Indiana Dunes National Park hugs 15 miles of Lake Michigan’s southern shoreline in northwestern Indiana. With top-notch beaches, rugged sand dunes, and forested trails interlaced between prairies, wetlands, oak savannas, and rivers, Indiana Dunes provides a unique National Park experience.
While some find the park underwhelming compared to the Yosemite, Zion, and Glacier behemoths that reside on the other side of the country, I’m confident that you’ll appreciate the diversity and bask in the solitude as you paddle the ocean-like waves of Lake Michigan, climb up the golden dunes, stroll barefoot through the sandy beaches, hike the quiet trails, and admire some of the last surviving oak savannas in the world.
In this Indiana Dunes National Park guide, I’ll share the top hikes, where to stay, how to get around, when to visit, and the best things to do.
Whether you’re taking a day trip to the dunes from Chicago, road-tripping the Midwest to check off the regional National Parks, driving north to escape the heat for the summer, or flying from across the country to experience the Great Lakes, Indiana Dunes is a fun destination to add to your list!
Complete Guide to Indiana Dunes
Quick Facts About Indiana Dunes
Location: Indiana, USA
Established: 1966 (National Lakeshore), 2019 (National Park)
Size: 15,349 acres
Annual Visitors: 2,834,180 (2022)
Fee: $25/vehicle or FREE with an annual pass
Visitor Center: Indiana Dunes
Fun Facts About Indiana Dunes
Approximately 60% of visitors come from outside Indiana.
Indiana Dunes National Park stretches across 15 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline.
Indiana Dunes is the fifth most biodiverse park, behind Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, New River Gorge, and Yosemite.
The lowest elevation found in Indiana Dunes is 597 feet at Lake Michigan. The highest elevation is variable, depending on dune heights.
30% of Indiana’s listed rare, threatened, endangered, and special concern plant species have populations within the park.
The black oak savannas in the park are some of the last surviving and highest quality oak savannas in the world.
There are more than 225 known archeological sites representing 10,000 years of Native American use, the American fur trade, and Swedish immigration in the park.
Top Hikes in Indiana Dunes
- Distance: 4.7 miles
- Type of Trail: Loop
- Elevation Gain: 202 feet
- Difficulty: Moderate to rugged
This trail is a popular one because of its thrilling journey up steep sand dunes.
Walk the edge of a wetland into some diverse habitats like ponds, marshes, swamps, black oak savannahs, and beaches. According to the NPS, the black oak savannas in the park are some of the last surviving and highest quality oak savannas in the world.
On this hike, you will be rewarded with broad views of Lake Michigan and the sandy shore.
This trail can be shortened by about a mile and made slightly easier by taking the cut-off trail. You will be avoiding the steep dune climbs, but you will also miss the views of Lake Michigan.
West Beach, Dunes Succession, and Long Lake Loops
- Distance: 3.4 miles
- Type of Trail: Loop
- Elevation Gain: 223 feet
- Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Each of the three loops – West Beach, Dune Succession, and Long Lake – can be completed individually, but if you have time, I’d recommend combining them into one big figure-8 loop.
Though you can start from any of the trails, here is my recommended route:
Park at West Beach and climb the 270 stairs on the Dune Succession Loop. This section is rated as moderate because of the steep incline of the wooden stairs.
Once you’re at the top, you’ll be able to take in views of Lake Michigan and even the Chicago skyline in the distance as you catch your breath and prepare for the next, much easier, loop.
The Dune Succession Loop will link up with the West Beach loop, which is an easy trail comprised mainly of loose sand.
Take that until the Long Lake loop junction where you’ll be hiking along the lake and into the dunes until you loop back around to the West Beach parking area.
- Distance: 2.9 miles
- Type of Trail: Lollipop
- Elevation Gain: 127 feet
- Difficulty: Moderate to rugged
This trail begins in what was once a sand mining operation and enters the sand dunes of Lake Michigan about 1/3 of a mile in.
Wind through oak savannas and wetlands, cross a boardwalk, and then make the decision to take the cut-off trail or complete the entire loop. The cut-off route will shave about 0.8 miles from the route, making your total hike 2.1 miles.
Take the whole loop through the rolling dunes – 2.9 miles – if you have time!
Paul H. Douglas
- Distance: 3.4 miles
- Type of Trail: Out & back
- Elevation Gain: 46 feet
- Difficulty: Moderate to rugged
Start at the Paul H. Douglas Environmental Education Center and take the counterclockwise loop around the wetland complex. Beavers are frequently spotted in this area!
Once you get to the trail junction after the wetland, the trail is an out & back to the beach. You will pass through dunes, ponds, and savannas until you reach the Grand Calumet River bridge.
The landscape changes drastically from wetlands to lofty sand dunes. Follow the dunes all the way until Lake Michigan.
Relax at the beach for a while until you’re ready to head back to the education center parking area.
Where to Stay in Indiana Dunes
Lodging (Inside the Park)
There is no lodging inside the park. Consider camping inside the park or staying outside the park.
Lodging (Outside the Park)
Dunewood Campground. This is the only campground located within the park boundaries. It is located off Highway 12 in Beverly Shores and about 1.5 miles from the dunes. It is secluded and doesn’t contain any electrical hookups, but there are showers and restrooms. There are 66 sites that are available to reserve online from April-October.
Getting Around Indiana Dunes
Indiana Dunes is made up of two parks – Indiana Dunes National Park and Indiana Dunes State Park.
Indiana Dunes State Park is sandwiched in the middle of Indiana Dunes National Park and comes with its own set of fees and regulations.
The Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) owns and operates Indiana Dunes State Park while the National Park Service manages Indiana Dunes National Park.
