Hiking Indiana Dunes National Park: More than a Beach
I’m obviously a HUGE fan of National Parks and I often try to hike new ones over long weekends. However, living in Chicago has been a struggle because the Midwest has always been void of National Parks. The closest ones are either Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, or Voyageurs in Northern Minnesota, neither of which are much of a hop skip and a jump…more like a hop in a car and drive for hours then end up at the park exhausted. Otherwise, a flight has always been required for us to reach a great National Park hiking trail. If only we lived in California or Utah!! But as of February this year, not only was our country granted two new National Parks, but both ARE IN DRIVING DISTANCE FROM CHICAGO! And one of these National Parks are in Indiana, only 1 hour away! Say hello to Indiana Dunes National Park. What was once a State Park and National Lakeshore, now has full-blown National Park status and along with the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, raises the tally of National Parks in the U.S to sixty-one.
The Indiana Dunes vacation is very common among Midwesterners. It’s such a familiar spot for families, especially those who are looking to get out of Chicago but don’t want to go TOO far. The beach is always filled with children of all ages enjoying some good old summer fun. But now that the Dunes have National Park status we had to go back, this time to spend a full day hiking the many trails instead of just visiting the beach. The amount of hiking paths is quite impressive, with various ecosystems crisscrossing each one.
Hit the Dunes and the Beach
Even though there’s so much more to Indiana Dunes than the beach, if you’re there for the first time, you definitely have to make time for the famous sand dunes. Mt. Tom is the best of the best and at 192 ft tall, it’s not only the tallest dune in the park, but also all of Indiana. The start of the trek is located near the Dunes Bathhouse, a beautiful building near the water originally built in the 1920s as a restaurant and nightlife hotspot for residents of the South Shore. You can hike to the top of Mt. Tom quickly and then continue wandering dune trails that veer off in multiple directions. You’ll be getting a workout; hiking up 192 ft of sand is no joke. Work those glutes! At the summit, you’ll have a fantastic view of Lake Michigan, and if it’s a clear day, you can even see the Chicago skyline across the Lake in the distance!
You can reward your legs by hanging out on Porter Beach below. This little oasis has plenty of parking and amenities such as a snack bar and showers, making it one of the more accessible beaches in the park. We visited over Memorial Day weekend during perfect beach weather and although it was busy, there were still a lot of open areas to have your own space on the sand. The views of Lake Michigan were NEXT LEVEL. I have lived in Chicago my whole life and I’ve never seen the Lake sparkling with so many shades of turquoise and teal. It almost made me feel like I was back in the Cayman Islands, even though the factories and smokestacks of Gary, Indiana could be seen to the west.
Hike Through Something Other than Sand
There are so many incredible hiking trails to explore during your Indiana Dunes vacation. You can even find a few that won’t leave you emptying sand out of your shoes once you get back to your car. Our favorite hike in the National Park is the Cowles Bog Hiking Trail. Not often do you have the chance to walk through marshland, with bogs and swamps on both sides of the trail. This 4.7-mile loop will take you roughly 4 hours to complete, and since it’s rather underrated, it’s likely you’ll be alone in nature for much of the walk. The entire area was granted the status of National Natural Landmark in 1965 and is still a significant source of ecological research today. The hike starts off easy with level terrain and boardwalk bridge. However, due to the nature of the dunes, you’ll begin to hit a lot of inclines further on in the trail, making it a bit rugged. As we made our way, we were surrounded by a symphony of different birds as well as frogs and toads in the distance. Similar to Mt. Tom, your reward for getting to the halfway point of this hike is the ability to relax for lunch near the Lake, this time on a quiet beach that is only accessible via this trail system, which means you’ll have the whole beach to yourself!
Other fun hikes in the park include the Dune Ridge Trail System, a .7 mile (30 minute) hike that will take you through many different ecosystems in a short amount of time, and the West Beach Trail System which is made up of multiple treks closer to the border of Indiana and Illinois.
We ended up having a blast at Indiana Dunes and we couldn’t be more excited to have a National Park so close to home. Easily accessible by car or by train from Chicago, it’s the perfect day trip to get away from the craziness of the city. Whether you want to lie out and tan or you want to burn some calories with a day full of hiking, the Dunes have options for everyone. If you need even more of a break, make sure you continue your vacation in nearby New Buffalo, Michigan for a true beach resort feel, in the middle of the Midwest.