Indiana Dunes National Park Guide: Location, Things To Do, and Places to Stay (2023)
The Indiana Dunes National Park overlooks the beautiful southern shores of Lake Michigan and is one of the most popular destinations in Indiana. It was here in the late 19th century that a botanist from the University of Chicago, Henry Cowles, came to study the complex ecosystem along Lake Michigan. It was through this groundbreaking work that Cowles became recognized as the father of modern ecology in the United States.
Sprawled over 15 miles of the southern shoreline of Lake Michigan, the Indiana Dunes National Park is considered to be the hidden gem of the Midwest US. Indiana Dunes National Park is home to some of the most adventurous locations and most diverse habitats in the state of Indiana. It is also one of the newest national parks in the US, and it is fast gaining a reputation as one of the most fun parks to visit, especially in the summer months. Here’s a complete guide to the Indiana Dunes National Park and everything you can do here.
Location of the Indiana Dunes National Park
Indiana Dunes National Park is a beautiful, sandy landscape that is full of wetlands, dunes, prairies, and forests. It covers around 15,349 acres of diverse ecosystems. The Indiana Dunes National Park is located in northwest Indiana, and it was earlier known as Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. It stretches for 15 miles alongside the Lake Michigan shoreline. Being just a little under 24 square miles, this dune-rich reserve is not the smallest national park in the country, but it isn’t that massive as well. Despite its somewhat small stature, the park is home to a wide range of plant and animal life. The park is home to nearly 46 species of mammals, 60 species of butterflies, many carnivorous pitcher plants, rare orchids, and 1000 other species of flora.
Visitors to this national park can see plenty of mesmerizing rivers and creeks, magnificent dune ridges, and a wide variety of rare plants such as the Virginia Snake Root, Mead’s Milkweed, Shooting Star, and Pitcher’s Thistle.
Visitors come from far and wide to hike, bike, and explore the trails, go for a swim in the lakes, relax on the sandy beach, and also camp overnight. Without any more delay, let us begin this adventure to the Indiana Dunes National Park.
Things to Do at the Indiana Dunes National Park
This is an outdoor destination for all nature lovers throughout the year. Swimming and hiking are two of the most popular activities here during the summer months, while the winter chill brings visitors to indulge in snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. But no matter what the time of year, sunsets here are always worth watching.
Explore the Calumet and Porter Brickyard Bike Trails which turn a riot of colors in the fall when the leaves from all the deciduous trees change color. Fall and springtime (in April and September) are also the seasons when you will find many migrating birds flocking across the skies. Many of these migratory birds take up residence in the beautiful bird boxes you will find throughout the park. If you are lucky, you can spot the six-lined race runners, a type of lizard, and a native species of prickly pear cacti as well.
Regardless of whether you are an RV or tent camper, you will find plenty of places to camp overnight. However, camping is only allowed at the park from April 1 to October 31 at the Dunewood Camping Ground. Make sure to carry your fishing poles and indulge in fishing at the Little Calumet River or just off the Portage Lakefront fishing pier. Throughout the year, there are a series of annual events and activities that take place. One of the biggest celebrations is the Indian Dunes Outdoor Adventure Festival, which is a festival specially customized for bird watchers, fishers, bikers, paddlers, and hikers. Some of the regularly occurring outings for the entire family include the Sunset around the Fire at the Pavilion, Mount Baldy Summit Hike, and the Ranger’s Choice Hike. However, if you want to schedule your visit to coincide with any of these events and celebrations, be sure to check the park’s website or Facebook page to find out the dates of these and other fun events.
Best Trails and Hikes in Indiana Dunes National Park
The Indiana Dunes National Park is a popular hiking and biking destination. You can spend several days here hiking and exploring the 50 miles of diverse trails through the 14 different trail systems inside the park. However, it is advisable to keep a paper map available at the park visitor center or the Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education. While you can get the maps at the trailheads as well, but you shouldn’t rely solely on this. Also, make sure to carry plenty of snacks and water with you, along with sun and bug protection.
While hiking here, you will need sturdy shoes to navigate the landscape, especially if you are planning to hike a challenging route. Most of the trails in the park are moderate in difficulty levels, but there are a few easy and even some challenging trails as well. Here are some of the most popular trails in the Indiana Dunes National Park:
- Bailly Homestead, Chellberg Farm, Little Calumet River, and Mnoké Prairie Trails: This is one of the best and easy to moderate trails to explore in Indiana Dunes National Park. Stretching for 3.4 miles in length, you get to see beautiful maple, oak, beech, and basswood trees before you the Little Calumet River, the Bailly Homestead and Chellberg Farm, and a restored prairie. Being popular, you will likely find quite a crowd on this trail.
- Dune Ridge Trail: This trail is ideal for the whole family. This 0.7-mile moderate hike takes you through the diverse forest landscapes and wetlands. You get to take in some breathtaking views, and there are also several places to rest as you make your way across this short trail.
