Car-free camping in the Indiana Dunes

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The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore might be the most beautiful place in the Hoosier State—which, to some, might not sound like much of a ringing endorsement, especially since it’s flanked by steel mills and power plants. But this nearby national park features 25 miles of natural beach, hiking trails through forests, prairies and marshes. And, of course, there are the dunes themselves: massive mountains of fine sand, perfect for a sliding barefoot sprint and leap.

Bring your tent, sleeping bag and camping gear and head to Millennium Station at Randolph Street and Michigan Avenue to catch the South Shore Line train (round-trip ticket, $13.60). The South Shore does not allow conventional bikes onboard; however, folding bikes are permitted and would be useful for exploring the greater Dunes area. It’s a relaxing, scenic, 90-minute train ride to the Beverly Shores stop and the national lakeshore’s Dunewood Campground.

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The train stop, a historic 1940s structure, is handily located next to a gas station and a general store where you can stock up on supplies and firewood. From there it’s a quarter-mile hike south to the campground ($15 a night) in a serene wooded area. The fact that sites don’t have built-in driveways is a bonus; you won’t have to compete with Winnebagos and generator-powered TV sets.

Pitch your tent and go explore. The campground is near the Dunewood Trace hiking trail that leads to the Dorothy Buell nature center and other trails.

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Dunewood Trace trail after heavy rains

It’s also a pleasant one-mile walk down a quiet road to a low-key beach where you can swim, sunbathe and pick pebbles to your heart’s content. The waves can get big enough for body surfing, but watch out for dangerous riptides. A couple miles east of the campground is Mount Baldy, the largest of the dunes. Visitors who tackle the steep, sandy climb out of the parking lot are rewarded with a spectacular view: Northwest of the lake you can just make out the towers of the Chicago skyline.

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Every visit to the Dunes is different. One time we went, a folk singer in the campground’s amphitheater performed a set of songs about Great Lakes maritime tragedies. When we cried out for “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot, he happily obliged. Then we walked down the road to the Beverly Shores Fireman’s Ball, held inside the firehouse. Friendly conversation, pulled-pork sandwiches and Jell-O shots were plentiful, and afterward the party headed to the lake for a bonfire on the beach. You can’t do that in the big city.

For more information on Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, contact the National Park Service (219-926-7561 ext 225).

Published by

John Greenfield

John has lived in Chicago since 1989 and has worked a number of bicycle jobs, from messenger to mechanic to managing the Chicago Department of Transportation's bicycle parking program, arranging the installation of over 3,700 bike racks. He writes regularly for Time Out Chicago, Newcity, Momentum and Urban Velo magazines and works at Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square.

11 thoughts on “Car-free camping in the Indiana Dunes”

  1. This campground is also reachable by bicycle. It’s an 80km (50mi) ride from the south end of the lakeshore path mostly on paved trails. Once past Griffiths, most of the route is also well shaded.

    Things to keep in mind when wayfinding:
    – It’s easy to lose the trail when approaching Indianapolis Blvd. There are about 5 turns along that stretch that are not signed including bits of crushed stone trail and very rough broken pavement that does not look like a trail going under Indianapolis Blvd.
    – Most of the 2 miles along Main St. in Griffiths is an arterial road with no shoulder. Many riders will prefer to add a mile to the trip and take the trail through Oak Ridge Prarie Park.
    – Although traffic can be heavy through Hobart, IN, the streets are generally very wide and hospitable. Just follow the signs for Alternate State Route 51, or State Route 51 until you pick up the trail again. The alternate state route is preferable as the state route narrows at one point along Front Street. If you follow the trail right to the end, you may have to back track a little bit to find a railway crossing.
    – Once in Chesterton, just take a road up to the Dunes Hwy and follow the Dunes Hwy to the campground. Traffic on the highway is fairly light travelling at a reasonable speed and the lanes are wide, although there isn’t much shoulder. Unless you like 40′ long puddles, avoid the trail in the trail that parallels the highway.

    For camping,
    The national park campground does not take reservations, but there is normally space available. The state park campground (the one north of the highway) requires reservations.

    1. I’ve been thinking about a trip here for a while. I want to bike in the park, but I don’t want to bike TO the park. A ZipCar costs $88 per day (on the weekends) and I have a bike rack for cars. But it would be wonderful if I could pay $14 roundtrip and take my bike on the South Shore Line.

      Thanks for the routes and reservation tips.

      1. Before you go, check which trails you can ride your bike on. Most (but not all) of the trails at Indiana Dunes do not allow bikes (although they are certainly worth hiking.) It’s still worth having a bike to travel to the beach or to pick up supplies and there are some nice country roads in the area as well.

        1. So I went to yesterday, to Beverly Shores. My friends and I walked along Broadway to the beach and then we mistakenly walked back to the train via Kemil Road. I underestimated the distances 😉

          Anyway, parts of Kemil Road were flooded and the Calumet Bike Trail had an inch of water in some parts. Nothing we couldn’t safely cross on foot, though.

          Is there a way to find out, or a rule of thumb, about flooding before one goes?

          (Also, almost missed the train, but we made it!)

          1. Just assume that that trail is flooded. That’s why I recommend taking the Dunes Highway.

          2. Just assume that that trail is flooded. That’s why I recommend taking the Dunes Highway.

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