Indiana’s 24 state parks are filled with freshwater lakes, bustling campgrounds, watercraft rentals, sprawling beaches, breathtaking waterfalls, and fishing hotspots.
Chain O’ Lakes is one of the best Indiana state parks, as it houses thirteen lakes (nine of which are connected), 23 miles of hiking trails, 426 campsites, 18 cabins, and a swimming beach.
Outdoor recreation possibilities at Chain O’ Lakes are endless!
I lived 30 minutes from Chain O’ Lakes for about 20 years of my life, so I have spent many summers camping, boating, and hiking within the state park boundaries.
In this guide, I will share with you the best things to do at Chain O’ Lakes State Park in Indiana! Plus, where to stay and when to go!
As always, leave no trace when recreating outdoors! 🛶 🥾 🏕️
6 Best Things to Do at Chain O Lakes State Park
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1. Canoe Camp
Years ago Indiana’s state park service introduced a series of hiking/adventure challenges that encouraged residents (and non-residents!) to get outside and explore the public lands. One of these challenges is a five-mile journey through the nine connected lakes in Chain O’ Lakes State Park.
The journey can be completed in a single day, but many choose to take their time paddling through the water and stay overnight at one of the canoe camping sites.
Compared to the jam-packed campground along the outskirts of the park, the four canoe campsites are secluded and far more private.
Tucked into the woods on Rivir (no, that’s not a misspelling) Lake, these campsites offer primitive amenities – a picnic table, fire ring, and a small square of grass to pitch a tent.
Enjoy the day canoeing or kayaking along the many lakes, and when you’re ready to call it a day, beach the watercraft and set up camp in one of the backcountry sites.
Or, if you don’t want to paddle, and you are just looking for a bit of seclusion, drive or hike to the campsite and spend a private, silent night under the stars.
The primitive canoe camping sites are located just beyond Trail 4, in between Mud and Rivir Lakes. If you love distancing yourself from people and enjoy being immersed in nature, I’d highly recommend reserving one of these for a weekend.
Combine two hobbies – paddling and camping – for an ultra-fun outdoor experience.
Make sure to book these sites in advance; there are only four campsites, and they fill up quickly.
2. Tent Camp
If your preferred camping experience is less backcountry and more people-oriented and amenity-rich, reserve your stay at the main campground.
With 331 electric, 49 non-electric, and 33 primitive sites, RVs and tents are both welcome at this massive campground. A general store sits at the entrance, offering all of your basic camping necessities, such as ice, firewood, snacks, and fuel. Water spigots are sprinkled around the area.
→ READ NEXT: 12 Tips For Sleeping Better While Camping 💤⛺️
3. Stay in a Cabin
18 cabins are also available from mid-April through October for those who crave more luxury but still want a semi-rustic, “in the park” experience.
These cabins are perched behind Long Lake, each one featuring a master bedroom with a double bed, a second bedroom with two bunk beds, a full kitchen, a living room, and a bathroom.
A favorite feature amongst these cozy cabins is the screened-in porches that are perfect for enjoying a meal or a cup of coffee while taking in the sights and sounds of the surrounding wooded nature.
Chain O’ Lakes’ hiking system is comprised of 23 beautiful trails. These trails wind around lakes, snake through thick forests and wet marshes, escalate up wooden stairs, and pass over bridged canals.
If you’re feeling adventurous, spend a day or two hiking the entire system; each trail is connected!
Crowds tend to congregate around Sand Lake because of the swimming beach, canoe/kayak launch, and boat rentals. But once you venture onto the trails, you’ll find fewer and fewer people.
Solitude is plentiful on trails such as 10, 12, 6, and 4 because they are quite a distance from the congested campground and swimming beach. We saw a handful of people on the west side of the park and maybe a dozen people on the east side. Trail 2 seemed the busiest due to its easy accessibility and short path. Trail 6, though it crossed paths with the cabins, offered the most solitude for us.
If you’re going to spend a day hiking the east or west side – or the entire park – there are plenty of benches, shelters, and picnic tables to stop at along the way for lunch.
The only potable water is at the campground and nature center by Sand Lake, so make sure to pack plenty of water or carry a water filter to drink from the lakes. 💦
If you’re going to be hiking in the summer months, be prepared to come in close contact with bugs. A head net is a good option for those of you who want to keep those pesky mosquitoes and deer flies away from your face and neck! 🦟
→ READ NEXT: Indiana Road Trip: 10 Stops For Outdoor Adventure 🚗
5. Paddle the Lakes
Canoe, rowboat, paddleboat, and kayak rentals are available at Sand Lake.
💰 Here is the pricing breakdown:
- Canoe and rowboat: $5/hour or $20/day
- Kayak: $8/hour or $20/day
- Paddleboat: $8/hour
If you are renting a kayak or canoe for the entire day, you will have time to venture to more lakes, maybe even all nine if you’re feeling adventurous!
Each lake – Sand, Weber, Rivir, Mud, Miller, Bowen, Dock, Sucker, and Long – is connected by a narrow channel.
Four other lakes – Norman, Finster and Finster (two separate lakes with the same name) and Kreger – also reside within the park, but they aren’t connected like the other nine.
If you aren’t renting a watercraft from the park, you will need a lake permit for your personal boat. Annual lake permits are required for all boats, including kayaks and paddle boards. Motorized permits are $25, and non-motorized permits are $5, and they can be purchased here yearly. You can also buy them at the gate when you enter any Indiana state park (if staffed).
As mentioned above, if you are interested in officially completing the nine-lake, five-mile challenge, view this online brochure for complete details.
This is the inflatable paddleboard that we take with us everywhere we go! 🛶
6. Go Fishing and Boating
Chain O’ Lakes State Park is a small boaters’ paradise; it even says so on their brochure! It is quite the popular spot to drop in your fishing boat or kayak and explore the various kettle lakes.
If you are looking to fish or launch your boat, please be aware that only non-motorized boats or boats with electric trolling motors are permitted on all of the lakes.
Boat launches are available on Sand Lake, Norman Lake, Miller Lake, Dock Lake, and Long Lake. A separate kayak/canoe/paddleboard launch is also available on Sand Lake, but parking is limited and fills up early, especially on weekends.
Fishing piers are located on Sand Lake for those who want to fish but don’t have a boat. Indiana fishing permits can be purchased here.
More boats tend to cluster on Sand Lake because of the swimming beach and boat rentals. But if you have your own boat, I’d encourage you to explore the lesser-trafficked lakes. For kayaks and canoes, try paddling Dock Lake or Bowen Lake. For motorized boats, try Long Lake or Norman Lake.
→ READ NEXT: 10 Best Summer Hikes in the Midwest 🥾
Where to Stay Near Chain O’ Lakes
If you aren’t going to be camping or staying in one of the cabins, your best bet would be to stay in the town of Columbia City. Albion is a little closer, but there are more hotels in Columbia City.
Where to Stay in Columbia City: 🏨
When to Go to Chain O’ Lakes
The best time to visit Chain O’ Lakes is in the summer when the weather is warm and camping/boating conditions are ideal!
Discover Your Next Adventure
Where to next? I’ve got some suggestions!