Located on the southern shore of Lake Michigan, Indiana Dunes has been a popular Midwest beach destination for decades. The beach and dunes are the main attractions at Indiana Dunes, but there’s so much more to this national park!
Indiana Dunes National Park encompasses over 15,000 acres and 15 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline. 14 distinct trail systems offer 50 miles of hiking trails that lead through a wide variety of habitats—including sand dunes, wetlands, prairies, oak savannas, and woodlands. Although relatively small in size, Indiana Dunes is one of the most ecologically diverse places in North America. It ranks fourth among U.S. national parks for its biodiversity, with over 1,100 native flowering plant species! The park is also an important feeding and resting area for migrating birds, with more than 350 species recorded. Indiana Dunes is a great spot for history buffs too, with several historic sites that are worth a visit.
Whether you prefer relaxing on the beach, exploring hiking trails or learning about the area’s history, Indiana Dunes has something for everyone! You’ll need at least a full day to explore the highlights of the park. We hope this guide will help you make the most of your trip to Indiana Dunes National Park!
Before you head to Indiana Dunes National Park, be sure to pick up a copy of our downloadable Indiana Dunes Itinerary, which covers the best things to do at Indiana Dunes. We also include details on hiking trails, where to stay, what to pack and other places to visit while you are in the Indiana Dunes area.
INDIANA DUNES NATIONAL PARK HISTORY
Before western settlers arrived, the southern shore of Lake Michigan was home to Native Americans who cultivated the land and used the dunes as seasonal hunting grounds. European immigrants began arriving in greater numbers in the 1800s. By the late 1800s, steel mills and power plants were springing up along Lake Michigan’s southern shoreline.
The industrialization of the lakeshore spurred a movement to preserve the dunes and the area’s natural beauty. In 1899, Henry Cowles, a botanist from the University of Chicago, published an article about the intricate ecosystems and diverse vegetation existing in the dunes. Although this article brought international awareness to the delicate ecology of the dunes, the efforts of Henry Cowles and other park advocates were thwarted when the United States joined the First World War.
In 1926, Indiana Dunes State Park was finally established. However, the state park was still relatively small (only a little over 2,000 acres) and the push for a national park continued. In the 1960s, President Kennedy took a stand on the establishment of a national lakeshore. With his support and the tireless work of Illinois Senator Paul H. Douglas, a program called The Kennedy Compromise led to the authorization of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in 1966. Initially, the national lakeshore legislation only protected 8,330 acres of land and water. However, multiple expansion bills eventually increased the size of the national lakeshore to more than 15,000 acres.
In February 2019, Congress authorized the name change and Indiana Dunes became the nation’s 61st national park. Now, despite being one of the smallest national parks by size, over 2 million visitors come to Indiana Dunes National Park every year.
The struggle to find balance between industry and preservation is evident when you visit Indiana Dunes, but don’t let that dissuade you from visiting. Although some parts of the park feel quite urban with sites and sounds from the nearby cities, there are also areas that feel miles away from the park’s industrial surroundings.
NORTHEAST/MICHIGAN CITY AREA OF INDIANA DUNES NATIONAL PARK
Indiana Dunes National Park eastern area map, courtesy of the National Park Service
The eastern side of Indiana Dunes National Park, closest to Michigan City, is home to the park’s visitor center, historic districts, six beaches, hiking trails and Mt. Baldy, the area’s largest moving dune.
When visiting the eastern side of Indiana Dunes, our recommendations include:
- Indiana Dunes Visitor Center. Begin your visit to Indiana Dunes National Park with a stop at the visitor center, located in Porter, IN, for maps, activity schedules and other information. There are a variety of displays about the area, plus a couple short park films. The visitor center also has a small park store, restrooms, and a nice picnic area. If you don’t already have a park pass (which is required while visiting Indiana Dunes), you can purchase one at the visitor center. The Indiana Dunes Visitor Center is open year-round—except for New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
- Bailly Homestead. Visit the Bailly Homestead, a National Historic Landmark. Joseph Bailly, a French-Canadian fur trader, was one of the earliest settlers in the area and played a key role in the development of the Calumet Region of northern Indiana. At the crossroads of the Little Calumet River and several important trails, he traded furs with the Potowatomi and Miami nations. His trading post served as a meeting point for those traveling between Chicago and Detroit. To access the Bailly Homestead, you can park on Howe Road next to the boat launch. Or park at Chellburg Farm and walk the 0.3-mile wooded trail over to the Bailly Homestead property.