It can get a little confusing to navigate the area and figure out what passes you need or what fees you’ll have to pay, so here’s a breakdown of each section.
Indiana Dunes National Park
Indiana Dunes National Park is located on the east and west sides of the state park and preserves 15,000 acres along 15 miles of the Lake Michigan coastline. There are trails, beaches, and historical sites.
There are many different access points along Highway 12, each clearly marked with a large brown sign.
You will need to pay a fee or show your annual pass to enter each beach, trail, and other site of the National Park.
Indiana Dunes State Park
Indiana Dunes State Park sits in the middle of the National Park and contains over 2,000 acres of trails, a nature center, and a beach. It is home to the Hoosier-famous 3 Dune Challenge.
Access the park by taking State Road 49 north until you see the entrance gate.
The America the Beautiful pass is not valid for the State Park section, so you will need to show an annual Indiana State Parks pass or pay a daily fee to enter. The daily fee is $7/vehicle for Indiana residents and $12/vehicle for non-residents. An Indiana State Parks pass is valid for all state parks in Indiana for the entire year that it was issued.
When to Visit
Indiana Dunes National and State Parks are open year-round, so which season is the best to visit?
Winter is a great time to find solitude in the park, see the incredible ice shelves on Lake Michigan, and go cross-country skiing or snowshoeing.
Wildflowers begin popping up and the weather starts warming.
While beach visits might be a hit or miss based on the weather, spring is the perfect time to explore the trails and climb the dunes.
Summer is the most popular season to visit because the lake and beaches are the highlights of the park.
The beaches are almost always crowded, especially West Beach, but you can usually find some solitude on the forested and dune trails.
Take caution though: the weather can get pretty hot and humid once you venture away from the water and onto the dunes or the trails.
Fall is the ideal time to see the colored leaves but it’s usually too chilly to swim, especially in October and November.
You can still take a stroll along the beach; just bring a jacket!
Best Non-Hiking Activities
Go Swimming at One of the Beaches
Conveniently sorted from west to east, these beaches along the Lake Michigan lakeshore make for great spots to sunbathe, stroll, picnic, or swim.
Bathhouse, summer lifeguards, Dunes Succession Trail, pet-friendly trails, picnic area, restrooms, concession stand, large parking lot, handicapped accessible, $6 fee required.
Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk
Hiking trails, kayak launch, pet-friendly beach and trails, picnic area, seasonal food services, restrooms, handicapped accessible, fishing pier.
Kayak launch, pet-friendly beach, picnic area, restrooms.
Indiana Dunes State Park Beach (not located in the National Park)
2,182 acres of dunes, marshes, swamps, hardwood forests, and white pine groves. Summer lifeguards, 16.5 miles of hiking trails (including 3 Dune Challenge), camping, picnic area, showers, snack bar, restrooms, camp store, Nature Center, pet-friendly trails, kayak launch, handicapped accessible, large parking lot, $7 in state/$12 out of state fee required.
Hiking trails, kayak launch, pet-friendly trails and beach, restrooms.
Kayak launch, pet-friendly beach, picnic area, restrooms, limited parking.
Lake View Beach
Kayak launch, pet-friendly beach, picnic area (only spot in the national park with picnic shelters overlooking the lake), restrooms, handicapped accessible.
Central Avenue Beach
Pet-friendly beach, picnic area, restrooms, biking trail.
Mount Baldy Beach
Hiking trails (all summit hikes must be led by park rangers), pet-friendly beaches and trails, picnic area, restrooms, home of the largest dune in the national park (126 feet above Lake Michigan’s water level).
Complete the 3-Dune Challenge
While this is technically part of the Indiana Dunes State Park, not the National Park, I just had to include the Three Dune Challenge in this blog post.
If you are a fan of challenges and you want to add some park stickers to your collection, I’d recommend stopping by the State Park nature center, grabbing a map, and climbing up and down the three tallest dunes in the area!
After finishing the 1.5-mile, 552-foot climbing challenge, you will be rewarded with views of Lake Michigan and a free sticker for your accomplishment!
If you are an Indiana resident, you live near Indiana, or you will be in the state for a while, there is an enjoyable set of hiking and paddling challenges at eight of the Indiana state parks! In these challenges, you will paddle kettle lakes, hike through rugged ravines and canyons, glimpse waterfalls, climb ladders and cross suspension bridges, and of course, traverse sand dunes!
Bike Through the Park
There is a major, diverse biking trail system in the park, ranging from easy to challenging.
Gravel, 19 miles round-trip, flat.
Paved, 3.6 miles round-trip, flat.
Paved, 7 miles round-trip, some hills.
Paved, 22.4 miles round-trip, rail trail, flat.
Paved, 4.6 miles round-trip, rail trail, flat.
Paved, 17.8 miles round-trip, rail trail, flat.
Kayak Lake Michigan
Launch your kayak from one of the beaches (except the lifeguarded swimming section of West Beach from Memorial Day to Labor Day) and paddle the churning waters of Lake Michigan.
Sea kayaks are recommended in all of the Great Lakes due to the unpredictability of the waters. Though Lake Michigan isn’t an ocean, it can definitely act like it sometimes. Always check the weather forecast before heading out, and don’t forget your flotation device!
For a fun challenge, try paddling the Little Calumet River. You’ll need skills and portage abilities. Click here for more information.
What to Explore Around Indiana Dunes
Depending on what direction you’re coming from, or how much extra time you have to spare, I’d recommend adding any or all of these locations to your trip to Indiana Dunes:
- Warren Dunes State Park in Michigan
- Silver Beach in Michigan
- South Haven Beach in Michigan
- Matthiessen State Park in Illinois
- Starved Rock State Park in Illinois