Article Overview: Things to Do in Indiana Dunes National Park
Think of a place surrounded by sand dunes with orchids surrounding the nearby lush forest. Hundreds of birds sing their song while waves ripple on the shore. Now, take a guess which state that is in. This surprising beach location is nowhere near an ocean or an island. It’s Indiana and the sandy beaches are just one of many things to do in Indiana Dunes National Park.
I was quite skeptical as a child about this “beach destination” in the Hoosier State. My father loved to give brain teasers about random things. We once had a spirited debate about if Canada was REALLY south of Detroit (it is, technically). He then tried to tell me as we approached the St. Louis Gateway Arch that it was designed to sway in high winds (right again).
When I told him I wanted to see the beach during a restless summer in our landlocked home in Missouri, he said, “Great! Let’s go to Indiana.” He couldn’t be right about THAT unthinkable fact, right?
Indiana Dunes National Park is one of the newest national parks, coming in as the 61st park in 2019. It quickly became one of the top 10 most visited national parks. Between the national park and the nearby Indiana Dunes State Park, more than 4.5 million people visit each year.
In this article I’ll cover the fifteen best things to do in Indiana Dunes National Park for your next visit. Ready to get started? Let’s go!
Things to Do in Indiana Dunes National Park
Table of Contents: Things to Do in Indiana Dunes National Park
Table of Contents: Things to Do in Indiana Dunes National Park
- Things to Know Before You Visit Indiana Dunes National Park
- How Did Indiana Dunes Form?
- Top 15 Best Things to Do in Indiana Dunes National Park
- Tour the 1933 World’s Fair Homes
- Visit Lake Michigan Beaches
- Savor the Sweet Taste of the Trees
- Explore the Ecosystems of Cowles Bog Trail
- See the Scarce Black Oak Savanna
- Walk on 4,700-Year-Old Sand
- Wander Among the Wildflowers
- Camp Close to Easy Trail Access
- Bike Your Way Through Ecosystems
- Listen to the Singing Sand
- Stargaze on the Beach
- Take the 1966 Hiking Challenge
- Scale the Dune Succession Trail
- Make It to Mount Baldy (While You Still Can)
- Take the “Diana of the Dunes Dare”
- One Day Indiana Dunes National Park Itinerary
- Map of the Best Things to Do in Indiana Dunes National Park
- Summary of the Best Things to Do in Indiana Dunes National Park
Things to Know Before You Visit Indiana Dunes National Park
$25 per vehicle OR if you plan to visit more National Parks within the next 12 months, I suggest you purchase the America the Beautiful Pass (which can be found at the entrance gates to most national parks). This pass gets you into all National Parks, Forests, Monuments, and more, including 2,000 sites for free after a one-time $80 fee.
The park entrance fee is a new addition as of March 31, 2022.
The national park wraps around the state park, but both have separate entrance fees. Indiana Dunes State Park is $12 for out-of-state visitors. The state park fee doesn’t cover the national park access and vice versa.
Use it. Lots of it. Especially this one, which I never leave the house without because it plays nice with our dear friend, earth 🙂
The Best Guide Book for Indiana Dunes National Park is this one.
National Parks Checklist Map: This beautiful National Parks Checklist Map can be ordered to your house.
Framed National Parks Map: We’re a sucker for maps; this framed national parks map is the best.
Where to Stay in Indiana Dunes National Park
Planning a trip to Indiana Dunes but haven’t found a place to stay? This is our favorite hotel in/around Indiana Dunes National Park.
How Did Indiana Dunes Form?
As I researched this topic, I couldn’t help but hear Miranda from The Devil Wears Prada heftily sigh, “By all means, move at a glacial pace. You know how that thrills me.” That’s because the dunes were formed from a glacial retreat and sediment drop mixed with the unique position at the base of Lake Michigan where winds howl.
I am purposely not going into more detail because you learn SO much during the tours and nature centers here. I will give a bit of a spoiler alert that the dunes are still moving.
Top 15 Best Things to Do in Indiana Dunes National Park
Tour the 1933 World’s Fair Homes
The land that is now the national park was once an architectural anomaly during the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. Five homes were brought here as part of the Homes of Tomorrow Exhibition.
