What to Expect at Indiana Dunes National Park on Lake Michigan

When you visit Indiana Dunes National Park for the first time, you may be just a bit confused.

Or a least we were.

Formerly Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, this is the 61st national park in the U.S. And that deserves some celebration. And explanation.

Seagulls on the beach at Indiana Dunes National Park

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Celebrating Indiana Dunes National Park

  Located about an hour east of Chicago, Indiana Dunes is 15 miles of sandy beaches on Lake Michigan, along with big monster-size sand dunes, marshy wetlands, forests and such. The ecological diversity stuffed into 15,000 acres is amazing. You really have a bit of everything here.

And that’s why, in 1966, the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore was created — to protect that ecological diversity, as well as some of the history and recreational opportunities this region represents.

People on a sandy beach at Indiana Dunes National ParkBut before that, the state of Indiana recognized how special the area is. So, in 1925, the state created Indiana Dunes State Park on some of the most beautiful areas of sandy beaches.

And that’s just part of the confusion — a state park and a national park by the same name in exactly the same place. Indeed, the state park is right smack in the middle of the national park.

Don’t get me wrong. We loved them both. But we were often confused where we were.

What Makes Indiana Dunes National Park Different

How can I say this politely? Indiana Dunes National Park is a little, er, chunky. Not that it’s fat. It’s just broken up in chunks. A chunk of park here, a chunk of park there, with stuff disrupting what we have come to expect from a cohesive national park experience. The state park in the middle of things is just one example.

Remember, it was 1966 when the Department of Interior decided that this area was worthy of federal protection. By that time, there was a lot of development on Lake Michigan’s southern shores. Homes, business and industry had grown up all over the area.

I mean look at right of this shot. You don’t often see a coal fired power plant at a national park.

A nuclear reaction on the end of a sandy beach at Indiana Dunes National Park

Technically, the power plant is not in the national park. It’s in nearby Michigan City Indiana, a lovely community to explore and charter boat trips around Lake Michigan. But that’s an example of the development all around the national park. There’s some sort of iron ore/steel place on the west end of the park that glows at night. It’s kind of freaky.

But much of what interrupts the continuous flow of national park property are neighborhoods. Decades ago, people realized what a fabulous destination this is and built their homes as close as possible to Lake Michigan and its sandy beaches. So, to access parts of the park, you’ll be driving in and out of a number of small municipalities and neighborhoods.

Like I said, it’s a chunky park.

What to Do at Indiana Dunes National Park

Most visitors to this area are naturally drawn to Lake Michigan’s shore, especially in the heat of the summer like when we visited. Who can blame them, right? It’s like an ocean in the middle of the Midwest.

Wetlands area of the Indiana Dunes National Park.But the combination of forests, marshes and prairie in the condensed space is what makes Indiana Dunes so special.

We enjoyed a lovely hike along the Miller Woods Trail. In three miles, you pass through wetland, a black oak savanna (which is a thing I didn’t know about), through the dunes and onto the beach.

Miller Woods Trail at Indiana DunesAnd, if you don’t want to hike back to your vehicle at the Paul Douglass Visitors Center, you can hitch a ride on the park shuttle at the beach. The beach here, btw, is operated by the city of Marquette, not the national park. Another little confusing thing.

Later we hiked about a mile to the Bailly/Chellberg farmstead. This started out as a fur trading post in the 1820s and developed into a full-fledged farm. In September, the Park Service hosts an Apple Festival at the Chellberg Farm.

Keep Off the Dunes at Indiana Dunes National Park

Beach trail at Indiana Dunes National ParkIn most places, the National Park Service gets very serious about not allowing you to climb the sand dunes.

They are a fragile ecosystem and the park service works very hard to protect it. So when you see a sign that says, Keep Off Dunes, then keep off the freakin’ dunes.

Of course, we saw lots of people who have a hard time reading those three words. I swear I’m going to buy a taser some day.

Viator

But there are a few places where you can climb the dunes and a few special times you get to climb THE Dune.

Stairs up the dunes at Porter Beach at Indiana Dunes National ParkThe Miller Woods Trail is one place you get to climb the dunes. There are other places, like Porter Beach, where the park service builds stairs that allow you to ascend the dunes and have a look around without doing any damage to the landscape.

But let me tell you, unless you’re a goofy little kid with lots of energy to burn, climbing a slippery sliding sand dune is tough business.

We learned the hard way. And it was so much fun.

Climbing Mount Baldy at Indiana Dunes 

Mount Baldy Beach Access at Indiana DunesMount Baldy is one of those places you’re not supposed to climb. It’s the highest dune at Indiana Dunes National Park and very fragile.

I asked three different park rangers how high it was and none of them had an answer. One thought it was somewhere around 175 feet or so, but I read somewhere that it was near 200 feet (61 meters).

They promised they would have a ranger-in-training climb the dune with a tape measure the very next morning and get back to me. Ya right. That didn’t happen.

But we happened to be checking out the Mount Baldy area on a Sunday afternoon and holy smokes! For three hours on Sundays, they open up the Mount Baldy Trail to let the public go nuts.

This is the trail up.

The Mount Baldy Trail at Indiana Dunes National Park

And this is looking down on the other side.

Mount Baldy Beach

We struggled enough just getting to the top of Mount Baldy once that we caught our breath, we hesitated before going down the other side. Because, once we got down there, we would have to come back up again.

So we stood on the top, enjoyed the breeze off of Lake Michigan and the beautiful view. We decided we were good.

Where to Eat at Indiana Dunes National Park

Unfortunately, there are not food vendors or restaurants at Indiana Dunes. But because of the many little towns and municipalities, you’ll find lots of mom and pop places to choose from. And of course, there are plenty of picnic spots in the park.

Exterior of the Goblin and Grocer on Dunes ParkwayWe enjoyed a fabulous meal at a fun place called The Goblin and the Grocer on Highway 12 in Beverly Shores. It’s part grocery store, so you can buy sandwiches and treats for a picnic in the park. It’s part pub, so after you climb to the top of a sandy mountain, you can reward yourself with an adult beverage. There’s also an ice cream shop, so that’s a nice reward as well.

Interior of Goblin and Grocer in IndianaBut we enjoyed a fabulous lunch at The Grocer and Goblin, listening to live jazz on the patio and enjoying a random conversation with the owner, Dawn Houston. Tell her we said hi when you stop in.

Later we enjoyed an incredible dinner at Bartlett’s Fish Camp in Michigan City, and wished that we had had more time to explore that little town.

But we are comfortable recommending this region to other mojotravelers. And we plan to head back there as soon as possible. See ya there!

Get Ready for the Dunes

     
   

Tip: Another great lakeshore on another Great Lake is Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  My friend Melanie, shares her love of Lake Michigan in this person story.

OR: if you really like climbing sand dunes, visit White Sands National Monument in New Mexico.