Indiana Dunes National Park: The Complete Guide

Trails at Indiana Dunes National Park
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Indiana Dunes National Park

1215 N State Rd 49, Porter, IN 46304, USA
Phone +1 219-395-1882

Indiana Dunes National Park is a sandy landscape full of dunes, wetlands, prairies, and forests covering 15,349 acres of diverse ecosystems. The park in northwest Indiana, formerly called Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, stretches for 15 miles along the shore of Lake Michigan. Expect to see plenty of creeks and rivers, dune ridges, and a plethora of rare plants like Mead’s Milkweed, Pitcher’s Thistle, Shooting Star, and Virginia Snake Root.

Visitors come to this park to hike and bike on the trails, swim in the lake, relax on the sandy beach, and camp overnight with their friends and family. Begin your adventure in the Indiana Dunes Visitors Center where you’ll find informative videos about the park, a bookstore and shop, and park rangers that can tell you about what to look for on the day of your visit.

Things to Do

Indiana Dunes National Park is a year-round outdoor destination for nature lovers. Hiking and swimming are best enjoyed in the warmer months while cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are fun to try in the winter. Sunsets are worth viewing any time of year. The Calumet and Porter Brickyard Bike Trails are breathtaking in the fall when the leaves from deciduous trees are changing color. Spring and fall are also when birds are migrating so be sure to bring your gaze to the skies as well as the many bird boxes you’ll see throughout the park.

Whether you’re a tent or RV camper, there are plenty of places to call home for the night from April 1 through Oct. 31 at the Dunewood Campground. Be sure to bring your fishing poles and cast a line in the Little Calumet River or off the Portage Lakefront fishing pier.

Several annual events and planned activities occur throughout the year. The Indiana Dunes Outdoor Adventure Festival is a celebration tailor-made for bird watchers, bikers, fishers, hikers, and paddlers. Regularly occurring family-friendly outings include the Mount Baldy Summit Hike, Ranger’s Choice Hike, and Sunset Around the Fire at the Pavilion. Be sure to check the park’s website or Facebook page to be up to date on other fun happenings.

The Best Hikes & Trails

You can spend days hiking the 50 miles of diverse trails in this national park on 14 different trail systems. Make sure you grab a paper map in the visitor’s center or the Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education. Maps are often available at the trailheads but don’t rely on this. Be sure to bring plenty of water and snacks with you as well as sun protection. Sturdy hiking shoes are a must, especially if you’re planning on hiking a challenging route. Most of the trails are moderate in terms of difficulty but you can find a few easy and difficult trails as well. Below are recommended trails to experience while you’re in the park.  

  • Bailly Homestead, Chellberg Farm, Little Calumet River, and Mnoké Prairie Trails: This hike is rated as easy to moderate and is 3.4 miles in length. You’ll wander through beautiful maple, beech, basswood, and oak trees before reaching the Little Calumet River, a restored prairie, and the Bailly Homestead and Chellberg Farm.
  • Cowles Bog Trail: For a more challenging adventure, that is a great representation of the park’s ecosystems, tackle this 4.7-mile trail that meanders through black oak savannas and alongside ponds, marshes, swamps, and beaches.
  • Dune Ridge Trail: Bring the family on this 0.7-mile moderate hike that will take you through wetlands and diverse forest landscapes. You’ll love the views and have plenty of places to rest as you make your way to the end of this short trail.
  • Glenwood Dunes Trails: Bring plenty of water and sun protection as you venture out on this trail, which is 6.8 miles in length. You’ll likely pass other hikers, runners, and folks on horseback as you make your way on this moderate path.
  • Heron Rookery Trail: For an easy trail that is ideal for multigenerational families, set out on this 3.3-mile hike, which meanders along part of the Little Calumet River. If you’re a spring hiker, you’re in for a real treat as there is a huge display of wildflowers in these woods.
  • Mount Baldy Beach Trail: Steep and short, this 0.75-mile hike is more of a climb as you’ll have to contend with loose sand to make your way to Mount Baldy Beach. Bring along a picnic, if you can carry one, and enjoy it at the end of your adventure to celebrate.
  • Tolleston Dunes Trail: Of course, you’re going to want to see the dunes on full display while out and about in this national park. This moderate hike, which is 2.9 miles in length, snakes around diverse ecosystems ranging from savannas to wetlands to prairies. Bonus: there’s a separate wheelchair-accessible trail that leads to an observation lookout, complete with picnic tables. 

