider either the Dunes Kankakee trail or the Marquette trail.
The Dunes Kankakee trail travels between the Dunes Visitor’s Center and the toll booth parking area at the State Park.
The Marquette Trail has a parking area near the West Beach entrance off of County Line Road. This trail follows the old Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad line railbed.
For something more intermediate-advanced, consider the Oak Savanah Rail Trail or the Prairie Duneland Rail Trail. A common parking area can be found for trailheads to these two at 4 North Hobart Road, Hobart, IN 46342.
|Trail||Distance (round trip)||Surface||Terrain|
|Calumet Trail||19.0 miles||Gravel||Flat|
|Dunes Kankakee Trail||3.6 miles||Paved||Flat|
|Porter Brickyard Trail||7.0 miles||Paved||Hills|
|Prairie Duneland Trail||22.4 miles||Paved||Flat|
|Marquette Trail||4.6 miles||Paved||Flat|
|Oak Savannah Trail||17.8 miles||Paved||Flat|
Take Advantage of Lake Michigan and Surrounding Waterways
If you get tired of sitting on the beach or trudging through sand, get a boat and head out on the water!
Kayaking has become increasingly popular with the development of the Lake Michigan Water Trail, Burns Waterway, and the Little Calumet Water Trail.
Canoes can be taken on inland streams but aren’t recommended on Lake Michigan due to the rapidly changing conditions and the possibility of large waves.
Fishing, sailing, and taking motorboats out on Lake Michigan are permitted but appropriate permits and licenses should be secured ahead of time.
Note that there are no rental facilities available in the park.
Check out the Century of Progress Homes
During the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, these five homes, among other buildings, were on display to give people hope for the future during the depths of the Great Depression.
These homes featured ultra-modern amenities including dishwashers and central air conditioning.
Following the expo, four of the homes were moved to their current resting place in Beverly Shores by barge; the fifth, the Cyprus Log Cabin, was moved by truck in pieces.
You can now view these buildings from the outside any time of year in Beverly Shores.
If you’re lucky enough to plan your visit at the right time, catch them at the end of September when they open for tours during the last weekend of the month.
These homes do maintain private residences, in exchange for their upkeep, so please respect the residents’ privacy and do not trespass.
Explore the Portage Lakefront & Riverwalk
The Riverwalk covers 0.9 miles of easy walking to see views of both the dunes and beautiful Lake Michigan.
Most of the trail is paved, with one set of stairs along the path. There is minimal elevation change, so it’s a really easy hike with a lot of payoffs.
You could plan to walk the path and hang out at the beach for a relaxing few hours outdoors.
The area is a great example of land that has been reclaimed from industrial and sewage waste dumps and transformed into a wonderful outdoor escape.
Climb to the top of Mount Baldy — if it is open!
Known as the most dynamic of the dunes in the area, Mount Baldy is located on the far east side of the park.
On average, it moves about 4 feet per year, but it has been known to move as much as 10 feet in one year.
The movement is quite evident, even from the parking area, as the sand has overtaken part of the paved loop of the parking area, causing it to close (pictured above).
Hiking to Mount Baldy Beach is definitely worth the effort.
Most of the time, the hike to the top is closed due to erosion, dangerous conditions underneath, and the fact that significant foot traffic accelerates the erosion process. The most likely way you could climb to the top is to participate in a ranger-led hike during the summer months, most often happening on the weekends.
Even if you aren’t able to climb to the top of Mount Baldy, the view of the dune and the beach is beautiful in its own right. Hiking about 0.8 miles is all you’ll have to cover to get the views.
Because there are fewer amenities right at the beach area, it’s also typically a little less crowded than some of the others in the State Park as well as West Beach.
Take a Hike to Look for Wildlife
Bird watching is a popular activity in Indiana Dunes, especially during the spring and fall migrating seasons.
Because of its location at the southernmost point of the lake, it is a popular resting spot for the birds on their journey between the north and south.
A birding festival is also held in May to celebrate the activity.
You’ll get other chances to view wildlife by hiking the Cowels Bog or Great Marsh trails, where you may be able to catch a glimpse of aquatic life.
