Indiana Dunes National Park is a northern Indiana park that offers scenic hiking trails, beautiful beaches, and biodiversity unlike anywhere else on the planet. Below you’ll find the ultimate guide to Indiana Dunes National Park, including the best things to do, where to stay, when to visit, and more.
Indiana Dunes National Park
About Indiana Dunes National Park
Situated on the southern shores of Lake Michigan, Indiana Dunes National Park is a diverse area with ancient dunes, rare black-oak savannas, verdant marshes, biodiverse bogs, and beautiful beaches.
Apart from the incredible scenery, there are tons of fun activities to keep visitors entertained for days on end.
From hiking and biking to birdwatching and beachcombing, Indiana Dunes National Park is an outdoor playground that entices millions of visitors to its shores each year.
Is Indiana Dunes National Park worth visiting?
As one of the newest parks in the system, people from all across the country have been flocking to Indiana Dunes National Park - and you should too!
Not only is it one of the most biodiverse areas in the United States, but it’s also extremely small, allowing you to see a lot of its main attractions in a short period of time.
The beautiful dunes and soft sand beaches are other draws, and the park’s convenient location less than 40 miles from Chicago makes it highly accessible.
History of Indiana Dunes National Park
Long before Indiana Dunes was dubbed a national park, this area has fascinated botanists, beach enthusiasts, and developers alike.
Luckily, the work of one botanist from the University of Chicago, Henry Cowles, saved the area from destruction.
His groundbreaking work and studies in this area earned him the nickname of “the father of modern ecology” and gained this fascinating area protection as a national lakeshore.
In 2019, the lakeshore was upgraded to a national park and has been enticing millions of visitors each year ever since.
Things to know before your visit to Indiana Dunes National Park
The Indiana Dunes NP entrance fee covers only the national park and does not cover the Indiana Dunes State Park entrance fee.
7-day single-vehicle park pass - $25
7-day individual park pass - $15
7-day motorcycle park pass - $20
Annual Park Pass - $45
Valid for one year through the month of purchase. Admits one private, non-commercial vehicle or its pass holder.
Planning a National Park vacation? America the Beautiful/National Park Pass covers entrance fees for an entire year to all US National Park Sites and over 2,000 Federal Recreation Fee Sites.
The park pass covers everyone in the car for per vehicle sites and for up to 4 adults for per-person sites.
Buy on REI.com and REI will donate 10% of pass proceeds to the National Forest Foundation, National Park Foundation and the U.S. Endowment for Forestry & Communities.
Learn more about National Park Passes for parks that have an entrance fee.
Free Entrance Days -Mark your calendars with the five free entrance days the National Park Service offers annually.
CT - Central Time
Pets must be on a leash less than 6 feet in length. Pets are not allowed on the Pinhook Bog Trail but can be on the Pinhook Upland Trail.
Pets are not allowed on the equestrian area of the Glenwood Dunes Trail System.
Pets are allowed on the beach year-round except in the lifeguarded swimming area at West Beach from the Friday of Memorial Day weekend to the Monday of Labor Day Weekend.
There should be fairly good cell service while in the park.
The park is open year-round from 6:00 AM - 11:00 PM.
The West Beach Entrance is open from 7:00 AM - 9:00 PM. Note that holidays may affect these hours.
Visitor Center hours vary by season and are closed on certain holidays.
Public Wi-Fi is available
Insect repellent is always a great idea when outdoors, especially if you are around any body of water.
We use Permethrin Spray on our clothes before our park trips.
Make sure to bring your own water bottle and plenty of water with you. Plastic water bottles are not sold in the park.
The park is implementing technology and guidance sensors to provide information about parking availability.
Visitors will be able to check which parking lots have spaces in real-time via congestionmonitor.com/INDU
Parking info will also be displayed in real-time at the visitor center.
Central Avenue Beach Parking Lot - 68 spaces/0 oversized
Dunbar Beach Parking Lot - 24 spaces/ 0 oversized
Kemil Beach Parking Lot - 96 spaces/ 0 oversized
Lake View Parking Lot - 25 spaces/ - 0 oversized
Mt. Baldy Parking Lot - 89 spaces/ 3 oversized
Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk Parking Lot - 97 spaces/ 0 oversized
Porter Beach Parking Lot - 65 spaces / 0 oversized
West Beach Parking Lot - 655 spaces/ 50 oversized
There are no restaurants within the park. There are multiple in the area along with major grocery stores.
There are gas stations along the entire length of the park and are clustered near Interstate 94 exits, along U.S. Highways 12 and 20, and State Road 49.
Drones are not permitted within National Park Sites.
National Park Passport Stamps
National Park Passport stamps can be found in the visitor center.
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is part of the 1991 Passport Stamp Set.
Electric Vehicle Charging
There is a 2 vehicle charging station at the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center.
There are 21 EV Charging Stations within 10 miles of Gary, Indiana
Details about Indiana Dunes National Park
Size - 15,349 acres
Indiana Dunes NP is currently ranked at 59 out of 63 National Parks by Size.
February 15, 2019 - Congress authorized the name change from Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore to National Park.
The park was the 61st US National Park.
In 2021, Indiana NP had 3,177,210 park visitors.
In 2020, Indiana NP had 2,293,106 park visitors.
In 2019, Indiana NP had 2,134,285 park visitors.
National Park Address
Dorothy Buell Visitor Center
Porter, IN 46304
National Park Map
Where is Indiana Dunes National Park?
Indiana Dunes National Park is located in northern Indiana on the southern shores of Lake Michigan. It’s just a hop, skip, and a jump away from Chicago - under 40 miles to be exact.
Many visitors drive into the park, but its convenient location ON the beaten path also makes it possible to get here via train and public bus (more on that below).
The park is interrupted by Indiana Dunes State Park, which charges an entrance fee ($7 for Indiana residents and $12 for out-of-state visitors).
Estimated distance from major cities nearby
Chicago, IL - 36 miles
Milwaukee, WI - 126 miles
Fort Wayne, IN - 120 miles
Indianapolis, IN - 153 miles
Madison, WI - 181 miles
Toledo, OH - 200 miles
Cincinnati, OH - 266 miles
Detroit, MI - 237 miles
Louisville, KY - 271 miles
Estimated Distance from nearby National Park
Cuyahoga Valley National Park - 305 miles
Gateway Arch National Park - 305 miles
Mammoth Cave National Park - 358 miles
Isle Royale National Park - 496 miles
New River Gorge National Park - 519 miles
Great Smoky Mountains National Park - 550 miles
Where is the National Park Visitor Center?
The Indiana Dunes Visitor Center is located on Indiana State Road 49, between U.S. Highway 20 and Interstate 94 (1215 North State Road 49, Porter, IN 46304).
GPS Coordinates: 41.633349, -87.053762 (Decimal Degrees).
Getting to Indiana Dunes National Park
Gary Regional Airport
South Bend Regional Airport (SBN)
Chicago Midway International Airport (MDW)
Chicago O'Hare International Airport (ORD)
The Chicago and South Shore Train stops within the park.
South Shore Railroad
4 stations near the park including the Dune Park Station, Beverly Shores Station, Ogden Dunes Station, and Miller Station.
Gary Public Bus
Bus Route 13 the Oak & Country Line Road passes directly in front of the Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education which is close to the entrance of West Beach.
The park can be reached via Interstate 94, Indiana Toll Road (Interstate 80/90), U.S. Highways 12 and 20, Indiana State Road 49, and other state roads.
Best time to visit Indiana Dunes National Park
The park is open year-round, but some seasons are better for visiting than others.
Most choose to explore the park between June and September before the frigid midwest winter sets in.
While weekends and holidays can be quite crowded, if you visit during the week, the summer season is by far the best time of year to experience Indiana Dunes National Park.
However, the park changes drastically with the seasons, and if you want to see it from all angles, be sure to come back and visit during the off-season as well.
Weather and Seasons
Spring is a great time to visit Indiana Dunes National Park, especially if you’re hoping to avoid the big summer crowds.
Early spring may be a bit chilly for beach day activities, but the hiking trails and other points of interest are much emptier when the temperatures are cooler.
The end of May is when the temperatures really start to rise, and visitors from all across the country make their way to Indiana Dunes National Park.
Summer is by far the most popular time to visit the park. With 15 miles of beach access, it’s not surprising that high temperatures bring large crowds to swim, sunbathe, and enjoy other beach activities.
While the weather may be perfect, if you’re hoping for a less busy park, you may want to avoid visiting during the summer months.
The autumn is another great season for visiting Indiana Dunes. Crowds start thinning out in mid-September, right in time for peak leaf-peeping season.
Milder temperatures, fewer visitors, and vibrant foliage all make autumn the perfect time to visit.
While few people choose to visit the park in the winter, those that do find a winter wonderland awaiting them.
The snow brings snowshoers and cross-country skiers to the park, though few others choose to brave the bitter Midwest winters.
