family hiking with kids on dune succession trail in indiana dunes national park

The AFT Guide to Indiana Dunes National Park

Indiana Dunes National Park, America’s 61st (and newest as of 2019!) national park encompasses sandy shoreline, wetlands, woodlands, extensive dune habitat and a surprising diversity of plant and animal life. You can swim, sail, paddle, hike, bike, ride horses, snowshoe, cross-country ski, or just laze on the beach.

west beach in indiana dunes national park

Read on for our best tips to visiting Indiana Dunes National Park.

Where Indiana Dunes is located:

Indiana Dunes is located on the southern shores of Lake Michigan, about 50 miles from Chicago. The park is not all connected, but is made of a series of parcels. Indiana Dunes State Park lies between national park land.

Getting to Indiana Dunes: 

Its proximity to urban centers makes Indiana Dunes one of the most accessible parks in the system.

If you’re flying, you can land at either of Chicago’s airports (O’Hare and Midway) or at the Gary or South Bend Regional Airports. 

The park lies very close to I-80/I-90 and is connected with state highways. Getting around by car is the easiest method of transportation.

The Chicago and South Shore Train is a great option for public transportation.

Where to stay at or near Indiana Dunes:

There are plenty of hotel and AirBnb options in nearby Portage, Chesterton, Michigan City or Gary. 

The park’s campground, Dunewood, is open from April 1 to November 1. Half the sites are reservable; half are first-come, first-served.

The state park also has a large campground which takes reservations. Both campgrounds have RV sites with full hookups, dump sites and shower rooms. 

How long to stay at Indiana Dunes: 

You can cover the highlights in 2 or 3 days, but there’s certainly enough to fill a longer trip, especially if you’re planning to spend a lot of time at the beach. Even if you’re just driving by, it’s close enough to the interstate that it’s easy to jump in for a quick hike.

When to go to Indiana Dunes: 

Spring and fall bring mild temperatures, wildflowers or changing leaves, lower humidity and fewer bugs. Summer is ideal beach weather. In winter, you can cross-country ski or snowshoe on many trails.

Best for:

  • Beaches
  • Gentle hiking
  • History

Pair with:

If you’re craving a bit of urbanity, Chicago is less than 2 hours away. History geeks can take in some of the other NPS-run sites in the area, such as Pullman National Monument.

For more lakeside thrills, continue up the eastern edge of Lake Michigan for more dune-filled state parks and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (about 4.5 hours away.)

Activities:

There’s not a lot of hardcore wilderness activity at Indiana Dunes—which isn’t to say you won’t be able to find some thrills, but most of them are eminently family-friendly. 

Ranger programs: 

We highly recommend taking in a ranger program in order to learn more about the often-subtle wonders of this park. Most programs take place from Thursday to Sunday. Check online beforehand and at visitor’s centers once your arrive.

Some protected areas of the park (most notably Pinhook Bog) are only accessible on a ranger-guided tour.

Biking:

Indiana Dunes has 37-miles of interconnected trail systems and biking is a fantastic way to see the park. Most trails are flat and will allow you to take in a wide range of habitat. 

A few popular options:

  • Calumet Trail: 9.5 miles, gravel, flat. Runs from Cowles Bog to Mount Baldy.
  • Porter Brickyard Trail: 3.5 miles, paved, nominal hills. Runs from the town of Porter to Cowles Bog.
  • Marquette Trail: 2.3 miles, paved & gravel, flat. Runs from West Beach to near Miller Woods.
kid riding a bike on the marquette trail in indiana dunes national park

Swimming:

Lake Michigan is cold year-round, but the water feels wonderful on hot summer days. There are 15 miles of sandy beach in the park to enjoy.

Although it’s not an ocean, many of the same precautions apply to swimming in Lake Michigan. There can be are rip currents, high waves and deep drop-offs, and West Beach is the only spot with a lifeguard. Be careful, especially with kids, and stay aware of any posted signs about current conditions.

porter beach at indiana dunes national park

Paddling: 

Take in a wider view of the dunes by getting out on the water. You can launch a hand-carried, non-motorized boat from any shore in the park, except for the lifeguarded section of West Beach.

Other spots for paddling include the Little Calumet River, Long Lake, and the Burns Waterway. There are seasonal kayak rentals available near the visitor’s center.

Winter activities:

With enough snow (the park recommends at least 4-6 inches), you can snowshoe or cross-country ski on just about any trail in the park. None of the trails are groomed and there’s no place to rent gear within the park, so bring your own stuff and a sense of adventure ;). 

According to the park, the best areas for cross-country skiing are the Glenwood Dunes Trail System and the Tolleston Dunes Trail System.

Though ice builds up along the edges of the lake in winter, it is thin and full of air pockets. Don’t go out on the ice!

Hiking:

Hiking is the perfect way to get into the most natural areas of the park. Be aware that dune ecosystems are extremely fragile. If you’re not positive that you’re on a trail, don’t climb on the dunes.

In summer, many of the woodland trails can be quite buggy. Wear repellant and long pants/sleeves if possible, and check for ticks after hiking.

Here are a few trail options:

Cowles Bog

A 4.3 mile loop that takes in marshes, swamps, and a great deal of plant diversity on its way out to a secluded beach.

family with kids hiking at cowles bog in indiana dunes national park
Little Calumet River Loop

A 3.9 mile loop leads you past historical buildings and through meadows and woodland along the river. 