- Chellburg Farm. Take a stroll on the property of the Chellburg Farm. In the mid-1800s, the Chellburg Family became part of a growing community of Swedish immigrants in northern Indiana. After purchasing and clearing 40 acres of land (and later an additional 40 acres), they established the Chellberg farmstead. The farm was run by generations of the Chellberg family until 1972, when it was sold to the National Park Service. Today, the property is still a working farm. The Chellburg farmhouse is open to the public during open houses and festivals. See the Indiana Dunes calendar for dates. The main parking lot for Chellburg Farm is located on N. Mineral Springs Rd. in Porter, IN. This parking lot is also the trailhead for the Little Calumet River trail. Restrooms are open year-round here.
- 1933 Century of Progress Homes. Visit the Century of Progress Historic District, located along Lakefront Drive in Beverly Shores, to see five homes that were designed and built for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. At the time, several houses were built to reflect the future of housing with modern architecture, innovative building materials and new technologies, such as central AC and dishwashers. After the World’s Fair, five of the homes were moved to Beverly Shores. Most of the homes have been restored and all five are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. However, they are now private residences, so you can only see them from the outside. There are informational signs outside to learn about the history of these interesting homes. To reach the Century of Progress Homes, park at the Dunbar Beach parking lot on Lakeshore Drive and walk east to the homes.
Image courtesy of Indiana Dunes Tourism
- Visit an east side beach. The most popular attraction at Indiana Dunes National Park is the lakeshore, and there are six beaches from which to choose on the east side of the park. Porter Beach is located just minutes north of the visitor center and adjacent to Indiana Dunes State Park. Kemil, Dunbar and Lake View Beaches, are all located along Lakeshore Drive in Beverly Shores, IN. The Kemil Beach parking area also provides access to the Dunes Ridge hiking trail. Lake View Beach has covered picnic shelters (first come, first served) and grilling areas for cookouts. Central Avenue Beach is a great place to take a quiet walk or watch the bank swallows come and go from their nests in the dunes. To reach Central Avenue Beach, you must walk 5-minutes from the parking lot on a sandy trail, and then it’s a steep downhill walk to the beach. Mount Baldy Beach, located on the far eastern end of the park, is the most challenging beach to access. It requires a 0.9-mile out-and-back hike through loose sand. All these beaches have parking, but many of the lots fill quickly during summer months. If you plan to spend a day at the beach, be sure to arrive early! Glass containers and fires are prohibited on all Indiana Dunes beaches. Swimming is allowed, but there are no lifeguards at any of the east side beaches. Swim at your own risk and beware of rip currents.
Hiking. One of the best ways to explore the park is on foot! There are miles of trails to explore in the northeast section of Indiana Dunes—ranging in distance and difficulty. We recommend the following hikes:
- The Cowles Bog Trail is a visitor favorite, especially for nature enthusiasts! The trail was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1965 due to its outstanding plant diversity. This moderate, 4.7-mile loop hike passes through a variety of habitats, including wetlands and wooded dunes, to an isolated beach. Enjoy a break on the Lake Michigan shoreline before returning to the dunes. Although much of the hike is easy, it does have some elevation change and involves hiking through sections of loose, sandy terrain. The trailhead is located on North Mineral Springs Road in Dune Acres, MI. Allow 2.5 to 3 hours for this hike. Dogs are allowed on this trail but must be leashed.
- The Little Calumet River, Mnoké Prairie, Bailly Homestead, Chellburg Farm and Bailley Cemetery trail system has something for everyone. Hike all or part of the 3.9-mile network of trails which includes a wide variety of scenery and terrain. Travel through hardwood forests. Cross boardwalks and bridges while following a stretch of the Little Calumet River. Explore the recently restored Mnoké Visit historical landmarks, including the Chellburg Farm, Bailly Cemetery and Bailly Homestead. Shorter trail option: 1.1-mile loop to include the Chellburg Farm and the Bailly Homestead. Be sure to pick up a map at the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center or at the trailhead. The trailhead is located north of Highway 20 on Mineral Springs Road in Porter, IN. Allow 2 to 2 ½ hours for this hike. Dogs are allowed on this trail but must be leashed.
