8 Reasons to Drive to Michigan City & Indiana Dunes National Park
From windswept dunes and rugged hikes to throwback motels and local beer.
Follow Lake Michigan’s dipping shoreline about an hour or so east of Chicago to the Michigan-Indiana border, and you’ll find gargantuan singing sand dunes (more on that later), some of the country’s most ecologically rich flora, fauna, and vegetation, and technicolor lakefront sunsets that will remind you that God does, in fact, exist. Okay—maybe that last part was a tad dramatic, but Michigan City, Indiana, and the surrounding Indiana Dunes National Park (recently upgraded from Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, no big) will undoubtedly impress with its menagerie of ascending trails, sweeping prairies, serene wetlands, and towering sand mounds cascading into crystal clear glacial waters. But don’t just take our word for it.
This particular stretch of midwestern beauty served as the birthplace of modern(ish) ecology thanks to renowned researcher Henry Chandler Cowles who studied the area back in 1899. The fluctuating growth that flows from sand to forest, known as “plant succession,” laid the groundwork for much of today’s scientific comprehension and conservation groups have for generations fought to preserve this land, as the dunes are sadly eroding from water fluctuation, climate change-induced wind speeds, and unauthorized off-path foot traffic.
That’s not to say it’s all greenery. Michigan City acts as the ideal homebase for park-goers, dripping with history and small town charm including restful accommodations and a bounty of enticing cuisine. Postcard-worthy vacation homes line the shore, while inland farms supply grapes for wineries, grain for craft breweries, and fresher-than-produce for local restaurants. Admire the cresting dunes and expansiveness of Lake Michigan from your beach chair, slap on the sunscreen and work up a sweat along grassy sand trails, and lose yourself in dense oak and pine forests. And when you’ve had your nature fix, head into town to discover just what Michigan City is all about—namely beers, seafood, barbecue, and some of the cutest inns and beachside stays imaginable. Here are eight bangup reasons to get your butt out to Michigan City on the double.
Stretch out at a retro motel, romantic cabin, handsome lodge, or picturesque Airbnb
Pre-made beds feel oh-so-good after a long day at the lake. Here are a few options in spitting distance of the dunes that will make your stay utterly delightful.
Sometimes all you want is the comforts of a classic chain hotel, with an indoor heated swimming pool, complimentary continental breakfast, and endless fresh towels, and the trusty Hampton Inn has your back there. Elsewhere, dog-friendly 4411 Inn and Suites is an eye-catching renovated roadside motel balancing a charmingly throwback vibe with the modern amenities like locally roasted coffee, double suites, and private porches. Don’t miss the updated gas fire pits and Adirondack chairs for late night lounging under the stars. And the affordable and conveniently located Bridge Inn offers all the basics within walking distance to Michigan City restaurants.
Yearning for a little alone time with your loved one in your own pondside cabin? Serenity Springs has 30 such hideaways to choose from, complete with hot tubs. Over in Lakeside, White Rabbit Inn is a bit further out but the cozy, comfortable cabins make it well worth the extra miles. How about a beer with your bed? The Brewery Lodge has got you covered. Spread over 40 acres of woodland, this boutique resort boasts a fully loaded wine and beer bar as well as an inhouse supper club serving American lodge cuisine for dinner and brunch. Oh, and if you're feeling lucky, head over to the flashy Four Winds Casino in New Buffalo or Blue Chip Casino in the heart of Michigan City and let the good times roll.
This is vacation central, afterall, so there’s no shortage of private Airbnbs around these parts. Options run the gamut from a treehouse paradise and blissed-out beachy bungalows to pastoral cottages channelling the likes of Anne of Green Gables.
Or dust off those flashlights and bust out the family tent at a serene campground
Screw starchy sheets and mini shampoo bottles—you came here to get close to nature, so you might as well snuggle right up against those perfectly cool late summer temperatures. Any of these tranquil Michigan City area campgrounds is tailor made for silencing your phone and letting the crickets and cicadas sing you to sleep.
Located smack-dab in the middle of the National Park, Indiana State Park Campgrounds is home to hundreds of tree covered sites with instant access to the beach and hiking trails, not to mention simply epic lakefront views. Aside from tent-only spots, you’ll also find electrical hookups for the RV-toting crowd as well as rustic cabins for rent.
Dunewood Campgrounds offers both walk-in and drive-up non-electric sites for RV’d and tented folk over two loops studded with modern restrooms and showers. There are a few convenience stores about a quarter mile outside the park, but nothing onsite, so make sure to stock up on supplies before you unload. Frills? Who needs ‘em?
