Planning a quick summer getaway? Sandwiched between two industrial towns and located a short distance from Chicago, Indiana Dunes National Park is a hidden gem. Learn about things to do at Indiana Dunes.
While it may not the first place you may think of when you think about a picturesque National Park, Indiana Dunes is the newest National Park in America, established in 2018. It may not be the grandest or biggest park in America, but it’s the ideal place to visit for warm waters, sandy beaches and great hiking.
It’s ideal for families and for those who want a weekend getaway in the midwest as many National Parks are out west.
The tall dunes between the tranquil forests and windy Lake Michigan make for unique scenery and a much different experience. If you want to escape the hustle and bustle of the city to experience a serene place, this is the place to visit.
Things to Do at Indiana Dunes
There’s something for everyone here, with the park’s biodiversity and sufficient hiking trails. Listed are the best activities to take part in when you visit Indiana Dunes National Park.
1. Hike the Dunes
There are 14 distinct hiking trails to choose from at Indiana Dunes National Park. Each of these trails has unique physical obstacles and various views of the park.
Although some trails aren’t very long, they can easily become challenging due to the extra energy needed to stroll in the sand and trek uphill.
- Dune Course Track: Situated in the park’s west side and the ideal preamble to the dunes, this track is 9 miles long and is relatively easy as you descend near the lake to the sand and take 270 stairs to the forest, a trip that accentuates the park’s distinct landscape.
- Mount Baldy Track: This track on the eastern side of the park is among the largest and most vibrant dunes there. The dune is 126 feet tall and can be seen from the parking area.
2. Experience the Lakeside Picnic
After a long day of hiking, you’ll want a nice meal, and one of the best places to eat would be any of the picnic sites near the lakeshore. On these sites, you can relax and eat as you take in the beautiful Lake Michigan scenery.
The most popular picnic site is Lake View Beach. The parking area is close to the picnic site, so you won’t have to walk across the dune with your food. The site has multiple picnic tables, bathrooms, and a water station.
3. Visit the Century of Progress Homes
There are five distinct conventional homes in the middle of the park, which might be considered odd for a National Park, but their extraordinary history makes them worth the visit.
These buildings were constructed in 1933 for the Chicago World’s Fair, referred to as the Century of Progress, and built to call to attention the unorthodox ways that homes would look in the future.
These five homes were initially situated elsewhere, but they were relocated to Indiana’s shores and are now a feature of the Parks system.
Each house has a unique design—an enamel steel house, a remarkable pink tropical house, an all-glass house with an airplane hanger, a stone house, and a wood cabin.
4. Take the 3 Dunes Challenge
This highly-promoted trek is entirely in the state park area, and you have to pay to access it, but you get access to three dunes in the vicinity.
The hike is 1.5 miles long with an altitude of over 550 feet, including the 192 feet leading to the peak of Mount Tom. At the end of the hike, you are rewarded with breathtaking views of the lake and the peaks of the dunes.
Carry a lot of water for this 1.5-mile hike, as the sand can be blistering, and ensure that you also have appropriate footwear because broken flip-flops or sand burns can ruin your trip.
5. Relax at the Beach
There are 18 miles of beaches in all, so you’ll have plenty of options when it comes to getting in or near the water.
Some beaches like West Beach and State Park Beach are popular among visitors as they have easily accessible facilities, clear blue water, and soft sand. That said, you have to pay two sets of fees to access these West Beach and State Park Beach. Some people feel this is worth it as getting to the free beaches can take some time.
Spend the whole day or a few hours soaking in the sun, immersing yourself in far-off views of the Chicago skyline, or watching a storm as it rolls in over the lake.
6. Visit the Indiana Dunes State Park
The interior section of Indiana Dunes National Park is special because it’s also part of a state park. The State Park charges different fees from the National Park, with residents paying $7 and non-residents $12.
There are various activities to participate in here, such as swimming at the beach, camping, or hiking over 16 miles of trails.
