Exploring Indiana Dunes Trails? Look no further, I have got the guide for you here!
Smooth sand dunes painted against vibrant blue waters is not typically what you picture when someone mentions Indiana! Midwest also isn’t the go-to road trip destination for National Park seekers. But Indiana Dunes is the hidden gem that provides all of this and more. Perhaps that is its biggest draw- Indiana Dunes is truly off the beaten path.
Chicago’s next door neighbor may be its best kept secret- Indiana Dunes National Park gained official National Park Status in 2019 after being a state park and national lakeshore since 1966. Interestingly, about 2,000 acres of Indiana Dunes still remain a State Park, while 13,000 acres are classified as a national park! Entering the national or state park portion of Indiana Dunes’ expansive landscape really comes logisitically down to which parking lot you enter through, and most importantly which Indiana Dunes trails you are looking to explore!
One more thing… what IS a sand dune? A sand dune is a tall hill of sand formed from wind and water, pretty simple! Indiana Dunes specifically were formed from a melted glacier 10,000 years ago. Winds continue to blow the sand this direction today, leading the Indiana Dunes to stand pristine as ever. And YES- sand dunes can form on both lakes AND ocean!
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Indiana Dunes Details
Location: 45 minutes from Chicago, about two and a half hours from Milwaukee, or just over 3 hours from Indianapolis.
When to visit: Summer is the most crowded time to visit Indiana Dunes National Park. Spring is most recommended for wildflower season and fall is most recommended for the incredible fall foliage. Winter in Midwest region of the United States boasts cold temperatures.
Parking: There are plenty of parking spaces throughout both Indiana Dunes State Park and Indiana Dunes National Park. Overflow parking options are provided. The state park entrance has the biggest parking lot of both parks combined.
What to do at Indiana Dunes National Park?
Visitors to Indiana Dunes love hiking, relaxing at the beach, camping, swimming, having a picnic, biking, bird-watching, and more. Perhaps its most popular activity is hiking!
Indiana Dunes Trails
There are a variety of wonderful hiking trails at Indiana Dunes for visitors of all ages and skill levels. Some of the top hikes include the 3 Dune Challenge, three West Beach trails (Dune Succession Trail, West Beach Trail, Long Lake Trail), and Cowles Bog Trail.
3 Dune Challenge
Length: 2 Miles
The 3 Dune Challenge at Indiana Dunes State Park involves climbing its three tallest dunes. The challenge is completed along Trail 8. Enter through the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center where you will pay the state park fee, receive a paper map, and continue to trailhead parking. Overflow parking is available.
The trail begins along flat sand and quickly takes you uphill to the top of your first dune. Shortly after hiking downhill, prepare to take on a steeper incline for your second dune. That’s kind of the purpose of this 3 dunes challenge- it’s to hike up 3 separate dunes! What goes up, must come down (was my inner teacher showing there?)
The third and final dune is accessed via a staircase. Following the stairs back down, you will complete the trail 8 loop in a circle to the parking lot.
I completed the 3 Dune Challenge at Indiana Dunes in about 2 hours, with plenty of stops for photos and enjoying the day.
Dune Succession Trail
Length: 1 Mile
There are three unique Indiana Dunes trails you can access from the West Beach parking lot, about 15 minutes past the Indiana Dunes official entrance. Each trail is completed in a loop. Plug West Beach into your GPS to reach the huge parking lot. There is no shortage of parking spaces.
Dune Succession Trail (Loop 1) is its own out and back and does NOT connect to the other trails. West Beach Trail (Loop 2) and Long Lake Trail (Loop 3) trails at West Beach do connect. Consider hiking one loop, part of both loops, or fully complete both loops. I finished all three loops in about 2 hours 45 minutes while stopping for pictures and breaks in between.
Begin Dune Succession Trail by following the flat sand trail to your first steep staircase. The views begin shortly after! Continue weaving and winding down staircases and through forest as you are graced with new landscape. It took me about 30 minutes to complete this popular Indiana Dunes trail a leisurely pace.
West Beach Trail
Length: 1.7 miles
Mostly flat, this Indiana Dunes trail is enjoyable and this is where we began to notice cactus plants emerge. Cactus in the midwest, WHAT! This is not the desert, but I’m totally here for it. Literally had no idea. Can you tell I’m still stunned? During spring, lupine flowers are in bloom.
