Our Visit to Indiana Dunes National Park:
How about a National Park in the midst of an industrialized area on Lake Michigan? Indiana Dunes National Park, on the shores of Lake Michigan, next to Gary, Indiana, is an oasis in the midst of railroads and industry.
Indiana Dunes was one of the major goals of our 2 week road trip to visit the two newest National Parks (Indiana Dunes and New River Gorge), an old standby (Great Smoky Mountains), and 11 other National Park Service units along the way.
Beaches on Lake Michigan
Indiana Dunes National Park stretches 15 miles along Lake Michigan, interrupted by the Port of Indiana and Indiana Dunes State Park. A few inland locations are also part of the National Park. There are three train stations in the park, part of the South Shore Line.
The claim to fame at Indiana Dunes is the beaches and the dunes. While not very wide, the beaches are very nice for relaxing on the shores of Lake Michigan. The water is cold, only reaching 72 degrees in July.
Let’s go through the park, west to east.
Paul H. Douglas Center
At the western end of the park is the Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education. There is a short trail around the center, and a longer trail (3.5 miles RT) to the lake through an oak savannah. While it’s very nice, if you are pressed for time, this is one place you can skip.
If you only go to one place (and you shouldn’t just go to one place), West Beach area is it. It offers a great combination of the beach and hiking.
There is a large parking lot, with a well equipped bathhouse. The beach is excellent and the view of Lake Michigan is beautiful. You could just hang out on the beach, have a picnic (small pavilions, picnic tables and grills are available), and go swimming (if you can tolerate the water temperature)
The Dunes Succession Trail is one of the best trails in the park. It’s a 1.1 mile loop that goes to the top of a 95 foot dune. Don’t let the short distance and the relatively small elevation gain fool you. While not streneous, it’s not an easy stroll in the park.
The trail starts just to the west of the bathhouse, and goes to the top of the dunes with a spectacular view of Lake Michigan. On a clear day, you can see the Chicago skyline. This trail includes 270 steps with soft sand in some areas. The soft sand requires more energy. It’s more difficult than it appears.
The hiking trails at West Beach has three loops. The Dunes Succession Trail is loop 1. Loop 2, about a mile, also known as the West Beach Trail, branches from Dunes Succession Trail. It goes along the north shore of Long Lake, a lake and marshland on the north side of the railroad. The trail then loops back to the parking lot about half way down the lake. The entire trail is flat with some loose sand and provides good views of Long Lake and the wildlife, such as the Herons and turtles.
The longest and the hardest trail in this area is Loop 3, also known as the Long Lake Trail. This trail continues down Long Lake after Loop 2 branches off. After traveling along most of the north shore of Long Lake, it goes up a dune and into the oak savannah, with an impressive view of Long Lake from above. It traverses through some wooded area before descending down to the picnic area by the main parking lot. Parts of this trail is moderate with some loose footing and an elevation gain of 255 feet.
The total length of the three loops is 3.4 miles. You can pick the loop suitable for your interests and abilities. This is what makes the West Beach area the top attraction at Indiana Dunes.
The flat area on Loop 2, between the dunes by the beach and Long Lake, used to be a dune before the sand was mined and removed. Imagine what you would see if they were left in place.
The entire West Beach area is very nice, but just on the south side of Long Lake is a very busy rail corridor with freight and passenger trains in constant motion. The beautiful scene at Long Lake is interrupted constantly by the horns and track noise as the trains travel through the crossings. Too bad.
Next stop going east is Riverwalk, a new addition in 2008. It’s a walk along a river with a pavilion, a fishing pier, and food service. Nice but skippable
Continuing west, the beach is interrupted by the Port of Indiana before the Cowles Bog wetland area, where you will find one of the longest trails in the park at about five miles.
This trail goes through some wetlands and dunes, with an elevation change of more than 200 feet, around some lakes and ends at the beach that is relatively secluded since it’s not near any parking area.
History and Homestead
On the south side of Highway 12 is the Bailly-Chellberg Homestead. The Bailly / Chellberg Loop leads to the Bailly Homestead and Chellberg Farm. These are interesting historical structures to see what life was like in the 1800s and read up on the history of the region.
The 3.4 mile Little Calumet River trail follows the Little Calumet River through diverse habitats like the tall grass of the Mnoke Prairie and the beech / maple woodland. It was very interesting to see the change in landscape along the way.
This area is interesting and worth a visit.
Indiana Dunes State Park
Next up is the Indiana Dunes State Park, surrounded by the National Park and Lake Michigan. There is a beach and bathhouse that is nice but the claim to fame is the 3 tallest sand dunes in the area – Mount Tom, Mount Holden and Mount Jackson. Mount Tom is the tallest at 192 feet. A 1.5 mile trail on the dunes lead to all three peaks. Because of the sand and the hill, this trail is streneous.