- The Dune Ridge Trail is a 0.7-mile trail that winds through wetlands and a beautiful section of forested dunes. The hike is generally easy but does have some sandy uphill sections before reaching the Great Marsh overlook. From the parking area, take a short walk to enjoy Kemil Beach after your hike. The trailhead for the Dune Ridge Trail is located 1 mile north of Highway 12 on East State Park Road in Beverly Shores. Dogs are allowed on this trail but must be leashed.
- Witness the area’s largest moving dune on a hike to Mount Baldy Beach. The Mount Baldy Beach Trail is a 0.9-mile hike with a steep descent down loose sand to the beach with sweeping views of Lake Michigan. The hardest part of this hike is the return to your car since the only way out is a steep climb back up the sandy trail. At this time, access to the top of Mount Baldy is closed unless you attend the ranger-led Mount Baldy Summit hike. This popular guided hike is generally offered weekends from mid-June to mid-October. Be prepared for a short, steep climb up loose sand to reach the top of Mount Baldy, which towers 126 feet above Lake Michigan. Mount Baldy Summit hike dates and time are available on the park’s website calendar or by contacting the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center. Trailhead parking is at the end of Rice Street in Michigan City, IN. Dogs are allowed but must be leashed.
See the NPS page Hiking at Indiana Dunes National Park for more information on these trails and others. You can also check out our blog on the Best Hikes in Indiana Dunes National Park for additional information.
***Stay on established trails to protect delicate dune plants and avoid ticks and poison ivy, which grows along many of the hiking trails.
SOUTHWEST/GARY AREA OF INDIANA DUNES NATIONAL PARK
Indiana Dunes National Park western area map, courtesy of the National Park Service
The western area of Indiana Dunes is home to the popular West Beach, the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk, the Tolleston Dunes and the Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education. (If you haven’t already been to the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center in Porter, IN, we recommend starting your trip there to first get oriented with the layout of the park and grab any maps you might need.)
When visiting the western area of Indiana Dunes, our recommendations include:
- West Beach. West Beach is the largest and most visited beach at Indiana Dunes National Park. It offers a wide, sandy beach, a full bathhouse, picnic area and access to hiking trails. It is the only beach in the park with lifeguards (from Memorial Day to Labor Day). The parking lot is huge and accommodates hundreds of vehicles, including parking for RVs and buses. To reach West Beach, turn onto N. County Line Rd. from Highway 12. Then turn right onto West Beach Road. The bathhouse and walkway to the beach are wheelchair accessible. The beach is not wheelchair accessible. Pets are not allowed in the lifeguarded section of West Beach.
- Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk. Formerly an industrial site, the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk was part of a massive redevelopment project to reclaim land for public recreational use. The 57-acre area features access to the lakefront and beach, as well as a wheelchair accessible trail. It also includes a large, public pavilion, with seasonal snack bar, and fishing pier (both wheelchair accessible). Although the area still feels industrial (since you can see the nearby mill and Port of Indiana), visitors can enjoy easy access to the lakefront for fishing and birdwatching. The 2-mile (loop) Riverwalk Trail, which runs along the Burns Waterway, is mostly paved with some sections of boardwalk and one set of stairs (at the southern end of the riverwalk boardwalk). Parking for Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk is located at the end of Riverwalk Road, north of Highway 12, in Portage, IN. Dogs are allowed on the beach and hiking trail but prohibited inside the pavilion.
- Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education. The Paul H. Douglas Center is the gateway to the area’s trail system through the Miller Woods. The facility offers hands-on exhibits, ranger programs and a Nature Play Zone for kids. The Paul H. Douglas Center is temporarily closed due to interior upgrades, but the parking lot and hiking trail are open. To reach the Paul H. Douglas Center, in Gary, IN, turn onto Lake Street from Highway 12.
Hiking. There are some great trail networks to explore in the western area of Indiana Dunes National Park. We recommend the following hikes:
- The most popular trail in the area is the 0.9-mile Dune Succession Trail. Hike along a raised boardwalk and wooden stairs through ancient dunes and among beautiful jack pines. Enjoy views of Lake Michigan and West Beach from the top of the Dune Succession Trail stairs. This loop hike begins from the West Beach parking area and can be hiked in either direction. We headed towards the beach first and hiked in the clockwise direction (some prefer this way for a more gradual climb). Although the Dune Succession Trail is a short and fairly easy hike, there are LOTS of steps plus some sections of loose sand. If you have more time, try the 3 Loop Hike. This 3.5-mile hike combines the three trails at West Beach—Dune Succession Trail, West Beach Trail, and Long Lake Trail. These trails begin at the West Beach parking area in Gary, IN. Allow 30-45 minutes for the Dune Succession Trail or 2 to 2.5 hours for the 3 Loop Hike.
