Indiana Dunes National Park: An Oasis at Lake Michigan

Indiana Dunes National Park
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Indiana Dunes national park is a little bite of nature heaven nestled among modern civilization and massive local industry. From sunbathing in the summer to walking the snow covered dunes in the winter, this park has something to offer for everyone. You can plan your visit and keep to yourself or take a guided tour and learn from some of the local park rangers. However you choose to spend your time in the park, it will leave you with memories to cherish for a lifetime.

Indiana Dunes History

The first evidence of humans in this region dates back to around 14,000 years ago after the glaciers retreated out of the area. Despite the area being a rich hunting ground, there were no permanent settlements at this time. Stone spear tips have been found and dated back to this time, suggesting the area was used for seasonal hunting. Even though the seasonal hunting occurred, the landscape prevented the animals early peoples relied on from inhabiting the area long term, and thus, settlement was impossible at this time.

While difficult to figure out the exact dates, researchers have discovered evidence to suggest that the earliest permanent inhabitation was around the 15th century. Most of the evidence were mounds built by Native Americans of the Huber-Berrien group. Other artifacts that were found in this area were skeletons, hammers, fire-cracked stones, and projectile points.

Native Americans inhabited these lands from this point until the French arrived in 1720 and the area was largely used as trading and hunting grounds for European settlers.

The history of the area turning into a national park began way before the legislation was even written in 1966. In 1899, Henry Cowles, known as the “father of plant ecology” in North America wrote an article titled “Ecological Relations of the Vegetation on Sand Dunes of Lake Michigan” and published it in Botanical Gazette to bring attention to the dunes’ intricate ecosystems.

Despite this awareness, the area was booming with power plants and steel mills that threatened the ecosystems in place. These local industries were the reason that Cowles, along with two other men, established the Prairie Club of Chicago and were the first to propose that a portion of the Indiana Dunes be protected from commercial interests. In 1916, the Prairie Club of Chicago turned into The National Dunes Park Association in efforts to keep the pristine conditions of the dunes protected for the enjoyment of the people.

Efforts to preserve the area and turn it into a state park were curtailed by the US entering the first world war. Funding had been prioritized for the war, not for creating a state park. The great depression further suppressed the hope that a protected park would be established.

For ten years however, from 1916 to 1926, the state of Indiana petitioned for the opening of a protected state park. In 1926, the petition succeeded and the Indiana Dunes State Park opened to the public.

In the decades following this opening, politicians and businessmen still tried to grab hold of the site for economic development purposes. Businessmen tried opening a port of Indiana, liking it to the transport possibilities of the St. Lawrence seaway to the shipping lanes of the Atlantic Ocean. In 1952, Dorothy Buell, the president of the Save The Dunes Council, began a nationwide fundraiser that was successful enough to buy 56 acres of the land they wanted to protect. This land is now known as the Cowles Tamarack Bog.

In 1961, President John F Kennedy authorized the passing of legislation for the Cape Cod National Park in Massachusetts. This was the first time federal money was used to purchase natural parkland with the intent of protecting it.

This gave hope to those in Indiana trying to protect the dunes and eventually led to President Kennedy supporting a program that proved beneficial for the environment as well as the economic vitality that would result from this protection. This was known as the Kennedy compromise and satisfied both the industrialists with the creation of the Port of Indiana and environmentalists with the creation of the national lakeshore in 1966.

Congress had passed legislation making the Indiana Dunes Lakeshore federally protected land to the tune of 8330 acres. Over many years, subsequent legislation has expanded the size of the protected area to 15,000 acres. In February of 2019, the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore was redesignated by congress as America’s 61st national park – the Indiana Dunes National Park.

Indiana Dunes National Park

Key Facts

Size: 15,349 acres (62.1 square km)
Number of visitors: 2,293,881 in 2020

Established: 1966 (Indiana Dunes Lakeshore), 2019 (Indiana Dunes National Park)
Length of hiking trails: 50 miles (80.4km)

Highest point: Mount Tom, 900ft (274m) above sea level.

Lowest point: Lake Michigan, 597ft (182m) above sea level.

Other interesting facts:

  • Indiana Dunes National Park is the second most recently established national park in the United States, with the White Sands National Park being the most recent.
  • The official highest point in the park is Mount Tom at 900 feet (274m), but the actual highest point changes due to the fluctuating nature of the sand dunes.
  • The National Park Service of the US actually opposed it becoming a national park with the argument that “National lakeshore” was a more accurate designation.
  • Indiana Dunes Lakeshore went through 4 land expansions since being established in 1966 (1976, 1980, 1986, and 1992).
  • Indiana Dunes National Park contains 25 miles of shoreline on Lake Michigan.
  • Indiana Dunes National Park contains 2182 acres of Indiana Dunes State Park and is managed by Indiana State, not the federal government.
  • It is the 4th most biodiverse national park, behind Smoky Mountain NP, Grand Canyon NP, and Yosemite NP.
  • There are over 1,400 species of ferns and flowering plants, including 28 species of orchids (more native orchids than are found in the entire state of Hawaii!)
  • There are 46 species of mammals, 18 species of amphibians, 23 species of reptiles, 71 species of fish, and 60 species of butterflies.
  • The park has been called a juxtaposition of natural preserve and heavy industry. A “natural oasis” tucked between steel and plate-glass industry giants.
  • On clear days, visitors can see the Chicago skyline from certain areas in the park.