The three most significant dunes in the area are Mt. Holden (184 feet), Mt. Jackson (176 feet), and Mt. Tom (192 feet). You can access these dunes in various ways.
As for hiking in the park, you can wind through ten trails with different difficulties and lengths. Just like in the national park, you should stay on the trail during your hike for the ecosystem’s safety and yours.
You can also relax and gape at the dunes from a distance at the beach. There’s a big beach house and pavilion on the park’s west side with several changing points and bathrooms. Please note that the beach receives many visitors during the summer.
7. Go for a Bike Ride
Almost seventy-five miles of bike trails wind through the park divided into six trails of ranging distances for most abilities. All the trails are paved, except the Calumet bike track, which is 19 miles long.
If you want a more family-friendly and shorter ride, go for the Marquette or the Dunes Kankakee trail.
The former trail has a parking spot next to the West Beach access point away from the Country Line Road. The track follows the ancient Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad. The latter covers the distance between the Visitor’s Center and the tollbooth parking spot, situated at the State Park.
You can visit the Prairie Duneland Rail Trail or the Oak Savanna Rail Trail for an intermediate to advanced ride.
8. Visit Lake Michigan and Surrounding Waterways
If you feel tired after a long day at the beach or tramping through the sand, head out on a boat into the relaxing water.
You can take canoes on inland streams, though they aren’t safe on Lake Michigan because of large waves and fast-changing conditions. Taking motorboats, sailing, and fishing on Lake Michigan is allowed, but you should get the proper licenses and permits in advance. Rental facilities aren’t available inside the park.
9. Get an Experience of the Portage Lakefront & Riverwalk
The Riverwalk is a 0.9-mile trouble-free walk that lets you see beautiful views of spectacular Lake Michigan and the dunes.
The Riverwalk trail is paved in most parts and has a single set of stairs on the path. There’s little elevation change; therefore, it’s a simple hike with great payoff. Walk the trail and hang out at the beach for a couple of hours to relax.
The site is a perfect example of using reclaimed land, formerly used as sewage and industrial waste dump, and converting it into a beautiful outdoor space.
10. Meet Early Park Residents
Immigrant farmers, Native Americans, and traders populated the dunes area before it became a national park or a research subject on botany.
The Chellberg family was Swedish and constructed the barn and house during the 1870s and threw an apple festival every September.
Rangers provide guided tours of the animal and vegetable yard and the farmhouse every week from late June to mid-August. The farm operations include a sugar shack for processing maple syrup extracted from tree sap, and all the work is done by volunteers.
To get to the Bailly Homestead from the farm, you have to walk for a third of a mile through the thick forest banking the Little Calumet River.
What Should I Carry at IN Dunes?
You may think trudging through sand is a simple task, but that’s not usually true. Hydrate adequately and take enough water with you. It’s also wise to bring high-level energy snacks for longer hikes.
Apply bug spray and sunscreen when heading because the bugs are notoriously stubborn if you take the inland route through the bogs and marshes.
Footwear is a complex subject, so you need to wear hiking shoes for longer hikes to keep your feet blister-free and comfortable. Going barefoot or wearing hiking sandals can be a great alternative for shorter distances.
Whenever you’re outdoors, ensure you adhere to the Leave No Trace principles—dispose of trash well, respect the wildlife, and leave the park in a better state than before.
Where Will I Stay at the Indiana Dunes?
If you want to experience nature after dark, Indiana Dunes has a campsite where you can spend the night. You can also opt for nearby Airbnbs or local hotels where you can wind down comfortably after a busy day at the dunes.
Indiana Dunes can also be an excellent addition to a Chicago travel plan since downtown Chicago is only a 48-mile drive away.
Things to Do at Indiana Dunes
From relaxing at the beach, viewing the biodiversity, and taking a hike in the sandy terrain, there are many other activities to participate in at Indian Dunes. Just make a point of visiting and experiencing it for yourself.
Have you ever visited Indiana National Park? What are some of the memorable experiences you had? If you haven’t visited, make it a priority to go so that you don’t miss out on the spectacular scenery and exhilarating experiences.