Did you know you can find one of the most biodiverse National Parks in Indiana? Indiana Dunes became a National Park in 2019 and it is well worth a visit. While you might not think of Indiana when planning a trip to the beach, Indiana Dunes National Park offers hiking trails, historic sites, and sugar sand beaches to explore. Read on for the best tips and vacation guide for a family trip to Indiana Dunes National Park.
About Indiana Dunes National Park
History of the Park
A movement to protect the sand dunes of the Indiana Lakeshore first began way back in 1899. The area was home to industry that damaged portions of the dunes. Only one month after the National Park Service was established in 1915, hearings were held in Chicago to gauge public sentiment on a “Sand Dunes National Park.”
World War I and then the Great Depression interfered with the creation of a National Park at the dunes. Indiana Dunes State Park was ale to be established in 1926, but it was relatively small at the time. A program known as the Kennedy Compromise led to the development of the Port of Indiana, but only with the requirement of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore also being created.
The National Lakeshore was expanded several times to total 15,000 acres. Congress voted to change the name of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore to Indiana Dunes National Park in 2019. It became the 61st National Park.
Admission to Indiana Dunes National Park
For the first few years, admission was free to the National Park. However, starting in 2022 there is now a $25 admission fee per car good for 7 days. Annual passes such as the America the Beautiful or Every Kid Outdoors pass will work for entry. None of these national parks passes will work for the state park, however, if you visit there.
The Difference Between the National Park and State Park
Visiting the park can be a little confusing, because there is the Indiana Dunes National Park as well as Indiana Dunes State Park. The state park is located surrounded by the national park and has it’s own admission fee. The state park has its own set of hiking trails and amenities including the popular Three Dune Challenge Hike. We did not visit the state park on this trip, so this post will not cover anything at the state park.
Best Time to Visit Indiana Dunes National Park
Spring and fall are a great time to visit if you want to avoid crowds. Summer weekends can bring a lot of travelers from Chicago and beaches can be crowded. Hiking trails can also be hot during summer as many have little shade. However, if you want to play in the water then summer is best.
We visited on a Friday and Saturday morning during early August and didn’t have an issue with crowds. The hiking trails especially were pretty quiet.
Where to Stay at Indiana Dunes National Park
There are several options for lodging near the Indiana Dunes. You can stay within the park itself at the Dunewood Campground. However, it is a 1.5 mile drive to Lake Michigan from the campground. There are other campgrounds in the area including at Indiana Dunes State Park.
We stayed at the Quality Inn in Chesterton, Indiana. It is nothing fancy, but it is budget friendly and the location was perfect right by the National Park. (We are only ever in our rooms to sleep on vacation so we tend to book rooms on a budget!)
Things to Do at Indiana Dunes National Park
Indiana Dunes Visitor Center
The Visitor Center is the best place to start your visit. Here you can visit education displays, pick up maps and brochures, and learn about the Junior Ranger program. There are also restrooms here and the park sign for photo op.
The Visitor’s Center is open daily Memorial Day to Labor Day 8:00 A.M. – 6:00 P.M. and during the winter 9:00 A.M. – 4:00 P.M. The center is closed major holidays and may have abbreviated hours on other federal holidays.
Indiana Dunes National Park Beaches
Not many National Parks offer the array of beaches you can find at Indiana Dunes. There are fifteen miles of soft sand and turquoise blue water to explore. Lake Michigan is so large that it looks like an ocean with waves, but no sharks or jellyfish to worry about!
There are eight different beaches to access at Indiana Dunes. We visited West Beach which is the most popular. This beach has a large lot, restrooms, showers, and even lifeguards during the summer. West Beach also offers access to several hiking trails.
Parking can fill up at certain beach lots during the summer. The park is in the process of using technology to list up to date information on parking space availability online to avoid circling for a space.
As this is a National Park, removing items such as rocks, shells, or fossils is not allowed at the beaches. Glass containers and fires are not allowed on the beach either.