Climate and Weather

Because Indiana Dunes National Park is located on the shores of Lake Michigan, the weather can change fairly quickly within any given day. With that said, the weather is fairly predictable when viewed from a seasonal perspective.

Winter
In this region of the US, winter is defined as December through February. These months are often cloudy (even sometimes described as bleak), but there are exceptional moments where the extreme cold brings clear skies with it.

The beginning of winter, December, has an average high of 35.6℉ (2℃) and the last month of winter, February, has an average high of 35.4℉ (1.9℃). January is the coldest month here with an average low of 17.6℉ (-8℃). There are about 15 days per year that fall below 0℉ (-18℃) and most of them occur in January.

It is common for the park to get snowfall beginning at the end of November all the way through the end of March. January has the greatest amount of snowfall, averaging 15.3 inches. Although rare, there have been times when the park has been dusted with snow in October and even April.

Spring

The beginning of March, the first official month of spring, can be viewed as an extension of winter with an average low of only 29.7℉ (-1.3℃). The weather does slowly but surely warm up and towards the end of the month, average high temperatures rise to a still fairly chilly 45.3℉ (7.4℃).

The weather continues to warm up over the course of April and by the end of May (the official end of spring), the average high temperature rises to 68.2℉ (20.1℃).

The spring months are when the park sees the greatest amount of precipitation and continues through the middle of summer.

Summer

June marks the official start of summer and brings with it an average high temperature of 77.2℉ (25.1℃). July gets slightly hotter with an average high of 81.5℉ (27.5℃). There are about 15 days per year that see temperatures above 90℉ (32℃) and most of them are in July.

August, the final month of summer, sees an average high of 79.9℉ (26.6℃). The average low for the summer months remains fairly constant in the low 60’s (~17℃). Summer months are usually very sunny and perfect for beach weather. Although rare, it has been known to get an occasional chilly day during the summer if weather fronts from Canada move south.

July and August are the months that see the least amount of precipitation.

Indiana Dunes National Park

Fall

From September, the warm weather from summer continues for moderate weather with an average high of 73.8℉ (23.2℃). The arrival of October brings with it some cooler weather, with the average high dipping to 61.5℉ (16.4℃). As November comes, so does the much colder weather. The average high in November is 48.7℉ (9.3℃). Between September and November, average lows steadily drop and towards the middle and end of November, you will see the average low as 34.5℉ (1.4℃) before winter starts and brings the below freezing weather.

When To Visit

The park is open year round, with the only closures being Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years day. There are other holidays where the park has limited hours and you can find those restrictions here. There are other seasonal closures for certain activities. Dunewood campground (the most popular campsite in the park) closes for winter in November and reopens for spring in April.

Of course, what you want to do during your visit will largely be responsible for when to visit. If you want to swim on the shores of Lake Michigan, late spring through early fall is your best bet. If you want to do cross country skiing or snowshoeing, winter is the only season for you.

As is the case with most national parks, going during the week will help you avoid the biggest crowds. The national park service offers year round events that can be found here.

Spring

As the winter cold is gradually replaced with warmer weather, some parts of the park are known for their gorgeous wildflower bloom. The Heron Rookery trail provides the most extensive selection of wildflowers and can be seen from late April to mid May. Of course, keep in mind part of the reason this wildflower bloom is so beautiful is because this time of year brings the greatest amount of rainfall.

The end of spring is a great time of year for those looking to enjoy warmer weather before the huge summer crowds arrive.

Summer

Many people are surprised when you mention a beach in the center of the United States, but the beaches in the park are as beautiful as any along either coast. The summer months provide the best weather for swimming at any of the nine beaches in the park, so it’s no surprise this is the most popular time of the year to visit. The sunsets at the park are widely considered to be the most beautiful at this time of the year, too.

Fall

This time of year brings out some of the most spectacular colors of leaves on any of the 69 species of trees in the park. The summer crowds have left and the cooler weather means many of the hiking trails are a bit more bearable to do, for some. The Glenwood Dunes trail is recommended as one of the best hiking trails in the park at this time of year to see the beautifully colored autumn foliage. Many people say there are fewer mosquitos and flies in the area as the cooler weather approaches, which is nice.

