I’ve been looking forward to making my way to Indiana Dunes, especially since it became a U.S. national park. The park is located in northwest Indiana, in between the states of Indiana and Michigan and near Chicago. I finally made it there over the summer. I rented a cute cottage in Michigan to get away from the city and recharge my batteries. My weekend at Indiana Dunes was full of great experiences. I’ll share some of my favorites as I walk you through how to best spend a weekend at Indiana Dunes National Park and its surrounding areas, as well as answering some frequently asked questions.
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Indiana Dunes history in a nutshell
First, a bit of history to help you understand the region better. Indiana Dunes is a unique ecosystem that contains not only beaches and sand dunes but also wooded wetlands, prairie, and a black oak forest, all of which are home to diverse flora and fauna. The fight to preserve this region from commercial interest and make it available for individuals to enjoy its pristine condition began in 1899. However, it was not until February of 2019 that Indiana Dunes became the 61st U.S. national park.
The first small victory in this 120-year battle was the establishment of Indiana Dunes State Park in 1925, covering three miles of beaches and 2,182 acres of land. The next step occurred in 1966, when the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore was established, comprised of 8,330 acres of land and water. The National Lakeshore continued to expand in the following decades until it reached its current size –approximately 15,000 acres. It was the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore that became Indiana Dunes National Park in 2019. Indiana Dunes State Park remained its own unique entity.
Top things to do at and near Indiana Dunes
Here are some ideas to help plan your own perfect weekend getaway at Indiana Dunes.
Relax at the beach
Start by exploring one of nine beaches of Lake Michigan’s southern shoreline. Indiana Dunes State Park is home to one of the beaches, while the other eight are located within Indiana Dunes National Park and include (from west to east):
- West Beach
- Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk
- Porter Beach
- Kemil Beach
- Dunbar Beach
- Lake View Beach and Picnic Area
- Central Avenue Beach
- Mount Baldy Beach
West Beach is the westernmost beach of all the Indiana Dunes beaches. It has the biggest parking lot in the National Park and a lifeguard on duty during summer months, unlike the other beaches, where you must swim at your own risk. There is a fee for admission to Indiana Dunes National Park. Please refer to FAQ at the end of article for more information.
The Indiana State Park beach is one of the most popular Indiana Dunes beaches, with a large parking lot and beach access to hiking trails. When it comes to beaches outside of the State Park, most of them have limited parking availability. Arrive early to secure a spot.
Enjoy some water activities
Whether you are interested in sailing, paddle boating, kayaking, or fishing, there are plenty of options to choose from. Paddling the waters of Lake Michigan provides a different perspective of the beautiful park. You can bring your own kayak or boat and launch it from any of the beaches, or you can rent a boat from one of the several nearby rental locations. If you’d prefer a more peaceful spot, you might opt for Long Lake, which is accessible from both West Beach and the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk. I particularly enjoyed Marquette Park, which is west of West Beach, outside of the bounds of the National Park.
Hike Indiana Dunes National Park trails
Explore the unique ecosystems of Cowles Bog Trail
Cowles Bog Trail is your best option for exploring all the unique ecosystems found in Indiana Dunes National Park. This 4.3-mile loop takes you to Lake Michigan by leading you through the park’s shaded woods, lakes, and wetlands. It is a peaceful stroll, during which you can encounter wildlife.
Take in the best of the Chicago skyline from the Dune Succession Trail
The Dune Succession Trail is one of the shortest trails at 0.9 miles long. It is quite challenging, involving a 270-stair climb that rewards you with a panoramic view of Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline. You can access the trail from West Beach. The Chicago skyline is visible from every Indiana Dunes beach. The hilltop view from the Dune Succession Trail is one of most spectacular and clear perspectives you can find.
Admire blooming wildflowers on the West Beach 3-Loop Trail
If you want to add another 2.6 miles to the Dune Succession trail, walk toward Long Lake on the way back. The whole trail is 3.5 miles long and is rated Moderate. In the spring, you’ll find the trail covered in beautiful wildflowers, including lupines. In the summer, you will find blooming cactuses. This trail is also great for birdwatching.
Get a beach to yourself at Paul H. Douglas Trail in Miller Woods
Indiana Dunes beaches get crowded in the summer. If you want to enjoy a peaceful stroll along a beach, the Paul H. Douglas Trail is for you. It is a very pleasant out-and-back trail that is rated Moderate. During the 3.5-mile hike, you will pass a brief wooded area, wetland, and dunes, finishing at Lake Michigan before heading back. The trail gets hot in the summer. It mainly passes through open areas, but you get to cool down when you reach Lake Michigan.
