Explore ancient sand dunes and an expansive array of plant and animal diversity on one of these 10 top hikes through Indiana Dunes National & State Park.
Indiana Dunes National Park, a National Lakeshore until 2019, comprises approximately 15,000 acres of dunes, wetlands, and forests spread across nearly 25 miles of shoreline along Lake Michigan. Bounded by the national park on all sides, a 2,100-acre state park with an expansive network of hiking trails is also located in the area. Public transit options from Chicago make it easy to spend the day hiking in the dunes or relaxing at the beach. In particular, both the train and bus offer a stop at Dune Park, rivaling average drive times in exchange for a reasonably priced ticket.
Topping the list as the shortest and easiest hikes in the national park, Calumet Dunes, Dune Ridge, and the Great Marsh Trail are three excellent hikes within close proximity to each other. Dune Ridge offers expansive views of the Great Marsh, while its namesake trail offers great birdwatching opportunities in “the largest wetland complex in the Lake Michigan watershed.” The Great Marsh Trail also offers a wheelchair-accessible overlook, or you could head to the nearby Calumet Dunes Trail for an easy and fully-accessible hike through a series of dune ridges. Just .6 miles total, some would argue that this is the easiest hike around since it is entirely paved or along improved boardwalks.
For day hikes in the 2 – 3 hour window, consider the Little Calumet River Trail, Cowles Bog Trail, or Tolleston Dunes Long Loop during your visit. The Little Calumet River Trail is an easier hike that explores the restored Mnoké Prairie, Bailly Homestead, and Chellberg Farm. Hikes like Tolleston Dunes and Cowles Bog offer more moderate hiking with “outstanding plant diversity” and close-up views of "4,700 year-old sand dunes that were formed when Lake Michigan's water level was 25 feet higher than today." This loop through the state park is another excellent hike noted for its long boardwalk, ferns, and early spring wildflowers – though an entrance fee is required to enter the state park.
While the state park does require a minimal entrance fee, almost every hike in the national park is free. Most trailheads are open between 6:00 am and 11:00 pm daily, and restrooms and water can be found at many of the trailheads. The West Beach Trails, however, are an exception to the list. This 3.4-mile circuit combines the Succession, West Beach, and Long Lake Trails for a stunning hike loaded with plant and wildlife diversity plus views of Chicago to the northwest. More information on the beach, including fees and operating hours can be found here.
The two longest routes to make this list are Trail 10 in the state park, and the Glenwood Dunes Trail in the national park. Trail 10 offers a nice relaxing walk through a beautiful forest riddled with tree blowouts, then returns to the trailhead along the southern shores of Lake Michigan. It is relatively easy to follow, thanks to well-marked trail junctions along the way. In contrast, the Glenwood Dunes Trail is a more elaborate trail network with “loops ranging from less than a mile to nearly 15 miles,” according to the park. Hikers and trail runners frequent the trail, though it is also open to equestrian users between March and December.