Indiana has gained its first National Park! Yay! The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is now Indiana Dunes NATIONAL Park, America’s 61st National Park. Located in Chesterton, Indiana, just a one hour drive away from Downtown Chicago, making it an easy day trip from the Windy city! A small section of Indiana state borders Lake Michigan, but it’s a section that’s well worth a stop! Here are some of my favourite Indiana Dunes things to do!
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*Updated* Feb 2019
Indiana Dunes National Park
The Indiana Dunes is spilt into 2 sections, there’s the Indiana Dunes National Park and then the Indiana Dunes State Park area in the middle, which is still operated by the state of Indiana.
Indiana Dunes Things To Do
3 Dune Challenge
Within Indiana Dunes State Park, there are lots of different hiking options, you can choose from 7 trails of various lengths and terrains. For me, the bucket list trail was trail 8 (with the trail 4 shortcut), otherwise known at the Indiana 3 Dune Challenge. The 1.5 mile trail covered the 3 tallest sand dunes in the park, totalling a vertical climb height of 552ft. Some people run it, some people walk it. Me and my mum walked it, taking around 45 minutes with photo stops at the peak of each dune!
We started at the Nature Centre, following the trail to the right of the building. It seemed that a lot of other people were walking the loop in the opposite direction. Although it may have been easier in that direction, I think we would have got lost trying to find the start of the trail as it is located in the middle of the campground!
If you choose to start from the Nature Centre, like us, you will reach the dunes in ascending order, starting with the smallest first and finishing with the largest, it feels a little more of a challenge that way! Most of the trail is through the woods, meaning you are protected from the sun for the most part but there are mosquitos and flies to contend with (although I only got bitten once or twice so in my eyes that’s a success as I’m usually a mosquito magnet).
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The majority of the trail is, unsurprisingly, very sandy…although in some parts it does get a little more compact and dirt like. We completed it after a morning of rain and I think that made it a little easier as the sand was generally a little harder and not so ‘1 step forward 2 steps back’ like typical dune walking! We both hiked in regular shoes (trainers as we call them in England) but they did get COMPLETELY filled up with sand. We did pass a couple of people with bare feet, I was tempted to do this too but there were a lot of sticks and tree roots and I didn’t want to hurt my feet if I stepped on one!
The first dune you climb is Mt. Jackson at 176ft. At the peak of each dune, is an information board with the name of the dune, its height, the angle of the slope and how much sand makes up the dune (for example, Mt. Jackson has 605,000 pick up trucks worth of sand!). There is also a marker post which just has the elevation of the dune on. Plenty of photo ops!
The 2nd dune is Mt. Holden with a height of 184ft above Lake Michigan. It’s a slightly steeper gradient compared to Mt Jackson and the peak will give you a small glimpse of Lake Michigan! The dune does ‘bend round the corner’ though, so from the bottom you think you can see the top but it teases you as it’s actually a little bit further round to the left!
The last dune, Mt. Tom, is the biggest of the 3 at 192ft, BUT it’s steps the whole way up and down, which we thought made it the easiest, as you don’t have sinking sand to contend with! The peak of Mt. Tom also has a ‘Congratulations, you did it!’ board, which also makes starting at the nature centre more worth while, as heading clockwise round the loop would mean reaching this dune first! I think this dune has the best views from the top too.
Related Reading: Top Midwest State Parks For Adventure
From Mt. Tom, you can leave trail 8 and take the trail 4 shortcut back to the nature centre. It’s all down hill from this point on! If you continue on trail 8, it’ll take you to the shores of Lake Michigan and to the main swimming beach in Indiana Dunes State Park. If you parked at the nature centre though, it does mean you’ll have a longer trek back to the car!
Midwest National Parks
PLEASE be careful if you visit the beach, make sure you obey any signs about swimming. It may ‘just be a lake’, but Lake Michigan can actually get big waves and powerful undercurrents.
The trail may not be the longest trail in the park, but it’s one of the most rugged and is therefore more challenging than some of the others. We made sure we had plenty of water and stopping for photos at the top gave us time to get our breath back. Another way to think of it is that 3 sections of the trail are all up hill…but then the rest of the trail is therefore all down hill, it’s not a continuous climb up!
The Nature Centre is well worth a stop in. We left 2 of our group in there while me and mum completed the challenge and they loved it. At the back of the Nature Centre is an indoor viewing area. There are lots of bird feeders set up that are a magnet for wildlife. I saw various birds and squirrels (including the smallest little squirrel I’ve ever seen!!) but while my dad was in there he saw racoons, chipmunks and hummingbirds as well! The rangers at the centre will also give various talks and there are some hands on experiences with some creatures, such as snakes.
