“A great uncrowded trail though ancient dunes and rare black oak savanna.
— Rafi Wilkinson
Birding · Fall Colors · Wildflowers · Wildlife
The Tolleston Dunes Trail follows 10,000 year-old sand dunes that were formed when Lake Michigan was 25 feet higher than in recent years. Tolleston is the second youngest of four distinct dune systems found within the national lakeshore. Together these dune ridges provide a glimpse into the changing shoreline of Lake Michigan. Older dunes, like Tolleston, are found farther inland from Lake Michigans present shoreline and were formed thousands of years ago when the lake was much larger than it is today.
In winter, this trail is a popular spot for cross-country skiers looking for a more challenging experience.
Open daily from 6:00 am to 11:00 pm. No bicycles or motorized vehicles allowed. Stay on the trail to protect the wildlife and yourself. Pets are permitted on a leash (6' or shorter).
Need to Know
Free parking and access. The main trail is not accessible to wheelchairs. However, there is a short boardwalk leading to 2 picnic table overlook areas that are accessible to wheelchairs. The boardwalk is located at a pull-off on U.S. Highway 12, approximately mile west of the main parking lot. The main parking lot has spots for 19 cars (2 handicap spots) while the overlook parking lot has space for 4 cars (1 handicap spot).
The trail surface is mostly sand with some sections of packed soil, gravel or boardwalk. The outer loop trail distance is 2.9 miles. The shorter cutoff loop is 2.1 miles.
Use insect repellent, wear long sleeves, and tuck long pants into socks to avoid ticks and poison ivy.
There are no restroom facilities and no potable water source.
The trail starts out in what was once a sand mining operation. This is why the parking lot and surrounding area is so flat. After roughly a third of a mile, the trail enters the rolling ancient sand dunes of Lake Michigan. The footing is generally good with some sections of sand. The trail winds up and down through dune and wetland habitats.
The trail is never crowded and is a great way to get away from the summer beach crowds. If you have the time, take the outer loop. While admiring the black oak savanna, keep an eye out for the karner blue butterfly and the prickly pear cactus.
Flora & Fauna
Tolleston Dunes is home to globally rare black oak savanna and the karner blue butterfly, a federally endangered species. The karner blue is dependent upon the wild blue lupine flower (Lupinus perennis), which grows in abundance at Tolleston Dunes. Another plant with a large population is the eastern prickly pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa)!
History & Background
The Tolleston Dunes parking lot is the site of former sand mining activities from before the park was created.
The national lakeshore was established in 1966 to preserve for the educational, inspirational, and recreational use of the public, certain portions of the Indiana Dunes and other areas of scenic, scientific, and historic interest and recreational value in the state of Indiana. About two million annual visitors enjoy the parks 15,000 acres of wetlands, prairies, sand dunes, oak savannas, forests, and historic sites. The parks beach hugs the southern shore of Lake Michigan from Gary, Indiana, to Michigan City, Indiana. For more information, visit the Indiana Dunes National Park Page