Wedged between a railroad, two steel mills, a power plant, and several junkyards, Indiana Dunes National Park looks and feels world’s apart from other iconic settings that also bear the national park name: the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, etc. The draw here is modest: windswept sand dunes, mucky wetlands, and distant views to Chicago from the shores of Lake Michigan. But the park—formerly a National Lakeshore—nonetheless has a well-established network of hiking trails, some of which are moderately interesting. One of these pleasant (though mostly ho-hum) walks is the Dune Ridge Trail, a 0.7-mile stem-and-loop hike that climbs a now tree-covered sandscape with some lookout views across Great Marsh, the largest interdunal wetland in the Lake Michigan watershed. This is a skippable hike—there are better walks in Indiana Dunes (although not by much)—but worthwhile if one wants a little serenity after a day at the crowded beach.
Access is by way of the East State Park Boundary Road, which acts as the divider between Indiana Dunes State Park and Indiana Dunes National Park jurisdictions. Driving north from Highway 12 (West Dunes Highway), visitors pass through dense forest cover and cross-cut the Great Marsh before rising slightly to a turnoff for the Dune Ridge Trailhead on the right. (Note: The trailhead doubles as a parking lot for nearby Kemil Beach). Park near the southeast corner of the lot, if possible, as this is where the Dune Ridge Trail begins.
Passing an information board and a large pine tree on the left, proceed up the very sandy trail. The ground surface here is comprised almost entirely of sand—although it is hard to believe given the vegetation covering the dunes is ubiquitous and thriving. After ascending through a sun-soaked prairie, the track dives into a shady oak woodland, reaching a junction about 125 yards from the trailhead. With benches off to the left, bear right at the fork, starting the loop in a counterclockwise direction.
From here the path runs through a narrow clear-cut (likely a former road) and inches back toward the sun, still gaining relatively little elevation. Eventually hikers settle into a mild uphill as the path rises to an initial hillock with obscured views. Crest the ridge at 2/10 mile, then proceed downhill, with some obstructed looks at the prairie/marsh off to the right. A minute later, the Dune Ridge Trail passes a gaggle of extravagant ferns on the right, followed by a sudden and steep uphill. After rounding a couple bends, the narrow path ascends the higher ridgeline, reaching its crest at around 4/10 mile. Here there is a bench and views down to the Great Marsh wetlands to the south. Even though one can hear the crashing waves of Lake Michigan, views north to the lake are obstructed by the dense thicket and dune line beyond.
After this point, the trail proceeds upward a little more, then rounds a left-hand bend and begins to descend back westward, with a lush understory on the right. Proceed down to a junction—the same clear-cut from before—and bear left, following it back to the amphitheater benches. From here, bear left, proceeding back up and out into the open, and descend to the trailhead.
All told, this is a short hike that will likely take 20-30 minutes to complete.