Hiking Indiana Dunes National Park

See what it's like to hike Indiana Dunes National Park, a treasure on the shores of Lake Michigan

This piece is part of a series of articles submitted to The Local Tourist through a cooperation with a 400-level travel writing class at Purdue University.

By Desaray Delaloza

In the three years I’ve lived in Indiana I’ve visited Lake Michigan twice.

My friends had always talked about the beautiful hiking trails on the dunes, and I knew that I wanted to hike these trails at least once before I graduated from Purdue.

I decided to look into the different trails of Indiana Dunes National Park. Since this would be my first time, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it was so much more than I had hoped.

My best friend and I got up early on an October day and headed to the first trailhead around 7 a.m. We didn’t have a plan but we managed to beat the crowds as the trails weren’t busy until around noon.

Indiana Dunes is the newest United States National Park. It started as a national lakeshore and the 15,000 acres were upgraded to a National Park in 2019. Three million people visit each year to participate in different activities such as hiking, camping, fishing, picnicking and so much more.

Our National Parks belong to each of us, and they are natural places to learn, exercise, volunteer, spend time with family and friends, and enjoy the magnificent beauty of our great land.

George W. Bush

Be inspired with even more travel quotes

Hiking Indiana Dunes National Park

There are over 50 miles of hiking trails. Each of the 14 trails has a different starting point. All trail maps can be picked up at the visitor’s center.

Indiana Dunes National Park

My friend and I decided to hike three different trails; all of them were different, giving us the opportunity to see wetlands, forested areas, prairies, and the beach.

The trails we chose allow pets as long as they are on a leash (6’ or shorter) but do not allow bicycles or motorized vehicles.

Paul H. Douglas Trail

The first trail we hiked was the Paul H. Douglas Trail, which went through the Miller woods. This trail starts in Gary, Indiana, and there are limited spots for parking.

The trail was 3.4 miles and is a moderate hike. I’ve been hiking for many years, but I hike predominantly on the west coast making this hike very different.

This trail has small inclines that are mostly compact sand that makes it easy to follow the trail. In some areas, there is loose sand, which was a little harder to navigate. The loose sand would occasionally slide and cause my shoes to fill with sand, so I had to adjust accordingly.

When heading to the start of the trail we passed the Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education. The center is somewhat of a visitor center that is open daily.

Paul H. Douglas Trail

Related: National Parks Checklist and tips for visiting

The Douglas trail has so many great views. The first thing we saw on the trail was a small body of water with a walking bridge to cross over. As we started to walk across the bridge, we noticed some geese floating on the water.

All the trees had begun to change; it was like we could see fall starting before our eyes.

As we trekked down the path we began to see all the wildflowers and native grasses growing unruly. On this trail, Black Oak Savannas can be found in the loop.

Paul H. Douglas Trail at Indiana Dunes National Park

We headed for the beach but as we crossed over a small bridge, we found that a sign had fallen and we were unable to finish this trail. Past the fallen sign we could see towering sand dunes that lead to the beach.

The trail surface varies from loose sand, loose gravel, packed dirt, and a water boardwalk.

Paul H. Douglas Trail at Indiana Dunes National Park

Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk

The second trail at Indiana Dunes National Park we chose was the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk.

We started walking along the Burns waterway, which overlooks some industrial buildings, but the most interesting part of this trail is that it’s on top of the water.

Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk

We followed this trail all the way to the pavilion located near one of the many parking areas. As we came to the end of this walkway on the water, we could see the waves crashing along a rock wall.

There was a small paved path out to a lighthouse, but we chose not to head out on the paved way because of how hard the waves were hitting the pathway.

Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk
Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk

Access to the beach was closed off due to rough waters. As we followed the loop back, we walked on the pavement looking onto the dunes that have been restored. The whole trail is 1.5 miles. The trail is busy during the summer.

Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk
Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk

Dune Ridge Trail

The final trail we hiked was the Dune Ridge trail, a forested trail that overlooks wetlands.

The leaves had already started to change colors so most of the leaves were variations of reds, yellows, oranges, and greens.

Dune Ridge

This trail started out with loose sand and slowly become more compacted. It took us around a small forest but also up small dune ridges.

Dune Ridge

The trail was a little steeper than the other two but had “steps” that were tree roots. The trail was 0.7 miles with moderate difficulty.

Dune Ridge

There was a small beach down the road, Kemil beach. The beach isn’t connected by trails but is a brisk walk.

After hiking we decided to head down to the beach. We sat on the beach for a few hours just looking over Lake Michigan as its waves crashed along the shoreline.

Kemil Beach

There are so many more trails and all of them have different views and different starting points. Each trail has a diverse ecosystem.

Some trails require authorized personnel to accompany you. The Indiana Dunes are working to restore natural habitats and native grasses; therefore, when hiking these areas it is asked that you stay on the trails and not disturb the new growth.

Also, don’t forget to pick up after yourself to lower littering rates; most trails will have trash cans at the start and end to throw away any trash you may have.

Kemil Beach at Indiana Dunes National Park

After my first hiking trip to the Indiana Dunes, my best friend and I will most definitely be going back. There are so many trials left for me to explore. The experience was so different compared to my previous hikes and I enjoyed every minute of it.

I can’t wait for another adventure hiking Indiana Dunes National Park.

Hungry after that hiking? Check out this guide of places to eat and things to do in Valparaiso Indiana.

Visiting Indiana Dunes National Park

Indiana Dunes Visitor Center is located at 1215 North State Road 49, Porter, IN 46304

Indiana Dunes National Park Entrance Fees:

Beginning March 31, 2022:

$15 per person/walk-in/bike-in/boat-in rate: (up to a maximum of $25 per family group)  
Motorcycle Pass: $20 for a 1–7-day pass 
$25, per carload, for a 1–7-day pass.  
$45 for a yearly pass specific to Indiana Dunes National Park  
Up to $100 for a commercial bus.

Hours of operation (visitor center):

  • Winter: Sunday- Saturday
    • 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
  • Summer: Sunday- Saturday
    • 8:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.

Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education

  • Sunday- Saturday
    • 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. (Friday of Memorial Day weekend through the Monday of Labor Day weekend)
  • Sunday-Saturday
    • 9:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.

Hours of operation (hiking trails)

  • Sunday-Saturday
    • 6:00 a.m. – 11:00 p.m.

Website and contact information

For more information on the Indiana Dunes National Park https://www.nps.gov/indu/index.htm

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