While this area is most known for the beautiful dunes and access to the beach along Lake Michigan, there are certainly some great hiking trails in Indiana Dunes National Park that are worth exploring! Whether you are up for an all-day adventure with plenty of challenge on multiple trails or just a short hike that you can take with small children, there is something for everyone to explore on the hiking trails in Indiana Dunes.
Though you really need to be sure you spend time relaxing on the beach and checking out the beautiful water of Lake Michigan, taking a break for a few hours to hike around the area is highly recommended! What is most surprising is that you’ll see a wide variety of unexpected landscape on nearly every trail.
It’s hard to pick the very best hikes in Indiana Dunes National Park, but we did our best with this guide and hope that it helps point you in the right direction as you decide how best to spend your time in the park.
WHAT INDIANA DUNES HIKE IS RIGHT FOR ME?
Though hiking in the sand isn’t the easiest way of hiking, the great thing about the hikes in Indiana Dunes is that they are either rated as easy or moderate, meaning that if you have the time, you can likely take on most of the trails here without too much challenge. Of course, if it’s hot, you are sure to have a tougher hike than if you visit on a cooler day.
To help you narrow down the right hike for you, we’ve created a few charts that plot elevation gain vs. round-trip distance. If you are looking for an easy hike, this graph will help you out.
If you are looking for something a bit more challenging, there are quite a few options for you. This chart can help you identify the right moderate hike for you!
Before your trip, download our Indiana Dunes National Park Itinerary which will help you plan your trip. We review the best hikes, but also include where to stay, what to pack, what else to see in the park and what to see in the area.
DUNE SUCCESSION TRAIL
Dune Succession Trail map, courtesy of the National Park Service
When considering what hikes to take in Indiana Dunes, we recommend putting the Dune Succession Trail on the top of your list of “must dos.” While not easy, this hike is relatively short and provides views of both Lake Michigan, the dunes and the inland forest that seems to come out of nowhere as you hike away from the water.
You can pickup the hike right from the parking lot and head either way, but we started by going clockwise so that the climbing didn’t get us right out of the gate. After walking along the paved access walkway to the beach, you’ll pass through the beach bathhouse area before reaching the sand. The trail then turns to the east (right) for about 200 yards before turning inland to the south (again, a right turn). The trail then heads up the dunes and gains elevation slightly over the next 0.4 miles. You’ll walk on boardwalk most of the way, with stairs that will aid in the climb. As you head away from the beach, you’ll enter into a pine grove forest. From the top of the stairs there are great views of the beach and surrounding area.
After the viewpoint, the hike heads sharply downstairs and return to the parking lot. In total, the hike is 0.9-miles (around the entire loop) and gains about 100 feet in elevation. It’s fully exposed (without shade), so plan on wearing a hat and bringing sunblock!
The trailhead is located on the east side of the West Beach parking area.
THREE LOOP TRAIL (TO WEST BEACH)
Three Loop Trail map, courtesy of the National Park Service
If you have a bit more energy than just taking the short Dune Succession Trail, then the Three Loop Trail is for you. This hike combines the three loops that are accessible from West Beach (Dune Succession Trail, West Beach Trail and the Long Lake Trail), and is a moderate, 3.5-mile (round-trip) hike. Overall, there is about 250 feet of elevation gain total, with most of it occurring in the first 0.5 miles and in the last 1.5 miles as you head through the dunes.
Starting from the West Beach parking area, we recommend heading clockwise by walking right to the beach on the paved path and then coming back through the dunes on the Dune Succession Trail. Slightly before you reach the parking area, you’ll take a left on the second part of the loop. This flat section takes you through loose sand and the forest.
At mile 1.8, the trail then heads into the dunes along Long Lake before turning back into the dunes and heading back to the parking area. While not too challenging, the hike does have some climbing in the loose sand. It is also exposed for most of the hike. Of course, if you get too tired, there are several shortcuts back to the parking area if you get too tired or are running short on time.
The trailhead is located on the east side of the West Beach parking area.
