A beach in Indiana? Yes, a beach in Indiana. It may sound like the punch line of a joke, but it’s true — Indiana Dunes National Park boasts a long, pristine beach on Lake Michigan. On a summer day, especially if the wind has blown up some waves, it’s hard to tell that you’re not on the ocean.
There’s more to this national park than just the beach, of course. There’s plenty of history here. The southwest corner of Lake Michigan is known for its sand dunes, and there are several state and national parks in southern Michigan and northern Indiana. Over the centuries, winds off the lake have built up the dunes and continue to shape them to this day. In 1966, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore was established. And in 2019, Indiana Dunes became America’s 61st national park.
Here are seven fascinating facts about Indiana Dunes National Park.
1. It’s A State Park Inside A National Park
This is probably the most confusing part of the conversion from national lakeshore to national park. Longtime visitors to the area are familiar with the state park — it’s where they’ve gone for decades to visit the beach and catch a glimpse of the Chicago skyline in the distance. But when the national lakeshore became a national park, many were confused. Did the state park go away? Was it replaced by a national park? Would there now be hefty entrance fees like at Yosemite and Yellowstone?
The answer is that things have remained largely the same. The areas of protected lakeshore and the surrounding dunes have simply been converted to national park lands. All of the things you’ve come to know and love about national parks — the campgrounds, ranger-guided tours, etc. — can now be found at Indiana Dunes.
But the state park remains as well. You can still access the large parking lots by the beach, and the parking fees are still the same (currently $7 for cars with Indiana plates and $12 for out-of-state cars). It will all feel like one big park, but it’s worth noting that at times you’ll cross over from the national park to the state park.
2. You Can Experience A True Summer Beach Afternoon In Northern Indiana
There are two main beaches within the park. To the east, Porter Beach and its parking lots are located within the state park. Parking costs $7 for in-state vehicles and $12 for out-of-state vehicles. To the west, the aptly named West Beach has a $6 parking fee between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
And when I say “beach,” I mean a real beach. Most people don’t realize Indiana has beaches, but the massive sand dunes extending all the way to the edge of Lake Michigan provide a very beach-like experience.
That’s what I told our friends upon returning from my first trip to the area. My wife and I started in Michigan City, Indiana, where the national park is located, and worked our way north to Michigan. At each stop that week in July, we were stunned by the beach experiences. At times, you don’t even realize you’re on the shores of Lake Michigan. You feel like you’re in Gulf Shores or on Panama City Beach. Warm sunshine, sand beneath your toes, a quick dip in the water to cool off — we returned amazed that we could find a beach experience like that so close to our home in Saint Louis.
3. Michigan City Is Right Next Door
Quite often, when visiting a national park, you’re out in the middle of nowhere. But Indiana Dunes is located only 50 miles from Chicago. It’s a long, linear national park that follows the Lake Michigan shoreline. One end of the park touches Gary, Indiana, right near the Illinois border, and the other end of the park touches Michigan City, Indiana, right near the Michigan border.
Michigan City is the closest city to the main areas of the park, and most people who want to visit the park and stay in a hotel usually stay in Michigan City. There is also a nice restaurant scene there — my wife and I ate downtown in Michigan City near the harbor. The restaurant we ate at is no longer in business, but the surrounding area near Franklin Street has many restaurants and shopping options.
The harbor area has a great park connected to it that includes a zoo and more beach access. If you’re staying at the national park and want to get away for the day, Michigan City is the perfect destination.
4. The Park Participates In The Amtrak Trails & Rails Program
One unique way to experience Indiana Dunes National Park is the Amtrak Trails & Rails program. Amtrak has partnered with several of the national parks to offer traveling show-and-tell programs with park rangers and other park-affiliated guides. Because the Chicago-to-Detroit Amtrak train travels right through Indiana Dunes National Park, you can ride the train with a guide as they tell you about each area of the park.
Amtrak is also a great way to travel to the park, since there’s a stop right in Michigan City. It’s possible to take any Amtrak train to Chicago. Then hop on the Wolverine line (between Chicago and Detroit) and get off at the Michigan City stop. From there, you can rent a car (Michigan City has an Enterprise, and an employee can deliver your rental car to the train station) and travel to the park.
Another train option is the South Shore Line, a commuter train operated by the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District. This rail line — which runs from Chicago to South Bend, Indiana — has a stop that is right at the entrance to Indiana Dunes National Park.
5. The 1933 World’s Fair Homes Are Within The Park
This is perhaps the most unique aspect of Indiana Dunes National Park. In 1933, Chicago hosted the World’s Fair. The theme for the fair that year was “A Century Of Progress.” For the World’s Fair, model homes were built for an exhibit showcasing the houses of the future. These homes included conveniences unheard of in 1933, such as central air conditioning and dishwashers. The exhibit showed fair visitors what a modern house would look like in the decades to come.
After the World’s Fair closed, a developer purchased the model homes and moved them by barge to a resort community he was developing on the Indiana shoreline 50 miles away. That community (Beverly Shores) and the houses are now part of the national park.
On the last weekend in September, the houses are available for tour. Information about those tours is available on the Indiana Landmarks website.
6. Michigan’s Beach Towns Are Only A Short Drive Away
If you want to explore the area further, cross the state line into Michigan and head up the coastline. This is an area my wife and I know quite well, since we have taken at least six summer trips there. In the winter, this is the area you’ll see on the news receiving lake-effect snow day after day. In the summer, these beach-centric towns are the perfect places for a weekend getaway.
Just across the border in Michigan, you’ll find the town of New Buffalo. This is a very popular summer-vacation spot for Chicagoans, so everything you’d expect to find around a summer weekend getaway spot near the lake can be found here.
As you venture farther north, you’ll find the twin cities of Saint Joseph, Michigan, and Benton Harbor, Michigan. Saint Joseph has the largest public beach I’ve seen that’s not on the ocean. South Haven, Michigan, is a quaint harbor town with floating restaurants and an amazing pier to walk at sunset.
These kinds of towns extend all the way up the coastline. Saugatuck, Michigan, is an arts community with dozens of great shops. Holland, Michigan, is known for its tulip festival. You probably don’t want to venture too far — by the time you get to Holland, you’ll have traveled 100 miles from Indiana Dunes National Park, but each stop along the way can be a new adventure.
If you’re looking for a relaxing walk out to a lighthouse on the end of a pier at sunset, it’s really hard to beat these southern Michigan beach towns.
7. You Can See The Chicago Skyline
This is perhaps the best feature of Indiana Dunes National Park. On a clear day, when you look out over the waters of Lake Michigan, you can see the Chicago skyline. It’s 50 miles away, and with the curvature of the Earth, you won’t see the shorter buildings — only the skyscrapers. But Chicago has plenty of those, so it’s quite the view.
For an even bigger treat — if you’re up for it — climb one of the dunes at sunset for a better look. Climbing these dunes is not for everyone — if you’ve ever tried to climb a sand dune, you know that each step is more strenuous than the last. But the paths established for many of the dunes include manmade stairs, so you can choose a smaller dune to climb.
From the top, you’ll enjoy a spectacular view. From a sand dune. Overlooking a beach. In Indiana, of all places.