Itineraries,  National Park Travel

How to Make the Most of One Day at Indiana Dunes National Park

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Promoted from “National Lakeshore” to “National Park” in 2019, Indiana Dunes might not be the first place that comes to mind when you picture a national park. For most of us, that’s more of the jaw-dropping geology, sweeping vistas, mountainous and/or desert terrain of the national parks in the American West.

But, whether you think of windswept dunes and Great Lake views mixed with some of America’s heaviest industry, Indiana Dunes is one of the country’s newest national parks and is an essential destination if you’re trying to visit them all – or even if you’re just looking for some of the most beautiful natural places in the Midwest.

One Day at Indiana Dunes Hero

My friend Marissa from Postcards to Seattle and I plan a national parks trip every year, and with the arrival of Baby V in early 2024, we decided to keep it close to home (my home, at least!); in March of that year, we spent one day at Indiana Dunes National Park (and another in Cuyahoga Valley, my local park). Based on our trip, I’ve put together this guide for those of you wanting to do the same.

Ready to tick this park off your list? Here’s what you need to know to make the most of a short trip to the Lake Michigan shoreline of Northern Indiana – aka Indiana Dunes National Park.

Tips for Visiting Dunes NP

One Day at Indiana Dunes - Sign

Before jumping into what to do during your visit to Indiana Dunes National Park, I want to cover the basics – I do this for all of my national park guides!

  • Indiana Dunes National Park is open year-round; summer is the main season to visit due to good weather and the chance to enjoy sunny days on the soft sand beaches of Northern Indiana.
  • Indiana Dunes is a fee-collecting park; it’s $25 per vehicle, good for 7 days. The America the Beautiful Pass is still a good investment if you plan to visit other parks this year, too, as it covers admission to Indiana Dunes and many other park units.
  • Most of the beach/dune/trailhead locations in Indiana Dunes have decent parking; it could definitely fill up on nice summer weekends so arrive early if that’s your travel plan too.
  • The primary roadside park sign (pictured above) is located on US-12 at the border of Michigan City; there are also little pillar signs at most sights.
  • Speaking of US-12, that’s the main road that runs through the length of the park. It was at one point called the “Dunes Highway” but now parts of US-20 (further south and parallel to US-12) have that title.

Have any other questions about the basics of visiting? The IDNP NPS site is the best place for that info – or you can ask in the comments at the end of this post and I’ll do my best to help.

How to Organize Your Day

There are two ways to organize spending one day in Indiana Dunes.

  • You can visit Indiana Dunes National Park as a day trip (this only makes sense if you’re starting/ending in Chicago)
  • You could visit Indiana Dunes as two half-days with an overnight; this works if you’re traveling through the area, or visiting from another city like Detroit or Cleveland. This is my preferred way to visit – even if you’re starting from Chicago – as it gives you a chance to sample local restaurants and stay at a local hotel to support the whole economy surrounding the park.

If you choose the latter option (as I did), you’ll start the afternoon with “Visit Chellberg Farm & Bailly Homestead” on the itinerary below, work through the second half of list, and then go back to the top for the next morning’s activities. Ready to dive in then?

What to Do for One Day at Indiana Dunes

I get it, you’re short on time… After all, you only have one day to visit Indiana Dunes National Park and want to make the most of it. Here’s what to do, in order; during my visit, I visited the VisitorCenter, Chellberg Farm/Bailly Homestead, Dune Succession Trail, and Portage Lakefront on my first afternoon, and tackled the Dune Ridge Trail, saw the Century of Progress Homes, and visited Mount Baldy on the next afternoon. (I obviously did the two half-day option!)

Start at the Visitor Center

No matter which way you organize your day, I always recommend starting at the Visitor Center in every National Park; you’ve gotta pay your park fee, of course, but it’s also the place to learn about any updated park conditions that might affect your visit

Indiana Dunes is a long, skinny park running east-west (much like Cuyahoga Valley is long and skinny but runs north-south). Also like Cuyahoga Valley, the visitor center – the Dorothy Buell Memorial Visitor Center – is located about halfway through the park. Start here, get oriented on the map, and then strike out to explore the west side, east side, or both – depending on your schedule, of course!

Hike the Dune Ridge Trail

Dune Ridge Trail, located near Kemil Beach, is a great first hike; while it isn’t the most scenic, it does give you a really good orientation to what the dunes in Indiana Dunes are really like. (Hint: it’s not big, sweeping sand dunes like Dune!).

The trail is also nice and easy: it’s just 0.7 miles with about 90 feet of elevation change and grades ranging as high as 11% (grades are relevant in IDNP because of the variability of the dunes). It’s great for stretching your legs after the drive to get to the park and/or for families.

Visit the Century of Progress Homes

Just ’round the corner – literally – from the Dune Ridge trailhead and parking area, you’ll see five unique homes on the shores of Lake Michigan. These are relics of the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago, meant to highlight “A Century of Progress” (hence the name of the homes/area). Each house is different, and meant to highlight unique aspects of home building across the U.S.; they were also meant to be cost-effective and replicable at scale.

Most people love the pink house – also called the Florida House – but my favorites were the Cypress House and the Steel House (built in Cleveland and the only one that was actually cost-effective for mass-produced housing, though the style never took off!)

Swing by Mt. Baldy

One final stop in the east part of the park, Mount Baldy is the tallest dune in Indiana Dunes National Park; it’s also one of the most active, moving 5-10 feet a year!

When you arrive at the Mt. Baldy parking area, you can’t miss the dune as it’s swallowing the trees and seems as though it will soon overtake some of the parking spots. A short trail leads to a nice overlook, and you can follow the steep decline down to the beach if you’re up for climbing back up!

