Indiana State Parks introduced a series of eight hiking and paddling challenges to encourage residents and non-residents to get outside and explore the beautiful state parks. These outdoor fitness challenges are scattered throughout eight different state parks all around the state of Indiana and offer something for every age and ability, from waterfall hikes and lake paddles to river crossings and dune climbs.
Challenge #1 is the 3 Dune Challenge at Indiana Dunes State Park. If you’re ready for the challenge, here’s everything you need to know!
This 3 Dune Challenge trail guide will walk you through the trail stats, exactly how to complete the challenge, when to hike it, what to pack, a step-by-step trail guide, and tips to have the best experience.
3 Dune Challenge Trail Guide
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What is the 3 Dune Challenge?
- Distance: 1.5 miles
- Type of Trail: Loop
- Elevation Gain: 552 feet
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Dog Friendly: Yes
The 3 Dune Challenge is a 1.5-mile loop that involves climbing the three tallest sand dunes in the park: Mt. Jackson, Mt. Holden, and Mt. Tom.
Don’t be fooled by the short trail length and low vertical elevation ratio. This is a tough trail. In fact, the rangers have deemed it to be the toughest trail in the entire park.
This isn’t a regular, run-of-the-mill beach trail. You will be ascending and descending deep shifting sand dunes. Imagine how your feet, calves, and thighs feel as you walk through the sand on a flat beach. Your feet naturally sink beneath the granules, forcing you to use extra effort to lift your feet out and move on to the next step. (At least more force than required on pavement, grass, dirt, etc.). This results in calf and thigh burns. So this trail is kind of like that, only you’re climbing the sand at a vertical elevation.
While it’s certainly a rigorous challenge, most people can handle it if prepared, cautious, and motivated. It’s okay to move a little slow and take your time, especially on the ascents. When your thighs scream at you, listen to them. It probably means you should take a break and drink some water.
Okay, here we go. Here’s how to complete the 3 Dune Challenge, when to go, what to bring, and exactly what you can expect on the trail.
How to Complete the 3 Dune Challenge
There are four steps to completing the 3 Dune Challenge at Indiana Dunes State Park.
1. Head to Indiana Dunes State Park
Visit Indiana Dunes State Park, located at the end of State Rd. 49 at 1600 N. 25 East, Chesterton, IN 46304.
Note that this is a separate entrance from the Indiana Dunes National Park, so follow the directions to the above address or use this link for the Google Maps driving directions directly to the trailhead.
2. Hike the Trail
Climb and conquer all three dunes by hiking a 1.5-mile loop with 552 feet of elevation gain.
3. Share the Challenge
Take a selfie at the top of each of the dunes and post it to social media using #3DuneChallenge.
4. Get Your Badge of Honor
Visit the Indiana Dunes Nature Center or Visitor Center to redeem your free 3 Dune Challenge bumper sticker.
There are also commemorative T-shirts and hoodies available for purchase at the Visitor Center to show off your accomplishments.
When to Hike the 3 Dune Challenge
Spring through fall is the best time to hike the 3 Dune Challenge!
Summer is a great time to visit Indiana Dunes if you’re planning to swim in the lake or lounge on one of the many beaches.
But since the summer season is the most popular time of year to visit, crowds are thick, beaches and dunes are packed, and the line to get into both the State and National Parks can get very long.
If you do decide to hike the 3 Dune Challenge in the summer, try to arrive early. You’ll beat the people and the humidity. Win, win.
Spring and Fall
If you want to avoid crowds but still enjoy decent weather, consider visiting in the shoulder seasons, spring and fall.
In the spring, you’ll witness wildflowers blooming throughout the park, and in the fall, you’ll get to see the leaves transform from emerald green to vibrant shades of gold, coral, and crimson.
NOTE: Early spring and late fall might be chilly and or potentially snowy since the park sits right at the edge of Lake Michigan. Weather can be unpredictable, inconsistent, and ever-changing due to the Great Lake.
What to Bring on Your Hike
- Day Pack. You’ll need a pack to carry all of your hiking essentials. I’d recommend a quality Osprey backpack.
- Hiking Boots/Shoes. You’ll want to wear a pair of durable, waterproof hiking boots or shoes. I personally adore Keen and Danner for their style and quality.
- Socks. Merino wool is the best material for hiking socks. Stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter with Darn Tough socks.
- Hiking Top. This is the perfect short-sleeved hiking top.
- Hiking Bottoms. I prefer wearing leggings or shorts while hiking. If regular hiking pants are more your jam, check these out!
