Post Summary: Things to Know Before Visiting Indiana Dunes
Thinking about visiting Indiana Dunes National Park and wondering where to start? Well, you are in the right place. Here are 4 things you should know before visiting Indiana National Park.
With rugged dunes and Lake Michigan views, Indiana Dunes National Park is a perfect park for a short lakeside getaway.
- 4 Things to Know Before Visiting Indiana Dunes National Park
- Final Thoughts on Things to Know Before Going to Indiana Dunes
- Save for Later: 4 Things to Know Before Visiting Indiana Dunes National Park
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4 Things to Know Before Visiting Indiana Dunes National Park
Are the dunes a state park or a national park?
The sun is cresting in the sky as hikers gaze out over the water below. The view is marked by soft sandy grasses and the vibrancy of lush plant life. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think this to be a lovely afternoon on the coast of the Carolinas. In fact, the 15-mile waterfront with picturesque views is set on the southern tip of Lake Michigan in the state of Indiana.
Despite its new designation as a national park, the Indiana Dunes National Park is not a new phenomenon. According to the NPS, an effort toward designating the region as a national park began as early as 1916, but the campaign was put on hold when World War I began. In subsequent years, the dunes became a state park and its waterfront was later designated as a national lakeshore. But it wasn’t until 2019 that this not-so-secret gem officially became Indiana Dunes, National Park.
So what gives? If you get online, you’ll quickly find results for “Indiana Dunes State Park” and “Indiana Dunes National Park.” Which is it? The answer is both! The Indiana Dunes are comprised of two, biodiverse park systems. At 13,000 acres, the national park is the larger of the two and can be found on both the eastern and western ends of the shore. While there are multiple entrances to the dunes region, the national park headquarters is located on the western side, just north of Chesterton, Indiana.
So before you pack your bags and hit the road, you’ll want to know the ins and outs of this midwestern adventure hub.
How to plan your trip to the Indiana Dunes
The dunes are conveniently located just an hour from Chicago and under three hours from Indianapolis. Whether you go to the national park or the state park, though, you’ll find more than just the beach.
The region boasts multiple trails of varying difficulty. There are also many picnic areas–complete with grills and tables–to accommodate a group gathering. In the cooler months, expect to find excellent winter hiking, skiing, and sledding. To get an idea of all that the dunes have to offer, download the NPS app for your phone. Created by the National Park Service, the app offers on-the-go resources for all the national parks, including the dunes.
For those who want to make a weekend of it, there are several options
- Campgrounds: Dunewood Campground is right outside the park and offers RV hookups while the state park campground is right by some of the state park trails and close to the national park as well
- Hotel: The Hilton Inn of Chesterton is less than 10 minutes from the park entrance and, at around $100 a night, it’s the best hotel option I’ve found in the area
- Airbnb: Plenty of properties are available for rent at a variety of price points, including this highly-rated retreat
Entrance to the national park is $25 per vehicle. The fee for the state park is $12 (or $7 for vehicles with an Indiana license plate). While the state park and national park fees are separate, you can easily bounce between the two once you’ve paid the fees. The beaches, trails, wildlife, and campgrounds provide more than enough to keep you busy!
The must-do activities
If you want to relax by the water, there are eight different beaches within Indiana Dunes National Park. No matter the season, there is plenty of wildlife to check out and–according to the National Parks Conservation Association–more than 350 species of birds.
If you’re looking for something a bit more sweat-inducing, there are over 50 miles of trails at your disposal. Interested in a family-friendly adventure? Consider visiting the Bailly Homestead. The short, .3-mile trail will lead you to a home and trading outpost from the 1830s. You can opt to make the short trek back to the parking lot or complete the full, 3.4-mile Bailly/Chellberg Trail loop. The full loop will allow you to see an old cemetery and a farm.
For the real adventure-seekers, head over to the state park to complete the 3 Dune Challenge. It’s a steep, sandy hike, so be sure to wear closed-toed shoes and bring water. The trail is only 1.5 miles, but its steep ascents pose a definite challenge. To complete the challenge, hikers summit the three tallest dunes in the park: Mt. Jackson, Mt. Holden, and Mt. Tom. The trail itself crisscrosses a few other trails in the park, but each sign is well marked with a “3 Dune Challenge” sign. While the Mt. Holden view is mostly blocked by foliage in the warmer months, the summits of Mt. Jackson and Mt. Tom are great photo opportunities–plus they give you a chance to catch your breath after the climb. Those who complete the 3 Dune Challenge can also stop by the state park visitor center for a special prize.
Summer Fun at the Indiana Dunes
If you’re fortunate enough to visit the dunes during the summer months, you’re likely to find yourself with plenty of company. Over 3 million visitors headed to the national park in 2021, and one glance at the beach parking lots will reveal that the majority come during summer. The park is piloting a real-time congestion monitoring system that provides information on which lots are full and, presumably, where the crowds are. Be sure to check that before you arrive at the park. Coming early is a great way to beat the crowds, but if you want to avoid them entirely, your best bet is to come on a weekday or find a secluded spot on the less-populous West Beach. This area has restrooms, a concession stand, and picnic tables.
In addition to West Beach, the national park boasts seven additional beaches. The state park has one beach as well–conveniently located by the trailhead for the 3 Dune Challenge. It’s fairly easy to beach-hop, as well, as most beaches are near to the parking lot with the exceptions of Porter Beach and Mount Baldy Beach. Keep in mind, however, that not all of the beaches have lifeguards. You can swim at your own risk
Regardless of which beach you plan on visiting, be sure to check the Indiana Dunes National Park and the Indiana Dunes State Park websites prior to your visit to ensure that the beach is open.
Final Thoughts on Things to Know Before Going to Indiana Dunes
Ultimately, what makes the dunes a worthwhile visit is the unique combination of history, natural beauty, and discovery you’ll find when you visit. When you see the sweeping lakeside views and camp under the broad oak trees, you’ll begin to think you’re anyplace but Indiana.
So when you realize you are in fact in the Hoosier state, take a deep breath and enjoy all that Indiana’s natural landscape has to offer.