Indiana Dunes National Park: The Best Things to Do

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In terms of outward beauty and natural splendor, Indiana is probably not the first state that comes to mind; after all, a place best known for its annual car races doesn’t exactly scream “conservation.” But a look at Indiana Dunes National Parkone of the most startling units in the national park system, and you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to Hawaii, unless you visit in the winter when the distinctions become much clearer.

For a park so close to urban areas—the misty Chicago skyline towers in the distance—Indiana Dunes feels worlds away, a peaceful respite of Splenda’s pristine shoreline and soft sands so close to the city that residents of Chicago can get to a national park faster than they can get to O’Hare.

Of course, this closeness goes both ways. When Indiana Dunes was originally designated as a national park, some lamented the audacity to put a beach surrounded by power plants in the same category as Yellowstone. But never the underrated sleeper hit, Indiana Dunes is full of surprises that even the harshest critics can’t ignore: Indiana Dunes has more biodiversity than even Yellowstone— and almost all other national parks.

It was this abundance of diverse and delicate vegetation that spurred a movement, led by the “father of plant ecology” Henry Cowles, to preserve the shores of the lake in the late 1800s as steel mills and power stations were growing like noxious weeds; it was upgraded from a state park in 1926 and a national lakefront in 1966 before gaining national park status – and increased protections – in 2019.

Today, despite being one of the smallest national parks by size, Indiana Dunes is now the 11th most visited park in the country with 2.3 million annual tourists. And in any case, it’s a matter of quality rather than quantity here, where grasslands, swamps, bayous-like wetlands and sand dunes the size of small mountains – all open for hiking. , camping, kayaking and bird watching – all overlook a lake so tropical blue, you feel like you should be wearing a lei.

a person walking down a boardwalk stairway to the beach
Each season offers its own unique experiences. | Jon Lauriat/iStock/Getty Images

When to Visit Indiana Dunes National Park

Being so close to Chicago means Indiana Dunes National Park shares the same infamously drastic weather changes as the Windy City, from polar vortices in winter to sweltering humidity in summer, which means every season in the park s comes with its own unique experiences.

Summer is a great time to visit weather-wise, especially because the lakefront is essentially a sustainable southern beach for Chicagoans. When temperatures turn warm, especially in July and August, locals flock here to splash around in a particularly pristine part of Lake Michigan, have picnics, and sunbathe on the silky sands. At this time of year, you’ll be joined by the vast majority of the park’s 2.3 million annual visitors, so get there early or be prepared for a little road rage in the parking lot.

Early fall is pleasant and much more peaceful, with dwindling crowds, cooler temperatures, and bright foliage. Although it’s too cold to swim, sweater season has its own rewards. Plus, you can make it an entire day in Indiana and go apple picking nearby.

Spring in the Midwest is a fickle beast, swinging between surprisingly warm days and surprisingly arctic days as wildflowers begin to bloom and the maple sugar festival gets started. And then there is winter. For one, you can cross-country ski or snowshoe in the park, and probably have it all to yourself. On the other hand, “frozen windswept hellscape” is a phrase that will apply, so prepare accordingly.

two people walking along a winding lake
15 miles of unspoilt shoreline for swimming and fishing. | PhotosByLarissaB/Shutterstock

Relax on the Midwest’s most popular lake shore

The most surprising aspect of Indiana Dunes, especially in light of its delicate land area, is the vastness of outdoor activities to be had here. Despite the fact that the park is 146 times smaller than Yellowstone, it really maximizes its usability with some 50 miles of hiking trails, 37 miles of biking trails, 15 miles of unspoilt shoreline for swimming and building sand castles, and plenty of fishing from the Petit Calumet. River to Portage Lakefront wharf.

Indiana Dunes’ most popular attraction, however, is of course the lakefront, all 15 miles of it. The park is divided into different beaches, like west beach, Porter Beachand Dunbar Beacheach with its own parking lot, drinking water and toilets.

