Indiana Dunes Itinerary: The National Park You’ve Never Heard of

Last updated Apr 9, 2021 | Published on Sep 26, 2020

Did you know that there’s a National Park in Indiana? Neither did I until my husband Daniel and I began exploring the United States on our Great America Road Trip and saw it on the map. One of the nation’s newest National Parks, Indiana Dunes was previously designated as a National Lakeshore and elevated to National Park status in 2019. This Indiana Dunes itinerary will introduce you to this tiny National Park and share ideas on what to do while you’re there.

A must do for any Indiana Dunes Itinerary: Go for a hike!

About Indiana Dunes

Indiana Dunes National Park comprises 15 miles of stunning shoreline along the southern end of Lake Michigan. A short drive from Chicago, the National Park includes miles of hiking and biking trails as well as swimming beaches in summer and snowshoeing opportunities in winter.

The Indiana Dunes *State* Park is located in the middle of the *National* Park, which I found somewhat confusing. The Visitor Center includes information about both parks. I recommend starting your visit there to get the latest trail information and park conditions.

Since we only had an afternoon to explore the Dunes area, we decided to check out Trail 9. As one of the park’s most popular trails, it showcases some of the area’s best scenery.

The park has lots of other things to explore, however,  which I would have loved to do if we had more time. At the top of my priority list? The 3 Dune Challenge. This hike climbs the three tallest dunes in the state park. Plus you get a sticker once you’ve completed the challenge.

Welcome to Indiana Dunes National Park!

Suggested Activities for your Indiana Dunes Itinerary

  • Visit the beach. Indian Dunes offers 15 miles of sandy beaches along with 8 public parking lots. Go for a stroll or a swim and relax on the sand.
  • Go for a hike. One of the best ways to explore the park is on foot. There are 14 distinct trail systems offering over 50 miles of trails in Indiana Dunes National Park. Note that two of the most popular hikes are located inside the state park rather than the national park – these are Trail 9 and the 3 Dune Challenge.
  • Go for a bike ride. The interconnected bike system at Indiana Dunes spans 37 miles across the entire length of the park.
  • Bird watching. Indiana Dunes provides an excellent opportunity for birders to see a variety of bird species. It is also the location of the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival, which take place the third weekend in May.
  • Play in the snow. Hiking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and even sledding are all fun ways to explore India Dunes National and State Parks in the winter months.

Indiana Dunes Itinerary Featured Activity: Hiking Trail 9

Daniel and I began our Indian Dunes itinerary by hiking Trail 9. While the name is rather uninspiring, Trail 9 provides some of the some of the best representative views of the dunes at Indiana Dunes State and National Parks. This 3.8-mile loop that traverses both mature forests and sandy dunes and affords spectacular views of Lake Michigan. We could see all the way to Chicago from the shoreline.

Our Experience Hiking Trail 9

We began our hike by heading east through a shaded oak forest. After a while, we realized that we were hiking on compacted sand. Apparently the oak trees grow on top of the sand dunes.

Trail 9 begins here

Walking through mature forests on top of sand dunes

As we approached Lake Michigan, the forest gave way to woody shrub vegetation and grasses. We made our way to the lake shore and spent some time on the beach looking at pebbles.

Hiking towards the lake shore

Almost there!

Trail 9 trail marker

We have arrived at the lake!

My goal is to dip my feet into all five Great Lakes. Two down, three to go!

We can see all the way to Chicago from the lake shore.

Daniel at the beach

Eventually, Daniel and I climbed back up the dunes and headed south along a ridge. The path was mostly comprised of loose sand along this section of trail. It was slow going.

Heading back up to the ridge along the dunes

Walking along grass-covered dunes

View of the lake from the top of the dunes. This is one of the blowouts.

The sand is very loose here and hard to walk on.

Just before returning inland, we passed Beach House Blowout. Here the wind has carved out a significant section out of the shoreline. It’s an impressive reminder of the power of wind.

The Beach House Blowout

Hiking back to the main trail

We had to stop periodically and dump the sand out of our shoes

Trail 9 Map and Trail Information

  • Distance: 3.8 miles roundtrip
  • Elevation Gain: 232 feet
  • Starting Elevation: 610 feet
  • Highest Elevation: 672 feet

Indiana Dunes Accommodations: Dunewood Campground

There is only one campground available at Indiana Dunes National Park and that is Dunewood Campground. Comprised of 2 loops with 66 campsites tucked among the trees, Dunewood is a lovely quiet place to stay. While the sites do not offer electric hookups for RVs, the campground does have modern restrooms with hot/cold showers. The campground is also located close hiking and biking trails that lead into the National Park trail system.

Camping at Dunewood Campground in Indiana Dunes National Park

Where are we now?

We are at Indiana Dunes National Park!

Date: September 22, 2020
Great American Road Trip Status: Day 79

Starting Location: Indiana Dunes National Park, IN
Ending Location: Warren Dunes State Park, MI
Miles Traveled: 52.5
Total Trip Mileage: 4904.1

For more details on our Great America (Socially Distanced) Road Trip, see my previous posts:

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Hi, I'm Unicorn!

I am an avid hiker, traveler, and adventurer who is on the mission to explore hiking trails around the world.  I’m also obsessed with National Parks, long-distance trails and other outdoorsy things.

I hope to share this knowledge with you and inspire you to explore new hiking trails too!

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