Indiana Dunes National Park Full Guide + Must See Places!
In this National Park guide we’re exploring Indiana Dunes National Park. Watch the video below of our two-day visit to Indiana Dunes National Park and all the things to do here. Then keep reading to learn even more about how you can plan to visit, things to do, where to stay, and where to eat!
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In this guide we share all the things you need to know to plan your own trip to Indiana Dunes National Park!
About Indiana Dunes National Park
Indiana Dunes National Park only became a national park within the last several years, on February 15, 2019 in fact. Before that it was the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. The national park spans 15 miles of lakeshore along the southern shore of Lake Michigan and is in fairly close proximity to Chicago, IL.
Indiana Dunes National Park is quite biodiverse and comprised of more than the beaches and dunes, including marshes, prairies, rivers, and forests. It is especially full of diverse bird species.
Another interesting thing about Indiana Dunes National Park is that it is situated next to and among various industrial companies, such as U.S. Steel, and the Port of Indiana is here as well. That makes it unlike many national parks we’ve seen. One we could perhaps compare this to is Cuyahoga National Park in Ohio because there it kind of feels like you’re in a residential neighborhood until you are all of a sudden in the national park. Indiana Dunes’ proximity to these industrial areas surely increases some challenges for preservation, but also highlights the added importance for conservation here!
When To Visit Indiana Dunes National Park
Indiana Dunes National Park is open all year long so you can visit anytime. Though it will undoubtedly be busier in the summer, that is also when you will find the water temperature to be the best.
How To Get To Indiana Dunes National Park
Indiana Dunes National Park is on the south shore of Lake Michigan. It is about an hour from Chicago, Illinois depending on traffic. You can fly into Chicago airports and rent a car, roadtrip with your own vehicle, or take various forms of public transportation.
Like we said above, with Indiana Dunes National Park being situated among several industrial areas, it can be a bit challenging to find certain areas of the park. Definitely grab a park map and follow the signs and even doing that it was a little tricky for us. We ended up having to loop around a couple times to find some locations. Some of the signs are right next to signs for the local companies, or are very small compared to the larger industrial signs. So don’t be alarmed. If it feels like you’re about to go to work at the steel mill you’re probably in the right place.
Cost To Visit Indiana Dunes National Park
There is a cost to enter the national park which began as of March 31, 2022. You can check the park website fee page for current rates for a 7 day period. Alternatively you could purchase an annual pass. Various passes will get you in for no additional cost if you do have them such as the American The Beautiful Pass.
It’s also worth mentioning that the entrance cost to nearby Indiana Dunes State Park is separate. Passes purchased for one park are not valid for entry at the other.
Other Things To Know Before Visiting
Pets are allowed in some areas of the park. They are allowed on most beaches, but must be on a leash at all times, including when in the water.
Things To Do In Indiana Dunes National Park
Indiana Dunes National Park is full of many varied things to see and do. We recommend you take at least a full day if not a couple days or more to see and enjoy the park. Here are several sights, beaches, and hikes we would recommend!
Stop by the Visitor Center
The Indiana Dunes Dorothy Buell Visitor Center is a great place to stop to grab a map and talk with rangers about any hikes you want to do and questions you may have. There are two short park videos and there are displays you can check out. If you have kids, pick up Junior Ranger packets for them to do while at the park and learn more about Indiana Dunes National Park. You can also get the Beachcomber Activity Sheet if you’re visiting the beach.
Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk
At the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk you’ll find a large public pavilion where you can either bring and enjoy a picnic or buy something from the seasonal snack bar.
You can enjoy the beach here as well as walk down the fishing pier. We were here on two strikingly different days. One day was stormy in which the lake was rough and water was pounding the pier and splashing up and another clear and sunny. It’s a neat place to come and walk out to view the lake.
There is also a 0.9 mile loop trail starting from here that will take you through some dunes and down some stairs on a boardwalk along the Burns Waterway back to the pavilion.