- Sun protection. Wear/bring sunglasses, a sun hat, and sunscreen to stay protected from harmful UV rays.
- Layers. You’ll want to pack base layers, mid layers, and top layers to prepare for all types of weather and conditions. I like this base-layer top from Icebreaker, this mid-layer sweater from Patagonia, and this rain jacket from Columbia.
- Food. Read my Trail Food guide for tons of fun trail meal, snack, and drink ideas!
- Water bottle. This one from CamelBak is my go-to.
- Water filter. If you’re on a trail and you run out of water, you’ll be able to filter in a natural water source. Buy a water filter!
- Water. Staying hydrated is super important!
- Trekking poles. These are nice to have, especially on steep and/or rocky terrain. Black Diamond has the best trekking poles!
- Emergency blanket. You never know when you might need it. Buy an emergency blanket here.
- First aid kit. Check out my First Aid Basics for Hikers guide to find out what you should put in your first aid kit and how to recognize, prevent, and treat common hiker injuries and illnesses!
- Knife. I always carry a knife with me on the trail. Knives have multiple uses.
- Lighter. This fuel-free lighter comes in handy when I need to build a fire.
- Headlamp. These are essential for night hikes and emergencies. This Petzl headlamp is my favorite.
- GPS. Carry at least two forms of navigation. Bring a paper map, compass, and/or a pre-downloaded electronic map. Gaia GPS is my favorite app for downloading maps offline and staying on the trail.
- Bug Deterrents. I spritz bug spray on my body (and sometimes my gear), and I wear a head net if the bugs are really bad.
- Electrolytes. These are the best-tasting sugar-free drink mixes I’ve ever had.
The 3 Dune Challenge Trail Guide
Parking and Trailhead
Park at either the Wilson Shelter or Nature Center.
If you park at the Wilson Shelter, cross the boardwalk to reach the Nature Center.
Stop at the Nature Center to fill up your water bottles, use the restroom, and grab a map before hitting the trail. You can even tell a ranger on duty that you plan on doing the 3 Dune Challenge; they can then inform you of any updated rules and give you tips on having the best experience. Note that the Nature Center has limited hours, so these amenities may not always be available. Check current hours here.
The trail begins to the right of the Nature Center at the end of the parking lot. There will be a sign indicating the 3 Dune Challenge and a sign labeling Trails 8, 9, and 10.
If you didn’t grab a map at the Nature Center, go ahead and use your phone to snap a photo of the 3 Dune Challenge sign at the trailhead. On the sign is a map of the trail. It also helps if you have the trail map downloaded on your Gaia GPS app!
The trail starts on Trail 8, switches to Trail 4, and then ends on a paved road through the campground. Don’t worry too much about getting lost or following the wrong path because there are colorful 3 Dune Challenge signs all over the trail to let you know that you’re on the right path!
Follow the signs for Trail 8 past the Nature Center to begin the challenge. Again, there will be two signs at the first intersection indicating both Trail 8 and the 3 Dunes Challenge. Follow that trail!
The first part of the climb to Mt. Jackson is steady, but not too steep. It’s also nicely shaded for most of the ascent. Around the 1/4-mile mark, just shy of the summit of Mt. Jackson, the steep ascent really begins.
You’ll know you’re at the top of the first dune, Mt. Jackson, once three things happen: you see the view of Lake Michigan, you spy the Mt. Jackson dune sign, and the terrain levels out.
Mt. Jackson is the smallest of the trio of sand dunes. It rises 176 feet above Lake Michigan. At this point, you’re a third of the way done with the trail/challenge!
Once you’ve snapped your photo with the Mt. Jackson sign, it’s time to make your descent down the dune. The descent doesn’t last long though. The ascent up the next dune, Mt. Holden, begins after a short leveled-out trail between the two dunes.
This part of the trail is very shaded as well. It’s a nice relief from the sun if you’re hiking on a hot summer day.
Once you’ve summited Mt. Holden, you won’t see much of a view since the dune is shrouded in trees. You will know you’re there because once again, you’ll see the dune sign.
Mt. Holden sits 184 feet above Lake Michigan.
Snap your photo at the top and move on to the next dune. You’re two-thirds of the way done with the dune challenge!
It’s time to descend Mt. Holden. It’s a long and steep trek down the sandy dune. Near the bottom of Mt. Holden, you’ll come to an intersection. Trails 8 and 7 collide, and it’s here where if you’re feeling tired and like you can’t finish the challenge, you can bail and take a shortcut back to the Nature Center.