Long Lake Trail
Length: 1.7 miles
The trail began up a sand dune and lead into the depths of a forest trail. Weaving in and around, the vibrant green, diversity of plants, and tall trees had us feeling like we had entered a fairy tail. As the trees decrease in size, the seasonal wildflowers appear.
During spring, Lupine wildflowers are in FULL bloom on this Indiana Dunes trail, and we just couldn’t get enough. I mean, come ON!
Cowles Bog Trail
Length: 4.3 miles
Cowles Bog Trail is not as scenic as West Beach hiking, but this Indiana Dunes trail is worth the journey. Begin Cowles Bog Trail on an upwards incline through the woods along sand that eventually evolves into solid dirt.
At the top of this incline, you will realize you have reached the top of a sand dune overlooking spectacular views of Lake Michigan. From here, you can climb down the dune to explore this Indiana Dunes beach. Re-enter Cowles Bog Trail after walking along the beach to complete the full loop, or you can just turn back around to complete this trail as an out-and-back.
Where to stay at Indiana Dunes
From camping to cabins to hotels, visitors of all travel styles have accommodation options on their visit to Indiana Dunes. Alternatively, consider Hilton Garden Inn Chesterton for a 4 star hotel experience with both a pool, hot tub, and breakfast on site.
Indiana Dunes Hotels
Spring House Inn is a cottage style hotel, one of the closest to the national park grounds itself. This three star hotel experience provides access to an indoor pool.
Indiana Dunes Camping
Looking for Indiana Dunes camping? Indiana Dunes National Park houses one campground. Dunewood Campground costs $25 per night and online reservations in advance are required. This Indiana Dunes Campground has 66 campsites with access to hot showers and modern bathrooms. Four of the campsites are wheelchair accessible. Conveniently located in Beverly Shores, Indiana, it is directly behind a patio restaurant and across from three shops.
Dunewood Campground at Indiana Dunes National Park is closed for the winter season from November 2 – March 31st.
Alternatively, Indiana Dunes State Park is open year-round. It’s less than a mile from South Shore Rail Station, the closest train station to the park! Book from 147 campsites in advance online. Every campsite has electrical hookups and a grill, and every camper has access to hot showers and modern bathrooms. Laundry facilities are available on site for a fee.
Indiana Dunes Cabins
Consider renting an Indiana Dunes cabin from Miller Beach Vacation Rentals, Beachwalk Vacation Rentals, or Lakefront Living- LLC. The biggest draw to staying in one of these Indiana Dunes cabins would be the lake house life.
Most cabins and rental homes are located along the deep blue waters of Lake Michigan. Visitors can hike their days away, and have a peaceful evening at a beachfront house just 5 minutes outside of Indiana Dunes.
Indiana Dunes Packing List
Here are a couple of can’t-miss items to toss in your backpack when planning an Indiana Dunes adventure:
Trail Shoes– I cannot stress the importance of comfortable shoes with strong traction. Be good to your feet!
First Aid Kit– Never know when you’ll need it! Always be prepared on the trails. Band-aids, gauze wrap, etc.
Water Bottle– Hydration, hydration, hydration! I recommend at least a gallon of water per person for a full hiking day.
Camelback– Consider packing your water into a Camelback or similar water carrier bag. I have found this much less strenuous on my back, and there are still enough side pockets to hold your camera, snacks, and a sandwich.
Packable Backpack– Alternative to a Camelback. These are GREAT because you can roll them up and throw them into a suitcase or carry-on bag, and they take up LITERALLY no room at all. They provide an ample amount of room for one day of adventures.
For the chilly weather…
Base layers– Wear warm clothing under your jacket and pants. Alternatively, consider fleece-lined leggings with a water-resistant exterior.
Puffer jacket– I prefer a puffer jacket to a long parka because this is also packable, and easy to roll up into your backpack if you get hot.
Rain shell– Wear this over your puffer jacket to make sure you stay dry if it snows. The best part is these are lightweight and packable! Weather fluctuates, but your comfort shouldn’t.