Indiana Dunes National Park

Indiana Dunes National Park sees more than 1.7 million visitors each year

Previously designated a national lakeshore, Indiana Dunes National Park runs for nearly 25 miles (40 km) along the southern shore of Lake Michigan. The sandy beach adjoins a grassy prairie, bog, and wetlands home to over 2,000 species.


Shaped by wind and water

Indiana Dunes State Park resides in a unique geologic setting at the southern tip of one of America’s largest freshwater lakes. A product of melting glacial ice, Lake Michigan is the last significant contribution of the Ice Age to northwestern Indiana. The expansive beach, rolling dunes, and wide wetland features illustrate the effects of water, wind, and vegetation growth in reshaping the surface of the land since the departure of the glacier from this region about 18,000 years ago.

Dune Sites
Foredunes are long ridges that form parallel to the shoreline as sand is saltated, or blown, onshore by wind. Bowl-shaped blowout dunes extend landward owing to the erosion of the foredune.

Vegetation Control
Dune grasses are part of a sand dune’s first line of defense from erosion. Thriving in high winds, these important plant species use fast-growing rhizomes to stabilize the sand and maintain the delicate ecosystem.

Dune Development
The modern shoreline began when a small ridge of sand and gravel developed as lake levels rose about 6,000 years ago. At 4,500 years, water level in Lake Michigan dropped and sand was exposed and swept into U-shaped dunes and foredunes. During the past 3,500 years, these dunes have migrated and new ones have formed, shaping the landscape into what we see today.

The Rises and Falls of Lake Michigan
As ice from the last major glaciation slowly retreated northward, several curved ridges of glacial sediment (called moraines) were left behind along the southern rim of a deep basin. Meltwater ponded between the moraines and the ice margin to produce early Lake Michigan. As the glacial margin fluctuated, channel outlets opened and closed, influencing lake level in the basin. The rise and fall of the water level while glacial ice was still in the basin produced many shorelines along the southern rim of the lake. Only two of these ancient shorelines were preserved as dunecapped sandy ridges. Located south-southeast of the park, Glenwood Beach (older) and Calumet Beach mark the former shorelines of Lake Michigan approximately 17,000 to 13,500 years ago. During the development of the younger Calumet Beach, lake level was 30 to 40 feet higher than today. Starting 12,000 years ago, lake level began to fall very rapidly as glacial ice retreated far enough northward to open an outlet, allowing water to flow northward across Ontario and into the St. Lawrence Seaway. Lake Michigan’s water level fell more than 100 feet and stayed low for about 2,000 years. At 9,400 years, lake level slowly began to rise when the outlet to the north was elevated by the rebound of the earth’s crust. This water level rise reached current lake levels 6,000 years ago, and continued to rise another 25 feet. Ultimately, lake level peaked 4,500 years ago before immediately falling again. Over the next 1,000 years, lake level fell almost 15 feet; the remaining lowering occurred slowly during the last 3,500 years.

Mountains of Sand
A shoreline began building along the Indiana coast about 6,000 years ago. Sediment brought by water currents accumulated in a small ridge with a landward lagoon. As storms washed over the ridge, it grew larger and moved further landward. The upward growth kept pace as the lake level rose. When lake level peaked, a dune-capped ridge of sand and gravel was deposited along the Indiana shore. Geologists call this new shoreline the Tolleston Beach.

The rapid lake level drop 4,500 years ago dramatically changed the Tolleston Beach. As water level fell, vast areas of sand were exposed and swept up by wind to form large, U-shaped dunes. The dunes migrated away from the shore and obliquely landward into the lagoon, which by this time was becoming vegetated and changing into a fen wetland. It was at this time that the Indiana Dunes area began to take on the character we see today. In the past 3,500 years, additional sand has been blown into the Tolleston Beach by winds off the lake. This added sand resulted in foredunes, the linear ridges that run parallel to Lake Michigan.

A Woody Wall of Defense
Sand dunes are usually thought of as transient features whose form and position are constantly changing. Yet when vegetation takes hold, they can become reasonably stable landforms, as illustrated by the persistence of dunes formed thousands of years ago. Vegetative control begins with the invasion of fast-growing grasses, huckleberry, wintergreen, goldenrod, and other ground cover. Once the sand becomes relatively stable, species of willow, grape, and cherry soon appear  and are followed by jack pine, aspen, and finally oak. The wind-shelter effect of the trees and undergrowth, together with the holding power of their root systems, anchors the sand and results in the dune types that are common in this area.

