How to Spend 1 Day at Indiana Dunes National Park


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Indiana Dunes is a popular beach vacation spot with 15 miles of sandy shorefront along Lake Michigan. You can find it here. Travel is very different depending on where you’re from and where you are going. Before you plan a trip to any of these locations, be sure to check the local restrictions and adhere to all security laws. Some posts on this site include affiliate links. This means that if you ebook or buy one item from all of these hyperlinks, I may earn a small commission (at no additional cost to you). You can read the entire disclosure coverage here.

In 2019, Indiana Dunes National Park was reclassified as a National Lakeshore and a National Park. This makes it the 61st national park in the United States, and the first Indiana park.

Hiking in Indiana Dunes
Hiking in Indiana Dunes National Park.

This national park is unique for many reasons (which I’ll explain to you later). This is an important fact to know about Indiana Dunes. It is a small park so you will see the highlights quickly.

Here are my suggestions for how to spend a day in Indiana Dunes, whether you want to visit it by yourself or with a companion (the park is only about an hour from Chicago).

Indiana Dunes National Park vs State Park:

First things first: Indiana Dunes State Park is unique in that it operates the type of INside of Indiana Dunes National Park.

It doesn’t matter much, except for the fact that National Park Service-managed portions of the park are completely free*, while the state park requires a $12 entrance fee for guests from outside the state.

*With West Beach as an exception, there is a $6 per vehicle parking fee between Memorial Day (in April) and Labor Day in September.

Indiana Dunes State Park:

Porter Beach at Indiana Dunes

This is Porter Beach, proper subsequent to the State Park.

The movement to preserve the Indiana Dunes’ pure panorama goes back to 1899 when people began to worry that the dunes would be lost to industrial pursuits such as metal mills or energy vegetation.

Henry Cowles, a botanist, organized a gaggle in 1916 to advocate for the preservation and protection of the dunes. However, their efforts were ultimately thwarted when WWI broke out.

Popular Beach Vacation Spot:

Indiana Dunes State Park was finally established in 1926 and officially opened its doors in that year. The state park only protected a portion of the dunes, which is slightly less than 2,000 acres. The fight to secure federal protection for the lakeshore continued, as did the push for more of the lakeshore to be developed for trade.

Indiana Dunes National Park:

For the next four years, Indiana Dunes National Park was a state park. In the Nineteen Sixties, however, federal authorities began to receive increasing help in buying land for new national parks. This was also thanks to President Kennedy.

Kennedy’s help and the persuasive work of Senator Paul H. Douglas in Illinois, the “Kennedy Compromise”, would eventually lead to the creation of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and the establishment of the Port of Indiana in 1966.

In the beginning, the national lakeshore protected only 8,330 acres of land and water. However, growth payments have increased the area to more than 15,000 acres.

In February 2019, Congress approved the change of identity from Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore into Indiana Dunes National Park.

Indiana Dunes: What can you count on?

Indiana Dunes sunset

Although you may have been to other national parks and lakeshores protecting sand dunes in the US, Indiana Dunes is something that you haven’t seen before.

This park is located between Gary and Michigan City. Each of these cities is still home to metal mills and energy plants. The lakeshore is also home to the Port of Indiana Dunes National Park.

This means that the national park contains a unique mix of industrial and pure parts. It feels secluded in parts, while other areas feel more urban.

When is the best time to visit Indiana Dunes:

Wildflower at Indiana Dunes
The park is a superb place to see wildflowers within the spring and early summer season.

Indiana is considered a Midwest state. This means that it experiences all four seasons. It has cold winters and hot summers. The best time to visit Indiana Dunes National Park is during the summer months when you can take a dip in Lake Michigan.

Although it can be very humid and crowded during the summer months, there are other reasons that may be great for those who love the history and mountaineering offered by the park.

Indiana Dunes National Park is accessible all year, with snowshoeing and cross-country snowboarding available in winter.