- Another beautiful hiking trail on the far western side of the park is the Paul H. Douglas Trail in Miller Woods. This moderate, 3.4-mile out-and-back hike travels through wetlands and oak savanna-covered dunes before reaching the Lake Michigan shoreline. If we’d had better weather and more time, we would have done this hike! The Paul H. Douglas Trail starts from the Paul H. Douglas Environmental Center on North Lake Street in Gary, IN. Allow 2 to 2 ½ hours for this hike or more if you also plan to enjoy the beach.
- If you are seeking a less traveled trail, check out the Tolleston Dunes Trail. This moderate, 2.9-mile lollipop loop hike travels through oak savanna, wetlands and dunes. See plants such as lupines, butterfly weed and even prickly pear cactus! The Tolleston Dunes Trail starts from the trailhead just off Highway 12 in Ogden Dunes, IN. Allow 2 hours for this hike.
See the NPS page Hiking at Indiana Dunes National Park for more information on these trails and others.
***Stay on established trails to protect delicate dune plants and avoid ticks and poison ivy, which grows along many of the hiking trails.
MORE THINGS TO DO AT INDIANA DUNES NATIONAL PARK
In addition to enjoying the beaches, historic sites and hiking trails in the park, there are a few other popular activities at the park.
- More than 350 species of birds either inhabit or migrate through Indiana Dunes making this a prime bird watching destination. Some popular hiking trails for birding include the Cowles Bog Trail, Great Marsh Trail, and Paul H. Douglas Trail. Long Lake, near West Beach, is also a great spot to view migrating waterfowl in spring and fall. To view birds that follow the shoreline during fall migration, try Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk. If you happen to visit in May, check out the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival, an annual event designed to celebrate the area’s biodiversity and bird watching opportunities.
- Cyclists will enjoy Indiana Dunes interconnected trail system which spans 37 miles across the length of the park. Complete a short section or take an all-day trek. Popular paved biking trails include the Dunes Kanakee Bike Trail, Porter Brickyard Bike Trail, and Marquette Bike Trail. If you are looking for something a little more rugged, try the gravel Calumet Bike Trail (not for road bikes).
WHAT TO DO NEAR INDIANA DUNES NATIONAL PARK
If you have extra time while visiting Indiana Dunes, there are some great nearby parks to explore. Our recommendations include:
- Indiana Dunes State Park. Surrounded by the national park, Indiana Dunes State Park is not to be missed! Two of the most popular hikes in the Indiana Dunes area are in the state park—Trail 9 and the 3 Dunes Challenge. We could hardly resist the challenge to climb the three tallest sand dunes in the state park! The park also has a large sandy beach, Nature Center, and Longshore Birding Platform.
- Warren Dunes State Park. Located in southwestern Michigan and just over a half hour away from Indiana Dunes, Warren Dunes offers a variety of recreational opportunities. The park has two campgrounds, three miles of shoreline, six miles of hiking trails and a spectacular dune formation that rises 260 feet above the lake.
- Pullman National Historical Park. Travel 45 minutes west from Indiana Dunes to Chicago, IL and check out Pullman National Historical Park—the first model, planned industrial community in the United States.
HOW TO GET TO INDIANA DUNES NATIONAL PARK AND OTHER TRAVEL INFORMATION
Indiana Dunes National Park is close to several urban areas, which means lots of options for travel. There are three major airports located 1 ½ hours or less away from the park--South Bend International Airport, Chicago Midway International Airport and O’Hare International Airport.
While most visitors come by car, it’s also possible for those visiting Chicago to reach the park by train. The Chicago and South Shore Train has four stops in the park: Miller, Ogden Dunes, Dune Park, and Beverly Shores (flag stop).
WHERE TO STAY IN AND NEAR INDIANA DUNES NATIONAL PARK
The park does not offer any lodging, but there are options to suit all sorts of travelers in nearby towns—Chesterton, Portage and Michigan City.
