Nestled along the picturesque shores of Lake Michigan, Indiana Dunes National Park offers a unique and unforgettable experience for families. Whether you’re a nature enthusiast excited to explore the biodiversity of the sand dunes, or simply a Midwest mom looking for a nearby beach getaway with your little ones, Indiana Dunes has something special in store for you. Today, Meghan Garriott, Illinois mom of three, is going to take us on an exciting journey to discover why Indiana Dunes National Park, along with its neighboring Indiana Dunes State Park, should be at the top of your family’s travel list. Meghan’s family recently spent time exploring both parks and fell in love with the stunning landscapes, the fun sandy beaches, easy hikes, and kid-friendly activities in this hidden gem of a National Park, perfect for outdoor adventures. 

Indiana Dunes National Park with kids

Indiana Dunes consists of 2,182 acres of primitive, beautiful, historic, and unique landscape in Porter County, Indiana. It includes more than three miles of beautiful beach along Lake Michigan’s southern shore.  Large sand dunes, located beyond the entire shoreline, have taken thousands of years to form, and tower nearly 200 feet above Lake Michigan. A wide range of habitats and plant species are found in the park, with vegetation stabilizing some of the sand. These habitats provide homes for many types of plants and animals. The lake also provides a habitat for many aquatic species, as well as a constantly changing fishery.

The diversity in activities, variety of learning opportunities, and wealth of habitats make Indiana Dunes National Park a great family vacation spot. National Geographic even named it a “Best For Families” park. There are beaches to play on, hiking trails to explore, wetlands for bird watching, and deep history all to experience at the Dunes.

We recently spent quite a bit of time there exploring everything that was offered, and here are some of our favorite activities from our trip!

West Beach Trail

West Beach Trail

Why explore the Indiana Dunes?

Midwest hidden gem (one of the only Midwest National Parks)

Here in the central Midwest, National Parks are few and far between. In fact, Illinois, Iowa, and Kansas don’t have ANY National parks. Indiana was a part of that list as well until Indiana Dunes gained its National Park Status in 2019. Being from Illinois, I had only ever visited one National Park, Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis, Missouri. This also happens to be Missouri’s only National Park and the smallest National Park out of all of them.

Indiana Dunes, for many of us in the central Midwest, is the closest National Park to visit. It may not be on the top of your National Park Bucket List, yet, but it was on the top of mine and I can’t wait to convince you why it needs to be added to your list!

Sand dune ecology and biodiversity

Indiana Dunes National Park ranks 7th in biodiversity out of all of the nation’s national parks, because of the lake and shoreline, and the dunes in the habitats in between the Dunes. There is a myriad of plants and animals that are able to call the Indiana Dunes area home. The types of habitats at the dunes include bogs, rivers, forests, swamp forests, marsh, oak savanna, interdental ponds, foredunes, beaches, and lakefronts.

All of these different habitats have their own species of animals and plants, making it a great place for birdwatchers and Arbor enthusiasts. Since all of these habitats are so close together, it’s a great place to bring children to learn about all of these different habitats in real life.


From the Top of Mt Tom

Where are the Indiana Dunes located?

The Dunes are made up of multiple Indiana Dunes National Park areas, with an Indiana state park nestled in the middle. The dunes area runs along 15 miles of Lake Michigan’s southern shore, from Gary, Indiana to Michigan City, Indiana.  For those looking for a short road trip, the dunes are only a few hours from a lot of major cities (1 hr from Chicago, 2.5 hours from Milwaukee, 3.5 hrs from Detroit, 4 hrs from Louisville, 4 hrs from Cleveland, 5 hrs from St. Louis and 5.5 hrs from Des Moines). 

Central Beach

What are the Indiana Dunes?

The dunes are large mounds of sand formed by the wind along the shores of Lake Michigan. These dunes provide natural protection against storms, surges, and high waves. They provide a habitat for many plants and animals. Seeing the trees grow out of the sand was one thing we thought was really neat while doing our hiking. And the three tallest dunes, Mount Tom, Mount, Holden, and Mount Jackson, are located within the state park. The most dynamic and moving dune is Mount Baldy, which can “move” up to 4 feet a year. 

Central Beach

What to pack for a trip to the Indiana Dunes


Being in the Midwest, the Indiana Dunes is open through all 4 seasons. Your clothes will likely reflect the seasons. From our experience visiting in the summer, we packed mostly summer clothes and lots of swimwear! Many of the trails lead to the beach. For convenience, you can hike with your swimwear in your bag, or with your swimwear on!


You know how kids prefer to hike in Crocs, and usually, it’s not the best option? Well, this location is their place to shine. I wouldn’t bother even bringing tennis shoes. Most of the trails are sand, and obviously, the beaches are as well. I wore hiking sandals, throughout our entire trip, and my kids wore their Crocs. This is the best place for Crocs! The sand can run right out of them before we get back into the car. They were also light enough for me to carry when my kids would ditch them to be barefoot in the sand.

