A golden sunset lights up vegetation covered sand dunes with a wooden boardwalk and stairs leading down to a trail through evergreen trees

A Guide to Indiana Dunes National Park

Thinking of visiting one of America's newest national parks? From what beaches to see, how to get around, where to stay and where to eat, we've put together everything you need to know about Indiana Dunes.

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Nestled right in the heart of the midwest is a stretch of freshwater beaches along the Lake Michigan coast, sporting massive sand dunes and inviting emerald waters. But one of America’s newest national parks, Indiana Dunes, has much more to offer than just its nine beautiful beaches. Visitors looking for things to do around Indiana Dunes will find plenty of camping, hiking, boating, and bike trails to satisfy all their outdoor adventure needs.

Layout of the Park

Indiana Dunes sits along the south shore of Lake Michigan between Gary, Indiana to the west and Michigan City, Indiana to the east. Though it became a national park in early 2019, the Indiana Dunes State Park still exists within the park boundaries, roughly halfway between the two cities. 

There are 15 miles of lakefront beach, made up of nine separately named beaches. Several bike trails cut through the area and there are 50 miles of hiking trails.

Both Indiana Route 12 and I-94, just to the south, run east to west and parallel the shoreline.

Looking down on a sandy beach with grasses and wooden fences in the foreground and people near the water

How to Get to Indiana Dunes

Because of its centralized location in the region, the park is easily accessible from neighboring states after a moderate drive. Several highways converge from all directions on the dunes, so driving from a landlocked midwestern state will have you dipping your toes in the Lake Michigan waters before you know it.

Travelers from further away have the option to fly into Chicago’s Midway or O’Hare airports, or Gary, Indiana. From there, the South Shore Line train is a great way to get into the area.

Looking down the covered platform next to a set of commuter railroad tracks with powerlines going off into the distance

Where to Stay Near Indiana Dunes

Reasonable hotel and vacation rental options for your stay can be found in the surrounding area. The closest city to Indiana Dunes National Park with affordable places to stay is Michigan City, on the eastern end of the park, but you will find plenty of lodging options across the shoreline.

We’ve taken some of the work out of searching for a unique and comfortable place to spend the night. All of the options listed below are highly rated and put you within a short distance of the beach and trails.

Hotels

Spring House Inn | A cozy wooded retreat that’s centrally located and only a few minutes away from the Park. Enjoy the heated pool and sauna after a day on the beach.

Bridge Inn | Waterfront property in Michigan City, close to the old train bridge. Within walking distance of Washington Park Beach (one of our favorites in the area). Hop over to Bridges Grille in the evening for a couple of drinks and don’t worry about finding a ride back to your hotel.

Rental Properties

A lakefront cottage | This property boasts three hundred feet of private beach and excellent views of Lake Michigan.

Centrally located house | This charming two bedroom is centrally located near Chesteron, putting you 10 minutes from the beach, with a backyard fire pit to relax in the evening.

Secluded modern retreat | A spacious modern getaway with large windows looking out on the surrounding woods. Relax on the back deck or have a soak in the hot tub after tackling one of the dune hikes.

Camping

The option we chose for our trip and what we’d recommend is to select one of several campgrounds and enjoy the natural surroundings of the park. Keep in mind that during busy times of the year the campgrounds will quickly fill up and reservations should be made as early as possible.

Indiana Dunes State Park Campground | Located close to the State Park Beach and South Shore Rail Station. All campsites are electric and there are modern restrooms and shower houses.

Dunewood Campground | Offers 53 drive-in sites for RVs or tent camping and 13 tent only sites. There are no electric hook-ups, but there are modern showers and restrooms, potable water, and an RV dump station.

Michigan City Campground | For those wishing to stay just outside the park area, or like us, planned their trip on short notice and were unable to find a site at either of the above campgrounds, Michigan City Campground is a great option. It will come at a slightly higher price, but has electric and full hook-up sites for vehicles/RVs and several primitive tent sites. There are modern restroom/shower facilities, a camp store, playground, and a pool, as well as a fishing pond.

Our personal experience here was great, but if you reserve a tent site we would recommend getting clarification over the phone on exactly where you should set up. The tent sites are spread out among the campground and we arrived late at night along with another group of campers and we all had difficulty finding our site in the dark.

One other consideration is that the campground sits directly adjacent to Route 421 and, especially if you are tent camping in the front, there will be a moderate amount of noise from the road. It didn’t particularly bother us, but keep this in mind if you’re a light sleeper.