The five homes include:
- The Cypress Log Cabin
- The House of Tomorrow
- The Florida Tropical
- The Armco Ferro
- The Wieboldt-Rostone house
What’s particularly amazing about these homes is that they might not even look that “futuristic” in the 2020s because they were so ahead of their time. In fact, I lived in Florida and the Florida Tropical home is very similar to the homes that line Clearwater Beach.
The House of Tomorrow includes an airplane hangar since it was assumed in 1933 that we’d all have our own planes in the future.
The homes are only open for tours on one weekend a year. You can buy tickets to get a rare glimpse inside, but seeing the exterior any time of year is one of many historical things to do in Indiana Dunes National Park.
Tour Chellberg Farm
Visiting Chellberg Farm is one of the most exciting things to do in Indiana Dunes National Park for history buffs. A trip here is akin to embarking on a journey back in time to the early 20th century, offering a unique insight into the everyday life of a Swedish-American farming family.
A beautifully preserved farmhouse stands as the centerpiece of the farm, where you can take guided tours to learn about the Chellberg family’s emigration from Sweden and their establishment of this remarkable farm. The picturesque property also hosts various farm animals like chickens, pigs, and cows, giving visitors an authentic glimpse into historical farming practices, even though the farm is no longer operational.
Throughout the year, the farm hosts an array of special events such as maple syrup making demonstrations and historical reenactments, offering a rich, educational experience. The nearby nature center provides further educational materials and activities, particularly designed for children, making Chellberg Farm an ideal destination for those looking to combine history, nature, and interactive learning.
Visit Lake Michigan Beaches
All dunes lead to the beach and one of the best things to do in Indiana Dunes National Park is visiting the many beaches along the 15 miles of shoreline. West Beach is the only one that has lifeguards between Memorial Day and Labor Day and is by far the most popular.
Lake View Beach offers great views of the Chicago skyline, Kemil Beach is perfect for stargazing, and Central Avenue Beach has towering dunes welcoming beach walkers.
Winter visitors should also come to the beach to see the impressive ice shelf that forms at the water’s edge.
“Shelf ice forms when breaking waves and spray freeze in frigid air temperatures, creating irregularly patterned ice full of cracks, crevices, and holes. Shelf ice is an unstable formation that builds from the beach out to the lake, without freezing to the lake bottom.” – Indiana Dunes NPS Rangers
Do not walk on the ice shelf at any time, for any reason, under any circumstances. This natural wonder is one of the reasons Lake Michigan is “the deadliest of the five Great Lakes.”
Paddle the Waterways of Indiana Dunes
Having had the opportunity to paddle at Indiana Dunes National Park, I can share a bit about the experience. One option for paddling is the Little Calumet River that courses through the park. The variety of natural settings you paddle by is quite interesting, and the changing seasons, particularly fall, can add a nice touch. The river has multiple launch points, so you can choose the length of your paddling trip.
Lake Michigan, forming the park’s northern boundary, is another paddling venue. It offers a different experience compared to the river, given its vastness and the view of the sand dunes from the water. However, it’s important to be aware that Lake Michigan can have challenging conditions like large waves and strong currents, and it’s vital to check weather and wave conditions before heading out.
Paddling on the lake demands experience and preparedness. Regardless of your paddling location in the park, remember to bring the necessary safety equipment and adhere to the park’s rules.
Savor the Sweet Taste of the Trees
Of all the things to do in Indiana Dunes National Park, there’s just one that you can’t do in any other national park—make maple syrup.
Take the Bailly/Chellberg Trail through the forest to the original homesteads of early settlers. Early March visitors can take part in Maple Sugar Time, where park rangers help guests learn how to tape the trees along the Sugar Bush trail.
The tree-tapping tradition has been a popular event for nearly 50 years. Here’s a video to see how it works. As a huge fan of Maine’s Maple Syrup Sunday, I can tell you that you might be turned off by store-bought syrup forever!
Explore the Ecosystems of Cowles Bog Trail
Another one of the fascinating things to do in Indiana Dunes National Park involves exploring the area that is known as the Birthplace of Ecological Science. That’s right! If you’ve ever taken an ecology class, you can thank the dunes for that.
One of the most interesting spots in the park to see the diverse ecosystems is the Cowles Bog Trail. The trail spans 4.7 miles of ponds, marshes, swamps, beaches, and rare trees. Add that to stunning fall foliage, and you won’t believe the breathtaking views here.