Food and water

How much food and water you bring may depend on where you decide to stay, but there are not a lot of places to eat in close proximity to the dunes. So, if you were staying for a couple of days, I would highly recommend packing some food and some water if you can. Especially, if you are hiking with kids, don’t forget to bring some snacks for the trails!

Trail to Mt. Jackson

Indiana Dune National Park vs. State Park

The Dunes region is made up of both the national park and the state park. The state park is located in the middle. Because both of these parks require an entry fee, it’s best only to visit one park a day to get the most out of your money. You can get a national parks pass online or at the National Park visitor center. You can purchase a private vehicle pass for $25 that will last you seven days.  This pass gives you access to all of the national park, the beaches, and the trails.

The state park is a one-day pass. For the state park, a one-day pass is $12 for an out-of-state vehicle or $7 entrance fee for an Indiana resident vehicle.

We spent two days at the national park and one day at the state park. Both parks are definitely worth visiting. Each park has dunes, trails, and beaches. The national park has a visitor center, and the state park has a nature center, both of which are worth visiting!

Indiana Dunes State Park Nature Center

Kid-friendly hikes in the Indiana Dunes National Park 

Hiking in Indiana Dunes National Park is a journey through diverse ecosystems that’s great for both kids and adults. With over 50 miles of trails, there’s a path for every skill level and interest. Families can embark on leisurely strolls along the picturesque shoreline of Lake Michigan or venture into the heart of the park to explore the rugged sand dunes and lush woodlands. The diverse landscape offers opportunities to encounter unique plant and animal species, and the park’s knowledgeable rangers often lead guided hikes, sharing fascinating insights into the park’s ecology and history. 

Mount Baldy Beach Trail at the Mt. Baldy Access

Due to the shifting of this dune, you are not allowed to climb up the dune, but there are ranger lead daytime and sunset hikes on the Mount Baldy summit trail occasionally. You can find a schedule of all the ranger-led hikes by going to the visitor center or the national park website calendar. The beach trail is not a restricted trail. It is only a 0.36-mile-long trail to the beach. While on the beach, you get a great view of Lake Michigan as well as Mount Baldy.

Dune Succession Trail at the West Beach Access Point

Take the “Diana of the Dunes dare” by completing the dunes succession trail. Along the way, you will learn about Diana of the Dunes as you walk in the footsteps of a lady who lived on the dunes in an abandoned shanty for over nine years in the early 1900s. This trail was easier than most because of the stairs and boardwalk. Instead of being all sand, this trail leads up to the top of the dunes and along the beach. 

Heron Rookery Trail

If you’re looking for a trail that is not sand and is more forested, this is the trail. This trail showcases more of the beautiful habitats in the national park. It’s a great place for birdwatching and seeing wildflowers.

Dunes Succession trail at West Beach Access

Kid-Friendly Hikes in the Indiana Dunes State Park 

3 Dune Challenge

Are you up for a challenge? The 3 Dune challenge is a combination of Trail 4 and Trail 8, which brings you to the peaks of Mt. Jackson, Mt. Holden, and Mt. Tom. Mount Tom, is the highest dune in both parks at 192 feet above Lake Michigan. While the 3 Dune Challenge is kid-friendly, it’s not necessarily mama with a child carrier on her back-friendly. My kids had no trouble bounding up the sand trails to the top of the peaks. I, on the other hand, with extra weight on my back, really struggled with uphill sand trails. The trails to Mount Jackson, and Mount Holden, are completely sand. The trail to Mount Tom, and down are stairs, which makes the end of the trail much easier.  

The 3 Dune Challenge starts and ends at the state parks nature center. At the nature center, you can get a sticker signifying you completed the challenge. You can also explore exhibits about dune habitats, wildlife, and the history of Lake Michigan. I definitely recommend doing this trail in the morning or evening when it’s not as hot out.

View from the top of Mt Jackson

Indiana Dunes State Park Beach 

The Indiana Dunes State Park beach is one of only two beaches that has lifeguards from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Coast Guard-approved life vests are allowed; you can only swim and water up to your armpits. and swimming is only allowed when lifeguards are present. We especially enjoyed this beach because there is a restaurant on site. The Dunes Pavilion Restaurant and Grill was a nice upscale place to eat after a long morning at the beach. They also have a walk-up area where you can get fast food, ice cream, and treats to bring back to the beach.

Indiana Dunes State Park Beach

Indiana Dunes National Park Beaches

The beaches at Indiana Dunes National Park are nothing short of spectacular (even for the Midwest!). Stretching along the southern shore of Lake Michigan (the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore), these pristine sandy shores offer a perfect playground for families visiting the park. With 15 miles of pristine coastline, you’ll find plenty of space to spread out and enjoy the sun and surf.