How to spend a day in Indiana Dunes National Park:

Here are my recommendations for spending a full day at Indiana Dunes National Park/State Park.

1. Start with the customer middle:

Indiana Dunes National Park visitor center
They do not but have a everlasting nationwide park signal.
You can start your day by visiting the Indiana Dunes National Park Visitor Center, also known as the Dorothy Buell Visitor Center. You will find a variety of educational shows, two orientation movies, and park rangers that can help you with any questions or solutions.

(Note: This is the official National Park Service customer center, located at 1215 IN 49 in Porter. A smaller Nature Center is also located in the State Park, near the campground.

2. Walking in the dunes:

Sunset atop a sand dune
Sunset atop a sand dune.
After the beach, the second most popular activity at Indiana Dunes is mountaineering.

You can find a state park that will provide you with a typical problem for sand dunes mountaineering.3 Dune ChallengeThis may involve climbing three of the highest dunes along the lakeshore, over a distance of approximately 1.5 miles. The path starts close to the Nature Center, and it is quite difficult!

This path is the most popular at Indiana Dunes. However, it’s not the only place you can hike. There are actually 14 different paths with more than 50 miles of climbing trails within Indiana Dunes National Park.

Hiking in Indiana Dunes:

You will learn how to appreciate how many Indiana Dunes are by hiking different trails. Have you ever seen completely forested sand dunes? Out of the 420+ National Park Service websites across the US, Indiana Dunes is ranked seventh for the plant variety.

Dune Ridge Trail forest
The Dune Ridge Trail; this forest is rising on prime of a sand dune!
The most popular trails within the national park include:
  • Dune Ridge Trail: Easy, 0.7-mile hike – This short path will take you through a beautiful part of the forested dunes. This hike was a great experience for me.
  • Dunes Succession Hike: –Average distance: 0.9 miles To reach the top, there are approximately 250 picket steps.
  • Tolleston Dunes Trail: Average hike: 2.9 miles There’s additionally a wheelchair-accessible path that leads to a remark deck right here.
  • Paul H. Douglas Trail: –Average distance: 3.4 miles ), and through some sections of the savanna-covered dunes at Miller Woods.
  • Cowles Bog Trail: –Average distance 4.7 miles – The loop takes you through a variety of habitats including swamps, bogs, and beaches. There are some steep climbs up dunes.
Amanda on the Dune Ridge Trail
Another look at the Dune Ridge Trail.

The state park has all the mountaineering trails numbered instead of named, with the exception of the Dunes Challenge. Although I have not hiked within the park, others have. Trail 9, It is perfect because it has a good mix of lake and dunes views.

3. Portage Lakefront & Riverwalk:

The Portage Lakefront section of Indiana Dunes is embraced by most guides to Indiana Dunes National Park. It is quite unique, so I will embrace it.

Portage Lakefront fishing pier
Portage Lakefront fishing pier

Yes, you can find a paved path that leads to the dunes. However, there is also a large public pavilion, which serves as a snack bar in the summertime, a small beach, and a fishing pier.

The park’s eastern part is a good example of brownfield reclamation. It was once an industrial runoff area for the nearby metal mill. The area still feels urban, as you can see the Port of Indiana and the mill, but you can also benefit from the dunes, lake, and other amenities.

4. Take a dip in the pool:

Kemil Beach at Indiana Dunes
Kemil Beach/Dunbar Beach space

You might want to cool down after a long hike. Indiana Dunes is a long stretch of beach, but there are designated areas.

The following are some of the most popular beaches within the national park:

  • West Beach: –This one has an additional $6 parking fee. This is a large beach with a picnic area, a bathhouse, and access to mountaineering trails.
  • Porter Beach: –The beach is located on the shore of the state park. It has good sand. The state park bathhouse is just a short walk away.
  • Kamil Beach: –This beach shore is located beneath Beverly Shores. It is connected to Dunbar Beach, Lake View Beach, and Dunbar Beach. These beaches seemed quieter when I visited.
  • Mount Baldy Beach: –This beach shore is located at the far end of the park, right next to Mount Baldy, which stands at 126 feet tall.
Sand at Porter Beach
The sand at Porter Beach is so smooth!