Heron Rookery

In the spring and early summer, this 3.3 mile woodland trail is the best place in the park to see wildflowers.

Miller Woods

A lovely trail through rare black oak savannah and wetlands, out across open dunes and all the way to the beach. The full trail is 3.4 miles, but there’s a much shorter loop option that takes in woodland and pond areas.

family with kids hiking on boardwalk at miller woods in indiana dunes national park
Tolleston Dunes

This 2.9 mile loop takes you through a 10,000-year-old dune system with a variety of habitats.

Dune Succession

This 0.6 mile hike (when starting at West Beach and ending at the parking area) takes in the ecological succession of the dune system in the park. Most of the trail is on boardwalk and stairs. There’s a bit of elevation gain (on stairs), but it’s a family-friendly hike and a great introduction to the dune ecosystem, plus it comes with broad views over the lake. Highly recommended. 

family hiking with kids on dune succession trail in indiana dunes national park
Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk

This 1.5 mile trail is paved and wheelchair accessible. Come here for birdwatching and wide views over the lake.

3 Dune Challenge

This highly trafficked 1.5 mile hike takes you up and over the highest peaks in Indiana Dunes. The trail is sandy and quite steep at times and the surrounds are mostly wooded. From high in the dunes, you’ll have a great view of the lake and can spot the Chicago skyline in the distance. When you’ve finished the hike, you can stop at the visitor’s center for your free congratulatory sticker.

family with kids hiking the 3 dune challenge in indiana dunes national park

Bringing Kids:

This is a perfect park for kids. Nearly every activity can be catered to little ones, and they’ll love having beach time, too. You’re never far from civilization, so it’s no big deal if you forget diapers or what-have-you, and you could easily have all your meals catered (by which I mean, you could eat at restaurants and be back in the park inside of 10 minutes.)

The only activity we’d recommend against doing with young kids is paddling on the open waters of the lake.

  • west beach in indiana dunes national park
  • family with kids hiking the 3 dune challenge in indiana dunes national park
  • family with kids hiking the 3 dune challenge in indiana dunes national park
  • kids at porter beach at indiana dunes national park

FAQ’s:

The following are questions we received from our readers about visiting Indiana Dunes National Park:

How new is it?

The park was designated a national park in February of 2019, but it’s been a national lakeshore administered by the NPS since 1966.

Are there good tent camping options there?

Yes! The national park and the state park have a large campground each.

Any must-do activities with a toddler and other young children?

The 3 Dune Challenge in the state park is steep (which won’t be very fun if you’re carrying a heavy kid), but the trail is short, sandy and exciting with all the hype built up around it. Plus afterward you can go get a free sticker and postcard from the visitor’s center.

There are loads of good beaches along the park’s shoreline and several trails that end at secluded beaches, which makes for a good reward. Bike trails in the park are mostly flat and easy, so they’re a good fit for young bikers or families towing kids. 

The park also does a good job of catering some of its ranger programs to kids. You can feed the animals at Chellberg Farm or visit turtles and other dune creatures in the Douglas Center for Environmental Education.

family with kids hiking the 3 dune challenge in indiana dunes national park
Were ticks a concern? 

Yes. There are definitely ticks here and we’d recommend wearing long sleeves and pants to avoid contact. Always check yourself after hiking. (David got bitten while hiking Cowles Bog.)

Is the park pet friendly?

Pets are allowed almost everywhere in the park, as long as they’re leashed (even when swimming in the lake.)

A few exceptions include the fragile Pinhook Bog, the lifeguarded section of West Beach, and the horse trails of the Glenwood Dunes area. If you’re not sure, check for posted signs or ask a ranger, but in general, this seems to be one of the more pet-friendly national parks.

Is it super busy since it’s the newest NP?

According to the rangers, visitation hasn’t increased since its renaming (at least not yet). But it is a fairly busy park since it’s so close to high-population centers. The park gets about 2 million visitors a year, which puts it right around the 15th or 16th most-visited national park. A large percentage of visitors stay close to the beach.

family with kids hiking the 3 dune challenge in indiana dunes national park
How many days do you recommend staying?

In general, we’d say to give it at least 2-3 days. It’s a great weekend or long-weekend destination.

Tips from our Readers:

“Kemil Beach (if you can get a parking spot—only 55 available) is my favorite beach.”

“The best way to get a stroller through sand is pulling is backwards. General sand tip ;).”

Try the Rolling Stone Baker pizza truck! Grab one to take to the beach.”

kid running on the marquette trail in indiana dunes national park
family with kids hiking at miller woods in indiana dunes national park

Final tips: 

National parks near cities and urban centers are smaller, generally less dramatic, and come with a different flavor than the grand NP’s of the old guard. But as little carved-out pockets of wildness surrounded by civilization, urban national parks show us what conservation can be in the future. No one is going to discover a new Yosemite Valley or Logan Pass in the U.S.; we’ll never get another national park like Yellowstone or Grand Teton. What we can get is a renewed appreciation for a greater variety of landscapes and a commitment to learning from the ecological diversity of our country.

traveling family in front of Indiana Dunes National Park sign

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