Blowouts and Migrating Dunes
Blowouts usually begin as a narrow channel on the crest of the foredune where vegetation has been removed by either foot traffic or nature. This confined opening allows wind velocity to accelerate and create extreme erosion. Sand blown out of the foredune is piled high atop the lee (landward) slope, creating a bowl or amphitheater-like topography. Both Mt. Tom and Mt. Holden, towering nearly 200 feet above the beach, are examples of complexly developed blowouts. Beach House, Furnessville, and Big Blowout are also typical of this type of dune. Long-buried trees, sometimes exhumed during blowout development Maps: Indiana Geological & Water Survey. (like the tree graveyard at Big Blowout), reveal evidence of older forests buried by dune migration between the early development of the Tolleston Beach and today. Migrating dunes form when sand supply suddenly increases because of excessive wind erosion, an increase in beach width, or the sudden removal of vegetative cover. Moving in the direction of the predominant wind, migrating dunes can engulf entire forests. Dunes stabilize when sand supply diminishes and vegetative control is reestablished.

The Great Marsh
Landward of Tolleston Beach is an inter-dunal wetland area called the Great Marsh. Initially a shallow, open-water lagoon, this area changed into a series of isolated marl ponds that vegetated over during the fall from the peak lake level at 4,500 years ago Water-loving vegetation has accumulated throughout much of the area, producing up to 5 feet of peat. Trails 2 and 10 offer good views of the marsh in contrast with the densely wooded dunes around it.

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Native American History

Home of the Potawatomi and Miami peoples

The legends of the Potawatomi and Miami peoples place them in the Indiana Dunes prior to the Iroquois War or Beaver Wars (1641–1701). It was during the war period that both nations migrated north to the Door Peninsula with many other tribes for protection. The Iroquois War centered in the lower peninsula of modern Ontario, Canada, north of Lakes Erie and Ontario. The early stages of the Iroquois Wars were among the Erie Indians on the southern shore of Lake Erie. By 1656 the tribe had been destroyed or dispersed. Most of the Iroquois War is taken from the French records in Canada, leaving little details on activities further west and south of the lakes. By 1677, the Miami and Potawatomi had begun to return to the southern shore of Lake Michigan. The Miami were at the western bend of the Calumet River (Blue Island, Illinois). On the far eastern edge of the dunes, the Miami and Mascouten had returned to the St. Joseph River of Lake Michigan sometime after 1673. Another village grew at the portage from the South Bend of the St. Joseph after 1679. Additional villages may have been located through the dunes by this time, but there are no mention of any villages in the journals of René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle.

The Iroquois raided the Illinois Confederation village at Fort St. Louis, or Starved Rock, in 1684. Then in 1687, the Iroquois raided the villages in Blue Island area. No further incursion passed around the south end of Lake Michigan. By the late 1680s, the allied Algonquian peoples had taken the war east to the Iroquois homeland, bringing an end to the Iroquois threat. By 1701, the eastern villages along the St. Joseph and expanded to include not only Miami and Mascouten, but Shawnee, Mahican, and Potawatomi. The only other identified community was over a hundred miles (106 km) south at Ouiatenon on the Wabash River.

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Park History

How Indiana Dunes became a National Park

The legislation that authorized Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in 1966 resulted from a movement that began in 1899. Three key individuals helped make Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore a reality: Henry Cowles, a botanist from the University of Chicago; Paul H. Douglas, Senator for the State of Illinois; and Dorothy R. Buell, an Ogden Dunes resident and English teacher. Henry Cowles published an article entitled “Ecological Relations of the Vegetation on Sand Dunes of Lake Michigan,” in the Botanical Gazette in 1899 that established Cowles as the “father of plant ecology” in North America and brought international attention to the intricate ecosystems existing on the dunes.

But Cowles’ article and the new international awareness were not enough to curtail the struggle between industry and preservation that governed the development of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. In 1916, the region was booming with industry in the form of steel mills and power plants. Hoosier Slide, for example, 200 feet in height, was the largest sand dune on Indiana’s lakeshore. During the first twenty years of the battle to save the dunes, the Ball Brothers of Muncie, Indiana, manufacturers of glass fruit jars, and the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company of Kokomo carried Hoosier Slide away in railroad boxcars.