Where to Camp

  • Dunewood Campground: This site is a great home base while you’re visiting the park, open April 1 through Nov. 1. There are two loops with 66 campsites. Each loop has restrooms and showers as well as a few wheelchair-accessible sites. Lakewood Beach is only 1.5 miles north of the campground.
  • Indiana Dunes State Park Campground: Located less than a mile from the beach, this campground has an excellent location. With full electrical hookups, restrooms, and showers, this campground fills up quickly and must be booked well in advance to secure a coveted spot.
  • Lakeshore Camp Resort: If you like a campsite with loads of amenities and nice accommodations, then this is the spot for you. This membership park has 125 full hookup campsites as well as 12 cabins for the general public. Located 10 miles from the park, this one is a bit further, but the lake, outdoor swimming pool, water slides, arcade, and mini-golf offerings make it worth the drive.
  • Sand Creek Campground: Call and reserve your spot at this campground, which offers the classic camping and RV experience. Roast marshmallows around the fire pit, and take advantage of full electrical and water hookups.

Where to Stay Nearby

If camping isn’t your style and you’re without an RV, you’ll need nearby accommodations. Luckily, there are many options to choose from, within a variety of price points.

  • Spring House Inn: Affordable, well-reviewed, and near the park, this inn is ideal for those who are looking for a place to rest their heads without breaking the bank. Enjoy the indoor heated pool and complimentary breakfast. This woodsy haven is family friendly with a casual atmosphere and you can even borrow board games or books.
  • Bridge Inn: Somewhat quirky, this colorful hotel is located in Michigan City near plenty of restaurants, shops, and beaches. You’ll be within walking distance to the marina, public beach, and Washington Park and Indiana Dunes National Park is just a short car ride away.
  • DunesWalk Inn at the Furness Mansion: For accommodations that are more upscale, consider renting a room or the entire mansion. The inn sleeps 19 guests, within two suites and three guest rooms, allowing you to bring your multigenerational family. You’ll be minutes from the beach and all that Indiana Dunes National Park has to offer.

How to Get There

The easiest and most practical way to get to the park is by car via Interstate 94 (take exit 26 north); the Indiana Toll Road, on Interstate 80/90 (take exit 31 north); U.S. Highways 12 and 20; or Indiana State Road 49, where the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center is located. There are signs throughout the park directing you to various points of interest.

For public transportation, the South Shore Railroad has stops by the park. There are also taxi and ride-hailing services, however, this mode of transportation isn’t recommended as you’ll need to get around the park and be able to explore at your leisure. Be sure to review the park's many maps to find specific beaches, hiking and biking trails, horseback riding paths, and the visitor center. 

Tips for your Visit

  • Pets are welcome at specific locations throughout this park. Check out the B.A.R.K. Ranger Program where your pet can join a pet-friendly hike and earn a special dog tag.
  • Indiana Dunes is home to a state and a national park so there are separate admission requirements for each. Indiana Dunes National Park doesn’t have an entrance fee while the Indiana Dunes State Park charges a daily fee of $7 for in-state residents or $12 for out-of-state residents.
  • Year-round educational programming can be found at the Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education. Take advantage of ranger-led hikes, informative exhibits, wildlife talks and exhibits, and the kid-friendly Nature Play Zone.
  • Plan ahead with the park’s Trip Ideas. There are full itineraries for brief visits or longer excursions in the park. Learn about what the park’s rangers recommend and craft an adventure that fits in your specific time frame. 
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Indiana Dunes National Park: The Complete Guide