Park Chasers is just getting back from a quick visit to Indiana Dunes National Park in Indiana. In 2019 Indiana Dunes celebrated its addition as the 61st national park in the NPS.
We tacked on a short, one-day visit to our longer stay for a work conference in Chicago. Indiana Dunes was our 71st park unit on our quest to visit all units in the National Park Service and our first national park unit in Indiana.
Today we’re posting about our day-long visit to the park and how to see the best of the park in just a short time.
Where is Indiana Dunes National Park?
Formerly known as Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Indiana Dunes National Park is located on the southern shore of Lake Michigan. It’s located near Gary, Indiana and the gateway towns of Michigan City and Porter, Indiana.
We chose Indiana Dunes for our 71st national park unit because it’s about an hour from downtown Chicago. We were able to add a visit to the dunes onto a work trip. Check out our list of other national park units near Chicago for ideas about where else to travel near Indiana Dunes.
While it’s possible to spend several days camping and hiking in the park, we only had a day to spend at Indiana Dunes. Here’s what we’d recommend if you’ve only got a short time to see everything the park has to offer.
8:30 AM – Arrive at the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center in Porter
Our first stop in the park was the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center near the gateway town of Porter, Indiana. We recommend that it’s your first stop at all national parks. Get the unigrid and collect the park stamp, and check in with a ranger or park volunteer about hiking options.
When we arrived the park staff let us know there was a special event likely to cause congestion in one area of the park. If we weren’t interested in attending, we should avoid that part of the park since traffic would slow us down from seeing everything else in the area. This type of information is really helpful to plan a visit to any park, and only available if you stop at the visitor’s center.
9:00 AM – Mt. Baldy Area
The Mt. Baldy area is one of the most popular places to visit in Indiana Dunes. Mt. Baldy is one of the most dynamic dunes in the park, moving up to 10 feet in a year. It towers over 125 feet above Lake Michigan and a gorgeous first place to visit in the park.
We parked in the parking area and hiked the short 0.8-mile trail to the beach. We walked the beach, took some photos of the dunes, and enjoyed the views of lake before hiking back on the same trail to the car.
Mt. Baldy is one of the most threatened places in the park due to erosion and human impacts of climbing the dune. At this time, the Mt. Baldy summit area is closed to hiking unless you attend a ranger-led hike (typically held weekends during the summer). If you’re not able to visit on a ranger-led hike, it’s still impressive to view the dune from the beach and there are other opportunities to hike to the top of taller dunes in the park.
10:00 am – Lakefront Drive & 1933 Century of Progress Homes
As we worked our way along the lakeshore, we next drove along Lakefront Drive to another area of the park. It’s marked on the map as Beverly Shores and the 1933 Century of Progress Homes.
With the theme of a Century of Progress, 5 homes were built for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair in this area. Each home was built to demonstrate modern architectural design, experimental materials, and new technologies such as central air conditioning and dishwashers. The house in the picture above is the Florida Tropical House, built by a Miami architect and designed similar to homes in Southern Florida.
They are now private residences and being restored under the National Register of Historic Places. Plaques and signs outside each home describe the 1933 event and how the National Park Service has partnered to keep the history alive of these interesting homes.
11:00 am – 3 Dune Challenge
For the next leg of the trip, we traveled out of the national park boundary and into Indiana Dunes State Park. Managed by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, the park has some of tallest dunes in the area, great beaches, and the 3 Dune Challenge.
The 3 Dune Challenge takes visitors up and over the three tallest dunes in the state park with more than 522 vertical feet of climbing. At 1.5 miles and in the sand, it’s a great workout and on a clear day you can see Chicago from the top. When you finish the dune challenge, stop at the state park visitor’s center to collect a free sticker. The center also has a shipwreck exhibit and some other area information worth the stop.
If you’re not up for the dune challenge, the trails around the bathhouse and beach are still worth the visit.
1:00 pm – Dune Succession Trail
After visiting the state park, we then returned back to National Park Service property and hiked the Dune Succession Trail. Located in the West Beach area of the park, the trail has detailed markers surveying the plant life of the dune ecosystem. The trail starts from the beach, traveling the sandy areas of the youngest dunes. We then hiked among some of the most southernly jack pines in North America. The trail finally climbs about 250 stairs up to the top of ‘grandparent’ dunes and views of Lake Michigan.
There are several other trails that can be added to the 0.92-mile Dune Succession Trail if you have more time. All three loops at West Beach total 3.4 miles, a good alternative afternoon to the 3-Dune Challenge.
2:30 pm – Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education
The last stop we made in the park before heading back to Chicago was the Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education in Gary, IN. Unlike the other visitor’s center, the Paul H. Douglas Center is all about interactive exhibits. They have unique trails, ranger programming, and even some live animals to explore. It’s a terrific spot for kids to explore and a good place to collect your Junior Ranger badge.
Other Things to Know when Visiting Indiana Dunes
- Weather can make or break this park. It’s right on Lake Michigan and much of the hiking around the dunes is exposed. Heat, wind, and rain will all make a difference so be prepared for anything.
- Indiana Dunes used to be a national lakeshore. Some of the signage both in the national park and on the roads leading there still say lakeshore (and likely will for a while with the current funding backlogs). Just make sure you’re looking for both as you travel.
- Indiana Dunes a smaller national park than other spots you may have visited. It’s also very close to industrial areas. It’s gorgeous and it’s possible to have a fun outdoor experience. But expect to have a different experience than other large, remote national parks like Yosemite or Yellowstone.
- Cell phone service was spotty on some of the beach areas of the park. Although the park is easy to navigate, it’s best to plug in directions to your GPS before you travel.
- The National Park Service annual pass does not cover admission to the Indiana Dunes State Park (separate fee paid to the Indiana DNR) or parking at the West Beach area. Expect to have cash or credit card if you intend to enter either of these areas.
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