This summer, lazing on the sand at Indiana Dunes National Park will no longer be free.
The 15,000-acre swath of forest, marshland, and beaches dotted with towering dunes next to Lake Michigan in Northwest Indiana (just southeast of Chicago) is adding an entrance fee.
Starting Thursday, March 31, those who enter the park on foot, bicycle, or boat will need to pay $15 per person, up to a maximum $25 per family.
A motorcycle pass will cost you $20, while the price of a vehicle pass for one to seven days will be $25.
People who plan to visit several times throughout the year can buy the new Indiana Dunes National Park Annual Pass for $45.
Holders of the following federal land passes from the National Park Service will not have to pay an additional entrance fee in Indiana: the Annual Pass; Senior Pass; Veterans, Military and Gold Star Family Pass; 4th Grade Pass; Access Pass (for permanent disability); and the Volunteer Pass.
According to the National Park Service, revenue from the new entry fee will help fund maintenance, parking and transportation improvements, and projects such as the Marquette Greenway Bike Trail, which will run along Lake Michigan's southern shoreline from Chicago to New Buffalo, Michigan.
In a statement, Indiana Dunes park superintendent Paul Labovitz described the entry fee as "a positive step to keep the park accessible, safe and vibrant for all, while allowing us to grow and meet the increased needs of our visitors." He added, “Out of town guests expect a fee at most places they visit."
The National Park Service points out that visitor numbers at the site have increased from 1.7 million per year before receiving national park status in February 2019 to more than 3 million per year since. (Before the name change, it was the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.)
The Times of Northwest Indiana reports that some nearby residents, activists, and other fans of the Indiana Dunes have expressed concern that the planned entrance fee will make the park less accessible to low-income people.
As the newspaper points out, the $15-per-person/$25-per-car rate will make the Indiana Dunes among the Midwest's most expensive National Park Service units. Visiting Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis only costs $3, for instance, while others, such as Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio, don't charge anything for admission.
The Indiana Dunes fee will be more in line with heavy hitters in the system such as Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park ($25 per car) and Maine's Acadia National Park ($30 per car).
Beyond the matter of price, there's bound to be some logistical confusion for tourists and locals alike, given that the Indiana Dunes site isn't a remote wilderness but instead, as the South Bend Tribune puts it, is "scattered along 15 miles of Lake Michigan ... with multiple entry points" and with "large parcels of the park ... separated from each other by industries and private land."
Many who live nearby use the site more like a city or state park—and, indeed, the national park neighbors the separately run Indiana Dunes State Park, which, by the way, charges out-of-staters $12 to enter. That fee will be on top of what you pay to get into the national park.
"It's one thing if the whole [park] is gated off," Jonathan W. Thomas of nearby La Porte told The Times of Northwest Indiana, "but there's so many parking areas and trails that relying on the honor system to do this is going to turn everyone who happens on a trail into a fare dodger. Enforcement will be a nightmare. What happens if you didn't know and can't pay?"
We'd say he raises some good points. Though the entrance pass will include a paper receipt to display on your car's dashboard, park officials told the South Bend Tribune they won't be hiring extra employees to patrol the parking lots for "fare dodgers," so the question of how strict enforcement will be remains open.
To purchase the new entrance pass, drop by the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center, the Paul H. Douglas Center, the West Beach Entrance Station (this summer), or go to Recreation.gov.
The National Park Service says that local vendors such as gas stations and other businesses near the park will probably sell passes at some point, too, but that plan is still in the works.
For more information about planning a trip to Indiana Dunes National Park, go to nps.gov/indu.