I especially loved learning the difference between a marsh, bog, swamp, and bayou. While they tend to be used interchangeably, there are facets to each that help you become a more educated national park adventurer.
See the Scarce Black Oak Savanna
One of the best things to do in Indiana Dunes National Park takes you inside the Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education and then through a forest with one of the rarest trees on Earth—the Black Oak Savanna.
The Douglas Center is also where you can rent ski equipment in the winter for cross-country skiing trails.
Outside the center, a narrow trail winds through the savanna for 3.4 miles. Keep an eye out for busy beavers gnawing away at their own dam work (most likely at dawn and dusk). I’m usually not a big rodent fan, but I would watch those beavers all day long. If you’re spotted, they’ll slap their tails on the wood or water to let other beavers know you’re there.
Wildlife Viewing in Indiana Dunes
Indiana Dunes National Park is a rich blend of diverse habitats that support a broad range of wildlife, making it a wonderful destination for wildlife viewing. The park encompasses over 15,000 acres, stretching from the shore of Lake Michigan to the dense hardwood forests, wetlands, and prairies inland.
Here, you can find over 350 species of birds, including rare and endangered species such as the Piping Plover and Indiana Bat. The park’s varied ecosystems are also home to a number of mammals like white-tailed deer, raccoons, opossums, and foxes. For birdwatchers and ornithologists, the annual spring and fall bird migrations are particularly rewarding times to visit.
In addition to birds and mammals, the park is also home to a wealth of reptiles, amphibians, and insects. A stroll along the trails might reveal the Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake, a variety of turtles, or a chorus of spring peepers and other amphibians in the wetlands.
In the water bodies, you can spot various types of fish and a wealth of aquatic invertebrates. Meanwhile, the park’s prairies come alive with colorful butterflies and other pollinators during the summer months, thanks to its over 1,100 native plant species. It’s worth noting that for all wildlife viewing, it’s important to keep a respectful distance, ensuring both your safety and that of the animals.
Walk on 4,700-Year-Old Sand
All the sand dunes in the park are several millennia old, seeing the Tolleston Dunes is among the best things to do in Indiana Dunes National Park because they are the “youngest” at just 4,700 years old.
While you’ll learn about dune “succession” during your visit, this special mark shows where the lake shoreline once was. It’s 25 feet higher than the current shoreline.
Tolleston Dunes Trail is almost three miles long and is another trail with various habitats. Here you can see the prickly pear cactus, butterfly weed, and the wild blue lupine flower, which are spectacular during spring wildflower season. This trail also transitions to a cross-country skiing destination in winter.
Wander Among the Wildflowers
One of the best things to do in Indiana Dunes National Park if you love wildflowers is take the Heron Rookery Trail. The vast expanse of wildflowers in the spring is the most stunning in the entire park. Peak wildflower season is April through Mid-May.
You’ll also pass by the Little Calumet River and enjoy the sounds of dozens of birds who either call the forest home or migrate through here. This is also a great place to get some fishing in as salmon and trout spawn up the river from Lake Michigan. Keep an eye out for more beavers here too.
You will need an Indiana fishing license if you want to fish anywhere in the park.
Equestrian enthusiasts can add horseback riding to your list of things to do in Indiana Dunes National Park. The Glenwood Dunes Trails stand as the sole trails within the national park where horseback riding is allowed. Riders can utilize a specific section of these trails for equestrian activities from the 16th of March until the 14th of December.
However, the trail is off-limits to horse riders if there is substantial snow accumulation, 3 inches or more, adequate for cross-country skiing, either before December 15 or after March 15. The restrictions on horse riding during the winter months are in place to avoid potential collisions with skiers.
The parking area is spacious enough to accommodate horse trailers. It’s mandatory for all horse droppings in the parking and picnic spaces to be collected, removed from the site, and disposed of properly. Please note that there are no facilities for horse rentals available at the park. Furthermore, it’s important to remember that horse riding is strictly prohibited on all park roads.
Camp Close to Easy Trail Access
With several campsite locations available, the largest and more versatile is Dunewood Campground. It serves as a great starting point for all the things to do in Indiana Dunes National Park.