It was this kind of activity by local industry that spurred Cowles, along with Thomas W. Allinson and Jens Jensen to form the Prairie Club of Chicago in 1908. The Prairie Club was the first group to propose that a portion of the Indiana Dunes be protected from commercial interests and maintained in its pristine condition for the enjoyment of the people. Out of the Prairie Club of Chicago came the precursor to the current park: The National Dunes Park Association (NDPA). The NDPA promoted the theme: “A National Park for the Middle West, and all the Middle West for a National Park.”

October 30, 1916, only one month after the National Park Service itself was established (August 25, 1916), Stephen Mather, the Service’s first Director, (shown at the far left in the adjacent photo leading a tour of park advocates in the dunes in 1916) held hearings in Chicago to gauge public sentiment on a “Sand Dunes National Park”. Four hundred people attended and 42 people, including Henry Cowles, spoke in favor of the park proposal; there were no opponents.

The battle for a national park was crippled, however, when the United States entered the First World War. National priorities changed and revenues were targeted for national defense, not the development of a national park. The popular slogan “Save the Dunes!” became “First Save the Country, Then Save the Dunes!” As the nation went from a world war into a depression, hopes to save the dunes began to fade.

In 1926, after a ten-year petition by the State of Indiana to preserve the dunes, the Indiana Dunes State Park opened to the public. The State Park was still relatively small in size and scope and the push for a national park continued. In 1949, Dorothy Buell became involved with the Indiana Dunes Preservation Council (IDPC). The efforts of Buell resulted in a Save the Dunes Council in 1952.

However, the struggle did not end there. A union of politicians and businessmen desired to maximize economic development by obtaining federal funds to construct a “Port of Indiana.” Hoosier politicians and businessmen were eager to exploit the economic prosperity promised by linking the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean shipping lanes via the St. Lawrence Seaway. In light of this, Save the Dunes Council President Dorothy Buell and council members began a nationwide membership and fundraising drive to buy the land they desperately sought to preserve. Their first success was the purchase of 56 acres in Porter County, the Cowles Tamarack Bog.

In the summer of 1961, those fighting to save the dunes began to see greater possibilities for hope. Then President John F. Kennedy supported congressional authorization for Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts, which marked the first time federal monies would be used to purchase natural parkland. President Kennedy also took a stand on the National Lakeshore, outlining a program to link the nation’s economic vitality to a movement for conservation of the natural environment. This program became known as The Kennedy Compromise, 1963-1964.

The Kennedy Compromise entailed the creation of a national lakeshore and a port to satisfy industrial needs. Then Illinois Senator Paul H. Douglas (shown in adjacent photograph) spoke tirelessly to the public and Congress in a drive to save the dunes, earning him the title of “the third senator from Indiana.” In 1966, Douglas made sure that the highly desired Burns Waterway Harbor (Port of Indiana) could only come with the authorization of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

By the time the 89th Congress adjourned in late 1966, the bill had passed and the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore finally became a reality. While the 1966 authorizing legislation included only 8,330 acres of land and water, the Save the Dunes Council, National Park Service, and others continued to seek expansion of the boundaries of preservation. Four subsequent expansion bills for the park (1976, 1980, 1986, and 1992) have increased the size of the park to more than 15,000 acres.

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The best things to do at Indiana Dunes National Park

Enjoy the outdoors year-round at Indiana Dunes National Park. From swimming and sunbathing in the summer to cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter, each season offers visitors the chance to experience this unique park.

Hiking is rewarding in every season. Spring wildflowers are abundant along the Little Calumet River in April and May. Summer is an ideal time to build sand castles on the 15 miles of beaches and admire Lake Michigan sunsets. The Calumet and Porter Brickyard Bike Trails are especially pretty in the late summer and early fall. The colors of fall can be enjoyed from late September through October, with the peak color occurring around mid-October. Bird watching is especially interesting during spring and fall migrations. Animal tracks are often visible after a recent snowfall.