Winter

Snowfall during the winter means that certain activities (swimming!) are off limits, but it opens up a whole new variety of options for you to enjoy. If there are at least a few inches of snow on the ground, snowshoeing and cross country skiing are popular. You can even rent skis and snowshoes for free (on a first come, first served basis) at the Paul H Douglas center for environmental education for use on the Paul H Douglas trail.

Hiking trails are still open and accessible even with snow on the ground. Some people even say the trails are even more beautiful with fresh snowfall. Of course, hiking during the winter means there are other safety considerations to take into account. Learn more about how to safely hike during the winter in our Guide to Winter Hiking.

You can also take the kids sledding on some of the snow-covered dunes during the winter. Check out the best 5 locations for sledding here!

Recommended Gear

What to bring will largely depend on what time of year you want to visit and what activities you want to do. Even if you go during the warmer months, it’s recommended to bring clothing appropriate for a significant drop in temperature, as this sometimes happens. It’s best to bring clothing that’s easy to layer to remain comfortable no matter the temperature. This includes a raincoat or shell, as the weather can turn from a bright sunny day to chilly and rainy fairly quickly.

During the warmer months, recommended items are:

  • Water (especially since hiking on sand can be more strenuous than on hard ground, and thus will require you to hydrate more)
  • Sunscreen
  • Umbrella or sun-shade (there isn’t much natural shade in the park)
  • Bathing suit and towel for swimming
  • Binoculars (if you want to go bird watching)

During winter months, recommended items are:

  • Layered clothing suitable for below freezing temperatures
  • Any equipment for snow related activities, although there are many options for renting this equipment within or in the towns surrounding the park.
  • Hiking during the winter means you’ll need a pair of high quality hiking boots to keep your feet warm, along with a pair of high quality hiking socks.

Many of the millions of annual visitors only stay for a day or less at the park, so there are plenty of food options to keep them full throughout the park. You do not need to worry about packing food for the duration of your stay, however many people do bring their own food for a picnic at any of the numerous picnic tables located inside the park.

For those staying for more than a day, there are many grocery stores in the surrounding cities of Michigan City, Chesterton, and Portage for you to stock up on and bring into the park with you. For those camping, propane tank exchanges can be found near most grocery stores and at some gas stations.

What To Do

Hiking

There are 50 miles of hiking in the park. Some of them are on sand, making certain hikes more challenging than walking on hard ground, and some of them are paved.

The most popular hike in the park is the 1.5 mile “3 dune challenge.” 1.5 miles might not seem like a challenge, but this hike involves climbing the three tallest dunes – Mt. Jackson, Mt. Holden, and Mt. Tom – for a 500+ foot vertical gain. There are stairs you can climb, or you can choose to walk barefoot up to the top of the dunes in the soft sand.

The Cowles Bog trail is a moderate difficulty 4.7 mile loop that will take you past ponds, marshes, swamps, black oak savannas, and beaches. This trail is on the original 56 acres of land that Dorothy Buell bought in 1952 in efforts to ensure protection and preservation of this area.

The Paul H Douglas trail is a moderate difficulty 3.4 mile out and back trail that goes through wetlands and around interdunal ponds. This is a great trail to hike if you want to see the wildflower bloom in the spring, but among those wildflowers is an abundance of poison ivy, so it’s highly recommended to stay on the singletrack path.

Note: Pets are allowed in most areas of the park (including hiking trails) with certain rules in place to keep both your pets and the wild animals safe. Indiana Dunes has a BARK Ranger program outlining the simple do’s and don’ts of the park, but for a more in-depth guide to hiking with your four legged friends, check out our Guide to Hiking With Dogs.

Indiana Dunes National Park

Cycling

There are 37 miles of biking trails throughout the park, and most of them are paved, allowing access for mountain bikes and road bikes alike.

The Dunes Kankakee trail is an easy 3.6 mile paved trail that’s great for the whole family. The path begins at the visitor center and runs along Lake Michigan, offering riders stunning views of both the lake and the dunes.

For those looking to ride a longer distance, the Prairie Duneland bike trail offers a 22 mile paved path with no elevation gain. This trail will take you through wooded areas and besides ponds and even over a steel bridge and over train tracks.

For those looking for an off road experience, the Calumet bike trail is 19 miles of gravel for you to have fun on. Depending on when the most recent rainfall is, this trail can have small puddles of standing water up to 6 inches deep. Be forewarned you and your shoes will almost certainly get dirty while riding this trail.

For those traveling to the park without your own bike, do not worry as bikes are available for rent through the camp stop general store.

Go to the beach

With 25 miles of beautiful shoreline on Lake Michigan, it’s no surprise people from all over flock to the park to enjoy some sun and sand.

Beachgoers are spoiled for choice, as there are 9 beautiful beaches located in the park. All of them have restrooms and potable water, which is always a plus.