The trails available near the campgrounds include the following:
- Glenwood Dunes Trail
- Dunewood Trace Campground Trail
- Glenwood Dunes Extension Trail
A hike on these trails can span 15 miles with 13 trail junctions along the way. Horseback riding is allowed from March 16 through December 14 on the Glenwood Dunes Trail. This is the only trail in the park where horses are allowed. Pets are allowed on any trail other than this one for the safety of all people and animals.
MORE: Here are all the rules about the pet-friendly areas of the park. Well-behaved pets and owners can earn the title of Bark Ranger.
Bike Your Way Through Ecosystems
I will be the first to admit that I love the beach but get very annoyed at the sand in my shoes, backpack, and… uh… delicate areas. That’s why I think that bicycling is one of the best things to do in Indiana Dunes National Park. It also saves calf burn or unstable walks on the sand.
The biking system of Indiana Dunes National Park and its surrounding parks spans six trails.
- Calumet Bike Trail: 19.0 miles of flat, gravel trail.
- Dunes Kankakee Bike Trail: 3.6 miles of flat, paved trail.
- Porter Brickyard Bike Trail: 7.0 miles of paved, hill trails.
- Prairie Duneland Bike Trail: 22.4 miles of a paved, flat rail trail.
- Marquette Bike Trail: 4.6 miles round trip of a gravel, flat rail trail.
- Oak Savannah Bike Trail: 17.8 miles of a paved, flat, rail trail.
Plenty of bike rental shops are available around the park.
Listen to the Singing Sand
“You know, that sand sings,” my dad said while squinting his eyes in the sunlight, making me unable to tell if he was bamboozling me once again.
Since then, I’ve heard the singing sands of Death Valley National Park and the singing rocks of Jasper Beach in Maine. While the sand doesn’t take musical requests like a DJ, it certainly makes a sound when the conditions are just right.
Singing Sand has a few variables that must be met. Sand made up of quartz and silica, like the kind at Indiana Dunes National Park, is the first ingredient. Then there’s a balance of perfectly round sand grains and a certain humidity that makes a “squeak” or a “whistle” as you walk on it.
It’s one of the most fun things to do in Indiana Dunes National Park to listen to the sound of the sand underneath your feet and see if you can find a place that has the most “vocal” sand.
Stargaze on the Beach
One of the coolest things to do in Indiana Dunes National Park after dark is to see the night skies. I really thought I had called my father’s bluff on this one because as a junior astronomer, I knew there was NO WAY the night skies could be vibrant in a place that close to the Chicago Skyline.
Kemil Beach is one of the best places to see the darkest of the night skies on this stretch of the Lake Michigan shoreline. Since the operating hours run through 11:00 pm year-round, there’s never a season without a great night sky. Look for events at the park that coordinate stargazing groups on Saturday nights.
Take the 1966 Hiking Challenge
If you want to take part in one of the most challenging things to do in Indiana Dunes National Park, go for the 1966 challenge. The activity includes 19 hikes through 66 miles of trails. The number is important because it was 1966 when this stretch of sand was first federally preserved.
Indiana Dunes National Park was created in 2019, but the land was first designated as Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in 1966. Being a national park is seen as more prestigious, in addition to other benefits.
You don’t have to do all the trails in one trip. In fact, it’s designed to be taken with ranger-led hikes over 19 weeks, but you can take the hikes solo at your own pace. Grab a checklist at the visitor’s center.
This challenge, and several others, are planned to end at the major Indiana Dunes Outdoor Adventure Festival every September.
If you’re looking for an easier one-trip challenge, look at the 3 Dune Challenge at Indiana Dunes State Park.
Scale the Dune Succession Trail
Hiking is one of the top things to do in Indiana Dunes National Park, but this trail should be more appropriately named “Hope You Like Stairs Trail.” A whopping 270 stairs take you through the stages of dune development.
You’ve likely never put THAT much thought into what creates a sand dune, and you’ll leave as an expert. It also turned me into “Sand Dune Karen” when I returned to my Florida home and scolded people who got too close to sand dunes. Once you realize WHY you have to stay off of them, you become a defender of the dune.
There are two bonus spots on this trail. First, see the Chicago skyline from the top of the stairs. Second, don’t miss the sunset from the beach.
Cool Off (During Summer) With a Swim
With its miles of beautiful shoreline along Lake Michigan, swimming is one of the most popular things to do in Indiana Dunes National Park during summer. I recommend Kemil Beach, Dunbar Beach, and Lakeview Beach as solid choices for visitors looking to take a dip.