Enjoy the Beaches
There are numerous beaches to enjoy when you visit Indiana Dunes National Park. Check out one or more of the following beaches during the day or stick around for beautiful sunsets.
- Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk Beach – large picnic pavilion here, fishing pier, and boardwalk trail
- West Beach – this beach has showers and lifeguards at certain times of the year, several covered picnic shelters, and is where you can hike the Dune Succession Trail
- Porter Beach
- Kemil Beach
- Dunbar Beach
- Lake View Beach – has an area with covered picnic tables
- Central Avenue Beach
- Mount Baldy Beach – can see the Mount Baldy Dune here from the parking lot and as you hike to the beach. The Mount Baldy Summit Trail itself is closed unless participating in a ranger led hike
As mentioned above we checked out the beach at the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk, and on another day we went to West Beach, which we’ll talk about more down below as we describe some dune hiking. We also went to Lake View Beach and had a picnic at one of the numerous covered picnic tables. From there you can easily head down to the water. We found this beach to be less windy and in general calmer than our experience at West Beach, but that’s probably dependent on the day. It’s also rockier comparatively. Finally we checked out the Mount Baldy Beach as well which we discuss more later. Take your pick of the beaches here. They’re all pretty great.
Make sure you also look for the Chicago skyline in the distance as you visit the beaches. You can actually see the Chicago skyline quite clearly on a nice day even though it’s 35 miles away. It is a striking sight to see over the water!
Hike the Dunes
There are numerous hiking trails in the park where you can enjoy walking through the dunes, woodlands, wetlands, savannas, marshes, beaches, and more. There’s a pretty large variety. Personally we were most interested in the dunes themselves and beach views, so we headed over to West Beach right along the lakeshore.
There are a few trail options at West Beach as you can do each of the 3 available loops individually (Dune Succession Trail, West Beach Trail, or Long Lake Loop Trail), or hike the 3-Loop Trail that completes all of the loops as the name implies, for a total of 3.4 miles.
Dune Succession Trail
We highly recommend doing loop 1, the Dune Succession Trail. It is only 0.9 miles, but it is strenuous as you have 270 stairs to climb. At the top you’ll have great views of the dunes, Lake Michigan, and the Chicago skyline. You’ll follow the boardwalk and trail down and out to the beach before completing the loop back to the parking lot. Lounging at the beach for a while after completing the previous part of the trail is a nice reward!
Century of Progress Homes
Near Kemil Beach and Dunbar Beach are a row of five historical homes called the Century of Progress Homes. They were part of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair and were then transported here, four of them by barge. All these houses are very unique. They all blended different materials, different modern styles, and still look fairly modern today because they were so ahead of their time back then.
The Florida Tropical
The pink one is called the Florida Tropical. This one in particular focused on blending indoor / outdoor spaces in its construction.
The House of Tomorrow
Another house is named the House of Tomorrow. It looks fairly swanky on the picture set up in front of the home. The picture is a stark contrast to what it actually looks like right now, but restoration plans are in progress. The sign mentions that next to the garage there was an airplane hangar and though it’s hard to pick out where that is or was, that’s still pretty cool.
The Rostone House
The Rostone house was originally made of an experimental artificial stone material that didn’t hold up very well, so the home is now repaired using mostly concrete.
The Armco-Ferro House
The Armco-Ferro house was constructed with the premise that it could be a mass produced house and used enameled steel panels.
The Cypress House
While the other homes are in modern construction style, one is a rustic log cabin inside and out. It’s made out of cypress but with modern amenities. What is also different about the Cypress house is that while the others were brought here on a barge this one was disassembled and brought on a truck.
You’ll also notice some signs that say these are private residences. They did this deal where people could restore these properties in exchange for long-term leases. We found that really fascinating as well that people helped restore these, bring them back to what they look like today, and still live there.
You can actually take a tour of these houses once a year. They have a tour at the end of September. Tickets go on sale in August and they sell out within an hour. If you want to see inside these homes get those tickets if you can!