Note: Mount Baldy is closed to hikers; the NPS offers guided hikes occasionally during the summer, but you MUST join a ranger hike to ascend the dune. Check at the Visitor Center if you’re interested in doing this.

Interestingly, the viewpoint and beach give you a view of the juxtaposition you’ll find throughout Indiana Dunes National Park: there’s an impressive dune and an industrial area – in the same view. (In this case, it’s the NIPSCO power plant and non-nuclear cooling tower.) This is one of the most unique aspects of Indiana Dunes, having such non-National Park-y human impact alternating with the beaches and dunes… Personally, I didn’t hate it, but it can be surprising if you’re used to more scenic, rural parks.

Visit Chellberg Farm & Bailly Homestead

For something completely different, and a great option on a hot summer day, the trails at Chellberg Farm and the Bailly Homestead are perfect for your first afternoon activity. The trails between the historic sites in this part of the park are forested, meaning they’ll be much cooler and more enjoyable than being out on the dunes.

Chellberg Farm is a close walk from the parking area, and showcases one of the immigrant stories in the area; Bailly Homestead is a bit further of a walk but offers another perspective – and some impressive early 19th Century homestead architecture – on life in this part of the country during its earlier decades. We didn’t walk out to the Bailly Cemetery, but I’d love to on a return trip.

Hike the Dune Succession Trail

Like most urban national parks, hiking isn’t necessarily the most popular or widespread activity at Indiana Dunes; there are 50 miles on 15 organized trails, but as you can probably estimate in your mind, this means most hikes are short – and probably flat-ish, given the Midwest’s general geography.

One essential trail that’s a bit longer, more challenging, and also more impressive for giving you those great National Park views is the Dune Succession Trail at West Beach.

The stats on this trail don’t seem impressive at first glance: this one-mile loop has just 75 feet in elevation change, but it includes several sets of stairs including one that’s 250 stairs in total. (The staircases help preserve the dunes you’re hiking on!) Thus, you end up getting some decent elevation at the highest point of the trail (which is about 110 feet higher than the beach below) and a beautiful view of the dunes, Lake Michigan, and even the Chicago skyline on a clear day.

In my book, this is an essential hike in Indiana Dunes; if you’re only going to do one, the Dune Succession Trail should be it!

Enjoy Sunset at Portage Lakefront & Riverwalk

Even if the weather isn’t great, I recommend ending your day at Indiana Dunes at Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk Pavilion.

The Pavilion is only open during the summer, but walking around the outside and out onto the pier is a lovely view – again, you can see Chicago if the air quality is good enough. There’s also a nice trail back up into the dunes and along the Burns Waterway.

Like Mount Baldy, you’ll also have an interesting view at Portage Lakefront: right across Burns Waterway is the Midwest Plant of US Steel… It’s hard to find a clearer example of our nation’s tension between industrial development and natural preservation than that!

Other Things to Do/If You Have More Time

You could easily fill a second day or longer if you’re going to explore IDNP for a while and want to go beyond the main sights and trails I’ve mentioned. Here are some of the activities to consider instead and/or if you have more time:

  • If you’re visiting with family or want to learn more about the Dunes and their essential role in the ecosystem, be sure to swing by the Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education. It’s only open during the summer months (hence not visiting during our trip) but offers visitors lots of extra context that the Visitor Center lacks.
  • For an unusual outdoor experience, especially during the spring months (March to May), the Heron Rookery is worth the 15-minute drive inland and point-to-point hike through the swampy forest surrounding this trail. As its name suggests, herons do roost here, and the spring is the hatching window.
  • Wholly surrounded by the national park, Indiana Dunes State Park offers 16+ miles of additional hiking trails; the most popular way to tackle the park (which has its own fee to visit) is to do the 3 Dune Challenge, which is a short but, well, challenging 1.5 miles with 552 of elevation change.
  • There are a number of other beaches in Indiana Dunes; if you’re visiting during the summer, spending time at one of more of these – whether it’s picnicking, taking a dip in the lake, or sunbathing – is a nice, relaxing way to enjoy this national park.

Where to Eat Near Indiana Dunes

You’ll notice above that I didn’t mention meals specifically; I originally had sections for that, but thought it made more sense to explain your meal options separately.

If you follow my suggestions above, I recommend grabbing lunch in Michigan City after visiting Mount Baldy. There are some good casual options; I ate at Royale with Cheese which was freaking awesome.

For dinner, you have even more options; in addition to what you’ll find in Michigan City (look at Zorn Brew Works Co. or Shoreline Brewery), you could also eat in Chesterton south of the park (Leroy’s Hot Stuff and Lucrezia Cafe both caught my eye) or drive further east to New Buffalo, Michigan. That’s where Marissa and I had dinner during our one-night visit; she found Beer Church and it was great!

If you’re spending the night and need some morning fuel, FLUID Coffee‘s Michigan City outpost is the place. Craft coffee, easy breakfast options, and a funky vibe – tell me you’re a Millennial without telling me you’re a Millennial!

Where to Stay Near Indiana Dunes

I did a lot of research when planning our trip – even though it was just one night, it was my first trip after Baby V was born and I wanted to make it a good one! One area I initially felt stuck was in finding our overnight accommodations. Sure, there are plenty of budget-friendly national chains in Portage, but I wanted something local and/or with a bit more character if possible.

I did consider Riley’s Railhouse in Chesterton, which is where my blogger friend Amanda stayed during her Indiana Dunes trip, but also wanted something original…

Then I found Al & Sally’s Motel in Beverley Shores! This old-school motel is family-owned, has been recently renovated, and was perfect for our off-season visit. I can imagine it’s pretty popular during the summer due to the excellent location (mere minutes from Mount Baldy/Central Beach, etc.) so be sure to check as soon as you know your dates if you want to stay here too.

Have any other questions about visiting Indiana Dunes National Park or spending a day there? 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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