What sets these beaches apart is their dramatic backdrop of towering sand dunes, creating a stunning contrast between the azure waters of Lake Michigan and the golden sands. It’s a haven for beachcombing, sunbathing, and building sandcastles with the little ones. Some of the beaches also feature designated swimming areas with lifeguards on duty during the summer months, ensuring a safe and enjoyable experience for families. 

There are 8 beaches at Indiana Dunes National Park. We came across West Beach and Porter Beach while hiking. We swam and played at Portage Lakefront, Riverwalk Beach, Central Beach, and Mount Baldy Beach. It should be noted that West Beach is the only NP beach that has a lifeguard on duty. 

Finding rocks at Central Beach

Our top Indiana Dunes National Park Beaches

Portage Lakefront and River Walk

This was my favorite beach for swimming and spending the day. There is a large concession stand located at this beach that has great food. I had steak tacos, and the kids had pizza. This beach is only 1 to 2 feet deep for quite a ways out, which made it easier to keep an eye on my kids because I knew that we were not going to be going into deeper water. And because of the marina nearby, there are a lot of boats that come by this beach (which is fun for the kids). The boats are far enough away that they don’t cause waves to come up to the beach, but my kids loved watching all of the big boats go by. The lighthouse is also another great feature on this beach!

Central Beach

Central Beach is not far from Mount Baldy Beach, but there are two different parking lots. From the parking lot, you can walk through a nice forest trail to the beach. I don’t know if it’s because of its position on Lake Michigan or because of the tide and weather while we were there, but this beach was loaded with cool rocks and sea glass! Please remember that because this is a national park, you are not allowed to take rocks or sand from any of the beaches. However, sea glass is not a native part of the beach/park; therefore, it’s the ONLY thing you are allowed to take home with you from the beach. 

Mt.Baldy Beach

This beach is at the most Northwestern tip of the National Park. There are no changing areas or rinse stations at this beach. During our time at this beach, it was under a red flag warning, which meant no swimming or getting in the water because of large waves and riptides. Nonetheless, it was beautiful to sit on the beach and watch those huge waves and play in the sand!

Sea Glass from Central Beach in Indiana Dunes National Park

Water safety along the lakeshore 

Indiana Beach State Park Beach and West Beach are the only two beaches with my lifeguards. Make sure you check beach conditions before you go on the National Park or state park website to make sure you are allowed to swim, and be sure to check to see that there are no red flag warnings. These beaches can get very busy during the summer, so try going on a weekday when there are fewer crowds so that you are better able to see children. Depending on your children’s age, make sure you have a talk with them before you go to the beach about only going into a certain depth to maintain safety.

If you need a life jacket before you go, check out this post with our recommendations for the best life jackets for kids

Portage and Riverwalk Beach

Things to do in Indiana Dunes National park beyond the beaches and trails 

Education centers

Beyond the beaches and the trails, you can visit the nature center at the state park, the visitor center at the National Park, and the Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education in the National Park. Of these three, the Center for Environmental Education has the most kid-friendly hands-on activities.

World’s Fair Century of Progress Homes

I also recommend that you take a drive!  Each evening, we had fun driving along Beverly Shores’ Lakefront Drive. We loved watching the sunset over Lake Michigan as well as seeing all the different beautiful lake houses. Some of those houses include the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair Century of Progress Homes. You can walk past these homes and read about their history, or once a year, there are ranger-led tours of the first floor of the houses. We especially loved the pink “Florida Tropical” house. The other houses include the Rostone House, the Cypress Log House, the House Of Tomorrow, and the Armco-Ferro House. 

Chellberg Farm

If you’re interested in history, Chellberg Farm (sometimes also referred to as Anders Kjellberg Farm), is a historic farmstead of Swedish immigrants that became part of Indiana Dunes National Park in 1972. Chellberg Farm represents the ethnic heritage of a nearly forgotten Swedish-American settlement in the area. The farm includes a family home, a water house with a windmill, a chicken coop/bunkhouse, and the original barn. Other nearby Swedish landmarks have been restored or preserved, including the Burstrom Chapel and the Burstrom Cemetery.

Junior Ranger program

Like all United States National Parks, the National Park Service offers a Junior Ranger badge for visitors. The Junior Ranger Activity Guidebook can be picked up at the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center or the Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education. When you complete the Junior Ranger Activity Guide, bring it back to the Visitor Center or Paul H. Douglas Center to receive a Junior Ranger badge. 

In addition to the larger Junior Ranger Activity Guide, Indiana Dunes has a Beachcomber Activity Sheet for families enjoying the beach for the day. You can pick up a Beachcomber activity sheet the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center or Paul H. Douglas Center.

