The 8 Best Hikes in Indiana Dunes National Park: Sunset Views + More!

Looking for the best hikes in Indiana Dunes National Park? We can help! This park houses the most diverse ecosystems in the National Park Service, and you can see most of them for yourself from a hiking trail. Here are our top picks for the best hiking trails in Indiana Dunes National Park.

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Top 4 Best Hikes in Indiana Dunes National Park

Need the quick answer for which hikes to consider in Indiana Dunes National Park?

These are the top 4 most popular Indiana Dunes hikes:

  1. Miller Woods Trail (stunning views + secluded beach)
  2. Dune Succession Trail (short, but stairs, for an amazing view)
  3. Cowles Bog Trail (most bang for your buck)
  4. Heron Rookery Trail (spring wildflowers)
The sky glows orange and fades into black as the sun sets over Lake Michigan
Courtesy of Getty Images

Best Indiana Dunes Trails for Watching Sunset

Short on time? Trying to squeeze in a hike before watching sunset over the lake?

These Indiana Dunes trails have great views of the water and are no more than a mile long, roundtrip.

  • Dune Succession Trail
  • Portage Riverwalk
  • Mt Baldy Beach Trail

The Dune Succession Trail’s best view is at the top of its 270-step staircase.

The Mt Baldy Beach Trail is all uphill from the parking lot.

Take your time on these trails. The views at the top are worth it!

Good to Know: You can’t hike to the Mt Baldy Summit any more without a ranger guide. Mt Baldy is shifting, covering large trees and parking lots as it goes. This creates unmapped pockets in the dune that people can fall into and be buried by sand. It’s happened!

That’s why hikers are no longer allowed to hike to the summit without a guide. Call the Visitor Center for the next scheduled guided Mt Baldy Summit hike.

The massive sand dune known as Mt Baldy is slowly covering full size trees and parking lots in Indiana Dunes National Park

8 Epic Options for Where to Hike in Indiana Dunes

Indiana Dunes National Park includes 14 different hiking areas within the park’s borders.

Most of us don’t have time to hit all 14 in one trip, so we’ve listed the most popular trails only, in order from west to east.

Paul H. Douglas/Miller Woods Trail

1 mile to 3.4 miles /Easy or Moderate / 30 minutes to 2 hours

A small, black pond reflects tree trunks and the bright green grass and leaves in Indiana Dunes National Park
Courtesy of Getty Images

Miller Woods is one of the most visited trails in the park, thanks to the Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education which resides at the trailhead.

The 1 mile loop trail near the center is a popular and quick hike in Indiana Dunes. It loops through a wetland featuring ponds, wildlife, and wildflowers in the right reason.

The real showstopper, though, is taking the optional beach trail out to the Lake Michigan shoreline.

This trail branches off the back of the wetland loop and then heads out and back to the beach.

Along the way you’ll see savanna and interdunal ponds until you cross the Grand Calumet River and into the Lake Michigan dune system until emerging at the beach.

This triples your distance to 3.5 miles roundtrip but adds some spectacular views that you won’t find anywhere else in the park.

Good to Know: The Miller Woods trail is on the outskirts of Gary, IN. While we never felt unsafe on any of the hiking trails in the park, we recommend you leave this area well before dark.

Dune Succession Trail (Diana Dunes Dare, Loop 1 at West Beach)

1 mile / Moderate to Hard (stairs) / 45 minutes

Looking down at the hundreds of stairs that wind up a sand dune and through jack pines, that make up the Dune Succession Trail in Indiana Dunes National Park
Courtesy of Getty Images

The best view of West Beach and Lake Michigan, if you can make it up the stairs.

This short trail includes 270 stairs up the side of a dune system, showing all four stages of dune development, before reaching that magnificent viewpoint at the top.

There’s a popular challenge for this hike known as Diana of the Dunes Dare.

You’ll see the signs by the trailhead. Take a picture at the top and get a free sticker from the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center or the Paul Douglas Center.