A campground with two small cabins fire pits and picnic tables in a wooded setting

Choose Your Favorite Beach at Indiana Dunes

Without a doubt, what attracts most people to this area are the sand and water. As we mentioned above, there are nine separate beaches in the park and we made a valiant effort during our weekend getaway to see them all. We won’t go into detail on every single one, but here are some of the highlights and tips we discovered along the way. Indiana Dunes Tourism provides a helpful map/infographic on their website, which you can find here.

West Beach

Where you can access the Dune Succession Trail for some picturesque hiking. Large parking area with a fee of $6 per vehicle.

A note on parking throughout the Indiana Dunes: Call the beach parking hotline at 219-395-1003 for updates on how full each parking lot is before heading out.

Looking directly into the sun as it sets above a sandy beach with people on the shore and in the water

State Park Beach

Another large parking area. Entry fee to the State Park is $7 per in-state vehicle or $12 per out-of-state vehicle. Explore cycling options in the area (this is how we got around) and you can enter for only $2. Access the 3 Dune Challenge hike from here.

Close up on a section of wood fence with tall grasses and a beach out of focus in the backgroundA young man stands and waits in front of a food truck that is parked in front of a building at Indiana Dunes State Park

Kemil Beach

Located in the Beverly Shores neighborhood, which is a private community, so parking is very limited and can be tricky. You can see the World’s Fair Century of Progress Homes from here.

A pink mid century style estate sitting up on a sandy bank above the shore of Lake Michigan at Indiana Dunes

Mt. Baldy Beach

Our personal favorite. The hike up the dune to access the beach is a bit challenging, so don’t plan on bringing a cooler or other large items. You’ll be rewarded at the end by views of Mt. Baldy, the highest dune in the park, and a more secluded beach with shade right along the woods. 

A sandy path leading up among tall grasses on Mount Baldy at Indiana Dunes National Park

Michigan City Beach

Not included in the national park or state beaches, but worth a visit. Parking in the immediate area during our visit was restricted to residents with an annual pass, but we were directed to parking a few blocks away and had an easy bike ride to and from the beach.

If you’re looking for some photo opportunities, this is where we took some of our favorite shots. The lifeguard station reminds us of something from the west coast and both the pier and the Michigan City Lighthouse are very photogenic.

While we’re talking about beaches, and specifically Michigan City’s pier and beach, we’d like to drop in a personal note on safety. Unfortunately, we were present here when a young person was pulled under the water by strong waves and lost their life. We watched the search and rescue operation and the tragic end result, so this matter hits home with us. This stretch of shore is known for dangerous rip currents and strong waves. The conditions on the lake can change rapidly. There are videos online of large waves crashing over the Michigan City pier and nearly pulling people into the water. DO NOT enter the water or go out onto the pier during unsafe conditions. The only beaches with lifeguards are West Beach and Michigan City Beach and during our visit there were none on duty. Please enjoy the beaches and swim when it is safe to do so, but don’t take unnecessary risks.

A woman in a red romper sits and smiles the the wind blowing in her hair with a pier and lighthouse out of focus behind her
A boxy red and white lifeguard station on wood pillars on the beach at Indiana DunesLooking down the side of an elevated red and white lifeguard station toward the beach at Michigan City Indiana

Hiking the Dunes

There are some fantastic hiking opportunities around Indiana Dunes. Here are some of our favorites:

Dune Succession Trail

Our number one pick, especially for a sunset hike or, to beat the crowds at West Beach, get here before 9 AM. The trail is a 1.1 mile loop and takes you up and over several dunes via 250 boardwalk steps, with stunning views. The elevation gain is about 100 feet.

A woman walking down a long set of steps leading to a boardwalk among the forested sand dunes in Indiana Dunes National Park

Cowles Bog Trail

This is a 4.3 mile trail that leads you to a secluded beach area. The trail starts out on boardwalks over marshlands and swamps. We started late in the day so we enjoyed the scenery, took some photos along the boardwalks and headed back to the car without making it all the way to the beach.

A woman stops during a walk down a boardwalk through the forest to smile at the camera

Miller Woods

A beautiful hike through wetlands, with metal boardwalks, into open dunes, ending at the beach. The entire trail is 3.4 miles, but we opted for the shorter loop that takes you through the wetlands and back. 

Lily pads clustered together on the surface of a dark blue pondA man walking away on a metal boardwalk over a swampy forested area

Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk

Trails along the dunes and out to the water along the Burns Waterway and a jetty. The public pavilion has restrooms and a seasonal concession stand.

