Looking for fun ideas for family activities at Indiana Dunes National Park? Look no further. This is the best guide for parents and kids to one of the most popular national parks in America.
Indiana Dunes National Park is located an hour outside of Chicago on the shores of Lake Michigan. Indiana Dunes officially became a national park in 2019, but it took over a century of advocacy and public pressure to save the dunes and shore from local industry. This is the ninth most visited national park, with over 3.2 million visitors annually. Since many park-goers choose to come to Indiana Dunes National Park to swim and relax on the sandy beaches along Lake Michigan, summer is the most popular time of year to visit. However, you can enjoy the beauty with fewer crowds in the spring and fall months.
Know Your History Before You Go to Indiana Dunes
The northwestern area of Indiana, five tribes were present before white colonialists. The Kickapoo, the Peoria, the Sioux, the Miami, and the Potawatomi tribes called the lands where Indiana Dunes National Park is located their home. This land was used for hunting, foraging, medicinal, and ceremonial purposes. This national park holds a rich cultural history for the Native American tribes who lay claim to this land.
With any national park that you visit, keep in mind the people that came before you. It is important to recognize and educate yourself on the full history of the soil that you walk on, interact with, and acknowledging the Native American peoples is the first step. Always give respect to the land and those who came before you. With over 100 million visitors a year taking outdoor outings a year, doing our part to not leave an impact on natural spaces is important! Take time to educate yourself and your family on the Leave No Trace Principles:
1. Plan Ahead & Prepare
2. Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces
3. Dispose of Waste Properly
4. Leave What You Find
5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
6. Respect Wildlife
7. Be Considerate of Others
Five Fun Family Activities at Indiana Dunes
Hit the beach
With fifteen miles of sandy beaches at Indiana Dunes National Park, you won’t have a problem claiming a spot on the beach. Build a sandcastle, take a swim in Lake Michigan, have a picnic, or watch a sunrise or sunset, there are plenty of ways to enjoy the beaches with your family. West Beach is considered the most popular due to its walkable beaches and magnificent dunes. Keep in mind that parking fills up quickly on summer weekends and holidays. It is recommended to arrive early or wait until late afternoon when parking spots become available. Refer to the park’s Beach Parking webpage to view parking availability at each beach.
Photo by: Adobe Stock
Hike the West Beach Dunes Succession Trail
This is one of the most fun family activities at Indiana Dunes. Learn the science behind the dunes! Located at West Beach, the West Beach Dunes Succession Trail is a one mile hike that starts on the sandy beach and ends in an oak forest. This trail shows the process of how the dunes evolved over thousands of years. There are interpretive signs along the trail that explain the science between dune succession and the history of dune preservation at the park. Restrooms and parking are available at the trailhead.
Photo by: Adobe Stock
Birdwatch on the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk Trail
One of the prettiest places in the park was a former industrial site. This trail opened in 2008, and is a successful model of brownfield reclamation, where a steel mill previously sat. The Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk Trail is a terrific location to watch for migrating birds in the spring and summer months. This trail offers easy access to the lakefront and more trails that highlight dune succession. On clear days, you can even see the Chicago skyline in the distance!
You can download the Indiana Dunes Self-Guided Birding brochure to help you and your family identify birds. If you are looking for a mobile app for kids, eBird by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is an easy, kid-friendly option.
Photo by: Adobe Stock
Step back in time at the Chellberg Farm
The cultural history at Indiana Dunes National Park is worth experiencing. Take a trip to the Chellberg Farm, which was built in 1885 by Swedish immigrants. The Chellberg Farm represents a typical Northwestern Indiana homestead during the late nineteenth century. Several generations of the Chellberg’s lived on the farm, eventually selling it to the government in 1970.
On a visit to the Chellberg Farm, it will feel like you went back in time as you tour the farmhouse interior rooms. You will see original furniture from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Outside, you can also tour the original barn, outhouse, and garden. After your tour, there are several short hikes around Chellberg Farm. The Bailly/Chellberg Trail Loop is about 1.1 miles and will give you a greater scope of the Chellberg Farm property.
View the Mount Baldy Sand Dune
The last family activity at Indiana Dunes that you have to check out is the Mount Baldy Sand Dune. Find a parking spot at Mount Baldy Beach and admire one of the tallest sand dunes at Indiana Dune National Park. Climbing the dune is no longer allowed due to safety for visitors and the dune’s fragility, however, it is still worth a visit. The Mount Baldy Sand Dune is approximately 126 feet above the water level of Lake Michigan. Wind causes the dune to move about five to ten feet a year.
Unfortunately, Mount Baldy is ‘starving’. Due to beach erosion, sand is being taken away faster than the waves are bringing in due to the breakwall that was built for the Michigan City Harbor. In an attempt to remedy the starving dune, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began feeding the beach in 1974. It has been fed four ‘meals’ of sand over the last fifty years.
Even though Mount Baldy is closed to the public, there are rare opportunities to summit the dune. With the company of authorized staff, you can hike the Summit Trail to reach the top of Mount Baldy. There are ranger-led daytime and sunset hikes on weekends throughout the summer and at other times of the year. Contact the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center for more information about this rare and unique opportunity.
Photo by: Adobe Stock
These five family activities at Indiana Dunes barely scratch the surface of family fun in the national park. Whatever you decide to do, the beauty of Indiana Dunes National Park will create lasting memories.
More National Park Family Guides
Looking for more family-friendly guides to America’s national parks? See the complete list here.
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