Believe It or Not, This Beachy National Park Sits Just Outside Chicago
Trade deep-dish pizza for paradise.
In terms of outdoor beauty and natural splendor, Indiana probably isn’t the first state that comes to mind; after all, a place best known for its annual car races doesn’t exactly scream “conservation.” But one peek at Indiana Dunes National Park, one of the most surprising units in the National Park System, and you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to Hawaii—unless you visit in the winter, when the distinctions become much clearer.
For a park so proximal to urban areas—the smoggy Chicago skyline towers in the distance—Indiana Dunes feels worlds away, a peaceful respite of pristine shoreline and Splenda-soft sand so close to the city that Chicagoans can get to a national park quicker than they can get to O’Hare.
Of course, that proximity goes both ways. When Indiana Dunes was initially designated as a national park, some bemoaned the audacity of putting a beach bookended by power plants in the same category as Yellowstone. But ever the underrated sleeper hit, Indiana Dunes is full of surprises even the harshest critics can’t ignore: Indiana Dunes has more biodiversity than even Yellowstone—and almost all other national parks.
It was this abundance of diverse, delicate vegetation that spurred a movement, led by the “father of plant ecology” Henry Cowles, to preserve the lakeshore in the late-1800s as steel mills and power plants sprouted up like noxious weeds; it grew from a state park in 1926 and a national lakeshore in 1966 before gaining national park status—and increased protections—in 2019.
Today, despite being one of the smallest national parks by size, Indiana Dunes is now the 11th most visited park in the country with 2.3 million annual tourists. And in any case, it’s all about quality over quantity here, where prairies, swamps, bayou-looking wetlands, and sand dunes the size of small mountains—all open for hiking, camping, kayaking, and birdwatching—all overlook a lake so tropical blue you feel like you should be wearing a lei.
When to visit Indiana Dunes National Park
Being so close to Chicago means Indiana Dunes National Park shares the same infamously drastic weather swings as the Windy City, from polar vortexes in the winter to sweltering humidity in the summer, meaning every season in the park comes with its own unique experiences.
Summer is prime time for visitation as far as weather goes, particularly because the lakefront is basically a sustainable South Beach for Chicagoans. When temps get hot, especially in July and August, locals flock here to splash in a particularly pristine portion of Lake Michigan, throw picnics, and sunbathe on the silken sand. Around this time of year, you’ll be joined by the vast majority of the park’s 2.3 million annual visitors, so arrive early or prepare for a little parking lot road rage.
Early fall is lovely and far more peaceful, with diminishing crowds, cooler temps, and luminous foliage. Though it’ll be too chilly to swim, sweater weather season has its own rewards—plus you can make a whole Indiana day of it and go apple picking nearby.
Spring in the Midwest is a fickle beast, vacillating between surprisingly warm days and surprisingly arctic ones as wildflowers begin to bloom and the incredibly wholesome maple sugar festival gets underway. And then there’s winter. On the one hand, you can go cross-country skiing or snowshoeing in the park, and likely have it all to yourself. On the other hand, “frozen windswept hellscape” is a phrase that will apply, so brace yourself accordingly.
Lounge on the Midwest’s most popular lakeshore
The most surprising aspect of Indiana Dunes, especially in light of its dainty acreage, is the immensity of outdoor activities to be had here. Despite the fact that the park is 146 times smaller than Yellowstone, it really maximizes its usability with some 50 miles of hiking trails, 37 miles of bike paths, 15 miles of preserved shoreline for swimming and sandcastle construction, and fishing aplenty from the Little Calumet River to the Portage Lakefront pier.
The most popular attraction in Indiana Dunes, though, is, of course, the lakeshore—all 15 miles of it. The park is divvied into different beaches, like West Beach, Porter Beach, and Dunbar Beach, each with its own parking lot, potable water, and restrooms.
Glass containers and fires are prohibited on the beach, but West Beach and Lake View Beach have dedicated grilling areas for cookouts. Otherwise, the lake is an all-natural playground for swimming, sunbathing, and picnicking, and sunset strolls are absolutely stunning in the summer.
Go hiking, biking, and up and down the dunes
While much of the hiking trails are relatively flat and easy (this is the Midwest, lest you forget), the dunes will get your heart pumping with surprisingly intense elevation. Easier, shorter jaunts include the paved half-mile Calumet Dunes Trail and Dune Ridge Trail, which weaves through wetlands, forests, and dunes in under a mile.
Things get tougher on the Mount Baldy Beach Trail, a short but steep ascent to get to the lake, or the three-mile Tolleston Dunes Trail, which puts the park’s biodiversity on full display with oak savanna habitats, wetlands, lupines, and even prickly pear cactus. (Yes—cacti in the Midwest!).
For cyclists, the park’s biking trail system encompasses plenty of mileage between the Calumet Bike Trail, the Dunes Kankakee Bike Trail, the Prairie Duneland Bike Trail, and others, while the Glenwood Dunes Trails provide an opportunity for horseback riding as the only equestrian area in the park.
If you’re bold enough to bundle up for a wintry visit, snowshoes and cross-country skis can be rented from the Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education for use on the Paul H. Douglas Trail. You’re welcome to venture elsewhere, but you’ll need to BYO your own winter gear in other parts of the park.
Things to know before you go
Starting March 31, 2022, the Indiana Dunes park entrance fee will be $25 per vehicle or $15 for individuals entering on foot, bike, or boat. This is not to be confused with the adjoining Indiana Dunes State Park, which charges an entry fee of $7 for in-state vehicles or $12 for out-of-state plates.
If you’re visiting during the summer months, beach parking lots fill up quickly, especially on weekends or holidays. All are open from 6 am until 11 pm daily, but you’ll want to arrive on the earlier side—by mid-morning, at least—to ensure you can snag a spot. Conversely, you can wait out the rush and arrive later in the afternoon, when the earlier flood of visitors ebbs.
West Beach, one of the more popular entry points, has the largest lot, and it’s also the only beach with lifeguards. Swimming is fun and all, but it’s important to be mindful and cautious; Lake Michigan is the size of a sea and acts like it, with periodic rip currents and high waves. Heed rip current warnings posted at beaches, but should you find yourself tugged into deeper water, try and stay calm and swim parallel to shore to get out of it.
Whether you’re slumming it at the beach or hiking through the wetlands, it’s also important to bring plenty of sunscreen, water, and bug spray. Sun-shielding hats and sunglasses are also advised.
Where to stay near Indiana Dunes National Park
The main on-site option is Dunewood Campground, open April 1 through November 1 with dozens of tent and RV sites at $25 per night, and Lake View Beach nearby. Affordable chains abound right outside the park, like the Hilton Garden Inn Chesterton or Baymont by Wyndham Portage Indiana Dunes.
For something a little funkier, Riley’s Railhouse is a B&B in an old freight train station, brimming with railroad antiques and rooms overlooking active train tracks. For more amenities and urban proximity, Indiana Dunes’ easy access to smaller cities like Gary and Michigan City provides plenty of lodging options.
Then, obviously, there’s Chicago under an hour away, loaded with every hotel or Airbnb imaginable, lots of solid neighborhood options, and essentially every other creature comfort—including deep-dish pizza and other non-negotiable Chicago essentials—we wish all national park trips could offer. Best of all: From the Windy City, you can hop on the South Shore Train, which can take you straight to the dunes.