Northwest Indiana is home to “the dunes”, a glacially deposited area south of Lake Michigan featuring beaches, low-lying wetlands, and (of course) dunes. This February saw Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore elevated to Indiana Dunes National Park. The National Park wraps around Indiana Dunes State Park. There’s clearly a sibling rivalry between the two, each claiming to be better. We visited both.
The National Park has several areas. In “West Beach”, there are three loop trails: Succession, Long Lake, and West Beach. The Succession Loop is a signature hike, mostly on boardwalks and stairs rather than directly in the sand. From the parking lot, a steep climb gets you to the top of the first dune, immediately gaining a view of Lake Michigan and (on a clear day) the Chicago skyline.
Back down the stairs and into the woods, then up again to the next view.
The boardwalk ends in the next woods, and then suddenly the trail reaches the beach. If you’ve never seen a Great Lake before, it really looks like an ocean. Swimming is permitted here and there is a lifeguard in season.
The other two loop trails are less traveled, probably because they don’t have beach access and are more “natural”. Long Lake loop requires a climb of a tall dune in loose sand (no stairs or boardwalk), which is considerably more difficult. West Beach is a good place for bird watching. Both feature Long Lake, which is a lily pad-covered wetland between the beach dunes and the railroad tracks at the edge of the park.
We hiked all three, for a total distance of about 5 miles with a few hundred feet elevation change. Walking in sand makes that feel longer.
In the State Park, the signature hike is the Three Dunes Challenge. As the name suggests, it climbs three large dunes (two natural trails, one with stairs). All feature lake views. The Challenge doesn’t go down to the beach, but side trails make the excursion pretty easy.
My favorite hike in the State Park is Trail 9, about 4 miles, and I recommend hiking it in the counter-clockwise direction. Done this way, the first half is a pleasant but unremarkable stroll in woods. A sharp left turn goes up a hill and shortly comes to views of the lake and the first of several “blowouts”. (A ranger explained to me that a blowout is an amphitheater-shaped erosion feature formed from wind off of the lake.)
The dunes here are obviously in motion. Fallen trees are common, and there are a few where the supporting sand is no longer there and they stand propped up in unlikely postures by their still sturdy roots.
Trail 9 features some of the best views and some of the most interesting terrain in the area. There are some walks beside sheer drop-offs, different textures of sand, a couple of steep sections where the trail moves under your feet as you climb or descend. Not scary, but requires your attention.