Indiana Dunes National Park – Guide

Indiana Dunes National Park – Guide

I was not expecting to love this park so much. Before this – the only thing I knew about Indiana was that it always has a lot of potholes (sorry people of Indiana). I’ve driven through Indiana many times and never knew the beauty and serenity that was just a few hours north along the water of Lake Michigan. 

Indiana Dunes features short, pebble beaches with large dunes and forest right up to the edges of the water. Some of the photos I took looked like spots in California or Hawaii where the ocean and forests intertwine and human development hasn’t quite interfered. In the park you can hike certain dunes or boardwalk pathways through the forest and beaches to enjoy the unique horizon with the Chicago skyline in the far distance. 

I would highly recommend this park, seriously. As someone who has been visiting Carolina beaches my whole life, I would pick the beaches at Indiana Dunes every time (I said what I said). They provide a much more unique experience that I didn’t know existed in the midwest or along the great lakes. I’m so thankful I visited this park sooner rather than later because now I know I have to drag my friends and family to Lake Michigan asap.

Even though I visited in late September when the weather was cooling, there were people surfing and sunbathing across the shores. The pebble beaches were stunningly beautiful, unique, and comfortable to walk on. When I visit again I will opt to go in the off-season again to avoid crowds and heat.

Where should I stay if I’m visiting the park?

My suggestion is to stay in Michigan City, Indiana. Michigan City is right on the border of Indiana and Michigan (as if the name didn’t give it away) and is the biggest town you could stay in. You’ll have easy access to the state park, national park, beaches, and amenities like restaurants, coffee, and vintage shops.

We rented the cutest house in Michigan City through Airbnb (seriously, peep the photos). The house was built in 1883! If you know me at all, you know I love old architecture, design and history. From the antique door knobs with gold keys to the stunning bay window in the dining room, I noticed and loved every detail of this house. Fully renovated in 2018, it was pet friendly, had heated bathroom floors, a clawfoot tub, a state of the art kitchen, and space for 6 guests. 

As always, I’ve made an Airbnb list of places I would personally rent out, based on location, the next time I visit. I included stays of varying sizes so there’s something on the list for everyone – solo travelers and families alike. You can look at my suggested list of stays here.

There are several very small towns up and down the coastline, like Beverly Shores, Dune Acres, and Ogden Dunes that would also be nice locations. These smaller towns are neighborhoods though, meaning there are no shops or restaurants, just houses. If you stay in these neighborhoods, the benefit is many of the houses have direct access to the beaches so you can easily walk to the water every day. The down side is if you want to shop, sight-see, or grab food out, you will definitely need to drive a minimum of 10 minutes to the Michigan City or Chesterton area. 

The last option for location would actually be Chicago. Surprisingly, Chicago is only about 45 minutes (depending where you are in the city) from the national park. If you’re travelling from far, it might be worth it to fly into Chicago and take the train directly to Michigan City and the surrounding areas. There are several train stops across the whole length of Indiana’s section of Lake Michigan, meaning you could easily take a day trip from the city and head back to bustling city life at night.

What restaurants, shops, and stops are in town?

We were only in town for one full day and another half day before heading further west to Iowa City. So we definitely did not get to experience all of the food options this spot had available, but we had the luck of trying some pretty awesome places that I really wish I had available right now.

Fluid Coffee Love

First things first – coffee. After a long drive to Indiana, the next morning coffee was essential. The best coffee in town is at Fluid Coffee Love, or Fluid Coffee Roasters (they go by both names). I’m going to be vulnerable for a second and admit that I’ve been thinking about the  “Oracle” drink since I left. While the coffee was also excellent, this unique spin on matcha featuring butterfly pea flower was so refreshing before hiking through the park. Plus all of the drinks come with oat milk as the default, need I say more?

Hokkaido Sushi Restaurant

Sushi places are hit or miss when it comes to vegan options. Some places only have a cucumber roll, while others, like Hokkaido, have multiple elaborate veggie rolls. This meal was the perfect late night stop when we got into town and were searching for food.

Tiger Lily Cafe

This was by far our favorite restaurant and one of the most unique vegan friendly places I’ve ever been to. The menu features a traditional side and a vegan side, so basically you can order almost everything as a vegan option. They offered staples like philly cheese steak and BBQ sandwiches that don’t often have a vegan option. They also offered healthier options like salads and an avocado cucumber wrap. After a long day of hiking, being able to order anything off of this inclusive menu was the best feeling and definitely put me into a food coma after sneaking some dessert too. If you go to the national park and don’t visit this spot, you’ve done it all wrong. 

What National Park stops should I make?

This national park is mainly the beaches, so I’ve laid out which beaches were the best and included several famous hiking and tourist spots that I’d also recommend.

A Century Of Progress Homes & Dunbar Beach

This is a must visit – especially if you’re into architecture or history. In 1933, a dozen homes were designed, constructed, and then displayed in Chicago at The World’s Fair. Five of those homes were moved to Beverly Shores, which is now part of Indiana Dunes National Park. The five homes endured over 85 years of weathering along the lakefront before they were actually restored and inhabited by people. Now the nonprofit Indiana Landmarks leases the homes out to families, so you will see cars parked outside and have to respect the boundaries of the residents.