Not only is the park almost completely empty throughout the winter, but the neighboring state park often lifts its entrance fee during the off-season as well.
Best Things to do in Indiana Dunes National Park
It’s no surprise that this incredibly biodiverse area is home to a wide variety of critters. While this is one of the smallest national parks in the country, there are 46 species of mammals and 60 butterfly species living in the park.
If you’re traveling with the kiddos, don’t hesitate to sign them up for a Junior Ranger Program. This is a fun, hands-on way to learn more about the park, including its history, flora and fauna, and more.
Once they complete the program, your kids will even receive a badge to commemorate their time at the park.
With over 350 bird species flying over the park at any given time, Indiana Dunes is one of the best places for bird watching in the entire country.
Take to the trails to discover the wide variety of birds that call the park home, including green herons, egrets, kingfishers, tree swallows, rusty blackbirds, and more.
Some of the best trails for birding include the Great Marsh Trail, Little Calumet River Trail, and Cowles Bog Trail.
Cyclists will be pleased to learn that Indiana Dunes National Park is part of a 37-mile interconnected trail system linking dunes, prairie, and forests for a mesmerizing ride.
If you don’t have time for the full jaunt, you can always pick a section or two to complete.
Some of the most popular trails include the Marquette Trail (2.1 miles) and the Prarie-Duneland Trail (10.3 miles), both of which traverse an abandoned railroad.
If you don’t want to haul your own bike along with you, there are a few outfitters in the surrounding area, one of which is conveniently located right next to the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center.
One of the best ways to experience Indiana Dunes National Park in all its glory is simply by plopping down on the beach.
The park boasts about 15 miles of beachfront with beautiful soft sand shores. Swimming in the chilly waters of Lake Michigan is best completed in July when temperatures are at their highest, and there are nine different beaches to choose from.
West Beach is a favorite, and there is a lifeguard posted up here in the summertime.
To escape the crowds, head to Kemil Beach or Central Avenue Beach. Even if you don’t visit at the peak of summer, the beaches are a great place for beachcombing, hiking, and watching shorebirds and waterfowl.
Hiking in Indiana Dunes National Park
Always carry the 10 essentials for outdoor survival when exploring.
Hiking is one of the top pastimes at Indiana Dunes National Park. Dune exploration is best experienced from the trail, so read on to discover some of the best hikes in the park.
Note that many of the park’s trails are strenuous uphill battles, some of which include grueling staircases. Of course, there are also some gentle trails with plenty of places to stop off and enjoy the scenery.
Dune Succession Trail - Easy - 1.1 miles - Loop
Located along West Beach, Dune Succession Trail leads hikers up about 270 steps to a lookout point with panoramic views over Lake Michigan.
On a clear day, you can even see Chicago peaking out in the distance. As you climb, you’ll see the various stages of dune development that start at the flat beach and eventually lead into a dense forest sprouting right from the sands.
Mount Baldy Beach Trail - Easy - .9 miles - Out & Back
This sandy beach trail is a great option for those who don’t want to tackle big staircases or steep dune faces. Well, not very steep ones, that is.
Don’t be fooled, though. Mount Baldy is the park’s most dynamic dune, though it has been slowly eroding and losing about four feet a year.
Because of this, the trail to its peak is often closed. If it does happen to be open during your visit - don’t miss it!
Little Calumet River Trail - Moderate - 3.9 miles - Loop
Unlike many of the other trails in the park, the Little Calumet River Trail leads you away from the dunes and into the forest.
You’ll meander past tiny bridges, forested areas, and the Mnoke prairie. This is a great hike for wildlife watching and birding, so keep your eyes peeled as you walk.
Cowles Bog Trail - Moderate - 4.3 miles - Loop
Cowles Bog is one of the most important areas in the park. Named for the biologist who studied this area and took big strides to protect it, Cowles Bog Trail passes by the park’s wetlands.
This is the most biodiverse area in the park - and one of the main reasons it was protected from development. The trail winds past marshes, ponds, and black-oak savannas.
There is also beach access and incredible views across the shoreline.
West Beach 3-Loop Trail - Moderate - 3.5 miles - Loop
If you’re interested in dunes, then head to the West Beach 3-Loop Trail. This trail features extensive boardwalks and displays all the stages of dune development.
The long staircase is seriously trying, but at least you’ll have views of jack pine groves, dunes, the lake, and the Chicago skyline to keep you preoccupied.
Paul H. Douglas (Miller Woods) Trail - Moderate - 3.5 miles - Out & Back
Located on the park’s west side, the Paul H. Douglas Trail winds through Miller Woods - a 1,042-acre grassland that is sparsely populated with fire-resistant oaks.