Camping and fishing are popular ways to relax at the dunes. Overnight camping is available from April 1 through October 31 at the Dunewood Campground. Fishing the Little Calumet River during the summer steelhead run is a worthy challenge and the Portage Lakefront fishing pier offers lakeside fishing.

Discover all that the Indiana Dunes National Park has to offer. Use these pages to choose your activities and plan your visit. Be sure to stop by our Visitor Center. Enjoy the dozens of guided tours and activities that are offered each year.

Beach-going & Swimming
Bird Watching
Fishing & Boating
Historical Sites
Horseback Riding
Interpretive Programs (Calendar of Events)
Winter Activities
Guided Tours

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The national lakeshore provides habitat for approximately 1,130 native vascular plants

The national lakeshore provides habitat for approximately 1,130 native vascular plants, including the federally threatened Pitcher’s thistle. The lakeshore is home to populations of 30% of Indiana’s listed rare, threatened, endangered, and special concern plant species. Shaped by glacial events and changing climates, the dunes landscape contains disjunct flora representative of eastern deciduous forests, boreal forest remnants, and species with Atlantic coast affinities. In addition, the national lakeshore is part of the upper- and eastern-most limits of the tallgrass prairie peninsula and supports high quality remnants of this ever-diminishing vegetation type. The presence of many unique dune and wetland plant community types has lead to a long history of botanical exploration and research. Lands within the national lakeshore have been called the birthplace of American ecology as a result of early work on plant succession performed by Dr. Henry Cowles over 100 years ago. Investigations related to several areas of plant ecology continue today and are viewed as essential to preserving the dynamic ecosystems of the Indiana Dunes.

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Animal Life

Biological diversity was a primary reason for the creation of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore

Biological diversity was a primary reason for the creation of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Because the national lakeshore is located in several ecological transition zones, the diversity is many times greater than most areas its size. Remnant species from past climatic changes have managed to survive in sheltered habitats. The moderating effect of Lake Michigan, along with the great variety of habitats within a small area, explain much of the plant and animal diversity. Forty-six species of mammals, 18 species of amphibians, 23 species of reptiles, 71 species of fish, 60 species of butterflies, and 60 species of dragonflies and damselflies can be found here. The largest herbivore is the white-tailed deer while the largest predator is the coyote. Three-hundred-and-fifty-two species of birds have been identified, with 113 of these being regular nesters. The national lakeshore also provides habitat for a great blue heron rookery and the federally endangered Karner blue butterfly.

As a result of the diversity, visitors can hear several different species of frogs and toads calling during the spring and summer. People hiking through dunes and blowouts may catch a glimpse of the six-lined racerunner darting through the grass.

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Hiking Trails

The best hiking trails at Indiana Dunes National Park

Discover much more than just sand dunes as you hike through 14 distinct trail systems covering more than 50 miles of trails.

A wide variety of hiking trails traverse the various habitats and cultural history of Indiana Dunes National Park. The varying lengths and difficulty levels make it easy to choose the trail that’s right for you. From a short easy stroll to a challenging all-day trek, most of the trails are open all year and the hiking experience will change with each season.

Paper trail maps are available at the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center and at each trailhead kiosk.

14 Hiking Trail Systems

Bailly Homestead, Chellberg Farm, Little Calumet River and Mnoké Prairie Trail System
Featured hike: Easy to moderate, 3.4 miles in length, average hike time of 2 hours.
Hike through a forest dominated by maple, beech, basswood and oak trees. Follow a stretch of the Little Calumet River and explore the recently restored Mnoké Prairie. Explore the historic Bailly Homestead and Chellberg Farm.

Calumet Dunes Trail System
Featured hike: Easy, 0.5 miles in length, average hike time of 20 minutes.
This short, wheelchair accessible, paved trail features the Calumet Dunes ridge that formed at what once was the edge of the Lake Michigan over 12,000 years ago.

Cowles Bog Trail System
Featured hike: Moderate to rugged, 4.7 miles in length, average hike time of 4 hours.
This trail highlights an area of such outstanding plant diversity that it was designated as a National Natural Landmark. Explore several distinct habitats including ponds, marshes, swamps, black oak savannas and beaches.

Dune Ridge Trail System
Featured hike: Moderate, 0.7 miles in length, average hike time of 30 minutes.
This trail offers great views of the extensive wetlands and forests south of this tall, forested dune. Perhaps no other area in the national park will take you through as many diverse habitats in such a short trail.