COWLES BOG TRAIL
Cowles Bog Trail map, courtesy of the National Park Service
Frequently considered to be the best hike in Indiana Dunes National Park, the Cowles Bog Trail is a moderately challenging 4.3-mile (round-trip) hike. The trail starts by heading west and is relatively flat before it reaches a loop around Cowles Bog. You’ll then head uphill as you go up and over the dunes and to Bailly Beach. Here you can spend some time at the beach and check out the Chicago skyline before heading back. Bailly Beach is also a wonderful stop, as it is secluded and only accessible to those who hike on this trail (or in from the beach to the east).
The hike up the dunes is a bit challenging (steep and loose sand), but otherwise the hike is fairly flat. The unique aspect of this trail is the variety of scenery, including bogs, dunes and the beach! There is about 200 feet of total elevation gain, and you can expect the hike to take about 2.5 to 3 hours, but plan on spending some time on the beach.
The trailhead starts on North Mineral Springs Road on the right side, about 0.3-miles north of Highway 12.
Cowles Bog Trail, photo courtesy of hakkun
DUNE RIDGE TRAIL
Dune Ridge Trail map, courtesy of the National Park Service
This easy, 0.7-mile (round-trip) loop trail is quite popular. It’s easy to get to, short, and provides great views and a diverse landscape.
The trail travels into the woods as it approaches a bog overlook. The lake isn’t viewable from this trail, but there are some great spots for photos, especially the view of Great Marsh. The hike has a bit less than 100 feet of elevation gain. There is a bit of scrambling up and down loose sand, but it’s not overly challenging.
The trailhead for the Dune Ridge Trail starts on the right (east) side of East State Park Road, about 1 mile north of Highway 20 at the Kemil Comfort Station.
TOLLESTON DUNES TRAIL
Tolleston Dunes Trail map, courtesy of the National Park Service
The Tolleston Dunes Trail is a moderately difficult, 2.9-mile (round-trip) loop trail. The trail is not usually very busy, and the fact that it only gains about 130 feet in elevation makes it not overly challenging.
The trail is both on a combination of sand and some boardwalk. Along the way you’ll have views through the oak savanna and wetlands. There is a bit of shade on the trail, which is not typical for most of the hikes in this park.
The trail is a bit of a lollipop, and after heading out about 0.5-miles, you’ll come to a fork. You can go either way, and it’s about the same type of challenge no matter how you go. You’ll return to this fork before heading back to the parking area. The hike is nice, but it’s not particularly popular, making it quite peaceful!
The Tolleston Dunes Trailhead starts just south of Highway 12, about 3.5 miles west of the intersection of Highway 12 and Highway 249.
BAILLY HOMESTEAD TRAIL
Bailly Homestead Trail map, courtesy of the National Park Service
This is more of a walk, but this Bailly Homestead Trail is about 1.1-miles (round-trip). It makes a loop around the old homestead, and gives you an idea of what life was like in the 1800’s.
The trail has an elevation gain of about 70 feet as it heads around the Chellberg Farm and arrives at the Bailly Homestead through a path in the woods. You can also visit the farm animals that are in the area, as well as the Maple Sugaring house, which is in operating in the springtime.
Be advised that the trail can be muddy if there was recent rainfall or snowmelt, and the area does get quite busy.
Route alternative: Continue to the Bailly Cemetery (which adds 0.6-miles, round-trip) if you like to see historic grave sites.
The Bailly Homestead Trail starts just north of Highway 20 on Mineral Springs Road. Park in the Bailly Chellberg Parking Lot.
INDIANA DUNES NATIONAL PARK HIKING PERMITS
There are no permits required for most of the hikes in Indiana Dunes, with the exception of the Pinhook Bog Trails that head to the Bog Hike. This hike includes a bog created by a melting glacier and houses a very unique habitat. You have to have prior approval to head to the bog and be accompanied by authorized staff. You can call 219-395-1885 for details. There ae also ranger-led hikes to this area on weekend in the summer.
FURTHER INFORMATION ON INDIANA DUNES NATIONAL PARK FROM JUST GO TRAVEL STUDIOS
- A must-have ahead of your trip is our downloadable itinerary for Indiana Dunes National Park. We cover what you need to know before your trip, including additional hikes, where to stay and what to do while you are in the area.
- Be sure to check out our blog on What to See and Do in Indiana Dunes National Park!
- When you get back from your trip, send us a few photos and well make you some custom, vintage-style posters, postcards and note cards that are personalized and made just for you!