If you’re ready to complete the final dune in the challenge, continue on Trail 8 to Mt. Tom. This is the easiest part of the trail (in my opinion). Here’s why.
You get to climb up steps instead of sand! That’s right. Steps might seem like they’d be steeper and more challenging, but it was actually a nice, welcome relief from trudging through deep, steep sand. You’ll ascend the tallest dune in the park, Mt. Tom, via a series of wooden stairs.
The summit of Mt. Tom sits above the tree canopy and offers a sweeping view of Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline.
Mt. Tom is the tallest dune in the park, sitting 192 feet above Lake Michigan.
Snap your photo at the peak, and once you’re ready to finish the trail, descend the wooden steps. This part is in full sun, but since you’re descending and walking on stairs, it’s not as bad as trudging uphill through sand in the blazing sun.
To finish the hike, take the stairs all the way down, follow the trail through the forest, and walk across the campground to get back to the Nature Center parking lot.
NOTE: There is a nice shaded pavilion in the campground right off the trail if you need a spot to rest, cool off, or eat a snack. There are also spigots scattered across the campground if you need to refill your water bottles!
The Finish Line
You’ve finished the trail! Now what? During your hike, you captured a selfie at the top of each dune, so it’s time to share those to social media using #3DuneChallenge.
To receive your “badge of honor,” visit the Nature Center or Indiana Dunes Visitor Center to get a free bumper sticker. Just show a ranger your photos and they’ll hand you a sticker (or two!). You can also purchase a commemorative t-shirt at the Visitor Center if you’d like.
NOTE: The Nature Center has limited hours, so don’t worry if you can’t get your sticker there. Drive to the Visitor Center, where they have a larger variety of stickers to choose from and many different gifts to buy.
Tips to Have the Best Experience
If you’re hiking in the summer, arrive as early as you can to beat the long lines at the entrance and the crowds on the trail and beaches.
Hike during the week if possible.
Watch Out For Poison Ivy
Poison ivy grows on the side of the trail. Stick to the trail to protect yourself from the ivy and protect the vegetation that grows off-trail on the dunes.
→ READ NEXT: Indiana Road Trip: 10 Stops For Outdoor Adventure 🚗
3 Dune Challenge FAQs
Is There an Entrance Fee to Indiana Dunes?
Daily vehicle fees for the STATE PARK are $7 for residents and $9 for non-residents. This is where the 3 Dune Challenge is.
Vehicle fees for the NATIONAL PARK are $25/vehicle. The pass is valid for 7 days.
TIP: If you’re a resident or non-resident who frequently visits Indiana State Parks, you can also purchase an annual park pass. Annual passes cost $50 for residents and $70 for non-residents. Annual National Park passes are also available for $80/year.
What Makes the Trail So Challenging?
Some parts of the trail feature 40-degree slopes, so each step up the sand dunes can be a struggle.
How Long Does the 3 Dune Challenge Take?
It takes an average of 1.5 – 2 hours to complete this challenge. Prepare to take more breaks in the warmer months.
Can All Ages and Abilities Complete this Challenge?
Almost anyone can complete this challenge. Age and ability could affect how quickly you climb, but with equal parts motivation and caution, anyone should be able to safely hike the dunes.
Is the 3 Dune Challenge Part of the State Park or National Park?
The hiking challenge is part of Indiana Dunes State Park.
Is Indiana Dunes Open Year-Round?
Yes! You can visit the dunes at any time of the year.
Are Dogs Allowed?
Dogs are allowed to complete the 3 Dune Challenge. However, make sure that your dog is fit and up to the challenge. If it’s a hard climb for you, it’ll probably be even harder for your furry friend.
For more info on where exactly dogs are and aren’t allowed in the state park, visit the Indiana DNR website.
→ READ NEXT: 13 Most Dog-Friendly National Parks in the USA 🐶
What Else to Do While You’re at Indiana Dunes
If you have extra time in the park, here are a few other things to do at the Indiana Dunes.
Climb Devil’s Slide
If you still have more energy for dune climbing, climb the Devil’s Slide located behind the state park’s swimming beach. It’s a beast!
Have a Picnic
Cool off and unwind after a grueling hike by having a picnic at one of the shelters.
Hike and Swim at Indiana Dunes National Park
Venture over to Indiana Dunes National Park to go swimming at West Beach and hike the Dune Succession Trail.
Discover Your Next Adventure
Where to next? I’ve got some suggestions!
- Hocking Hills State Park
- Red River Gorge
- New River Gorge National Park
- Indiana Road Trip
- Great Sand Dunes National Park
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