Itineraries,  National Park Travel

How to Visit Cuyahoga Valley & Indiana Dunes National Parks in One Trip

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When I say “national parks,” what comes to mind? You might be thinking of stunning rock formations, or sweeping views of mountains, forests, and rivers. Maybe you have a more specific view in your mind’s eye – the alien flora of Joshua Tree or otherworldly underground formations of Carlsbad Caverns… Probably, whatever you see, you’re thinking of one of the wildly impressive national parks in the American West… but there are national parks all across the country, and they’re just as varied as those ones you imagine!

There aren’t many national parks in the Midwest, and most are pretty spread out – though they’re certainly beautiful and well worth a visit. If you’re hoping to visit all of the parks, stringing them together into multi-park trips is essential. Two of the Midwest national parks that are close enough to plan one trip are Cuyahoga Valley National Park and Indiana Dunes National Park.

Cuyahoga Valley Indiana Dunes Hero

If you’re wondering does anyone actually do this two-park trip?, the answer is yes! I made this exact trip with my friend Marissa from Postcards to Seattle in March 2024. She and I do a national parks trip every year, and due to Baby V’s birth earlier in the year, visiting these Midwest parks was ideal (especially since I live in Northeast Ohio!).

Based on our planning and experience visiting Cuyahoga Valley and Indiana Dunes in a three-day trip, here’s how you can do the same.

Itinerary Options

There are several ways you could put together this itinerary, but the most efficient way is to do it as a one-way trip, either traveling east-west (Option 1) or west-east (Option 2). In either case, the best way to travel between Cuyahoga Valley and Indiana Dunes is by car; whether you’re flying into the region or driving through – you’ll need a (rental) car!

Option 1: You could fly in/start in Cleveland (with a one-way rental from Cleveland to Chicago, if needed):

  • Day 1: Visit Cuyahoga Valley
  • Day 2: Drive to Indiana Dunes and spend the afternoon in the park
  • Day 3: Spend the morning in Indiana Dunes before driving to Chicago

Option 2: You could fly/start in Chicago (with a one-way rental from Chicago to Cleveland, if needed)

  • Day 1: Drive to and visit most of Indiana Dunes
  • Day 2: Finish any sights in Indiana Dunes and drive to Cleveland
  • Day 3: Visit Cuyahoga Valley

You could also modify either option to start/end in Cleveland or Chicago (thus you wouldn’t need a one-way rental, but would drive more) – if you’re planning to fly in to visit both of these parks, I recommend pricing out all four options for flights and car rentals (Cleveland-Chicago, Cleveland-Cleveland, Chicago-Cleveland, and Chicago-Chicago). I personally love using Kayak to do this.

If you’re driving through or call either of these cities home, you can just choose the option that makes the most sense for you from a logistics (rather than cost) perspective.

Spending a Day in Cuyahoga Valley

No matter which way you put your itinerary together, you’ll have a full day to spend at Cuyahoga Valley. I’ve got a separate post on how to spend a day in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, but here are the basics:

  • Start at the Boston Mills Visitor Center for park info
  • Visit the iconic Brandywine Falls, which is an easy walk
  • Grab lunch at Fishers in Peninsula, Ohio
  • Go for a hike at The Ledges and take in the view from the Overlook
  • Explore the Brecksville Reservation and/or Bedford Reservation, if you have the time and energy

As Cuyahoga Valley National Park is just outside Cleveland, you can stay near the park or elsewhere in the city – or even fly home after visiting (if you’re doing itinerary Option 2 and are short on time). I don’t have resources about visiting other parts of Cleveland, but my friend Amanda runs Cleveland Traveler and you can find tons of info there.

Spending Two Half-Days in Indiana Dunes

No matter how you slice it, it makes more sense to spend two half-days (an afternoon followed by a morning) at Indiana Dunes than a single day. Like Cuyahoga Valley, Indiana Dunes is a long, skinny park with a visitor center in the morning, so it makes sense to split the park into two for the split-day visit. Either way, start at the Dorothy Buell Memorial Visitor Center to get oriented then strike out to the east or west depending on the time of day, weather, and your interests.

In the west part of the park (which is better for the afternoon due to good potential sunset viewing), you can visit the Bailly Homestead and Chellberg Farm (a forested, historic part of the park), go for a hike at West Beach (Dune Succession Trail is a must-hike!), and take in the sunset at Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk Beach if the skies are clear. If you have time and it’s open (summer), you can also swing by the Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education.

(Note that we didn’t see the sunset due to the weather – but if you’re lucky enough for clear/partly clear skies, Portage Lakefront is the place to watch the sunset!)

In the east part of the park (which works at either time of day), you can hike Dune Ridge Trail and visit the nearby Century of Progress Homes. Mount Baldy, the biggest, most active dune, is another easy walk to the beach and shows the impressive natural power of the dunes. The Heron Rookery is an option if you have the time and are looking for something different (it’s best between March and May); there are other trails and beaches you can visit too if you have more time or energy.

Like Cuyahoga Valley, I have a post about spending one day (two half-days) at Indiana Dunes National Park if you want more details about these suggestions.

Have any other questions about how to visit these two Midwest national parks in one trip? Let me know in the comments below!

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I was born on the East Coast and currently live in the Midwest – but my heart will always be out West. I lived for 15 years in Alaska, as well as four years each in California and Washington. I share travel resources and stories based on my personal experience and knowledge.

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