Michigan City Campground sits a short drive from the park and may not be as big as the two government-funded grounds, but it does have a pool and a camp store peddling all your adventuresome needs. They also have various cabins for rent with toilets and showers for those wanting a little more privacy.
Soak up the rays (and the sounds) along south shore beaches
The truly spectacular and wholly unique landscape here is the result of thousands of years of water, wind, and vegetation growth upon this melted glacial shoreline. And yes, the sand dunes actually sing… or bark, hum, whistle, squeak—depends on who you ask. But for the curious, the eerie sound is produced when environmental factors like humidity, sand grain shape, wind, and wave breaks combine to create just the right amount of friction. The noises vary in frequency and pitch, but don’t take our word for it—grab your best beach umbrella and find a peaceful place to stretch out and listen. The National Park’s southern shoreline comes equipped with nine different lakefront oases, each with their own quirks. Here’s how to get started.
West Beach, as its name suggests, is the Park’s westernmost destination. It’s got clean facilities and lots of space to get your tan, swim, or wander on. On clear days, it reveals a breathtaking view of the Chicago skyline, but you’ll have to walk a little ways from the parking area to get down to the waves. Make sure to get there early, as the lot fills up mighty quickly. And if you’re getting antsy just laying around, make sure to check out the series of trails that begin once you've reached the sand.
The recently reopened Central Avenue Beach stands in the shadow of enormous dunes and sits about a quarter of a mile from the parking lot along an idyllic forested trail. The shore here has a unique pebbly surface and, depending on water levels, this area tends to be shallower in depth.
Kemil Beach is a larger and much quieter beach for those who like a little less beach day company. From here, you can also access a trail that overlooks a sprawling wetland called the Great Marsh. Neighboring Dunbar Beach is also less crowded and provides stunning views of five historic homes built for the 1933 Century of Progress World's Fair. Porter Beach is a popular beach, thanks to its long stretch of shoreline and architecturally intriguing pavilion stocked with snacks and beverages.
Head off on a hike through the rolling dunes
Indiana Dunes National Park encompasses over 50 miles of transient and stable dune terrain alongside wooden staircases that wind hikers around the sandy hillsides with ease or with effort, whichever you fancy. Choose your own adventure with these easy, moderate, and rugged trail recommendations. And remember: The trails are mostly pet friendly, but remember to always keep ol’ Spot on a leash.
Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk Trail is a relaxing, partially paved route set on repurposed National Steel property. Take in the dune progression as you stroll closer to the water’s edge and finish your jaunt with a visit to the enclosed pavilion, open to visitors and rife with snacks and beverages.
Landing somewhere between easy and moderate, Dune Ridge Trail leads you down and around one steep dune, past older growth, and through a biodiverse habitat meandering from loose sand to grasses and forested areas. The view from the top of the climb overlooks The Great Marsh and serves as a prime vantage point for birders.
The more strenuous Cowles Bog Trail, named after groundbreaking American botanist and ecological pioneer Henry Cowles, guides hikers through black oak savannas and other stretches of rich plantlife diversity. Impressive panoramas of swamps, marshes, and Lake Michigan are just some of the highlights here. Note that this course gets a bit rough at points, so make sure to lather on the SPF and pack your granola bars and water.
From the Nature Center parking lot, those who dare can lace up their boots and set off on Trail 9, a challenging route that traverses a variety of dune progressions and tree-covered expanses with varied terrain for that extra kick in the butt your quarantine bod just might need. Rewards come in the form of bragging rights and a magnificent dune vista with Insta-worthy views of shimmering Lake Michigan.
Can’t decide? Hit the West Beach Dune Trail Loop for a three-in-one banger. First up, the Dune Succession Trail leads nature-lovers both up and down ~270 calf-busting wooden steps meant to preserve the landscape, complete with amazing views of Lake Michigan, the dunes, and Chicago’s looming skyline. Keep on trucking and you’ll soon discover the West Beach Trail’s sand-laden stretch before making your way to the 2.2 mile finisher, Long Lake Trail.
Pull up a stool at a local bar, brewery, or winery
Thirsty? Why wait? Michigan City heavy-hitter Shoreline Brewery serves housebrewed beers as hoppy, tart, or malty as they come. And with an onslaught of bar snacks, stone earth oven-fired pizza, and a kid-friendly menu, there’s plenty on hand to soak up all those suds. Over in nearby Buffalo City, feel #blessed with a beer in hand at Beer Church Brewery. This quaint church-turned-brewpub dishes up small batch brews alongside delicious Neapolitan-style pizza. Another gem, Zorn Brewery lies within Michigan City’s limits, and slings local beers out of a historic carriage house. Come hungry since they also specialize in tasty burgers, brisket, and Bang Bang shrimp.
