Looking for a quick get away? Only three hours from Madison is Indiana Dunes National Park. This park is one of the most biodiverse national parks, which makes it an excellent choice for elementary school aged kids to learn about different habitats while having fun and enjoying some easy hikes.
Free National Parks Pass for Fourth Graders
This national park is one of the newer ones, so it’s broken apart into a few distinct sections. Some require small entrance fees per car, but if you have a fourth grader, you can get a free national parks pass through the Every Kid Outdoors Program. All you need to do is fill out the online form with your fourth grader, and you can print off a free pass. You can then turn in your paper pass for a card that can be used at any national park with an entrance fee.
You Could Spend 2 Days or 2 Hours Here
We went to Indiana Dunes National Park on our way home from a road trip to Kentucky, so it’s a great place to go on its own or as an addition to another trip. Because of its segmented nature, you could spend two days or two hours depending on how much you want to see and how much time you hand in your schedule.
Hikes Suitable for Ages 5+
All of the hikes we went on were pretty easy and would be suitable for kids five years old and older. The under five-year-old crowd might get a little tired, so if you’re able to carry them for parts, they would be fine as well.
Dunes Succession Trail
Our favorite and the most well known trail is Dunes Succession Trail. This part of the park requires an entrance fee (or your 4th grade NP pass) but has several trails. The main trail involves walking up lots of stairs to a beautiful overlook of the beach and the dunes, then the trail leads you through a small section of dunes forest, up and over some dunes to the beautiful beach. There is a large shelter for washing off afterwards and has some restrooms available. We could have easily spent all afternoon at the beach if the weather would have cooperated.
Dune Ridge Trail
Another favorite was Dune Ridge Trail. This dune hike is on the far east side of the park. This hike goes up and down a forest dune which is really unique and gave us a chance to see some wildlife and birds. Additionally, it leads to a beautiful overlook of a massive marsh that is also part of the park.
Another unique portion of the park contains a large bog. The bog has several trails that are quite flat and easy to walk, but they are a little longer (a couple of miles each). In addition to hiking trails, there are quite a few biking trails as well. Including some that go along the marsh and the bog.
Finally, there are several wonderful beaches to explore. Porter Access Point has a beautiful beach that is great for watching the sunset. We also explored the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk. This is an interesting park and beach area that includes a breakwater formation that has a walking path that goes out into the lake.
One word of warning: to get to the beach and parking lot the roads are a little confusing, and you come within feet of entering a steel mill. Keep following the map (which you can pick up at the Visitor’s Center) and you’ll find it.
A few things to keep in mind:
Footwear: most of the hikes will require some walks in sand. Make sure your shoes can handle this.
National Park vs State Park: Indiana Dunes State Park adjoins the national park. While they are both nice, they each require different entrance fees, so be aware of where you want to go.
Where to stay? There are a lot of hotels in the area. We chose to stay overnight in Chesterton, Indiana. This is very close to the welcome center and is a nice town with many choices for restaurants and stores with anything you need.
The west end of the park is right next to Gary, Indiana. This side of Gary seemed pretty nice and safe and has a very nice beach, Marquette Park, just a mile or two away from the national park. Marquette Park is the southernmost point of Lake Michigan, and has a playground and shelter and a significant length of beach to walk along.
You don’t need to go very far to have an enjoyable time at the beach!