Mount Baldy is the park’s most dynamic sand dune. It’s a very popular place in the park and we personally found it the most interesting. The dune is 126 feet tall and it is moving. It’s actually slowly moving its way into the parking lot. At some point in the future the parking lot could be covered. They say it moves between 5 and 10 feet per year depending on the winds and wind direction. Here is the NPS StoryMap about Mt. Baldy with really interesting information on its history, make-up, and movement if you want to know more and see pictures of it from up above!
There are black oak trees on the slopes of Mount Baldy that have been covered up by, swallowed up essentially, by the sands that have been moving in. The road that was once here which looks like it was the continuation of the circular loop of the parking lot, is covered.
You are not able to climb up it and there are signs that say please keep off the dunes. There is however a ranger-led hike to the top on the Mount Baldy Summit Trail periodically.
Instead, there is a 0.75 mile trail you can take around the dune to the Mount Baldy beach. This beach is another beautiful place to come and enjoy the lake front and a beautiful sunset. Though be aware there is a steep portion immediately preceding the beach.
Indiana Dunes State Park
Indiana Dunes State Park is also located along the lakefront over a 3 mile stretch. It has dunes standing almost 200 feet above the lake. You can enjoy a swim beach, picnic shelters, and a nature center. There are several hiking trails here totaling over 16 miles ranging from easy to rugged. The one that is seemingly most mentioned is called the 3 Dune Challenge.
3 Dune Challenge
Though the 3 Dune Challenge trail is only 1.5 miles, it is the most difficult trail in the park on which you summit the three tallest sand dunes in the park. You’ll climb 552 vertical feet but we hear the views are stunning and make it worth it!
Where To Stay At Indiana Dunes National Park
There are various options for where you can stay in the area. It is possible to make a day trip of it from Chicago, but you may be able to see and enjoy more if you can stay a night or more closer to the park. We of course brought our RV and stayed at the national park campground. We’ll tell you about this and other options below.
Dunewood Campground is the national park campground. It is open from April through October. There are 66 campsites in two loops, none of which have hookups, though there is a dump station and potable water spigots in some locations. There were only some sites that would accommodate our large RV, but we managed to book one.
The challenge is that there are wooden posts quite near the driveways that make maneuvering difficult. We had a pull-through spot but ended up backing into the site as the posts prevented us from entering the site from the other side without hitting a tree. Be aware of these obstacles as you book and get into your site. Otherwise the campground was nice and conveniently located.
Indiana Dunes State Park Campground
There is another campground within Indiana Dunes State Park. It has 140 electric sites which are all 50 amp. Staying in this campground would also let you visit and explore this state park.
In Towns Around The National Park
There are a several towns between Gary and Michigan City that are great options for finding a hotel, Airbnb, bed and breakfast, or other campground in which to stay and visit the park.
- Riley’s Railhouse looks like an incredibly unique and fun place to stay as you have the option to stay inside a boxcar or caboose.
- Check for lodging options on the South Shore, Michigan City LaPorte, or Porter County Indiana Dunes Tourism places to stay websites. Here you can easily filter and search by more specific location and accommodation type.
Where To Eat & Drink
There are a multitude of options in the vicinity of the park:
- We suggest you search by location on the South Shore, Michigan City LaPorte, or Porter County Indiana Dunes Tourism dining websites. Here you can easily filter and search by more specific location and dining type. There are sooo many delicious looking options.
We hope this gives you several ideas to add to your list of amazing things to do at Indiana Dunes National Park. Check out some of them and you’re sure to have a great time. Let us know if there’s anything else you would add to the list of things to do at Indiana Dunes National Park!
Ready To Plan Your Trip To Indiana Dunes National Park?
If you’re ready to plan your own trip, download the free Indiana Dunes National Park Trip Planner, with all the things to do, places to stay, and where to eat on one easy to reference page. You can print it out, or save it to your phone for when you’re out and about! It even has a link to this blog post and each item mentioned so you can get all the details on the go!
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