Indiana Dunes National Park Visitor Centre
The Indiana Dunes National Park is located in the town of Chesterton, but around 1 mile down the road in Porter is the Indiana Dunes Visitor Centre. This is worth a visit if you’ve completed the 3 Dune Challenge. You can pick up a free ‘I conquered the 3 Dune Challenge’ postcard and bumper sticker (multiple designs to choose from) and there are 3 Dune Challenge t-shirts and hoodies for sale (which are different from the regular Indiana Dunes t-shirts that are available WITHIN the park). Make sure you sign the visitors book as well! They had a poster on display of the 2017 visitor stats and how many people visited from various states as well as the international visitor count (the UK was 4th in international visitors to Indiana Dunes!).
Tips For Visiting Indiana Dunes
Indiana Dunes National Park is open year round. The Indiana Dunes State Park has a daily entrance fee is $12 for an out of state vehicle and $7 for an Indiana registered vehicle, which is a little mean considering the Illinois border is just 32 miles away and the Michigan border is just 18! (If visiting from Chicago, the Indiana Tollway does accept the Illinois I-pass thoug). The Indiana Dunes Visitor Centre is outside of the park gates so is therefore free to visit.
(Beaches: Indiana Dunes Things To Do)
There are several car parks around the park, so it’s worth making a note of the different options. I’d imagine the ones closest to the swimming beach fill up on hot summer weekends, so prepare to have a little bit of a walk if arriving later in the day. Park at the Nature Centre for the 3 Dune Challenge trail. There is also a campground within the State Park and a concession stand that sells some groceries is open during the summer.
The majority of the Indiana Dunes National Park is free to enter. However there is a $6 parking fee at West Beach. There are several beaches along the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, 7 of the beaches have free parking but spaces are limited.
Other Things To Do Near Indiana Dunes National Park
Speakeasy at the Spa
We stumbled across this place completely by accident…and then found out about its hidden past thanks to my obsession with taking photos! We were staying at the hotel next door (more about that below!) and saw the ‘open’ bar sign so decided to check it out for a quick drink before bed. At first we struggled to find the entrance, the only door we could find was for a barber’s shop that was in darkness…after pulling on the door it did in fact open.
The bar had an old school look to it, with a fancy horseshoe shaped bar, an old juke box in the corner and tin ceilings. There was even a guy playing a piano in the corner. It then started to click. At first we didn’t realise the bar was called ‘Speakeasy at the Spa‘ and when we found out, it then clicked that the barber’s shop was obviously a hidden entrance/part of the theme of it being a speakeasy.
I thought it was novel and as we left, I tried to take a couple of pictures of the darkened barber’s shop to show my mum when we got back to the hotel. The lady behind the bar had seen the flashes from my camera and wondered what was going on so had come to see what was happening. She then switched the lights on for me and went ‘Oooo make sure you get one of the door shut!’ and when she did so, what had been the doorway had turned into what looked like a solid wall!
(The red/yellow/grey picture on the left goes right across the door crack)
She then shared with us the history of the place. It was in fact a real 1920’s speakeasy bar that was frequently visited by Al Capone (unintentionally I seem to be following him around the USA, what with his stays at the Hotel Julien in Dubuque and then going to Alcatraz Island in San Francisco!). She told us about the secret pass codes and pointed out features of the building, such as a secret watch tower where they could keep an eye out for police and the way that they used to use the Little Calumet River, that runs behind the Speakeasy (and can’t actually be seen from the road), as a way of delivering and sneaking alcohol into the basement of the building! Such an unexpected find!
Spring House Inn
So as mentioned above, I stayed at the Spring House Inn which is next-door to Speakeasy at the Spa. Originally it was one of those ‘judge a book by its cover’ type decisions. Flicking through booking.com it was a decent price and we liked the look of the outside of the building, it had an Austrian chatueu type look to it, which made it unique from the other hotels that were listed!
We were impressed with this little woodland hideaway! Spring House Inn has an indoor swimming pool and fitness room and free breakfast. Despite being on the ground floor, our balcony, which looked out into the woods, was actually on the 2nd floor up, there were more rooms on the lower floor which can’t be seen from the front of the building! There are no lifts (elevators) in the hotel so keep this in mind if you get placed on the lower or upper floors.
As Brits, we thought it was brilliant but Americans may not feel the same way. The room next to us had left a leftover pizza box on their balcony…at 5.30am we were woken up by scratching noises and on inspection we saw 2 racoons playing around on our balcony! We opened the curtains and sat on the floor watching them through the glass for ages until they disappeared! To us they were like 2 cute, furry bears that were there for our entertainment that weren’t causing us any harm!
For more information on Indiana Dunes things to do, check out the Indiana Dunes website! Have you visited the latest National Park in the Midwest!
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Disclosure: Please note some of the links in this post are affiliate links, which means I will receive a small commission if you make a purchase after clicking and it comes at no extra cost to you! As always, opinions are my own.