Glenwood Dunes Trail System
Featured hike: Moderate, 6.8 miles in length, average hike time of 4 hours.
This extensive trail system features interconnected loops in mature woods ranging from less than a mile to nearly 15 miles and is popular with hikers, runners, horseback riders and cross-country skiers.

Great Marsh Trail System
Featured hike: Easy, 1.7 miles in length, average hike time of 1 hour.
A really nice birding hike with views of the largest wetland complex in the Lake Michigan watershed. Features a separate wheelchair accessible paved trail with quick access to an observation deck.

Heron Rookery Trail System
Featured hike: Easy, 3.3 miles in length, average hike time of 2 hours.
This trail follows a portion of the Little Calumet River. In the spring, the woodlands along this trail are blanketed with the most extensive display of spring wildflowers in the national park.

Hobart Prairie Grove Trail System
Hobart Woodland hike: Easy, 2.2 miles in length, average hike time of 1 hour.
This hike has views of forested ravines, bur oak savanna, and scenic Lake George.

Oak Savannah hike: Easy, 3.9 miles in length, average hike time of 2 hours.
This rail trail offers scenic views of Lake George and mature forests and is great for biking and hiking.

Paul H. Douglas Trail (Miller Woods)
Featured hike: Moderate, 3.4 miles in length, average hike time of 2.5 hours.
This trail winds through several habitats including wetlands, globally rare black oak savanna, open dunes and beach. The views of the lake and the dunes are incredible.

Mount Baldy Trail System*
Featured hike: Rugged, 0.8 miles in length, average hike time of 1 hour.
This hike is short with a steep climb up loose sand to reach the top of Mount Baldy. The views are incredible as you hike on top of the barren (or bald) sand dune.

*Restricted Access. Access to Mount Baldy Summit Trail requires accompaniment by authorized staff. There are ranger-led daytime and sunset hikes on weekends in the summer. Program dates and times can be obtained by calling the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center at (219) 395-1882. Information is also listed in the park’s newspaper The Singing Sands and on the park’s website calendar and Facebook page.

Pinhook Trail System
Upland hike: Moderate, 2.1 miles in length, average hike time of 1.5 hours.
The Upland Trail highlights a rich beech and maple forest growing on top of a glacial moraine formed about 15,000 years ago. The Upland Hike is open to the public year round without the need for a guided tour.

Bog hike*: Easy, 0.9 miles in length, average hike time of 1 hour.
The Bog Trail leads to a bog in a depression in the moraine created when a large piece of ice broke off the melting glacier. The bog features an incredible habitat with unique plants.

*Restricted Access. Access to Pinhook Bog requires advance approval and accompaniment by authorized staff. There are ranger-led open houses on weekends in the summer. Program dates and times can be obtained by calling the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center at (219) 395-1882. Information is also listed in the park’s newspaper The Singing Sands and on the park’s website calendar and Facebook page.

Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk
Featured hike: Easy, 1.5 miles in length, average hike time of 45 minutes.
This popular location is a great place to view the ever-changing seasons along Lake Michigan and watch dramatic weather and clouds build over the lake. It’s an easy location to watch for migrating birds in the spring and summer, and observe shelf ice that forms along the beach edge in the winter.

Tolleston Dunes Trail System
Featured hike: Moderate, 2.9 miles in length, average hike time of 2 hours.
This trail winds amid varied habitats ranging from oak savanna to wetlands and plants such as prickly pear cactus, butterfly weed and lupines. Features a separate wheelchair accessible trail with quick access to an observation deck with picnic tables.

West Beach Trail System
3-Loop Hike: Moderate to rugged, 3.5 miles in length, average hike time of 3 hours.
Dunes Succession Hike: Moderate, 1.0 mile in length, average hike time of 45 minutes.
These trails offer a great combination of hiking and relaxing at the beach. The trails are varied and encompass many habitats. There are great views from the top of the Dune Succession Trail stairs, a beautiful pinery of jack pines, birding opportunities along Long Lake and secluded sections of forest.

Geocaching is the anytime, anywhere adventure where players (called geocachers) use a Geocaching app or a GPS to find hidden containers around the world. For more information, please visit our Geocaching Page to view our featured park geocaches and thier latest updates.

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