This trail is particularly delightful in the spring and early summer when the wildflowers are in full bloom.
Three Dune Challenge (Indiana Dunes State Park) - Easy - 1.5 miles - Loop
If you want to see the area’s three tallest dunes, you’ll have to head over to Indiana Dunes State Park. Trail 8, also known as the Three Dune Challenge, will lead you to the summit of these three dunes, Mount Tom (192 feet), Mount Holden (184 feet), and Mount Jackson (176 feet).
Note that you will need to pay an entrance fee to access the state park.
How to beat the crowds in Indiana Dunes National Park?
Although the park is a popular place in the summertime, there are a few ways you can avoid the crowds - even in peak season.
If you’re visiting during the summer months, plan your trip during the week rather than a weekend and get there early in the morning.
Many of the parking lots fill up by 10 AM during peak season, though if you do arrive later, the large 600+ spot parking lot at West Beach usually has a few spots available (note that there is a fee to park in this lot).
You could also plan your trip for the off-season. Winter, in particular, has the fewest crowds, and seeing the park covered in snow and frost certainly makes for a one-of-a-kind experience.
Where to stay when visiting Indiana Dunes National Park
There are no National Park Lodges within the park.
Thanks to its proximity to Chicago, there are tons of options in every budget for staying overnight near Indiana Dunes National Park.
There are also various chain hotels, vintage motels, rental homes, inns, and B&Bs in the nearby towns of Gary, Michigan City, Chesterton, and La Porte.
Best Western Indian Oak - Consider a stay at Best Western Indian Oak and take advantage of laundry facilities, a fireplace in the lobby, and a bar. For some rest and relaxation, visit the sauna or the steam room. Stay connected with free Wi-Fi in public areas, with speed of 25+ Mbps, and guests can find other amenities such as a 24-hour gym and a 24-hour business center
Comfort Inn & Suites Porter - Consider a stay at Comfort Inn & Suites Porter near Indiana Dunes and take advantage of laundry facilities, a gym, and a 24-hour business center. For some rest and relaxation, visit the hot tub. Stay connected with free in-room Wi-Fi.
Waterbird Lakeside Inn - Waterbird Lakeside Inn provides laundry facilities and more. Guests can connect to free in-room Wi-Fi. All guestrooms at Waterbird Lakeside Inn have comforts such as air conditioning, as well as amenities like free Wi-Fi. Guest reviews say good things about the clean, spacious rooms at the property.
Country Inn & Suites by Radisson, Portage, IN - At Country Inn & Suites by Radisson, Portage, IN, you can look forward to a free breakfast buffet, a terrace, and a library. In addition to laundry facilities and a fireplace in the lobby, guests can connect to free in-room Wi-Fi.
Hilton Garden Inn Chesterton - Take advantage of a grocery/convenience store, a terrace, and dry cleaning/laundry services at Hilton Garden Inn Chesterton. For some rest and relaxation, visit the sauna or the hot tub. Be sure to enjoy a meal at Great American Grill, the onsite family restaurant. Stay connected with in-room Wi-Fi (surcharge), with speed of 25+ Mbps, and guests can find other amenities such as a fireplace in the lobby and a 24-hour gym.
For hotel and lodging options near Indiana Dunes NP check out this list on Expedia.
Click on the map below to see current rates for hotels and vacation rentals near the park.
Indiana Dunes National Park Camping
For a fun adventure check out Escape Campervans. These campervans have built in beds, kitchen area with refrigerators, and more. You can have them fully set up with kitchen supplies, bedding, and other fun extras. They are painted with epic designs you can't miss!
Escape Campervans has offices in Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Denver, Chicago, New York, and Orlando
Season - April 1 through November 1
Rate - $25 per night
50% discount for Senior Annual, Senior Lifetime, and Access Pass.
If the national park campground is full, you can head over to the Indiana Dunes State Park Campground.
Season - Year-round
Rate - varies by site between $16-$65 per night
Additional campgrounds in the area include:
Weko Beach Campground - Bridgman, MI
This campground offers Lodging, RV and Tent Sites, Waterfront, canoeing/kayaking, and more
Yogi Bears Jellystone Park Camp Plymouth - Plymouth, IN
This campground offers lodging, RV and tent sites, waterfront, a pool, canoeing/kayaking, and more.
Pioneer Family Campground - Lake Village, IN
This campground offers lodging, RV and Tent Sites, beach, fishing, playground, and more.
Check out additional campgrounds on CampSpot.