We don’t really know the Midwest for its hiking, but I’ve found exceptional trails in every central US state that I’ve been too. (For example, did you know that there is cool hiking in Kansas?). And Indiana is no exception! While I will admit that I am no expert on the trails here, I can say that if you don’t go anywhere else to experience nature, Turkey Run State Park and the Indiana Dunes will not disappoint. All in all, hiking in Indiana shouldn’t be missed.
Hiking in Indiana Thanks To Cool Geology
One thing I’ve learned as I’ve traveled through the Midwest over the years is that it isn’t the flat land it’s made out to be. Sure, the Midwest states don’t have the Rocky Mountains or the Appalachians, but powerful geological forces shaped the Great Plains just as well as anywhere else.
In the case of Indiana, the big, geological force that created the land that we see today was glaciers. They slowly scraped across the land, leaving behind the fertile place that feeds millions today. They also left behind magnificent fossils from the Ice Age. And they created the unimaginably large Great Lakes.
North Indiana is notable for the series of dunes that stretch south from Lake Michigan. There are seven, in fact, and the series furthest from the lake is the oldest. This is an area where you can explore all kinds of ecosystems. Different plants colonize the sand and pave the way for more established species.
The middle of the state, which likely looks the way that you’d expect Indiana to, the plains seem to stretch on forever. And they are carpeted with oceans of agriculture. This was all scooped out by the glaciers that survive on as Lake Michigan now.
Continue traveling south, into the vicinity of Indianapolis, and you will see the land change again. Here, in the south, the plains give way to undulating hills covered in forests. They hint at the gorges and caves of Kentucky, with their own twisting rivers and narrow, stone canyons.
And you can explore it all by hiking in Indiana.
The Indiana Dunes are a must-see, in my opinion. And the more time that you can spend here, the better. Not only is there loads of hiking to be had, but the ecology is world class, although in a very understated way. One of the volunteers at the visitor center was boasting about the biodiversity of this spot, but I honestly couldn’t believe him. I’ve been to Yellowstone, lived in Arizona (one of the most biodiverse states out there) for 30 years, and I’ve been blessed to travel to some exceptional landscapes around the world. I couldn’t imagine that Indiana was all that exceptional by way of plant and animal diversity.
But when I went home, I started doing some research on the ecology and geology of Indiana, and when it comes to the dunes, I am starting to understand why what he was talking about is true.
Cool Ecology of the Indiana Dunes
So, here’s the thing – Lake Michigan was created when the massive glaciers of the last ice age melted, and throughout the formation and lifespan of this massive lake, the place we now call Indiana Dunes was formed. Over the succession of thousands of years, several complexes of dunes were created, one after the next. So, now we can look at the dunes and essentially date them – the ones nearest to Lake Michigan are younger, and those further from the water are older.
What this has done is create waves of ecosystems as well. Sand dunes aren’t the most hospitable place for a lot of different species. Sand doesn’t tend to hold in a lot of nutrients or water, and it does this annoying thing where it moves around. But our most hardy plants, which tend to come into spots where other species can’t survive, can slowly creep their way up dunes. This tends to hold the sand in place, with all those little roots weaving their way through. And plants protect the sand from wind and other forces that can move dunes around.
Ecology Over Time
Once the most resilient plants come in and start doing that, they accidentally (by their standards) make things more hospitable for other species. More plants means more insects and more insects mean more birds and so on. As more diversity creeps in, this includes longer lived species like bushes and trees. So, over time, you go from sand dunes, to grasslands, to shrublands and forests (sometimes not in that order).
But the thing is, all of this takes years, sometimes hundreds of years. So, what we have at the Indiana Dunes is all of these things at once, and all mixed together. Dunes, and forests, and wetlands all together in a surprisingly walkable area. All of this variation creates space for a huge variety of plant and animal species.
Hiking in Indiana Dunes
The Indiana Dunes are an interesting place so far as visiting goes because they are a mix of state and national parks. Unfortunately, you will need to pick and choose which one you want to visit, because you have to pay for them separately. Of course, if you are spending a few days in the area, you could definitely do both. That all being said, don’t expect to use your America the Beautiful pass in one of the state parks.
There are loads to do in both parks, but my focus when visiting was hiking in Indiana.
Indiana Dunes State Park
The Indiana Dunes State Park was created in 1925 after local people, scientists, and the growing outdoor recreation industry fought for its protection. As I mentioned above, the Indiana dunes are a special place, and people could see that nearly 100 years ago.
The state park is more insular than the national park, and for us, that was a draw, because we had limited time. But they offer plenty of trails and they are right on the beach of Lake Michigan.