Florida Tropical House

Where to stay in Indiana Dunes National Park

Unfortunately, there are not a lot of family-friendly (yet affordable) places to stay within walking distance of the Indiana Dunes National Park (or the state park). If you want to be close by without doing too much driving, your best bet is to stay at one of the campgrounds. Campgrounds in both parks have RV and tent camping. If camping isn’t your thing, we stayed at Al & Sally’s Motel, which is not far at all from Central Beach and Mount Baldy and no more than what we needed as we were rarely there.

You can also find some other historic places on the Indiana Dunes tourism page. Keep in mind if you get a hotel in one of the nearby towns in the near future, you may run into traffic as there was widespread roadwork and lots of construction being done while we were visiting!

Camping in Indiana Dunes National Park

Indiana Dunes National Park offers a range of camping options that allow families to immerse themselves in the natural beauty of the area. The park features two main campgrounds: Dunewood Campground and the more rustic Dunewood Youth Group Campground. Dunewood Campground provides a family-friendly environment with well-maintained facilities, including restrooms, showers, and picnic areas. It’s an excellent choice for those looking to strike a balance between modern amenities and the tranquility of the outdoors. The campground consists of two loops containing 66 campsites (53 conventional drive-in sites and 13 walk/carry-in sites). Four sites are wheelchair accessible. The campground is closed during winter (November 2 – March 31).

Camping in Indiana Dunes State Park

If you’re seeking a slightly different camping experience, Indiana Dunes State Park offers its own unique charm. The state park boasts two family campgrounds: the Indiana Dunes State Park Campground and the more primitive Wilson Shelter Campground. The State Park campground provides all the amenities a family needs for a comfortable stay, from electric hookups to modern restrooms and showers. Located less than a mile from the beach and within walking distance of the South Shore Rail Station, this campground is one of the most popular in the area and fills up quickly, so be sure to make your reservations as soon as possible. Every site has full electrical hookups, with modern restrooms and shower houses available to every camper.

Lakeside of Mt Baldy

Eats and treats 

We loved visiting the State Park Beach and the Portage and River Walk Beach because they both had good food. If you travel with kids, you know that having easy, inaccessible food is of the utmost importance. Other than these two areas, you may have to drive a little way to get local food and drive even further into one of the nearby towns to find a chain restaurant or grocery store.

Because of the road construction going on while we were there, and likely going on for a while, driving into the nearby towns, wasn’t the best option to get food. We mostly packed food for breakfast and ate lunch or dinner at the beach concession area/restaurants.

We did venture into the nearby town of Portage for some ice cream at Super Scoops. They had generous portions of ice cream in tons of flavors, and they are half-price happy hour on weekdays from 2 to 4 pm. We just happened to go in during that time, and we’re pleasantly surprised to get ice cream for all four of us for $7!!

Mt Baldy Beach

Best time to visit Indiana Dunes National Park

The best time of year to visit Indiana Dunes National Park with kids is undoubtedly during the warm and sunny months of late spring, summer, and early fall. These months, typically from May through September, offer the most ideal conditions for a family adventure in this beautiful park. During this period, the weather is generally pleasant, with warm temperatures and plenty of sunshine, making it perfect for outdoor activities like hiking, beachcombing, picnicking, and exploring the dunes.

In the summer, the kids can splash in Lake Michigan’s waters, play in the sand, and enjoy the many educational programs and ranger-led activities offered, enhancing their understanding and appreciation of the park’s unique ecosystem. At this time, the park is in full bloom, with vibrant wildflowers adding to the park’s natural beauty, providing an inspiring backdrop for family photos and memories that will last a lifetime.

Additionally, the summer months are when Indiana Dunes National Park offers full services and amenities (restaurants, shops, concession stands, camping, etc.).

Family-friendly fun at Indiana Dunes National Park

If you’re looking for a fun vacation spot with multiple activities to do, different terrains to explore, and beautiful beaches, don’t overlook us here in the Midwest! A visit to Indiana Dunes State and National Park is a great budget and family-friendly way to check off another National park, learn a lot about local ecology, spend some quality time on the beach, and have some fun! Don’t miss your chance to explore miles of Lake Michigan shoreline and visit one of the most biodiverse national parks (and one of the only Midwest National Parks). 

About the author

Meghan is a midwestern mom of 3 kids and one dog. She is a physical therapist assistant and family photographer. At home, her and her family enjoy gardening (both indoors and outside), riding ATVs, and exploring the river behind their house. When not at home, they can usually be found at the lake or exploring Illinois state parks. Meghan’s family has always loved the outdoors, but they really found a passion for being outside and photography when her oldest son had to undergo a bone marrow transplant as a baby. During her son’s recovery, being outside became a safe place for the whole family to learn, grow and thrive. 

You can find more from Meghan online in the following locations:
Instagram: @meghangarriott
Meghan’s RWMC posts: Meghan Garriott