The Heron Rookery trail used to be a site of over 100 heron nests, though they do not use this site for nesting anymore.
While exploring the park, you may see white-tailed deer, beavers, foxes, and various types of squirrels and rodents.
View the Beautiful Plants and Foliage
In the spring and early summer, beautiful wildflowers line the trails away from the beaches. The Heron Rookery Trail is particularly known for its beautiful wildflowers.
During the fall, the color-changing leaves provide quite a different backdrop for the Dunes.
Because this is one of the most diverse ecosystems in the whole National Parks System, there is always a chance you will be able to see something new during your next visit!
Indiana Dunes Weather: What to Expect During Your Visit
The Indiana Dunes area is significantly influenced by Lake Michigan, and it does experience four seasons.
During the summer months of June, July, and August, the weather can be perfect for beach-going with highs in the mid-80s.
During the winter, there is some snowfall, and temperatures average in the 20’s and 30’s. Spring and fall weather is more moderate and can be great for some of the more intensive activities.
Places to Stay Near Indiana Dunes
Indiana Dunes Camping
There are two options for camping, as both the National Park and the State Park each have a campground.
The Dunewood Campground in the National Park can be reserved through Recreation.gov and sites cost around $25 per night.
Camping at the State Park can be reserved through their ReserveAmerica site, but it does cost more at up to $30 per night.
The park entrance fee is NOT included in the State Park camping reservation, so this will have to be paid upon entry. This campground, also, doesn’t have a ton of privacy between sites. There is little if any shade or even shrubbery separating most of the campsites.
Vacation Home Rentals
For those traveling with a larger group and/or looking for more creature comforts than offered when planting some roots at a campground, there are plenty of options for vacation rentals, as easy as booking somewhere like VRBO.
Check out this 2 bedroom apartment just a short drive to the Dunes. You’ll have a kitchen, laundry access, and a little more space to roam than in a hotel room.
For larger families or even multiple families, this is the way to go!
Hotels near Indiana Dunes
With such easy access to Chicago, the hotel options are nearly endless if you are willing to drive about an hour.
Book the Bridge Inn in nearby Michigan City, Indiana for a shorter drive. It’s one of the top reviewed in the area, reasonably priced, and 20 minutes or less from most areas in the park.
Restaurants: Places to Eat Near Indiana Dunes
Big Time Burgers + Brew (Porter, IN): Delicious specialty burgers or build your own.
Leroy’s “Hot Stuff” (Porter, IN): Authentic Mexican bites
Wagner’s Ribs (Porter, IN): BBQ style in a 21+ joint
Shoreline Brewery & Restaurant (Michigan City, IN): Microbrewery with a full menu on the water
Final Things to Know Before Visiting Indiana Dunes
- Unlike some other areas with sand dunes, there is no driving permitted of any kind (4×4’s, ATVs, 4-wheelers, etc.) on Indiana Dunes.
- Swimming in the waters of Lake Michigan is absolutely permitted. Just be careful of rip currents. They’re a real risk here.
- Alcohol consumption is permitted in the National Park areas, but not at the State Park beaches. Responsible consumption is permitted at the State Park campground.
- The sand, even on the dunes trails, gets VERY hot during the summer. Wear footwear that is going to protect your feet. Sticks and rocks hidden in the sand can also be quite sharp and cut your feet if you try to walk barefoot. Use caution.
Do you have other questions about planning a visit to Indiana Dunes? Leave them below in the comments!
Wrapping Up a Visit to Indiana Dunes
Indiana Dunes is a small area, comparatively speaking.
Unless you are planning to camp and spend your days sunbathing on the beach (…and there isn’t anything wrong with that!), you can probably cover the highlights in 1-2 days.
Be prepared, when visiting, that the scenery is beautiful, but some views do include industrial areas in the distance. Even though it’s sandwiched in between more built-up areas, Indiana Dunes National Park is still worth visiting.
For those looking for a shorter trip destination with some great hikes or a relaxing day at the beach, you should pay Indiana Dunes a visit!