When we stopped by, we went straight to the Devil’s Slide and the historic pavilion. I really wanted to walk up the dunes and look at the lake and this spot was perfect for both. Seeing the skyline of Chicago floating ghostly over the swelling waters of Lake Michigan was really magical. And then slogging up Devil’s Slide was a nice work out. I would have liked to hike up in the forests on the dunes a bit more, taking Trail 8, but the wintery winds when we visited made hiking on the shore uncomfortable.
So, we retreated to the Wilson Center to hike out over the wetlands and through the woods from there. From this point, there were loads of trail options, both hard and easy. We kept to the flatter part and enjoyed a walk for the whole family. There were great views of the wetlands from here.
At the time we visited, it was $12 per vehicle to enter the park (2022).
Indiana Dunes National Park
Unlike the state park, Indiana Dunes National Park was created until 2019 (it was a national lakeshore previously)! So, it is quite new, and it wraps around the historic state park as well as some communities along the shore. It also protects miles and miles of coastline as well as a variety of those ecosystems that I mentioned earlier. Lots of variation is to be found in this area for hiking in Indiana.
This makes it somewhat spread out, so visiting requires more driving if you decide to do more than one trail. But there are loads of different options, from beach hiking to exploring bogs, going on a riverwalk, and hiking the dunes themselves.
Danger in the Dunes and Mt. Baldy
One very interesting element of the National Park, which is no longer accessible, is Mount Baldy. It is one of the largest lake-side dunes in the world, and was once scaled by visitors. But in 2013, a 6-year-old boy disappeared into the dune. Later that night, over a 100 volunteers searched until he was found, and he managed to survive the ordeal. The thing is, science at the time told us that something like this couldn’t happen- dunes were meant to be solid piles of sand.
To keep visitors safe, people are no longer able to climb the dune without a National Park Service guide. But this also led to the discovery of holes hidden under the dune, which apparently formed when the uniquely active Mount Baldy shifted over trees, killing them.
All this to say, the dunes are still very much alive and changing today. They teach us new things and remind us to stay safe as much as we can in nature.
Turkey Run State Park
Turkey Run State Park is one those hiking spots that you will see all over if you come to the internet looking to learn about hiking in Indiana. With that kind of publicity, I always worry a little bit about the reality of a place. Is this a tourist trap? Or just the kind of hiking spot that “influencers” like for the picture opportunities? Will it be super over crowded because everyone knows about it?
When it comes to this state park, just about an hour out of Indianapolis, the hype doesn’t lie. This is a really a fun place to explore. There are bridges, gorges, beautiful woods, and more. In fact, I’d say the Turkey Run State Park can fit your needs, no matter what they are (as long as you are looking for nature). This place is like a playground for kids and adults alike. And there are beautiful views of the river and forest for anyone who can’t hike.
Playground in Nature
Now, when I say that Turkey Run State Park is a playground, I don’t mean that you can go there and forget all about safety. That’s never a good idea out in nature. But what I do mean, is that the trails here will challenge you in fun and different ways.
When I went, the first fun thing that we got to do on the trail was cross a hanging bridge over the river. That’s an automatic A+ for me, but the trail just kept being cool. After we crossed the river, we took the trail to the left, right into a winding gorge in the rock. We climbed up a set of stairs. And then the trail crossed the top of a cliff, before diving back down. All along, we were weaving along the smooth stone wall that runs along the river.
After walking along the water for a time, passing over foot-carved stone and wooden walkways, we took a right into one of the park’s many gorges. Here, we passed through a deep and narrow canyon. A small trickle of water is flowing along the bottom, making it just soggy enough to threaten us with getting our feet wet. After passing down the gorge for a way, we found our way to what I was looking forward to the most – ladders.
Ladders, Stairs, and Gorges – Oh My!
We climbed up the sturdy, wooden ladders, and then climbed loads of stairs to follow the trail at the top of the bluff above the river. Then we strolled through the forest for a time, resting after our climb. But Turkey Run State Park kept up with its fascinating trail system.
Eventually, we were climbing back into another gorge, this time on foot. We climbed over boulders and water-smoothed stones, to a waterfall, which was small in the fall weather. And then we continued down, until the walls of stone rose up again, and we were spit out back on the river again.
We followed the trail back- admiring the beauty of the water and fall-colored forest all along the way.
And this is just ONE example of the amazing trails in this park.
When hiking in Indiana, you need to focus as much on being safe as anywhere else. Follow the tips above, as well as others – do your research, and make sure to change your plans when conditions change.
This post is NOT a guarantee of your safety on the trails. Take care of yourself.
More on Indiana
See my post on Culture in Indiana.
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