Glass containers and fires are prohibited on the beach, but West Beach and Beach with lake view have dedicated grilling areas for barbecues. Otherwise, the lake is an all-natural playground for swimming, sunbathing and picnicking, and the sunset walks are absolutely stunning in summer.

a marshy lake surrounded by trees, grass and other foliage
This national park has more biodiversity than almost any other. | drew the hobbit / Shutterstock

Hike, bike, and ride up and down the dunes

While most of the hiking trails are relatively flat and easy (this is the Midwest, let’s not forget), the dunes will get your heart pumping with surprisingly intense elevation. Easier and shorter rides include the paved half mile Calumet Dunes Trail and Dune Ridge Trailwhich weaves through wetlands, forests and dunes in less than a mile.

Things get complicated on the Mount Baldy Beach Traila short but steep climb to get to the lake, or the three mile Tolleston Dunes Trail, which showcases the park’s biodiversity with oak savannah habitats, wetlands, lupines and even prickly pears. (Yes, cacti in the Midwest!).

For cyclists, the park’s network of cycle paths stretches over many kilometers between the Calumet bike paththe Kankakee Dunes Bike Paththe Prairie Duneland Bike Pathand others, while the Glenwood Dunes Trails offer the possibility of horseback riding as the only equestrian area in the park.

If you dare to bundle up for a winter visit, snowshoes and cross-country skis can be rented at Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education for use on the Paul H. Douglas Trail. You are welcome to venture elsewhere, but you will need to BYO your own winter gear in other parts of the park.

Know before you go

From March 31, 2022, the Entrance fees to Indiana Dunes Park will be $25 per vehicle or $15 for people entering on foot, by bike or by boat. Do not confuse with the neighbor Indiana Dunes State Parkwhich charges an entry fee of $7 for in-state vehicles or $12 for out-of-state plates.

If you are visiting during the summer months, the beach parking lots fill up quickly, especially on weekends or holidays. All are open from 6:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. daily, but you’ll need to arrive earlier, at least mid-morning, to ensure you can find a spot. Conversely, you can wait out the crowds and arrive later in the afternoon, when the flow of visitors decreases.

West Beach, one of the most popular entry points, has the most land and is also the only supervised beach. Swimming is fun and all, but it’s important to be mindful and careful. Lake Michigan is the size and acts of a sea, with periodic rip currents and high waves. Heed the current warnings posted at the beaches, but if you find yourself drawn into deeper water, try to stay calm and swim parallel to the shore to get out of it.

Whether you’re relaxing at the beach or hiking in wetlands, it’s also important to bring plenty of sunscreen, water, and bug spray. Sun visor hats and sunglasses are also advised.

bare trees protruding from a sand dune
The urban proximity of the park offers many accommodation options. | Eddie J. Rodriquez/Shutterstock

Where to Stay near Indiana Dunes National Park

The main option on site is Dunewood Campgroundopen April 1-November 1 with dozens of tent and RV sites at $25 per night, and Beach with lake view close. Affordable chains abound just outside the park, such as the Hilton Garden Inn Chesterton Where Baymont by Wyndham Portage Indiana Dunes.

For something a little funkier, Riley’s Railhouse is a B&B located in a former freight yard, full of railway antiques and rooms overlooking working train tracks. For added amenities and urban proximity, Indiana Dunes’ easy access to smaller towns like Gary and Michigan City offers plenty of lodging options.

Then, of course, there’s Chicago less than an hour away, filled with every hotel or Airbnb imaginable, plenty of solid neighborhood options, and basically every other creature comfort, including deep-dish pizzas and other essentials. of Chicago non-negotiable, we wish all national parks trips could offer. Best of all: From Windy City, you can board the South Shore trainwhich can take you straight into the dunes.

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Matt Kirouac is a travel writer with a passion for national parks, Disney and food. He is co-founder and co-host of Hello Ranger, a national parks community blog, podcast and app. Follow him on IG @matt_kirouac.


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