Explore the best hiking spots at Indiana Dunes State Park
Complete the 3 Dune Challenge
Three Dune Challenge is the most popular hike in the State Park. It involves its three tallest dunes: Mt. Tom (192 feet), Mt. Holden (184 feet), and Mt. Jackson (176 feet). Even though it is only 1.5 miles long, the trail itself is rated Rugged. It an be challenging at times, especially if you’re not used to hiking in sand. You start hiking at Trail #8 right near the Visitor Center. The trail leads mostly through shaded areas, which is great protection from heat and wind.
Take Trail #9 for the prettiest views of the dunes
Even though the Three Dune Challenge is the most popular hike, I consider Trail #9 to be the prettiest in the park. The trail is 3.75 miles long and is rated Rugged. Part of the trail leads through shaded areas, while other parts provide great views of the dunes, shoreline, and even the Chicago skyline on a clear day. If you’d rather walk on the beach, Trail #9 connects to Trail #10, allowing you to walk back along the shoreline.
Visit the Century of Progress Homes: Historic District
The Century of Progress Homes are located within Indiana Dunes National Park and consists of five houses featuring modern designs from the 1930s. This includes the Cypress Log Cabin, the House of Tomorrow, Armco-Ferro, Florida Tropical, and the Wieboldt-Rostone house. The houses were purchased from the Chicago World’s Fair by a real estate developer named Robert Barlett in 1933. He moved them to their current location in Beverly Shores. All five houses are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Indiana Dunes National Park leases the houses to Indiana Landmarks, who subleases the houses to private individuals who restore and maintain them. You can see the houses from the outside while visiting the park. During the last weekend of September each year, the park organizes an annual tour for the public. Note that tickets go on sale a month in advance and typically sell out within an hour.
Watch a sunset on the beach
A visit to Indiana Dunes is not complete without watching a sunset. Since Indiana Dunes beaches face westward, you can enjoy a magnificent display of colors to end your day full of adventures. In addition, you get to see the sun go down over the Chicago skyline, which makes for a one-of-a-kind view. During the day, you might forget you’re at the lake. At night, the skyline is illuminated and fully shines, regardless of where you watch the sunset. The further west you get, the more visible the skyline becomes.
If you’re a lover of the outdoors who likes falling asleep to the sounds of nature, you will enjoy camping at Indiana Dunes. Both Indiana Dunes National Park and State Park have established campgrounds. Dunes Campground at the National Park offers 66 established tent campsites with modern restrooms and hot showers. It is located near Beverly Shores and Central Beach. The campground is open from April to October. Indiana Dunes State Park offers 136 electric RV and four tent campsites with shower houses. Note that amenities such as water, modern restrooms, and hookup are limited during the off season (November to April) at both parks. Both campgrounds are very popular and sell out quickly. I recommend making reservations before camping season starts.
Alternatively, if you’re looking to do some last-minute camping, I recommend Sand Creek Campground in Chesterton. It is only a 10-minute drive from Indiana Dunes National Park. This privately owned campground offers RV and tent sites. Tent sites are first come, first served, but the owners told me that they have never turned anyone away. I enjoyed staying at Dunes Campground and Sand Creek Campground and would highly recommend both.
PRO TIP. If you go camping at either of the two established Indiana Dunes campgrounds, make sure to bring adequate mosquito protection (e.g., insect repellants, candles, canopy, and hammock bug nets) to enjoy your stay. As the Sand Creek Campground is further away from Lake Michigan, it has less mosquitos.
Find a cozy rental by the beach
If you’re not a fan of sleeping outside, you may want to get a rental by the beach. I opted for a cute cottage I found on VRBO. I had to wait a couple months for it to become available, but it was well worth it. The cottage was on a cozy and quiet street in a beautiful neighborhood, with a backyard facing the wetlands. There was direct access to a private beach only a few minutes away. The beach proved to be a great spot to enjoy a sunset view or an early walk in the morning with no one around. There are several small towns nearby with hotels, inns, vacation rentals, and bed-and-breakfast type accommodations. Michigan City is the largest in the area.
Stop by the Michigan City lighthouse
In Michigan City, you can relax at the beach, walk on a pier, or admire the sunset backing a faraway view of the Chicago skyline. Lake Michigan always brings in a cool breeze that makes it relaxing to sit on a pier, even on a hot day. The white and red colors of the lighthouse stand out among the pretty blue shades of Lake Michigan, making it quite the picturesque location. If you decide to get closer to the lighthouse for a perfect selfie, keep an eye on the waves to avoid getting soaked.