These homes intended to highlight the futuristic change that was to come during the Great Depression and gave people something to look forward to. Now it’s a unique (and funny) look at what people in 1933 thought the future would hold for homes in America. One of the craziest houses, the House of Tomorrow, was actually under full restoration when I visited. The house is circular with all glass walls, seriously. The whole house is completely glass and features an airplane hanger – I guess people in 1933 thought every family would have their own airplane one day. 

While The House of Tomorrow is the silliest to imagine, each home features its own unique style and it is so much fun to stroll down the street admiring the uniqueness of each of them. Normally at the end of September each year the non-profit does a week of tours too where you get the chance to go inside some of the homes. Unfortunately because of COVID-19, the tour for 2021 was cancelled, but keep that week in mind if you plan to visit in the future! 

This spot does feature a small parking area too, although I can imagine it may get crowded at peak times and you’d have to wait and circle for parking. The parking lot attaches to the street of houses and a beach access that leads to Dunbar Beach. This beach, like Ogden Dunes Beach, is a more private and peaceful beach. Personally, this beach was one of my favorites and I definitely recommend walking on it to view some of the Century of Progress Homes from the opposite side.

Indiana Dunes Visitor Center

As always, the visitors center is a must. National Parks change all the time – whether there are new additions or closures, I highly suggest talking to a park ranger at any park you visit. They can tell you the best hidden spots and tips like when to avoid certain areas of the park due to limited parking. Make sure to scoot in on day one and grab any maps you need and donate to the park if you’re able. Indiana Dunes is one of the many National Parks that is free, but supporting our parks is essential.

West Beach & Ogden Dunes Beach

West Beach is probably one of the more famous beaches at the park. It features the Dune Succession Trail which is the long stairway and boardwalk you see in everyone’s photos. This was the first beach we visited because the Dune Succession Trail was top on my list. 

Many of the beaches were more private and didn’t have any parking, but West Beach has a massive parking lot and a small visitor center with bathrooms that’s accessible from the beach. This would be a great spot if you’re looking to sit on the beach all day. The parking lot at West Beach attaches to the start of the Dune Succession trail and a paved pathway directly to the beach. So, if you’re not looking to hike to the beach, you can easily take the scenic and handicap accessible sidewalk down to the water instead. This would be a great option if you have kids! 

In addition, West Beach attaches to another beach further east called Ogden Dunes Beach. Ogden Dunes beach is attached to a lakefront neighborhood so there is no parking there, really the only way to get to it is by parking at West Beach and walking along the beach until you hit the more private lakefront home portion. With that said – if West Beach is too busy, I would highly suggest walking down the beach 10-15 minutes and making camp along the more private Odgen Dunes Beach. 

Portage Lakefront & Riverwalk Beach

This boardwalk becomes completely frozen in the winter months. Even in September I didn’t walk all the way to the end because the waves splash against it and spray cold water against you. Walking down the boardwalk gives you a unique view of the beaches and lighthouse. 

There is a small parking lot attached to this boardwalk so you can easily drive up, park, and walk or sit on the beach. The only downfall of this area is that it’s directly attached to a Steel Mill. Unfortunately, before the national park was fully protected, this area was (and still is in many ways) an industrial area. The steel mill is still operating today and you even have to drive through a section of it to get into the boardwalk parking lot. This was a bummer for many of the photos I took because as beautiful as it was, in the distance you can see how industry destroys the beauty and haven that nature offers.

Porter Beach 

I always keep my blog posts fully transparent, because to be honest, everyone always writes about the places you should visit and not the places you should avoid. Porter Beach was not a nice place, at least when I visited. There was a small parking area I was able to find parking in but once I got to the beach it was the most polluted and the most ‘traditional’ beach of them all. I felt like I was at any other East Coast beach where the dunes were pushed back and the volleyball nets were strung out. After parking, we quickly left and went back to West Beach, which we found to be much more peaceful and focused around nature. 

Mount Baldy

One of the more famous parts of the park is Mount Baldy. We visited Mount Baldy at sunset because the dune is so large you can get a stunning birds-eye view of the beach and sky. My most favorite photos from the trip were taken here. Keep in mind, the trail to hike to Mount Baldy is rather dark at night since it’s a dense forest, so bring a flashlight! We didn’t and had to leave a bit early to ensure we made it back safely. The trail is only about 10 minutes of walking until you hit the sand, then it’s a steep downward slope onto the beach.

Mount Baldy is the largest dune at 126 feet above the water level of Lake Michigan and is moving inland around 4 feet per year because of beach erosion. Because of this inland movement, half of the parking lot to visit the dune is actually covered in sand, so parking is limited.

Similarly to the century of progress homes, visiting Mount Baldy is a must. If you’ve made it this far and you miss visiting him, you’ll regret it.

Planning a trip to this National Park? Message me or tag me on Instagram @growwithsydney! I’d love to help you plan, see the adventures you decided to take, and get your opinion on the park.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *