Explore America's park logo Towering, wind-swept sand dunes, miles and miles of uncrowded beach, big blue water stretching to the horizon. In Indiana? Yes, indeed.


Indiana Dunes National Seashore east of Gary, Ind., features 15 miles of beach on Lake Michigan. Parents magazine earlier this year named West Beach at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore number five among the 10 best beaches for families, noting the beach views of the Chicago skyline and the keep-the-kids-busy Junior Ranger program in which youngsters can earn a "beachcomber badge" by completing an activity sheet.



Indiana state leaders acted first to protect the unique dunes on the south end of Lake Michigan in 1926 by Indiana Dunes State Park — 2,182 acres of beach, dunes, marshes and forests surrounded by units of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Legislation creating the national park passed in 1966, but included only 8,330 acres of land and water. Bills expanding the park were passed in 1976, 1980, 1986, and 1992, increasing the size of the park to more than 15,000 acres.


Things to do

There are a variety of beach-centric things to do: swimming, sunning, strolling, and searching for stuff washed ashore by the waves. West Beach is the only beach with a bath house with showers and lifeguards — which may contribute to its ranking as a family friendly spot. West Beach offers more than sand and water. The Dune Succession Trail features a boardwalk with 250 stairs that climb to an overlook of Lake Michigan with Chicago on the horizon.


Karner blue butterflyGot a horse? The Ly-co-ki-we Trail offers more than six miles of equestrian trail. More people are likely to visit a national park with a bike than a horse, and Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore has you covered there, too. The Calumet Bike Trail is 10 miles of flat, automobile-free crushed limestone. The two-mile Marquette Trail is open to hikers, but the level, crushed limestone multi-use trail is great for a bike ride.


If you’re looking for a workout, try hiking the five-mile Cowles Bog Trail through wetlands and savannah.


Why you’ll want to come back

The highest sand dune in Indiana is found in Indiana Dunes State Park — which is surrounded by Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Mount Tom is more than 190 feet high.


Flora and fauna

The dunes, oak savannas, swamps, bogs, marshes, prairies, rivers and forests within Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore are home to 46 species of mammals, more than 350 species of birds and 60 species of butterflies, including the federally endangered Karner blue butterfly (pictured above). Karner blue caterpillars feed only on the leaves of the wild lupine plant found in the oak savanna of the park.


Birds often seen in the park include a variety of gulls and terns, green heron, great blue heron, mute swan, bufflehead, killdeer, rose-breasted grosbeak and indigo bunting.


Visitors are also likely to spot a whitetail deer.


By the numbers:

  • Website: Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore
  • Park size: 15,091 acres
  • 2010 visitation: 2,150,345            
  • Funky fact: Mount Baldy, a 126-foot-high sand dune, is moving inland at about four feet a year.
This is part of Explore America's Parks, a series of user's guides to national, state and local park systems across the United States. We'll be adding new parks all summer, so check back for more.


Inset photo of Karner blue butterfly: NPCA Photos/Flickr

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore: A user's guide
When you think of beach, Indiana may not spring to mind, but this area boasts plenty of uncrowded waterfront — and even views of the Chicago skyline.