Good to Know: The Dune Succession Trail is Loop 1 of the 3 Loop Trail at West Beach. If you’re interested in a longer hike, combine the Dune Succession Trail (Loop 1) with the West Beach Trail (Loop 2) and the Long Lake Trail (Loop 3) for a 3.5 mile roundtrip hike that takes about 2.5 hours.

Tolleston Dunes Trail

3 miles / Moderate / 2 hours

A wooden boardwalk curves into a green forest at the Tolleston Dunes Overlook in Indiana Dunes National Park

The Tolleston Dunes mark the shoreline of Lake Michigan from a little less than 5,000 years ago when the lake was 25ft higher than it is today.

The trail loops through several different habitats including a black oak savanna, which is rare worldwide, and provides a shaded path for escaping the sun.

Good to Know: If you need to save some time, there’s a connector trail about a mile in that will cut off the back mile and reduce your roundtrip length to about 2 miles.

Depending on the season, you’ll find blue lupine wildflowers or even prickly pear cacti in bloom.

We were surprised to see cacti here, but they thrive just fine in the sandy soils in the non-wetland areas.

This trail is secluded, off by itself in the gap between industrial areas along the lakefront in the western part of the park.

Note that there are 2 different parking areas: one for the overlook and one for the trailhead.

They’re little more than a few spaces on the side of US 12, so it’s easy to drive past them.

The overlook is a short, wheelchair accessible boardwalk to a vantage point looking into the savanna area. Take the trail if you want to see the flowers.

Portage Riverwalk Trail

1 mile / Easy / 45 minutes

A small speed boat rounds the corner around a small lighthouse station on Lake Michigan at the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk in Indiana Dunes National Park

The most easily accessible spot to view Lake Michigan, the dunes, and Chicago in the distance.

The Portage Riverwalk Trail isn’t the most exciting trail in the park, but it’s one of the easiest.

It’s paved through the short, half-mile section in the dunes, and mostly boardwalk on the section along the river.

Most people come here for the views from the pavilion. The short trail is a bonus for busy visitors that won’t take the time to do a longer trail elsewhere.

Good to Know: A steel mill is on the opposite side of the waterway from this section of the park. You can’t see it in the dunes section of this trail, but it’s hard to miss as you walk along the river.

Cowles Bog Trail

4.75 miles / Moderate / 4 hours

One of the most popular hiking trails in Indiana Dunes for its incredible views and diverse landscapes!

The Cowles Bog Trail explores an area that’s officially designated a National Natural Landmark for the incredible plant diversity found here.

Hike through oak savannas, forests, wetlands, and sand dunes before emerging onto a secluded beach on Lake Michigan.

The hike up and over the sand dunes to get to the lake is why this trail is rated as moderate, bordering on strenuous, but the views are worth it!

Most hikers pack a lunch and enjoy it on the beach, taking a well-earned break before starting the return journey.

Good to Know: The preferred parking lot is at the Cowles Bog Trailhead on Mineral Springs Rd, but the Greenbelt Trailhead parking lot also connects to the Cowles Bog Trail.

Glenwood Dunes Trail

Varies 1 to 6.8 miles / Easy to Moderate / Up to 4 hours

The forest glows yellow in fall, featuring a large twisty tree in the center as seen from the Glenwood Dunes trail in Indiana Dunes National Park
Courtesy of Getty Images

An equestrian-friendly trail in the heart of Indiana Dunes National Park. Also good for cross country skiing in the winter.

There are so many connector trails in this area! It’s easy to hike more than you had intended because you missed a cut off trail.

Bring a paper map with you on the trail and really pay attention to where you are as you’re hiking, so you don’t do a 6 mile hike when you had hoped for just 2 miles.

The Calumet Dunes Trail is part of this hiking area and has its own parking lot. It’s just half a mile roundtrip and is paved and wheelchair accessible.

Alternatively, you can take the entire outer loop for a 6.8 mile roundtrip hike that takes about 4 hours.

The Dunewood Trace Trail connects the Glenwood Dunes trails to the Dunewood Campground.

Likewise, the Glenwood Dunes Extension Trail connects the Dune Park Railroad Station to the Glenwood Dunes trail.