Close up on the sweeping modern architecture and open air side of the Portage Lakefront Pavilion in IndianaShot through a hand rail of a woman walking barefoot over large boulders on the edge of the water with a small lighthouse in the distance

Biking Your Way Around Indiana Dunes

There are cycling options for everyone around Indiana Dunes, whether you want to hit open roads for a long ride, go downhill on a mountain bike trail, or just use them as a convenient way to get around.

Since we road tripped from central Ohio and didn’t see much use for our flatwater kayaks, we opted to bring along our hybrid road bikes and we’re really glad we did. 

Parking can be extremely difficult to find during the busy summer months, so opting for a more remote parking lot and clocking a few miles on your bike is an excellent alternative. Here’s how we used ours to get around:

Calumet Trail

During our visit in early September the area was dry and we were able to use the Calumet Trail to traverse the Park. It runs east-west along the South Shore Railroad Tracks for 19 miles and connects to many other bike and hiking trails, so you can think of this as the main biking thoroughfare. 

The NPS warns however, that during much of the year this gravel trail is waterlogged with standing water up to 4-6”. It’s also not suitable for road bikes, but our hybrids handled it just fine. Make sure you check the weather before and during your visit and know the limits of your equipment.

A woman riding a bike on a sunny summer day down a gravel trail raises one hand in the air and smiles

Porter Brickyard Trail

For a leisurely ride through the area that takes you to the Cowles Bog Trail you can ride the entire Porter Brickyard Trail, or sections of it, up to 7.0 miles roundtrip.

Parking at the north trailhead is limited, but it’s centrally located and will give you easy access onto the Calumet Trail. We found additional parking at the North Mineral Springs Rd Ranger Station/National Park Headquarters along with access to the trail; however, this parking lot isn’t officially listed anywhere, so please park at your own risk and observe any posted restrictions.

Marquette Trail

The Marquette Trail is a paved rail trail and to the west it offers scenic views along marshes and woodlands. In this direction the trail officially ends at South Grand Blvd. without much of a trailhead. There you’ll find a covered pedestrian bridge over the road. We found it passable beyond that point and with some light off-trail riding we were able to push on to the Miller Woods Trailhead, which was one of our favorite hikes.

Heading east from the Marquette Trail Parking Lot along West Beach Rd. leads you to the Dune Succession Trail (a must-do hike at Indiana Dunes). Parking is ample there at 596 spaces, but it’s the only lot in the Park with fees - $6 per vehicle. So, if the lot happens to be full or you’re looking to save a little money, it’s an alternative.

A marshy bog along a bike trail in Indiana Dunes with an out of focus bike parked in the foreground
A woman rides her bike away and through a covered bridge between forested areas on a bike trailA female bike rider pauses on an overgrown trail in the woods with the sun breaking through the tree tops

Bring them on the South Shore Line

If you’re traveling from the Chicago area or you want to add a day trip to the Windy City, bringing your bike along the South Shore Line trains is an option. Bike cars are equipped with a rack to hold 12-13 bikes and are available select days between April and October. Check the South Shore Line website for details.

Where to Eat Near Indiana Dunes

Lucrezia Cafe | Classic Italian served in a historic Victorian house. Go for dinner and enjoy the charming outdoor patio lit with string lights.

Shoreline Brewery | A family run brewery with twelve beers regularly on tap. The menu here looked so good we ordered way more than we could handle. Highlights include the poutine and fried artichoke hearts.

Bridges Waterside Grille | A fun, laid back atmosphere and a great place to grab a drink and relax by the water.

Cool Runnings | If you’re anything like us, just being near a sandy beach gives you cravings for tropical food and drinks. Drop in for a no-frills bite and grab some Jamaican jerk chicken or shrimp tacos.

Chesterton European Market | If you’re in town on a Saturday stop by Chesterton, two miles south of the Dunes, for the Euro Market. Food vendors and farmers from the surrounding area bring in their goods each week, so you can sample a variety of options and browse what the other merchant and artisans have for sale.

Close up on a man's hand grasping a pint of dark amber beer on a high top tableClose up on a plate of fried artichoke hearts topped with shaved parmesan cheese

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A woman turns back and smiles at the camera while walking down a boardwalk through a wooded area with text overlay that says What to Do in Indiana Dunes National Park

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A woman stands in crystal clear ankle deep water on a beach.
A man sits in the sun on the rear of a sailboat.
A waterfall surrounded by large boulders and colorful fall foliage
A woman in a red coat walks down a boardwalk toward a picturesque red covered bridge during fall
Looking down a rocky river toward a pedestrian suspension bridge with fall foliage on either bank
A scenic lighthouse on a rocky coastline catches early morning sunlight while birds fly past
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