Known for its 15 miles of sandy beachfront along Lake Michigan, Indiana Dunes has long been a popular beach destination for people living in the Midwest (yes, we Midwesterners have popular beach destinations; don't act so surprised!).
And, in 2019, Indiana Dunes got reclassified from a National Lakeshore to a National Park, making it the 61st national park in the United States – and the very first in the state of Indiana.
This national park is a unique one for several reasons (which I'll explain to you later!), but perhaps the most important thing to know about Indiana Dunes is that it's a relatively small park, and you can see all the highlights in just one day.
If you're thinking of visiting Indiana Dunes – either on its own, or in conjunction with another trip (the park is only about an hour away from Chicago, after all) – then here are my suggestions on how to spend an enjoyable day there.
Indiana Dunes National Park vs State Park
First things first: Indiana Dunes is really unique in that Indiana Dunes State Park operates kind of INSIDE of Indiana Dunes National Park.
This doesn't matter a whole lot, except for the fact that the National Park Service-managed portions of the park are free to visit*, while the state park has an entrance fee of $12 for out-of-state visitors.
*With the exception of West Beach, which charges a $6 per car parking fee between Memorial Day (in May) and Labor Day (in September).
Indiana Dunes State Park
The movement to preserve the natural landscape of Indiana Dunes goes back a long ways – all the way back to 1899, in fact, when people began to worry that the dunes were going to be lost to industrial pursuits like steel mills and power plants.
A group led by botanist Henry Cowles formed in 1916 to argue for the preservation of the dunes, but their efforts were ultimately thwarted by the eventual outbreak of WWI.
In 1926, Indiana Dunes State Park was finally established and opened. But the state park only protected a small area of the dunes (only a little over 2,000 acres). The fight to get federal protection for the lakeshore continued – as did the push to develop more of the lakeshore for industry.
Indiana Dunes National Park
Indiana Dunes remained just a state park for the next four decades. But in the 1960s, there was growing support for the federal government purchasing land to form new national parks – including support from President Kennedy.
With the support of Kennedy and the persuasive work of Illinois Senator Paul H. Douglas, the “Kennedy Compromise” would eventually lead to the formation of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore AND the development of the Port of Indiana in 1966.
The national lakeshore initially only protected 8,330 acres of land and water (including and surrounding the state park), but multiple expansion bills for the park have expanded the protected area to more than 15,000 acres.
In February 2019, Congress authorized the name change from Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore to Indiana Dunes National Park.
What to expect at Indiana Dunes
You may have visited other national parks or lakeshores protecting sand dunes around the US – but you likely haven't come across anything quite like Indiana Dunes before.
The struggle between natural preservation and the growth of industry is really evident here: the park sits between the cities of Gary and Michigan City, both of which are still home to working steel mills and power plants. Plus, the Port of Indiana still operates on the lakeshore, too.
What this means is that there's this strange mix of natural and industrial elements at this national park. Parts of it feel very natural and secluded, while other parts feel a little more urban.
When to visit Indiana Dunes
Indiana is considered a Midwest state, meaning it experiences all four seasons, with cold winters and hot summers. The most popular season to visit Indiana Dunes, therefore, is during the summer months when you can go for a swim in Lake Michigan.
It can get VERY humid and quite crowded during the summer months, though, so another season might be ideal if you're more interested in the hiking and history the park has to offer.
Indiana Dunes National Park is open year-round, and there are things to enjoy in the winter time, too, like cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
How to spend 1 day at Indiana Dunes National Park
Here's how I suggest spending a full day at Indiana Dunes National Park/State Park:
1. Start at the visitor center
Start your day by stopping into the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center (also known as the Dorothy Buell Visitor Center). Here you can find some educational displays and two short orientation videos, along with park rangers who can provide you with maps and any suggestions/guidance you might need for your visit.
(Note that this is the official National Park Service visitor center, located at 1215 IN-49 in Porter. There's also a smaller Nature Center located inside the State Park near the campground.)
2. Hiking in the dunes
The second most popular thing to do at Indiana Dunes after enjoy the beach is to go hiking in the dunes.
If you want a typical sand dune hiking challenge, then you'll want to head into the state park for the 3 Dune Challenge, which will have you climbing the three tallest dunes on the lakeshore over the course of about 1.5 miles. (The trail starts near the Nature Center and is pretty challenging!)
But while this trail is perhaps the most well-known at Indiana Dunes, it's not the only place to hike. In fact, there are 14 different trail systems with more than 50 miles of hiking trails within Indiana Dunes National Park alone.
Hiking some different trails will help you appreciate just how diverse Indiana Dunes actually is. (For example, have you ever seen a completely forested sand dune??) Indiana Dunes ranks 7th in plant diversity out of all 420+ National Park Service sites throughout the US.
Within the national park, popular trails include:
- Dune Ridge Trail – 0.7 miles, easy – This short trail takes you through a beautiful section of forested dune. I did this hike and was the only one on the trail!
- Dunes Succession Hike – 0.9 miles, moderate – This trail starts at West Beach and leads you up into the dunes. Note there are about 250 wooden stairs to climb to get to the top.
- Tolleston Dunes Trail – 2.9 miles, moderate – Another good hike if you want to be on top of some dunes. There's also a wheelchair accessible trail that leads to an observation deck here.