The most popular beach is West Beach for two reasons: it has the biggest parking lot (655 spots for cars and 50 spots big enough for RV parking) and there are lifeguards on duty from Memorial Day to Labor day. This is also the only beach where you have to pay for parking, the fees are $6 for a car and $30 for oversized vehicles (RVs etc.).

For a quieter beach experience, check out Kemil beach or Dunbar beach. (They are right next to each other). Very small parking lots means there’s only enough access for a few beachgoers per day. If you want to be one of the lucky ones to get a spot, it’s recommended to get there very early, especially on weekends. Be forewarned: DO NOT park on the neighboring streets. You are very likely to get a parking ticket.

For a full breakdown of which beach is best for you, check out this guide from indianadunes.com.

For those looking for a bit more activity than just sitting on the shoreline catching some sun, you can rent kayaks and stand up paddleboards from the camp stop general store. Launching non-motorized boats is allowed from any spot along the shoreline except for the swimming area in West Beach.

Beach in Indiana Dunes National Park

A note on safety: all beaches in the park are swim at your own risk, especially because the majority of them do not have lifeguards on duty. Rip currents can occur, but there are signs along the beach on where they occur most frequently. There are also visual instructions posted on the beaches on what to do if you get caught in one.

Another safety measure to keep in mind is the water conditions of the lake. Occasionally the water will have levels of E. Coli that are higher than what is deemed safe for swimming. You can call (219) 926-1952 (and use prompt #2) for real time water quality updates.

Take a guided tour

The park offers over 400 tours led by knowledgeable park rangers in various parts of the park and at various times of the year. The parks facebook page is where you can find more information about which tours are offered when.

Camping

The most popular campground in the Indiana Dunes national park is Dunewood Campground and is open April through October. Located 1.5 miles away from the dunes and in the woods, it offers a true “campground” feeling. This campground has 66 sites with the majority of them being drive-in. (13 are walk-in only, and 4 sites are wheelchair accessible.) There are restrooms on site with hot water showers, but no electricity hook ups. A convenience store and a gas station are only a quarter of a mile away at the intersection of highway 12 and Broadway Avenue. It is $25 per night per campsite. Reservations can be made up to 6 months in advance here.

The other popular campsite in the park is actually in the Indiana Dunes State Park, which itself is located inside the Indiana Dunes National Park. Note: It is free to enter the national park, but to enter the state park, you will have to pay fees (per person and per vehicle). You can find those rates here. With that said, the Indiana Dunes state park campground is a full service campground with 140 campsites. Each site has its own electrical hookup and there are water hookups located in various spots throughout the campground. There’s a playground to keep the kids entertained, walkable paths throughout the site, and an on-site store where you can get snacks, firewood, and other camping related items. Reservations can be made here.

There are other campgrounds and RV parks located in the area and most of them are within 10 miles of the national park. For a full list of the campgrounds in the surrounding area, click here.

How to get there and where to stay

For those traveling from far away, the closest airports to Indiana Dunes national parks are Midway International Airport and O’Hare International Airport. Both of them are located in Chicago, which is a short 45 minute drive to and from the park.

If you plan on arriving by car, the park can be accessed by Interstate 94, the Indiana Toll Road (Interstate 80/90), U.S. Highways 12 and 20, Indiana State Road 49 and other state roads. Highway 12 is your best bet to arrive at any of the park’s facilities (like the visitor center). All of the surrounding highways have large brown signs on them which can direct you to the various sites within the park.

As for arriving by public transportation, there is one train service and one bus service with stops in the park. Choosing between the train or the bus depends on which part of the park you want to go to. To check for all of your most accurate public transportation options, please check out this website.

If camping isn’t your cup of tea, there are plenty of accomodations at all price points in the surrounding areas. Michigan City and Porter are the two most common choices for travelers looking to stay near the park. Even though Porter is a bit closer to the park, Michigan City has more options for hotels, bars, and restaurants to keep you busy when you’re not exploring the park.

Because Indiana Dunes national park is located so close to surrounding towns, you have so many options for staying it would be difficult to make any recommendations beyond which city to stay in. There are surrounding campgrounds, RV sites, quaint bed and breakfasts, cheap motels, all the way up to a massive hotel casino and spa. There truly is something for everyone, no matter how you want your vacation to look.

Conclusion

Indiana Dunes is a nature gem located right in the center of modern civilization and industry giants. With something to offer all year round, visitors can easily find something to do whether you make a day trip out of it or spend the week there. Even though it’s not unheard of for Chicago natives to make a spontaneous day trip to the park (that’s how close it is!), a bit of planning will make your trip that much more enjoyable. Decide from the many outdoor activities the park has to offer and make some memories you’ll enjoy for the rest of your life.


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