Things to Do
Most visitors, especially in summer, head straight for the Lake Michigan beaches to cool off (despite the year-round chilly water). But IDNP, though small, is a rangy park and rewards explorers with many diversions from its main thoroughfare, the Red Arrow Highway, including the following highlights.
Revel in a rare oak savanna: The “ridges and swales” of Miller Woods, as Prof. Cowles noted in the 1890s, reveal the presence of glaciers some 3,000 years ago. The undulating landscape on the park’s west side — between Miller Woods and nearby Tolleson Dune — nurtures an endangered black oak savanna, a 1,042-acre sparsely wooded grassland with fire-resistant oaks in which prairie plants flourish, producing stunning wildflower blooms in spring and early summer, including bird-foot violet, lupine, mountain honeysuckle and pasture rose. The Park Service manages fires here to maintain this diverse habitat and prevent the trees from taking over, a natural process once sparked by lightning. At Miller Woods, some 3.2 miles of easy loops and interconnecting trails also reach the Lake Michigan shore and pass wetlands, which are particularly good places to bird-watch.
Do the dunes: One of the park’s signature dunes, 126-foot Mount Baldy has been moving inland rapidly as a result of human intervention in the lake, but it’s still a beauty to behold. The 1.5-mile moderate round-trip trail at Mount Baldy (not wheelchair-accessible) actually goes around the giant dune, visible from the parking lot, to prevent more erosion and to protect hikers from invisible sinkholes that form around sand-covered trees. Take the short, somewhat steep descent to the beach to ogle Baldy from the lakefront.
Explore more dune succession on the 3.4-mile 3-Loop Trail at West Beach, which has extensive boardwalks and stairways that put you in and around the dunes without contributing to erosion. The stair-climbing can be exhausting, but you’ll get stunning views of the lake, jack pine groves, isolated ponds and undulating dunes.
For sheer height, climb three of the coast’s tallest dunes — Mount Tom, Mount Holden and Mount Jackson, at 192, 184 and 176 feet, respectively — at neighboring Indiana Dunes State Park. The pitch of the dunes and the loose sand underfoot makes these trails challenging; in fact, doing all three is known as the 3 Dune Challenge.
Get bogged down: Named for Prof. Cowles, who studied plant evolution here, Cowles Bog is a roughly 205-acre wetland notable for its plant diversity. The moderate 4.7-mile Cowles Bog Trail takes you past its many habitats, including black oak savannas, lakefront dunes, marshes and ponds. If you’re looking for a daylong hike, try this one and pack a lunch for picnicking lakeside.
Tour five futuristic homes: You know you’re in a quirky park when a flamingo-pink modernist home perched atop a lakefront dune with views back across the lake to Chicago ranks as one of the major sights. The stucco Florida Tropical House is one of five Century of Progress Homes displayed at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago as examples of modern design and models of experimental materials. At the fair’s end in 1935, a real estate developer shipped the homes across the lake by barge to attract home buyers to his new resort community of Beverly Shores, which the park now surrounds. On a self-guided tour, stroll the open-air time capsule created by this cluster of architectural icons on Lake Front Drive. Most times of the year, you can’t go inside the homes, but you can read informational panels in front of them. Insider tip: The nonprofit Indiana Landmarks, which leases most of the homes to residents who pay for their leases by improving the properties, opens them for tours each September.
Meet early park residents: Native Americans, traders and immigrant farmers populated this dunes region before it became a national park or even a botany research subject. Learn about early inhabitants of the area at the Chellberg Farm and neighboring Bailly Homestead. The house and barn built by the Swedish Chellberg family in the 1870s hosts an apple festival each September and rangers offer guided tours of the farmhouse, animals and vegetable garden weekly from late June to mid-August. Volunteers run the farm operations, including a “sugar shack” for making maple syrup from tree sap.
From the farm, it’s a shady, third-of-a-mile walk through a dense forest banking the Little Calumet River to reach the Bailly Homestead, an original 1822 fur trading post and one of only two stops for missionaries, traders and travelers between Detroit and Chicago at the time, now designated a National Historic Landmark. Though their interiors are closed, the grand house and hand-hewn log outbuildings transport visitors to an earlier age when the leafy compound was a bustling center of early 19th-century life. Immerse yourself in the past through free weekly ranger-led Bailly/Chellberg History Hikes, June through August (no registration required; see the events page at the park website).
For an in-depth experience: Pinhook Bog preserves the region’s glacial past created of a former kettle lake left behind by melting glaciers that eventually became acidic, supporting floating mats of sphagnum moss, orchids, ferns and, most intriguing, carnivorous plants such as pitcher plants and sundew. A vulnerable and rare ecosystem, the bog is only open in summer during ranger-led tours, which fill up quickly (sign up by calling the visitor center).