Kemil Beach and Dunes Ridge
East of the state park is Kemil Beach, and the Dunes Ridge trail. It’s an easy walk from the parking lot to Kemil Beach, which is a nice beach but does not have as much facilities as West Beach.
The Dunes Ridge Trail is a short (0.7 mile) trail with 88 feet of elevation gain. Not easy but not very hard either. It goes up a dune and has a very nice view of the Great Marsh. There were lots of birds flying around and chirping in the wooded area of the trail. It was our first hike in the park and it was a very nice introduction to Indiana Dunes
After Kemil Beach, there are a series of beaches, some more accessible than others, all the way to the end of the National Park at Mount Baldy, a 126 feet tall dune. Due to the ever shifting and loose sand, Mount Baldy is only accessible by ranger led walks.
Other Inland Sights
Tucked on the south side of Highway 12, opposite the West Beach area is Tolleston Dunes and the Tolleston Dunes Trail. This 2.9 mile trail goes through some marsh lands and oak savannah. It was a nice trail but nothing special
Just down the road is the Tolleston Marsh Overlook, which is wheelchair accessible and has a nice view of the marsh.
The 2.1 mile trail features a large variety of plant life. The bog is a relic of the glacier of the past. This trail is only accessible via a ranger led tour, which is usually on weekends in the summer.
Calling all bird lovers! The 1.3 mile flat trail goes through the wetland that is great for bird watching. Flocks of coots, mallards, and wood ducks can be found here. Kingfishers, tree swallows, and rusty blackbirds rest here during migration. Green herons stalk the shoreline while beaver play in the channels.
Lots of trails for hikers, horses, and cross country skiers in this area, along with a campground.
This 3.3 mile flat trail follows the Little Calumet River and is great in the spring (April – May) with extensive wildflowers on display. Herons used to nest here but not as much anymore. Fishing along the river, especially for salmon and trout as they make their way to spawning grounds in the spring and fall, is popular.
Impressions of Indiana Dunes National Park:
Indiana Dunes is a nice National Park with wonderful beaches on Lake Michigan. It provides an excellent recreation area, especially for the people nearby. The lake and the beach provide nice scenery, and the dunes provide great views from above. It has a surprising large number of habitats, from lake to beach to marsh to wetlands to oak savannah. It even has some historical sites. While the dunes are not as stark or large as the Great Sand Dunes or the White Sands National Parks, they are still interesting.
Indiana Dunes National Park Rating:
(Note: Ratings are on a bell curve, which means there are as many 5 star ratings as 1 star ratings. All National Parks are wonderful, which makes this a very strict rating scale)
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Guide to Indiana Dunes National Park:
Top Attractions at Indiana Dunes National Park:
- Beaches – many of them along the lake
- West Beach area
- Dunes Ridge
- Bailly – Chellberg Homestead
- Cowles Bog
One Day Visit Plan:
- Spend the morning at West Beach. Enjoy the beach and hike the Dunes Succession Trail. If less time is spent on the beach, hike all three loops at West Beach
- Hike the Cowles Bog trail in the afternoon
Practical Info for Visiting Indiana Dunes National Park:
- Indiana Dunes is in a populated area, so services are plentiful nearby.
- Portage and Chesterton are the closest towns and centrally located.
- Gary and Michigan City are the larger cities on either side of the park with lots of services.
- While there was no entrance fee when we visited, there will be a fee starting March 31, 2022. Normal rules apply regarding national park passes.
- There is a separate fee for Indiana Dunes State Park. National park pass is not honored at the state park.
- Expect crowds on summer days, especially weekends, so get there early.
- The park is relatively small. It’s an easy drive from one end of the park to the other, so it doesn’t matter a lot of where to stay near the park
- It’s easy to make a day trip to Chicago. The train will take you right to downtown Chicago. There are three train stations in the park. The price is very reasonable. By taking the train, you avoid the hassle of driving and parking in Chicago
- While summer is the peak season, cross country skiing is also available in the winter
Indiana Dunes National Park Facts:
- Size: 15,349 acres, ranked 59th
- Visitors: 3,177,210 in 2021, ranked 9th. 2021 was a record year. The park ranked 11th in 2020.
- Peak Month in 2021: 594,272 visitors in July
- Low Month in 2021: 86,065 visitors in January
- Entrance Fee: $25 per vehicle starting March 31, 2022
Date Visited: Oct 10 – 11, 2021