- Cowles Bog Trail: For those who want a challenging experience, the Cowles Bog Trail is perfect for checking out the park’s ecosystems. Explore this 4.7 mile that takes you through ponds, marshes, beaches, and swamps, and also through black oak savannas.
- Heron Rookery Trail: This is another easy-going trail that is perfect for multi-generational families. Stretching for 3.3 miles, this hike takes you along a part of the charming Little Calumet River. If you like to hike in the spring season, then this is the perfect trail for you as you will find a huge display of wildflowers along the path in these woods.
- Tolleston Dunes Trails: This trail takes you through the landscape feature that this national park is most famous for – the sand dunes. You get to see the dunes on this moderate hike, which is 2.9 miles long. It takes you around the diverse ecosystems of the park, from the wetlands to the prairies to the savannas. There is also a separate wheelchair-accessible trail that takes you to a separate observation lookout, where you can even enjoy a picnic.
Where to Stay at the Indiana Dunes National Park?
While the town of Chicago is closest to visiting the park as a day trip, but for those who want to spend their time amidst nature in the park itself, there are many great camping spots here, including the Dunewood Campground. Here are some of the best camping places in this national park:
- Dunewood Campground: This is the perfect home base while visiting the park. It remains open from April 1 through November 1. There are two loops here with 66 camping sites. Each loop is equipped with showers and restrooms and a couple of wheelchair-accessible sites as well. This camping site is just 1.5 miles north of Lakewood Beach.
- Indiana Dunes State Park Campground: Located just about a mile from the beach, this campground is popular for its excellent locations. Having complete electrical hookups, showers, and restrooms, this state park camping ground fills up quite quickly, and you need to book it well in advance in order to get a great spot.
- Sand Creek Campground: You can call and reserve your camping spot at this campground. It offers both the traditional camping experience as well as the RV experience. From roasting marshmallows around the fire pit to taking advantage of the total electrical and water hookups, the Sand Creek Campground is a popular overnight spot for visitors.
Tips for Visiting the Indiana Dunes National Park
Here are some general tips that will help you plan your visit to the Indiana Dunes National Park:
- You can bring your pets here as there are specific locations in the park that are open for pets. You can find out more about the B.A.R.K. Ranger Program to find out where your pet can go for a hike and also how you can get a special dog tag for your furry friend.
- For those who want to indulge in biking, there is an interconnected trail system in the park that encompasses 37 miles across the park and takes you past the windy prairie, shimmering dunes, and lush green forests. Some of the memorable trails include the 10.3-mile Prairie-Duneland trail and the 2.1-mile lone Marquette Trail, both of which run parallel to an abandoned rail line, adding to the charm of biking. And don’t stress if you don’t have your own bike. There are many outfitters that rent out bikes, including Pedal Power, all located right next to the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center.
- You can relax and rejuvenate at the shoreline of the Indiana Dunes National Park. Having around 15 miles of beachfront that falls along Lake Michigan, the park is home to nine different beaches. One of the all-time favorites here is West Beach, which is perfect for swimming, but only if you can tolerate the chilly waters. The expanse of sand on West beach is also ideal for beachcombing or relaxing along the water’s edge. This is also the western-most of the nine beaches in the park and is located right at the base of the famous Dune Succession Trail, which makes it a perfect place for those wanting to relax and cool off after taking the trip to the top.
- The location and biological diversity have made Indiana Dunes National Park a unique spot for many types of wildlife, which are always a treat to see. You can spot many beautiful animals here, including the white-tailed deer, bats, rabbits, beavers, shrews, red foxes, and even the southern flying squirrels. You can also spot all sorts of birds up in the treetops, from woodpeckers to herons and egrets, and even cardinals. Seagulls and other waterbirds have also made this park their home.
- Indiana Dunes is both a national park and a state park. This is why there are separate admission requirements for each of the parks. While the national park does not have an entrance fee, but the Indiana Dunes State Park charges a daily fee of $12 for out-of-state visitors and $7 for in-state visitors.
- The park remains open round the year, but camping is only available from April to October. There is no best time to visit the Indiana Dunes National Park, but it is good to know that the park witnesses huge crowds from June to early September, but the mid-week still remains relatively quieter. For those wanting to take a swim, though, the waters remain chilly almost all through the year, but you can still give it a try in July and August.
You should ideally plan and book your trip and itinerary beforehand. You can find many ready-made itineraries for both short and longer excursions in the park.
If you are interested in learning more about the park and its ecosystems, you can find year-round educational programs at the Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education. You can increase your knowledge by taking part in ranger-led hikes, wildlife talks, and exhibits, informative exhibits, and there’s even the kid-friendly Nature Play Zone to educate children in a fun and interactive manner.