Rolling sand dunes worthy of the Pacific Coast await in Northwestern Indiana. The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore became a national park in 2019 and now features more than 15,000 acres of natural landscape, including its namesake dunes. Bird lovers won’t want to miss the annual Indiana Dunes Birding Festival, held each May to coincide with huge numbers of migrating birds.
How to make the most of a road trip to Indiana Dunes National Park
With all those sandy dunes, planning at least one shore day is a must. Fifteen miles of beaches await within the park, offering plenty to do—or not do if you just want to relax in the sun. There are eight separate beaches, open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., that feature potable water and parking. West Beach offers showers and lifeguards from the Friday of Memorial Day weekend through the Monday after Labor Day. Use caution when swimming as the lake bottom has holes and drop-offs, and rip currents do occur.
Indiana Dunes is also a prime birder’s destination. Even if you’re not here during the festival, you don’t want to be caught without your binoculars. More than 350 species live in or migrate through the area, occupying every habitat, including the beaches, dunes, wetlands, and prairies. Spring and fall migration seasons are spectacular, and it’s possible to see thousands of sandhill cranes in a single fall day or spot over 100 hawks circling over the dunes in the spring. Other common birds include warblers, herons, woodpeckers, cedar waxwings, and more.
There are 14 hiking trail systems within the park, encompassing a wide variety of habitats. The most popular is the Dune Succession Trail at West Beach, which leads to the top of a high dune and highlights the four stages of dune development. The trail offers a spectacular view across the lake all the way to downtown Chicago on a clear day, but your quads will pay for it—even though the trail is only about a mile long, it’s strenuous, and includes 270 stairs. If you’re not feeling the climb, the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk Trail features a wheelchair-accessible path that highlights the lakeshore, dunes ecology, and riverfront habitats in the park.
Getting There by RV
Interstate 94 runs east to west along the entire southern border of the lakeshore. There are lots of signs along the interstate letting you know when to exit and pick up Highway 12, also called Dunes Highway, which runs parallel to the interstate, but closer to the lakeshore. Stay on Highway 12 past Burns Harbor and you’ll see the park. Various sections of the road are two-lane, four-lane, and urbanized roads through Michigan City.
Where to Stay
Dunewood Campground is the only campground within the park, and it features two loops with a total of 66 campsites (53 are drive-in). There are no electric or water hookups, but there are on-site restrooms with hot and cold showers, as well as a convenience store and gas station. Most sites are packed gravel, and some feature fire rings.
The more modern Indiana Dunes State Park Campground is located just off of Dunes Highway and is one of the area’s most popular campgrounds, so reserve early. There are 134 sites with full electrical hookups, picnic tables, and grills.