Camping inside Indiana Dunes National Park: There is one campground inside the park—Dunewood Campground. The campground is open year-round and offers modern restrooms and hot showers (seasonal). The campground also has a dump station and potable water spigots throughout the campground. There are no hook-ups (water or electrical). Campsite reservations can be made up to six months in advance of your arrival date online at Recreation.gov.
Camping near Indiana Dunes National Park: There are several other campgrounds nearby; however, Indiana Dunes State Park Campground is one of the most popular in the area. Located less than a mile from the beach and a short drive from the national park, this campground fills up quickly during summer months. This campground is open year-round and offers electrical hook-ups, modern restrooms, and hot showers. Campsite reservations can be made up to six months in advance of your arrival date online at indianastateparks.reserveamerica.com.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT INDIANA DUNES NATIONAL PARK?
Indiana Dunes National Park is open year-round; however, the best time of year to visit the park depends on what you want to see and do.
Summer translates to beach season in the park and is the busiest time of year at Indiana Dunes. Park visitation spikes in July when temperatures are at their warmest and daytime highs reach the 80s. Beach parking lots fill quickly, especially on weekends and holidays. Plan to arrive early to secure a spot or later in the afternoon when other beachgoers are leaving. We visited the park on an overcast morning with rain forecast for the afternoon. Imagine our surprise to find normally busy West Beach empty! If you enjoy hiking, a cloudy weekday might be your best bet to avoid the heat and the summer crowds.
Late spring and fall can be ideal times to visit if you prefer cooler temperatures. Wildflowers are in bloom from mid-April through June. The annual Indiana Dunes Birding Festival takes place on the third weekend in May. Fall is typically too chilly for swimming but a great time to take a hike and enjoy fall foliage. The national park also provides excellent opportunities for birders to see a variety of species during fall migration.
VISITING INDIANA DUNES NATIONAL PARK IN THE WINTER
If you enjoy hiking, snowshoeing, or cross-country skiing, you will love Indiana Dunes in the winter! Snow and cold temperatures transform the landscape making Indiana Dunes a great place to explore! Except for the Pinhook Bog Trail, all trails are open for winter hiking. The Paul H. Douglas Trail, Glenwood Dunes Trail and Tolleston Dunes Trail are three great options for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. See the NPS website for more information on winter activities at Indiana Dunes.
In the winter, beautiful shelf ice covers the shores of Lake Michigan and attracts visitors and photographers to area beaches. Please remember to stay off shelf ice and enjoy the view from land.
Be sure to check the NPS website for current conditions in the park (including weather alerts and any closures).
IS THERE CELLULAR SERVICE IN INDIANA DUNES NATIONAL PARK?
Cellular reception varies throughout the park depending on your carrier, but service is generally good along the shoreline. Public WiFi is available at the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center in Porter, IN.
ARE PETS ALLOWED AT INDIANA DUNES NATIONAL PARK?
Yes, pets are allowed on most trails and beaches within Indiana Dunes National Park and at Dunewood Campground. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, pets are prohibited at West Beach in the lifeguarded swimming area. Other areas where pets are not allowed include the Glenwood Dunes Trail, Pinhook Bog Trail and nature play areas at the campground. Please check the NPS website for more information on bringing your pets to Indian Dunes National Park.
Pets must be kept on a leash no longer than six feet (even on beaches and when swimming). Visitors are required to clean up after their pets on all NPS land.
IS THERE AN ENTRANCE FEE TO VISIT INDIANA DUNES NATIONAL PARK?
Yes, there is a fee to visit the Indiana Dunes National Park. All visitors must have a Park Entrance Pass that is clearly visible through the windshield of your vehicle. If you do not already have an America the Beautiful annual park pass, you can purchase an entry permit for Indiana Dunes National Park at the visitor center, Paul H. Douglas Center, or West Beach fee kiosk (seasonally). The National Park entrance pass does not cover admission to Indiana Dunes State Park. Separate passes for the state park must be purchased at the Indiana Dunes State Park office or gate.
RELATED INFORMATION ON INDIANA DUNES NATIONAL PARK FROM JUST GO TRAVEL STUDIOS
- Before your trip, be sure to download a copy of our Indiana Dunes National Par itinerary! We cover all you need to know about your trip to the park.
- We also have a great blog on the Best Hikes in Indiana Dunes National Park that’s worth reading ahead of your visit.
- When you return from your trip, check out our custom travel posters that we make from photos you send to us! We love making them and they are our most popular product!