Here are a few things to consider when it comes to Indiana Dunes’ seashores:

  1. Only lifeguards are required at West Beach and the state park’s seashore. You swim at your own risk at all other seashores.
  2. Parking is available near many of these seashores, but the tons are usually a short walk from the sand. Parking is prohibited on avenues. If you want to park at a specific seashore, the best bet is to try to arrive early.
  3. The state park does not allow alcohol. However, it is possible to prohibit alcohol at West Beach or Porter Beach within the national park. All seashores prohibit glass bottles.
  4. All seashores allow pets on leashes, except West Beach and the state park beach.
Picnic at Porter Beach
Picnic at Porter Beach – canines are allowed on this one!

5. See the Century of Progress Homes:

A cool cease to make within the nationwide park is to see the handful of Century of Progress Homes within the lakeside Beverly Shores neighborhood. These houses have been initially designed and constructed for the 1933 World’s Fair in close by Chicago.

Century of Progress Homes NPS sign

These homes were built to look like the “Homes of Tomorrow”.

Five of these houses were moved to Beverly Shores and eventually became part of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

Four of the five houses were recently restored and are now occupied by regular families. You can only see the houses from the surface. However, you will find informational plaques that allow you to stop and inspect each one.

Century of Progress Home at Indiana Dunes
This one is often folks’s favourite!
Century of Progress Home at Indiana Dunes
Definitely cease to learn these information plaques.

Indiana Landmarks offers excursions into the houses once per year. (More information here.)

6. Watch a beachy sundown:

You can end your day at the dunes watching the sunset over Lake Michigan from any of the park seashores.

I had some take-out food and enjoyed a solo picnic at Porter Beach. The sun was setting when I climbed up the small dune. Lake View Beach is a popular spot for sundown.

Sand dune sunset at Indiana Dunes
Sand dune sundown
Lake Michigan sunset
Lake Michigan exhibiting off at sundown.

That’s it! Now you’re done with Indiana Dunes National Park.

Indiana Dunes: Where to stay close:

It is possible to visit Indiana Dunes from Chicago on a single day. However, some people might prefer to spend the evening nearby to enjoy the park.

There are many good options for lodging if that is the case.

You can pitch a tent at the Dunewood Campground, which is open from April to October, and you’ll also find chain lodges in Portage, Chesterton, and Michigan City (along with the Hilton Garden Inn Chesterton and Hampton Inn & Suites Michigan City and the Hilton Garden Inn Merrillville).

My preference is to make the area a little more unique for people who will only be there for a single evening.

Stay at Riley’s Railhouse:

Riley's Railhouse
Riley’s Railhouse

While researching places to stay at Indiana Dunes National Park I came across a bed and breakfast in Chesterton. It looked so unique that I couldn’t resist. It’s called Riley’s Railhouse and is actually located in an old, renovated 1900s practice station.

There are two rooms in the B&B’s previous station. This is where you’ll find a lounge, a bar, and the kitchen/eating area, along with tons of practice memorabilia.

It was great fun to stay in one of the field automobile rooms. Although the room looks like a field car from the outside, it has all modern comforts such as a TV and mini-fridge inside.

Boxcar room at Riley's Railhouse
Boxcar room at Riley’s Railhouse

Although freight trains do still go outside quite often (there will most likely be train-spotters around), earplugs can be found in all rooms. It was worth the extra sleep I got from semi-interrupted travel to have a unique place to stay!

You will also receive a breakfast prepared by the Railhouse each morning.

Chesterton town center
Chesterton city middle

Have you ever been to Indiana Dunes? If not, would you want to go to?

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