- Paul H. Douglas Trail – 3.4 miles, moderate – This out-and-back trail at the far eastern end of the park takes you through some wetlands (look out for beavers!), and through some sections of savanna-covered dunes in Miller Woods.
- Cowles Bog Trail – 4.7 miles, moderate – This loop trail takes you through several distinct habitats, including swamps, bogs, and beaches. It has some challenging climbs up dunes.
In the state park, the hiking trails are all numbered instead of named (with the exception of the 3 Dunes Challenge). I didn't personally hike within the state park, but others have said that Trail 9 (3.75 miles) is the best because it's got a good mix of dunes and lake views.
3. Portage Lakefront & Riverwalk
Most guides to Indiana Dunes likely include the Portage Lakefront section of the park in with the hiking trails. But I'm going to include it as its own spot to visit because it's pretty unique.
Yes, there's a paved trail here that leads you into the dunes, but there's also a large public pavilion (home to a snack bar in the summer), a small beach, and a long fishing pier.
This part of the park is a good example of brownfield reclamation, too, as it used to be just an industrial runoff area for the nearby steel mill. The spot still feels a bit urban since you can see the mill and nearby Port of Indiana, but it's now a place where you can enjoy the dunes and lake, too.
4. Go for a swim
After a morning hike, you might need to cool off by taking a dip! Indiana Dunes is essentially one long stretch of beach, but there are designated beach areas to know about.
Popular beaches in the national park include:
- West Beach – This is the one that carries an extra $6 parking fee. It's a large beach with a bathhouse, picnic area, and access to hiking trails.
- Porter Beach – This beach abuts the state park, and has nice soft sand. It's within walking distance to the state park bathhouse.
- Kamil Beach – This beach is below the neighborhood of Beverly Shores, and is connected to Dunbar Beach and then Lake View Beach. These beaches seemed to be quieter when I visited.
- Mount Baldy Beach – This beach is at the far eastern end of the park, right near the Mount Baldy dune, which is 126 feet tall.
A few things to know about the beaches at Indiana Dunes:
- Life guards are only on duty at the beach within the state park, and at West Beach. At all other beaches, you swim at your own risk.
- There is parking near most of the beaches listed, but sometimes the lots are a short walk away from the sand. There is no street parking allowed, so if you're set on parking at a specific beach, your best bet is to try to get there early!
- Alcohol is NOT allowed within the state park, and is also prohibited at West Beach and Porter Beach within the national park. Glass bottles are prohibited at all beaches.
- Pets on leashes are allowed on all beaches except the swimming area at the state park beach and at West Beach.
5. See the Century of Progress Homes
A cool stop to make in the national park is to see the handful of Century of Progress Homes in the lakeside Beverly Shores neighborhood. These homes were originally designed and built for the 1933 World's Fair in nearby Chicago.
The houses were, at the time, built to reflect what modern “Homes of Tomorrow” might look like, and included things like innovative building materials and amenities like air conditioning, dish washers, and even a hangar for a personal airplane.
Five of these homes were moved to the resort community of Beverly Shores, and eventually became part of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.
Four of the five homes have been recently restored, and are lived in by normal families. This means you can only see the houses from the outside, but there are some informational plaques to stop and read about each one.
There are tours offered into some of the homes ONCE per year through Indiana Landmarks. (More info here.)
6. Watch a beachy sunset
End your day at the dunes by watching the sun set over Lake Michigan from one of the park's beaches.
I got some take-out food and had a solo picnic at Porter Beach, climbing up the small dune in the back when the sun started to set. Lake View Beach is also a popular sunset spot.
And that's it! You've now filled one whole day at Indiana Dunes National Park.
Where to stay near Indiana Dunes
While it IS possible to visit Indiana Dunes on a day trip from Chicago, others may prefer to spend a night nearby in order to have more time in the park (or, if you're like me, because you're stopping at the dunes on a longer road trip).
If that's the case, there are several good accommodation options to choose from.
There is camping in the park at the Dunewood Campground (open April through October), and there are chain hotels in towns like Portage, Chesterton, Michigan City, and Merrillville (including the Hilton Garden Inn Chesterton, the Hampton Inn & Suites Michigan City, and the Hilton Garden Inn Merrillville).
By my pick is to stay somewhere a little more unique if you're only going to be in the area for one night.
Stay at Riley's Railhouse
In researching places to stay at Indiana Dunes, I stumbled across a bed and breakfast in the little town of Chesterton that looked so quirky that I just couldn't resist. It's called Riley's Railhouse, and it is in fact located in an old, renovated 1900s train station.
The B&B has a couple rooms in the old station itself (which is also where you'll find a lounge, a bar, and the kitchin/dining area, along with tons of train memorabilia), as well as some rooms in refurbished box cars and train cabooses.
I stayed in one of the box car rooms, and it was so much fun. The room still looks like a box car on the outside, but inside has all the modern comforts like a TV, mini fridge, and tiled bathroom.
Freight trains DO still pass by outside pretty regularly (there will most certainly be train-spotters around), but ear plugs are provided inside all the rooms. Plus, I felt like one night of semi-interrupted sleep was worth it to stay somewhere so unique!
Your stay also comes with a home-cooked breakfast in the morning, and the Railhouse is within walking distance to the adorable town center of Chesterton where there are some shops and restaurants.
You can see a video tour of the whole B&B here.
Have you ever been to Indiana Dunes? If not, would you like to visit?