Indiana Dunes National Park Historic Sites
While you may think the park is just about the beach and dunes, there are also over 60 different historic structures contained inside the park. The Bailly Homestead is also a National Historic Landmark. The Bailly Homestead and Chellberg Farm require some hiking to view the sites. (I’ll explain more detail below on the hiking trails.)
Century of Progress Homes
Another fun historic site to see in the Indiana Dunes is the Century of Progress homes. This cluster of home is located along Lake Front drive in Beverly Shores. The road itself makes for a beautiful drive, but take a moment to stop and see these five homes. They were moved to the site after the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago.
Four of the five homes still look wild and modern by today’s standards. Other than a special tour weekend at the end of September, the homes are not open to the public. Please respect the residents by not trespassing. However, each home does have a sign at the street to explain the history and features.
Hiking at Indiana Dunes National Park
There are 14 different trail systems at the national park with over 50 miles of trails. There are trails of varying lengths and difficulties that traverse diverse habitats and cultural history. We only had time to hit a few trails. Keep reading to learn about the four trails we did explore.
Become a Junior Ranger
Our kids always love completing the Junior Ranger program at National Park sites. The Indiana Dunes National Park Junior Ranger program has two skill levels, one for kids above and below age 9. Kids can complete the activities to earn a badge at the Visitor Center.
There is so much more to do at Indiana Dunes National Park that we didn’t have time for. Bicyclists can enjoy 37 miles of an interconnected trail system. The trails are a mix of paved and gravel. Horseback riding is allowed on the Glenwood Dunes Trails.
There are many ways to explore Indiana Dunes National Park on the water as well including fishing, sailing, boating, and kayaking. Just remember that conditions can change quickly on Lake Michigan so check weather forecasts and use a lifejacket at all times on the lake.
Indiana Dunes National Park Hiking Trails
We were surprised by the variety and number of trails available at the dunes. It’s always a challenge to pick the best trails with limited time to explore, but we enjoyed hiking all the trails below.
Calumet Dunes Trail
- Distance: 0.5 mile loop
- Difficulty: 1/5. Easy and paved loop
- Scenic Value: 3/5. A nice wooden walk with a boardwalk section.
The Calumet Dunes Trail is a great option for toddlers or strollers or on a hot day when you want a hike with shade. The trail travels along what once was the shoreline of Lake Michigan many years ago. The trail starts at the parking area for the USGS Lake Michigan Ecological Research Station.
The path makes a nice loop through the woods. There are benches along the way to take a break if needed. Boardwalks are always a favorite for my kids and this trail has a nice one.
Dunes Succession Trail
- Distance: 0.9 mile loop
- Difficulty: 4/5. This trail is short, but involves 270 stairs plus hiking through the sand.
- Scenic Value: 5/5. Great views of the lake and dunes.
This trail is a great one if you are up for the challenge of climbing the stairs and dunes! It involves climbing a dune known as “Diana’s Dune.” Alice Mabel Gray became known as Diana of the Dunes when she lived in the an abandoned shanty in the dunes for over 9 years in the early 1900s.
Signs along the way tell the story of Alice. If you complete the hiking challenge, you can pick up a sticker at the Visitor Center for bragging rights.
The trail starts from the parking lot at West Beach. We decided to hit the stairs first and end at the beach. We took the sandy trail leading from the parking area towards the wooden stairs.
It definitely takes some huffing and puffing to climb the steps, but the views from the top are great. You can even see the Chicago skyline, 36 miles away.
The path then heads down more steps and along a wooden boardwalk into the trees. The shade is welcome here as the trail turns to sand, which is always an extra hiking challenge.
The path soon breaks through the trees and dunes onto the beach. This is a nice place to relax and enjoy some fun in the sand and chilly Lake Michigan water.
Sunsets along Lake Michigan area always a beautiful sight to see.
When you are ready to complete the hike, continue walking along the beach until you reach the stairs up to the shower house. Take a selfie at the Diana of the Dunes kiosk before following the concrete path back to the parking area to finish the loop.
Bailley/Chelberg Trail Loop
- Distance: 1.3 mile loop for shortest option. Optional side trails and connectors to lengthen hike.
