On the southern shores of shimmering Lake Michigan lies a hidden gem of sandy dune ecosystems just waiting to be discovered. Indiana Dunes National Park is a unique landscape with miles of sandy beaches, towering sand dunes, and beautiful wildlife.
If you’re looking for a fun outdoor experience near Chicago or road-tripping along the Great Lakes, this national park is probably on your radar. But should you make time for Indiana Dunes? Is it worth all the effort?
In this article, we’ll explore if Indiana Dunes National Park is worth visiting and what to expect when visiting Indiana Dunes, including when’s the best time to visit and how many days you need in order to truly appreciate it.
So if you’re ready for an adventure, let’s see. Is Indiana Dunes National Park worth visiting?
Is Indiana Dunes National Park Worth Visiting?
Indiana Dunes National Park is definitely worth visiting if you’re on a road trip or crossing each national park off of your bucket list. You should also pay a visit to the state park nestled in between segments of the National Park property while you’re there.
Located along the southern shore of Lake Michigan, Indiana Dunes (the state park, not on the national park property) is home to the tallest sand dune in the Midwest, Mount Tom.
Exploring the park can include everything from hiking numerous trails to relaxing on the beach. The visitor center offers a great introduction to the area, with information about local wildlife and plants. This should be your first stop!
West Beach is an especially popular spot for swimming, sunbathing, and taking in stunning views of the lake and the Chicago skyline in the distance.
With miles of trails ranging from easy strolls along Kemil Beach to strenuous treks up Dune Ridge Trail (loose sand makes it a bit more challenging!), Indiana Dunes National Park is worth a stop if you like the sand.
While we wouldn’t recommend this as a single destination for multiple days, if you’re looking for a day trip, it’s definitely worth adding this park to your travel itinerary. Planning a longer vacation? Plan a road trip around Lake Michigan with stops at Sleeping Bear Dunes and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan along the way.
Indiana Dunes National Park: What to Expect
Visiting Indiana Dunes National Park is a unique experience. The park has a mix of natural and industrial elements, so you’ll find secluded trails perfect for hiking, as well as urban structures like steel mills and power plants bordering the edges.
There’s so much to explore here! From Cowles Bog Trail to the Dune Succession Trail, you can certainly fill at least one day.
West Beach is an especially popular spot for swimming and sunbathing. While it does get extremely busy on summer weekends with visitors getting away from nearby Chicago to catch some rays, visit during the week, before Memorial Day, or after Labor Day to avoid the largest crowds.
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How to Get to Indiana Dunes National Park
Getting to Indiana Dunes National Park is easy! Located just 40 miles southeast of Chicago, it’s the perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. It’s about 45 minutes of driving from the city center to reach the park via I-90 East.
It is possible to reach the area on public transportation but not the easiest, so it would be difficult to make a day trip this way.
If you’re driving, there are several parking lots throughout the park where you can leave your car and explore. There is a fee to enter the national park, paid per car, and valid for 7 days.
If you enter both the national park and the state park, you will have to pay separate fees. One fee does not cover both parks.
Best Time of Year to Visit Indiana Dunes
If you’re looking for the best time to visit Indiana Dunes National Park, we’d recommend visiting when the weather is warm, but before Memorial Day or after Labor Day.
During the summer months, visitors can take advantage of warm days and cool nights by swimming in Lake Michigan or exploring one of the many hiking trails, but many other people also have the same ideas.
Fall offers beautiful foliage and great bird-watching opportunities, while wintertime provides perfect conditions for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and sledding.
Spring brings with it a renewed sense of life as wildflowers begin to bloom and animals start to wake up from their winter slumber.
No matter when you decide to visit Indiana Dunes National Park, you’ll be met with a fun experience if you know what to expect.
What to do When Visiting Indiana Dunes
For your first stop, you should make your way to the Visitor Center for an educational experience about the park and its wildlife. You can also grab information and maps, as well as talk to park staff for any hidden gems or personalized recommendations.
Afterward, take a hike on the Dune Ridge Trail or the Cowles Bog Trail for stunning views of Lake Michigan.
For those looking for a longer journey, try out Paul H. Douglas Trail. If you’re looking for something more relaxed, take a stroll along the Southern Shore or visit Chellberg Farm for some local history.
Finally, end your day with a trip to Beverly Shores and learn about Henry Cowles who helped shape this park into what it is today! No matter how you choose to spend your time at Indiana Dunes National Park, you won’t regret making this day trip one of your most memorable experiences!
How Many Days do you Need in Indiana Dunes National Park?
Planning a trip to Indiana Dunes National Park can be challenging because the layout can be a little confusing. Indiana Dunes State Park is located right in the middle of the national park, and you have to pay a different entrance fee.
If you’re looking to make the most of your visit, then you could do so in 1-2 days.
On day one, head over to the Visitor Center for an educational experience about wildlife and park history. After that, explore West Beach and take a hike on the Dune Ridge Trail or the Cowles Bog Trail (or both!) for stunning lake views and sand dunes.
On day two, visit Chellberg Farm for some local history and then Beverly Shores and learn about Henry Cowles who helped shape this park into what it is today. Finally, end your stay with a visit to Mount Baldy Beach on the far eastern side of the park.
No matter how many days you decide to spend at Indiana Dunes National Park, you will certainly not regret making this day trip.
Where To Stay
If you’re planning on visiting Indiana Dunes National Park for more than one day, then you’ll need to find a place to stay. One of the best options is to stay in Michigan City, which is the town on the eastern side of the park that offers plenty of accommodation options for all budgets.
We’d recommend staying at the Bridge Inn in Michigan City. It’s very close to the Washington Park attractions, and there are great dining options nearby, too.
For those looking for a unique experience, staying at one of the campgrounds near Indiana Dunes can be a great option. The Dunewood Campground is managed by the NPS and offers 66 campsites with easy access to hiking trails.
We didn’t stay at the state park campground, but we did walk through it while visiting to do the 3 dune challenge. The sites there looked pretty open and many were not very shaded. It’s convenient to the beach and the hike but not the most private.
No matter where you decide to stay during your visit to Indiana Dunes National Park, you’ll surely have fun exploring the sandy terrain.
Indiana Dunes National Park is definitely worth visiting for the right reasons. The beaches have stunning views, and you’ll have the chance to spot diverse wildlife. You just won’t be out in the middle of nowhere when you visit!
Whether you’re a nature lover, a history buff, or just looking for a fun day trip, this national park has fun things to explore. Don’t leave it off of your road trip itinerary!