Discover Nature’s Wonders
Exploring Indiana Dunes National Park
A breathtaking panorama of towering sand dunes ascending from Lake Michigan’s sparkling blue waters creates a haven for visitors to Indiana Dunes National Park, just west of Michigan City in Northwest Indiana. The 15,000-acre jewel spans 15 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline with abundant beaches, perfect for a plunge into the Great Lake or an afternoon of sunbathing and sandcastle-building.
But there’s more than the shore at this amazing park, where 50 miles of hiking trails meander through the dunes and inland to deep woodlands, marshes, meadows, and bogs. The park teems with birds and native animals, as well as blankets of wild flowers and plants that visitors discover on their own hikes or one of the many ranger-led excursions. Although the dunes and lake have long been a favorite with visitors, the enclave’s designation as a National Park three years ago is a long-sought point of pride.
Michigan City, located just east of the park in LaPorte County, serves as a gateway to the Indiana Dunes. With an array of top-notch lodgings and restaurants, the community makes a super base for exploring the national park and enjoying some of Michigan City’s lakeside attractions as well. Get ready for adventure, relaxation, and inspiration at Indiana Dunes National Park and an inviting respite at the end of each day in welcoming Michigan City.
Here’s what’s ahead:
At the National Park
Visitors Center – A good place to start your adventure is at the Indiana Dunes National Park Visitors Center. You’ll find displays, orientation films, maps, a gift shop, and a daily schedule of ranger-led and other activities. For further details, plus videos of virtual tours led by rangers that will give you a look at what’s in store, go to www.nps.gov/indu/index.htm.
Beaches – Eight beaches within the park invite days of fun in the water and on the shore. Open daily from 6am to 11pm, all have potable water, restrooms, and parking lots. In addition, West Beach has showers and lifeguards in the summer. Mount Baldy Beach is backed by stunning 126-foot-tall Mt. Baldy, called a “living dune” because it moves or shifts every year. Access to the dune is prohibited except on ranger-led hikes. At Central Beach, located within the bounds of LaPorte County, you can often see Bank Swallows coming and going from their nests in the dunes during the spring and summer.
Hiking – Traverse 14 trails from easy to challenging. Here are a handful:
● The Calumet Dunes Trail, a half-mile hike on a paved surface, featuring the Calumet Dunes Ridge, which was the shoreline of Lake Michigan 12,000 years ago.
● Great Marsh Trail, an easy 1-hour trek with views of the largest wetland complex in the Lake Michigan Watershed, with a separate wheelchair-accessible trail.
● Pinhook Bog Trails, two pathways with very different habitats. The Upland Trail, a moderate 1.5-hour trek, highlights a forest growing atop a glacial moraine formed 15,000 years ago. The Bog Hike is an easy trail with unique plants. Access to Pinhook Bog itself requires advanced approval from the Visitors Center and accompaniment by authorized staff.
● Cowles Bog Trail – A moderate to rugged 4-hour hike past ponds, marshes, and swamps with such plant diversity that it was designated a National Natural Landmark.
Biking – View the park’s diversity on the six bike trails, some paved. The interconnected trail system spans 37 miles across the entire length of the park.
Kayaking and Canoeing – Kayaking is all the rage these days, and there is plenty of opportunity at the park. Kayakers access the Lake Michigan Water Trail from West Beach or head for the Little Calumet River Water Trail: East Branch within the park. You can launch your canoe for a pleasant paddle on the Little Calumet River.
Bird Watching – With more than 350 species of winged wonders and its location on a migratory path, the National Park provides a cherished retreat for bird watchers. Hawks fly overhead, heron and egrets feed in the marshes, and geese and ducks abound. In the forests, you’ll spot some of your favorite songbirds.
Camping – Some outdoor enthusiasts opt for camping in the National Park. Overnight camping is available at the Dunewood Campground from April 1-October 31. The campground consists of two loops containing 53 conventional drive-in sites and 13 walk/carry-in sites. Four sites are wheelchair accessible. Each loop has modern restrooms and showers.