- Difficulty: 3/5. Mostly easy but there are some stairs and hills in the northern section.
- Scenic Value: 4/5. A nice walk through the woods with views of two historic homesteads.
This trail is a really great option while visiting the dunes. The main parking area is a paved lot off Mineral Springs Road. The lot is located next to the Volunteer Office and a Comfort Station with restrooms.
Visiting the Chelberg Farm
We decided to hike counterclockwise and hit the Chelberg Farm first. The Chellberg Farm represents a typical 1890 through 1910 Swedish and Northwestern Indiana farmstead. A Swedish immigrant family lived and worked here for three generations. The house itself is sometimes open during tours and special events.
The farm also has several animals that kids can enjoy viewing.
Continuing the Hike
Near the farm buildings, there are two trail choices. The left path, heading west, is the quickest option for the loop trail. The right path, running north before curving west offers a slightly longer trail and a wooden boardwalk as it follows a portion of the Little Calumet River Trail. We opted for the slightly longer loop.
The trees were beautiful along this path. An optional side trail leads off to the right to the Bailly cemetery just before the boardwalk. We did not take this path and continued down the wooden steps and boardwalk.
A second trail branches off to the right just past a scenic ravine and wooden stairs. This is the Little Calumet River Trail. Taking this path would add another 2.2 miles to the hike but with river views and another boardwalk.
The Bailly Homestead
Keeping left on the Bailly/Chelberg Trail, the path continues another 0.6 miles past a mix of trees and then an open field. This is the location of the Bailly Homestead.
Honore Gratien Joseph Bailly de Messein set up a fur trading post here in 1822. It was the only stopping place for travelers between Chicago and Detroit at the time. The homestead grew through the years and several buildings including two beautiful homes still stand today. Interpretive signs explain the history of the area and residents as well as the use of each building.
Continuing on the main loop trail, it is an easy third of a mile along a wide, shaded trail back to the parking area.
Dune Ridge Trail
- Distance: 0.7 mile loop
- Difficulty: 3/5. Short but some elevation gain climbing up the dune.
- Scenic Value: 4/5. Some views of the wetlands and trees along the dune.
The Dune Ridge hike starts at the Kemil Beach parking area. There are restrooms here and you can always take a walk down to the beach after the hike.
The trail starts with a short spur from the parking area and then reaches the start of the loop. We opted to turn right to begin the loop portion.
The path is sandy and wanders through the trees for a bit before beginning the short, but steep climb up the loose sand of the dune.
Once you reach the top of the dune, there is a nice overlook view of the Grand Marsh and surrounding area.
The path follows the ridge for a short distance before beginning the descent to an old road. Keep left along the roadbed until you reach the spur back to the parking area. This lower section of trail has beautiful seasonal wildflowers.
Things to Know Before You Visit Indiana Dunes National Park
- The general areas of the park and hiking trails are open 6:00 A.M. – 11:00 P.M. year round. West Beach entrance is open 7:00 A.M. – 9:00 P.M.
- Park maps can be found here.
- Sunscreen and bug spray are a must for visiting. A hat would be a good item to bring as well.
- Always pack out what you bring in. Remember this is a national park so no collecting of shells, rocks, or other items is allowed.
Additional Things to See Near Indiana Dunes National Park
- Indiana Dunes State Park offers it’s own beaches and trails to explore. The 3 Dune Hikes is a popular challenge.
- The Gabis Arboretum has gardens, trails, and even a model railway garden.
- The Coffee Creek Watershed Preserve is another hiking option. 5 miles of easy trails wander through wetlands, boardwalks, woodlands, and prairies.
- In nearby Michigan City, you can visit the Old Lighthouse Museum or the Washington Park Zoo.
- If you are looking for a fun place to eat with kids, check out the Port Drive In. Kid’s meals come in a car box, and the menu is kid friendly. Don’t forget to try a frosty mug of home brewed root beer!
- We also enjoyed a great breakfast at the Round the Clock Restaurant.
Have you ever visited Indiana Dunes National Park?