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National Park State Park travel

The Indiana Dunes

A guide to the Indiana Dunes.

The Indiana Dunes, formed by ancient glaciers, has long been a popular summer hangout spot for Northwest Indiana, Chicago, and beyond. Sitting on Lake Michigan’s southern tip, the State Park and nearby recently formed National Park covers miles of lakefront and land inland. Located in Northwest Indiana, the Indiana Dunes stands in stark contrast to the majority of Indiana. The sandy environment and the Dunes’ unique ecosystems differ significantly from the plains, prairies, and the rolling hills of Indiana. It has been a state park for almost a hundred years, and just a few years ago, it became a National Park. Conveniently, there is a train station just down the road from the entry point of the Park. The South Shore Train line runs from Chicago to South Bend. The South Shore stop in Chesterton: The Dune Park Station, is connected to the Park by a trail. It’s a bit of a walk, but it might be convenient for those arriving from Chicago or further east in Indiana. Although it is not far from cities, it still feels like you are removed enough from the rest of the world to relax. It is best known for its long beaches that stretch out into the horizon, and its tall sand dunes that rise behind the beach, although the Park goes way beyond the miles of beachfront.

I had a chance to go to The Indiana Dunes recently. I realized I had forgotten how fun it was to explore the beach and trails. There is a great visitor’s center just down the road from the beach. I stopped there on my way to the Park. It is a good idea to stop there to get a map for the many trails if you plan on hiking. Going down the road, heading to the main gate, you are surrounded on both sides by a thick sea of trees. I followed the road and roundabout to the main parking lot for the Park. It gives you access to the bathhouse, the beach, as well as some trails. On my trip, I was surprised to see how far some people came by their out of state license plates.

The Beach

The beach is what most people think of when they think of The Dunes, and it sees the most visitors by far, with Porter Beach being its best known. The beach and Lake Michigan’s size can easily give the illusion of being at the ocean, as the sand stretches into the horizon and the water disappears out of view. When facing the water, you can see the hazy mirage of skyscrapers rising out of the water to your left. There are several beaches in the area open to visitors. Beyond the beaches are the massive sand dunes, which offer a great vantage point above the beach and into Lake Michigan. The great thing about the beach is how much space there is; it should be easy to find room even on the busy days just by walking down it.

The Dunes and Beyond

The rest of the Park is made up of steep sand dunes, wetlands, and forests. Trees cover much of the Park. It plays host to a diverse range of plant life. There are also a variety of interconnected trails that wind through the sand dunes. There is a sizeable shaded campground on the other side of the Dunes from the beach, making it perfect for RVers. The great thing about the trails is how accessible they are to both the beach and the campground. Much of the trails are sandy hills, giving a great workout, although there are easy-going ones as well. The great thing about how the trails are organized is that you can make a path shorter or longer, depending on which ones you follow. The trails range from just under a mile to over five miles, with varying levels of difficulty. The way the trails loop makes it possible to make your own trail. There are several “mountains” in the area, which are hills over 120 feet tall, including the famous Mount Baldy, known for moving slightly every year. 

Another great spot to see wildlife, or just have a great view is the Dunes Birding Platform. It can be reached by following the roundabout near the Park entrance to the West Parking Lot. Depending on the season, many different species of birds can be seen; however, that is just one benefit of the Platform. It offers a great view of the beach and lake, and on the other side of the Platform has an excellent view of the rolling, grassy hills that dominate that area. There is also the Indiana Dunes Nature Center, just down the road from the beach, and still within the Park.

The Experience

With so much to do, the Indiana Dunes does not have to be a strictly summer trip. Of course, the beach is fun, and the lake offers plenty of boating opportunities, but If you don’t mind the cold, there is stuff to do year-round. When I went, it was too cold to swim, but plenty of people had come to walk the beach, hike the trails, and bring their RVs to camp. If you have your own skis, there are cross-country skiing trails when the snow hits. It is fun to explore around the Park and see what is beyond that hill or down that trail; chances are there will be something for you. For the latest updates about openings, closings, and hours, please visit the official website here before you go: https://www.nps.gov/indu/index.htm.

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