Please note that while these beaches are open to the public for swimming, there are no lifeguards on duty. It’s important for visitors to exercise caution, swim at your own risk, and remain vigilant of changing water conditions.
Lake Michigan, despite its beauty, can be unpredictable and occasionally hazardous. The lake can experience rip currents, waves, and sudden drop-offs that can make swimming dangerous, particularly for those who are not strong swimmers or unfamiliar with these conditions.
It’s always crucial to check the local weather and lake conditions before deciding to swim. In addition, visitors should be mindful of the water temperature, as Lake Michigan can remain chilly even in the summer months.
Make It to Mount Baldy (While You Still Can)
Yellowstone has Old Faithful. Yosemite has Half Dome and El Capitan. Indiana Dunes has Mount Baldy. This famed sand dune is known as much for its beauty as its beastly side. It’s by far one of the most popular things to do in Indiana Dunes National Park.
In 2013, a 6-year-old boy was literally swallowed by the sand dune on an otherwise perfectly normal family outing. It was a race against time and a miracle of sorts that the boy was saved after being buried in 11 feet of sand for more than three hours.
While that portion of the trail is off-limits, aside from some carefully planned ranger tours, the Beach Trail is a designated path and rite of passage for many Indiana Dunes National Park visitors. It’s steep to get to the beach and feels 10 times steeper to climb out.
Visit while you can because Mt. Baldy is moving. Every storm and wind event blows it a little more inland, gobbling up parking and structures in its path.
Take the “Diana of the Dunes Dare”
I was intrigued to take a ghostly walk through a haunted stretch of the dunes when I first heard about the “Diana of the Dunes Dare,” one of the newest things to do in Indiana Dunes National Park. I quickly learned two things—her name wasn’t really Diana, and the tales of her ghostly sightings pale in comparison to the story of her life.
Diana was a Roman goddess of the hunt and wildlife, which was a great nickname for Alice Mabel Gray, who sought respite here in the early 20th century. Leaving her education and modern amenities behind, she retreated to a life of living off the sand.
You can now walk in her footsteps with legacy lessons along the way, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll see her apparition offshore, bathing in the cold Lake Michigan waters.
One Day Indiana Dunes National Park Itinerary
Morning: Start your day early to make the most of your visit. Start with a hike on the Dune Succession Trail, where you can enjoy a mile-long walk with stunning views of Lake Michigan. This trail includes a climb up 250 steps leading to a dune that offers a spectacular view of the lake and the Chicago skyline on clear days.
Late Morning: Next, head to the nearby West Beach area for a swim. Remember to check the current conditions and swim only if it’s safe. After your swim, you can relax on the sandy beach, sunbathe, or even build a sandcastle.
Afternoon: After you’ve dried off, consider having a picnic lunch at one of the park’s picnic areas. Then, head to the Chellberg Farm to learn about the region’s history. You can tour the farmhouse, see the farm animals, and walk the trails around the farm.
Late Afternoon: Make your way to the Bailly Homestead and Chellberg Farm area for a hike on the Little Calumet River Trail. This trail will take you through wetlands, forests, and prairies. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife along the way.
Evening: As your day comes to an end, head back to Lake Michigan’s shoreline to enjoy a beautiful sunset. The Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk is a great spot for this. After the sunset, you might want to end your day with a nice meal in one of the nearby towns like Chesterton or Valparaiso.
Map of the Best Things to Do in Indiana Dunes National Park
Summary of the Best Things to Do in Indiana Dunes National Park
- Take The Diana of the Dunes Dare
- Mount Baldy
- Scale the Dune Succession Trail
- 1966 Hiking Challenge
- Singing Sands
- Wander on the Sand
- Black Oak Savanna
- Cowles Bog Trail
- Taste the Trees
- Lake Michigan Beaches
- Tour the World Fair Homes
- Chellberg Farm
- Horseback Riding
FAQ – Things to Do in Indiana Dunes National Park
I recommend spending one day at Indiana Dunes National Park which will give you plenty of time to see all of the park’s top attractions.
As a national park nut I’d say Indiana Dunes National Park is worth a visit if you’re in the area but not one of the best parks to plan a trip around.
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Helpful Related Links
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