If you haven’t yet experienced Michiana's budding wine scene, it’s high time you got properly acquainted. Dip your toes in the rosé-spiked waters over at Anderson Winery, where a canopied patio offers seating with a view plus regular live music. Elsewhere, Shady Creek Wine spans 20 marvelous acres and incorporates both locally grown grapes and West Coast varietals into their boundary-pushing fleet.
Old-school watering holes run rampant in these parts, and Ritz Klub Tavern has long held court as Michigan City’s finest. Established in 1890, this timeless dive is teeming with midwestern charm and ice cold bottles of beer. Beach bums flock to Sunset Grille, with its rooftop seating, unparalleled waterfront views, specialty cocktails, and a limited but undeniably enticing food menu.
Satisfy your appetite at seafood joints, gastropubs, and farm-to-table favorites
You’re in the midwest, of course, so there’s no shortage of burgers and ribs here. But you also don’t necessarily have to succumb to all those meaty temptations—Michigan City is home to plenty of standout seafood spots peddling everything from fish fries and clam chowder to oysters and fresh-caught fish. Bartlett Fish Camp’s majestic deck provides a scenic backdrop for folks chomping their way through stellar plates of swordfish, lobster, crabakes, and mussels. Surrounded by four fairytale bridges, family-run Bridges Waterside Grill looks out over Trail Creek and charms crowds with seasonal seafood creations, American standards, and a signature margarita called Fall Off The Top Shelf guaranteed to, well—you’ll just have to try it and find out for yourself.
Looking for some overstuffed burritos and craveworthy Cali-style Mexican food? Mucho Mas has your number. Need to carb-load before you hit the trails? Dune Billies is your one-stop-shop for breakfast and lunch classics like reubens, biscuits and gravy, breakfast burritos, and fresh coffee for the caffeine faithful. Goblin & the Grocer is a bonafide trifecta—a market, pub, and cafe with a breezy patio for sipping a coffee or glass of wine while digging into the many raw bar, charcuterie board, and main course offerings. And, last but not least, 21-and-up Porter institution Wagner's Ribs is the place to be when it comes to all things booze and barbecue.
Strap on a life jacket and get out on the water
Harbor Country Adventures is your go-to adventure facilitator on both land and water, with sea rockets, party cruises, lake tours, and, if that wasn't enough, wine country excursions. With three locations scattered along the shoreline, Third Coast Paddling offers stand-up paddle boarding as well as single and double kayaks perfect for traversing the Paw Paw and Galien Rivers. Cast a line in hopes of baiting a hefty salmon or trout with Bill on his luxury charter boat at Cloud Nine Fishing Charters, over in New Buffalo, you set sail with the pros at New Buffalo Sailing Excursions.
Tear yourself away from the lake for some inland action
Michigan City’s main attraction is the water, for sure, but don’t sleep on this quaint little town’s turfside activities. From shopping to museums, there’s more than enough on land to lure you away from Lake Michigan… at least for a few hours.
Spend an afternoon perusing the wares at Lighthouse Premium Outlets, a massive outdoor mall boasting more than 84 top retailers. Pop into Nike or Adidas to stock up on fresh kicks and streetwear to complement your new tan or venture into the Northface outlet to start prepping your winter lewks on the cheap.
You’ll be surprised how compelling the showings are at The Lubeznik Center for the Arts. An eclectic museum and arts center in downtown Michigan City, LCA consistently lines its walls with innovative and poignant exhibitions. Entering its 40th year in operation, the space is small but brimming with thought-provoking curiosities as well as cultural events planned for late summer and fall. History buffs beeline it out to Old Lighthouse Museum, a 1858 lighthouse and living quarters that gives guests a taste of just how essential this post was for the Great Lakes navigators of yore.
The agriculturally-inclined should definitely pay a visit to Chellberg Farm, where National Park staffers are likely to put you to work feeding the farm animals and tending to other chores on the old-school grounds. And while midwestern farm animals are cool and all, Michigan City’s Washington Park Zoo wows with a whole boatload of more exotic furry friends. And flower nuts could do worse than Friendship Botanic Gardens, where a peaceful stroll through late summer blooms is bound to tickle the senses (not to mention the sinuses).