Good to Know: This area does not have beach access. Indiana Dunes State Park occupies the lakefront area across US 12 from this hiking area.

Heron Rookery Trail (Little Calumet River Trail)

3.3 miles / Easy / 1.5 hours

A handful of blue lupine flowers bloom against a vibrant green backdrop of the forest
Courtesy of Getty Images

Separated from the rest of the park on the lakefront, this small area of national park was once home to over 100 Great Blue Heron nests!

The herons have inexplicably stopped nesting here in such great numbers, but the area is fantastic for viewing wildflowers in the spring and birds all year round.

The out-and-back trail is flat and easy along the banks of the Little Calumet River, connecting parking lots on either end of the trail.

Be prepared for mud if the river is up or it’s been rainy lately.

3 Dunes Challenge (Indiana Dunes State Park*)

1.5 miles / Moderate / Varies

*The state park is completely surrounded by the national park but has its own, separate entrance fee.

A sandy path over a vegetated sand dune leads to the blue waters of Lake Michigan in Indiana Dunes State Park
Courtesy of Getty Images

Honorable mention as this trail isn’t in the national park, but rather in the state park. It’s still a cool trail to do when you’re in this corner of the world.

Enjoy spectacular views of the dune system and Lake Michigan from the tops of the three tallest dunes in the state park!

The 3 Dunes Challenge hike is a 1.5 mile loop trail that summits Mt Tom, Mt Holden, and Mt Jackson sand dunes, the tallest of which comes in at 192ft above lake level.

It’s no small feat, either, as you’re actually climbing 552ft because you go up and down and up and down, and, you get the picture.

It’s a lot of elevation change over a small period, and you’re hiking in sand, which takes more effort.

Nevertheless, plenty of kids and non-hikers have completed the challenge. It’s just a matter of taking your time!

Take pictures at the top of each dune, and stop in the Nature Center when you’ve finished for your free bumper sticker for completing the 3 Dune Challenge!

Tips for Hiking in Sand at Indiana Dunes

Many of the trails in Indiana Dunes National Park are sand, not earth.

Bring the correct footwear for hiking in sand. (No, not flip flops.)

This isn’t like walking on the beach. It’s still a hiking trail with elevation change, tree roots, and eroded spots.

You need something with traction and that can protect the bottom of your foot.

Don’t hike in flip flops, and we wouldn’t even suggest hiking sandals.

Honest-to-goodness hiking boots are best, but sneakers will also work.

Just accept right now that you will get some sand in your shoes.

A narrow sandy trail bordered by tall grass disappears into a green forest on the Dunes Ridge Trail in Indiana Dunes National Park

A few more reminders for hiking in Indiana Dunes:

  • Sand can legit burn your feet in the heat of summer.
  • Sun protection is your best friend. Hat, sunscreen, etc.
  • Bug repellant, including tick repellent.
  • Hiking pants are a good idea, even in the heat. They’ll keep sand out of your boots and ticks and poison ivy off of your legs.
  • Bring more water than you think you need.

Hiking in sand is an amazing calf workout. Easy elevations can become moderately difficult when hiking uphill in sand.

You’ll appreciate the extra water and the protection provided by socks.

Enjoy Hiking in Indiana Dunes National Park!

Would you add any trails to our list of the best hikes in Indiana Dunes National Park?

We purposely didn’t list every trail in the park, just a brief overview of the most popular trails, but we’re always open to updating the list if you think one’s missing.

Let us know!

Happy travels!

Headshot of Rachel Means at Clingmans Dome in Smoky Mountains

About the Author: Rachel Means

With six-figure student loan debt and only 10 PTO days per year, Rachel started traveling the world. A decade later, she’s paid off her loans, changed careers, and been to 38 US states and 17 countries. She’s an expert at planning and budgeting for travel and loves to help others do it, too! Read her full story here.

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A photo of blooming blue lupine flowers and a photo of Indiana Dunes looking out at blue Lake Michigan, with text Best Hikes in Indiana Dunes National Park