Historical Sites – In addition to natural wonders, the park includes manmade treasures as well with more than 60 historic structures. Notable structures are the Bailly Homestead, once a stopping place for travelers and missionaries between Chicago and Detroit; the Chellberg Farm, which was the home of Swedish immigrants, and five houses from the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. Visitors access historical sites on the Bailly Homestead, Chellberg Farm, Little Calumet River and Mnoke Prairie Trails, easy-to-moderate hikes of about 3.5 miles. Along the way, you can explore the recently restored Mnoke Prairie.
Excursions – The National Park has plenty of information on their website (listed above) on both self-guided and ranger-led excursions ranging from an hour to a full day. Rangers and interpreters tell you about everything from how the dunes were formed to what flora and fauna thrive in the park. There also is a Junior Ranger Program for the kids.
A Homebase in Michigan City
Settle in for your Indiana Dunes National Park adventure just a few miles east in Michigan City, with bountiful lodging choices and numerous terrific restaurants.
You can choose from national chain hotels, boutique lodgings, and bed-and-breakfast inns. Here are a few special places for your home away from home.
Beachwalk Vacation Rentals, Michigan City – Lodging choices, many along or near Lake Michigan, range from cozy cottages for small groups to expansive homes that can accommodate the whole gang. Many of the offerings include everything you need for your stay, such as fully equipped kitchens.
Blue Chip Casino, Hotel & Spa, Michigan City – Not only are the hotel rooms luxurious, but they are located in a gleaming facility known as Northern Indiana’s favorite place to play – and stay! The Blue Chip features 486 guest rooms in two ritzy towers, plus its huge casino, restaurants and spa.
4411 Inns and Suites, Michigan City – This unique and newly renovated boutique hotel close to Michigan City attractions boasts 26 suites, ranging from king to three-bedroom, with upscale décor.
GW Tryon Farm, Michigan City – Groups of up to 15 people can rent the entirety of this beautifully restored 1800s farmstead house, complete with kitchen. Or rooms can be rented individually, with these guests enjoying a breakfast prepared by the owners.
The Brewery Lodge & Supper Club, Michigan City – This boutique hotel nestles on 40 acres amid forests, streams, and ponds. Enjoy the view from one of 12 upscale suites with wood-paneled walls. The main house, built in 1930, includes a craft beer and wine lounge and several outdoor terraces. The refined restaurant, featuring New American cuisine serves daily dinner and a sumptuous Sunday brunch.
A wide variety of dining options are available in Michigan City, ranging from upscale cuisine to casual family fare. Here are some that draw raves.
Holly’s Restaurant & Pub, Michigan City – This family favorite serves traditional American fare, Mexican specialties and barbeque. It was rated last year as the Number 1 Restaurant in Michigan City by voters in Trip Advisor.
Fiddlehead Restaurant, Michigan City – This trendy Uptown eatery gives an upscale twist to some classic fare. Grass-fed beef stars in everything from burgers to meatloaf, with plenty of fish and chicken options too.
Zorn Brew Works Co., Michigan City – Hand-crafted brews are delicious accompaniments to specialties such as flatbreads, sandwiches, soups, and the special macaroni covered in homemade beer cheese.
Shoreline Brewery & Restaurant, Michigan City – The beers at this classy brewpub have won the World Beer Cup award and are the perfect pairings for creative entrees and upscale pub food such as their award-winning Grecian lamb burger.
Shady Creek Winery, Michigan City – Sip and sup under soaring ceilings and covered porches, and around outdoor fireplaces. An emphasis on wine tasting and shareable foods pairs award-winning vintages with offerings such as charcuterie and flatbreads.
Will you take the Diana Dunes Dare? Indiana Dunes National Park is challenging you with a combined hiking challenge and ghost story retold! Flash back to the early 1900s when a native Chicagoan named Alice Mabel Gray lived in an abandoned shanty on the dunes for more than nine years. This educated woman drew attention because of her interest in preserving the dunes. She was dubbed Diana of the Dunes by reporters of the time.