Visit one of Lake Michigan beach towns
There are a lot of beach towns around the Lake Michigan shoreline. The Indiana Dunes parks are about 50 miles from Chicago, with Gary to the west and Michigan City to the east. You can venture all the way to Michigan to do some sightseeing. I stayed in New Buffalo, one of the most popular summer destinations for Chicago residents. It is a cute town to explore, with plenty of restaurants and water activities.
Frequently Asked Questions about Indiana Dunes
Here, I have compiled a list of questions I’m commonly asked about visiting Indiana Dunes. Hopefully, you’ll find some insight to make the most of your weekend trip to Indiana Dunes.
What’s the difference between Indiana Dunes State Park and Indiana Dunes National Park?
This seems to be very confusing to everyone, and it’s one of the first questions I get asked. The shared goal of both parks is to preserve this unique ecosystem for everyone to enjoy. The State Park covers three miles of beach and about 2,200 acres of land and is surrounded by the 15,000 acres of the National Park. I consider the State Park to be the first major step undertaken to save the dunes. Since the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore became a National Park in 2019, nothing changed other than the name. Indiana Dunes State Park remains the same, while the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is now known as Indiana Dunes National Park.
Is there enough to do at Indiana Dunes for the whole weekend?
Yes, there is more than enough to do, depending on your interests. The National Park has plenty of beaches great for various water activities and hiking trails to explore. The State Park has even more hiking trails and one beach. There are also interesting nearby locations, like Marquette Park and the Michigan City lighthouse. You can take a trip to one of the beach towns in Michigan or even go to Chicago. You can reach them by car or by the South Shore Line, a commuter train that goes from Chicago to South Bend. The train stops right at the entrance to Indiana Dunes National Park.
What’s the best time to visit Indiana Dunes?
That depends on the activities you prefer. Lake Michigan is very windy, so naturally it is always colder there. If you are planning on spending time at the beach, your best bet is to visit between June and September. The hiking is great year round, depending on your tolerance for cold weather in the winter months. I don’t like to be cold, so I visit as early as April to see the blooming wildflowers adding charm to the parks and as late as early November to see fall foliage. Because of the chilly winds off the lake, it’s always good to bring extra layers.
Are there any fees to enter Indiana Dunes?
Yes, there are entry fees for both Indiana Dunes National Park and Indiana Dunes State Park. Historically, there were no fees required to enter Indiana Dunes National Park, but this changed starting in March of 2022. Now you need to purchase a pass to enter Indiana Dunes National Park. You may purchase the pass at the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center, Douglas Center, West Beach entrance, or online at recreation.gov. Alternatively, if you are a holder of an America the Beautiful annual pass, you do not need to pay to enter.
Entry to Indiana Dunes State Park, which includes access to the beach, hiking, and campgrounds, requires a separate fee. You can obtain a pass to Indiana Dunes State Park at the park entrance. Alternatively, if you hold an annual Indiana State Parks pass, you do not need to pay any additional fees. The fees vary slightly for state residents and out-of-state visitors. Just remember that there are separate fees to enter both parks.
Can I rent an ATV at Indiana Dunes?
As compared to other dune areas in the U.S., there are no ATV rentals in the parks. The basis of the parks is to preserve the fragile dunes, so no ATVs are allowed. Even hikers are encouraged to stay on marked trails to prevent dune erosion.
Can I fly a drone at Indiana Dunes?
Unfortunately, you cannot fly drones in either of the parks. Flying drones in national parks is prohibited by variety of federal agencies, with no exceptions for Indiana Dunes. Similarly, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) prohibits the use of drones on any of its properties.
Can I bring my dog to Indiana Dunes?
Yes, dogs are welcome at most hiking trails and beaches at both parks but need to be on leash (with a max length of six feet). The only places where dogs aren’t allowed are swimming areas with lifeguards on duty on West Beach and Indiana Dunes State Park Beach. However, you can walk your pup through the area and during off season.
What shoes are best for hiking sand dunes?
If you plan to hike while at Indiana Dunes, be prepared to get sand in your shoes. It is best to wear hiking boots or any type of boots that cover your ankles, preventing sand from getting in. I came unprepared for this and was wearing sports shoes, so I frequently had stop to shake sand out of my shoes. There were also parts of the trail during which I choose to take my shoes off and walk barefoot (not recommended on a hot day). I also saw some visitors wearing sandals, likely figuring there is no way to avoid the sand. Ultimately, you should choose what makes you most comfortable.
I hope these suggestions and FAQs will help on your trip to the Indiana Dunes so you can cross this new national park off your national parks bucket list. Please leave any additional questions in the comments. I’ll be happy to answer them for you.