Don’t Waste Your Time In Indiana Dunes National Park

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When you look at a map of the national parks, the west is littered with them. Once you cross the Mississippi River, there are only a dozen in the whole eastern half of the U.S. Indiana Dunes National Park is one of those sites.

Although once one of the few national lakeshores in the U.S., it was redesignated as a national park just a few years ago. Let’s learn more about this midwestern national treasure and what makes it so unique! Will you think it’s worth a visit?

Where Is Indiana Dunes National Park?

Indiana Dunes National Park sits on the southern shoreline of Lake Michigan. It’s easily accessible from I-94. Gary, Indiana is on the western end of the park, and Michigan City, Indiana is on the eastern end.

Indiana Dunes State Park is also on the eastern end of the national park. Dunewood Campground inside Indiana Dunes National Park is about 20 minutes from the Michigan border.

When Did Indiana Dunes National Park Become A National Park?

When Stephen Mather visited this area in 1916, he held hearings to gauge public interest in creating a national park here. Hundreds of people showed up and were in favor of such a move. However, when the U.S. entered WWI, all attempts to create a national park were halted.

Finally, in 1966, legislation authorized Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Over the decades, as expansion bills increased the park’s size, the national lakeshore was redesignated as a national park. On February 15, 2019, Indiana Dunes became the 61st national park. 

What’s So Special About Indiana Dunes National Park?

In 2022, over 2.8 million people visited Indiana Dunes National Park. The highest visitation year was 2021, when over 3.1 million people came here. It’s also the only year in the park’s history with over three million visitors.

Indiana Dunes National Park preserves 15 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, including dunes nearly 250 feet tall. Outdoor enthusiasts enjoy hiking, biking, wildlife viewing, sunbathing, swimming, paddling, camping, fishing, and more during the year. In winter, visitors ski, snowshoe, and sled along the trails.

The diverse ecosystems here thrive in the dunes, wetlands, prairies, and old-growth forests. Even though Indiana Dunes National Park only has 15,000 acres, it’s fourth in biological diversity among the national parks. You’ll find over 350 species of birds, 46 species of mammals, 18 species of amphibians, 23 species of reptiles, 71 species of fish, 60 species of butterflies, and 60 species of dragonflies and damselflies.

There are dozens of activities at Indiana Dunes National Park. Whether you want to build sandcastles on West Beach, go horseback riding on the Glenwood Dunes Trail, attend the annual Indiana Dunes Birding Festival, or kayak in Lake Michigan, there’s something for everyone here. If you only have a day or two to visit Indiana Dunes National Park, here are our top three suggestions for things to do.

1. Enjoy the Beaches

The beach parking lots at Indiana Dunes National Park open at 6 a.m. and close at either 9 or 11 p.m., depending on the location. The lots fill up quickly, so we suggest arriving early in the day.

With 15 miles of shoreline and eight beaches, there are plenty of opportunities to sunbathe, swim, play sand volleyball, and build sand castles. West Beach is the only location with lifeguards and is the most popular beach in the national park. It also has locker rooms and showers for easy clean-up after your day on the shoreline.

2. Hike the Paul H. Douglas Trail

There are more than 50 miles of trails in Indiana Dunes National Park. One of our favorite trails is the Paul H. Douglas Trail in Miller Woods. It travels through wetlands, black oak savanna, ponds, open dunes, and beaches, providing excellent opportunities for native plant and wildlife viewing. This out-and-back trail also has incredible views of Lake Michigan and the dunes. It’s 3.4 miles round-trip.

The longer and more strenuous Cowles Bog Trail is another excellent option to view the plant diversity of Indiana Dunes National Park. It’s 4.7 miles with a 15% maximum grade over the dunes.

3. Visit the Historic Buildings

Indiana Dunes National Park isn’t just about the dunes, lake, and biodiversity. There’s also rich history here. When you visit, allot time to head over to Chellberg Farmhouse and the Bailly Homestead. The Chellbergs were a Swedish immigrant family, and their brick farmhouse, built in 1885, remains preserved at the national park. It’s open to the public during festivals, demonstrations, and ranger-guided tours.

Honore Gratien Joseph Bailly de Messein established a fur trading post in this region in the 1820s. The Bailly Homestead, a National Historic Landmark, includes the main house, family cemetery, and log and brick structures.

Visit This Hidden Gem In Indiana Dunes National Park

While most people visit Indiana Dunes National Park in the late spring and summer to enjoy the waters of Lake Michigan, consider experiencing the park during the winter. The landscape is dramatically transformed into a winter wonderland. The frozen shoreline is magical yet haunting. 

All of the hiking trails are open except the Pinhook Bog Trail. You’ll likely see animal tracks in the snow. If you’d like to snowshoe, free rentals are available at the Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education for use on the Paul H. Douglas Trail.

Best Places For Camping Near Indiana Dunes National Park

Inside the park, camping is permitted at Dunewood Campground. There are no hookups, but there are seasonal showers, flush toilets, a dump station, and potable water. Camping is $25/night.

Indiana Dunes State Park also offers camping. There are over 130 sites with electricity. Guests can access the nature center, beach, playground, bathhouse, recreational programs, dump station, and more at the state park. The nightly rate is $16-23.

If you need full hookups, check out Michigan City Campground. It’s less than 15 minutes from the Indiana Dunes National Park Visitor Center. It’s open from April 1 to October 1. Amenities include a camp store, swimming pool, fishing pond, playground, and laundry room. The nightly rate for a full hookup site starts at $62.

Is Visiting Indiana Dunes National Park Worth It?

Indiana Dunes National Park is one of the few national parks in the Midwest. While we think it should have remained a national lakeshore, we still think it’s worth visiting. You could spend days exploring all the hiking trails and learning about the history of immigrant settlers. And the beaches are fantastic!

So, whether you’re looking to get away for a day or a week, consider visiting Indiana Dunes National Park. It’s fun for the whole family!

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