In Indiana Dunes State Park, the 3 Dune Challenge is a trail that summits three of the tallest dunes in the park: Mt. Jackson, Mt. Holden, and Mt. Tom. Ordinarily, hiking up not one but three sand dunes is not what most people would call fun. But call it a “challenge” and it instantly becomes a popular hike.
How Hard is the 3 Dune Challenge?
On paper, this hike doesn’t look so tough. It’s just 1.5 miles with 552 feet of elevation gain.
No big deal, right?
Most of the trail is deep sand. If you have never hiked up a sand dune, it can be deceptively tough. For every step forward, you slide downhill just a little bit, slowing your progress. And these dunes are steep. Which means by the time you get to the top of the first dune, your thighs will be screaming at you.
On the 3 Dune Challenge, you have to do this twice. One dune, Mt. Tom, has a long series of stairs that climb up and over the dune. If this is your third dune, you’ll be thrilled to see those very long staircases. Climbing a long line of staircases is much easier than hiking up the dunes. You’ll see. 😉
Overall, the 3 Dune Challenge is a tough hike, but it is doable for most ages and ability levels. It’s a great hike for kids, who somehow seem to fly up the dunes at a blazing speed. This is a strenuous hike, but since it is so short, most people can do it, just as long as they take their time.
In this guide, we cover what it is like to hike the 3 Dunes Challenge and we provide some photos, so you know what to expect.
3 Dune Challenge: Step-By-Step Trail Guide
Parking and Trailhead
Park in the parking lot for the Indiana Dunes State Park Nature Center. Here are the GPS coordinates: 41°39’34.2″N 87°03’01.8″W.
At the far end of the parking lot, next to the Nature Center, is the trailhead. There is a large sign here indicating the 3 Dune Challenge. There is also a sign labeling trails 8, 9, and 10.
3 Dune Challenge Trailhead
3 Dune Challenge sign at the trailhead
The 3 Dune Challenge is a loop. It starts on trail 8, then switches to trail 4, and the last part of the trail is on a paved road through the campground. The entire route is well marked with colorful “3 Dune Challenge” signs.
3 Dune Challenge trail marker
Trail to Mt. Jackson
From the trailhead, hike the trail into the woods and go past the Nature Center. In about 0.1 miles you arrive at the trail split. Turn left here to take trail 8 to Mt. Jackson. You know you are on the correct trail if it is steep and very sandy. Welcome to the first climb.
This brief climb doesn’t quite get you to the top of the first dune. The trail levels out somewhat, but it is still sandy and challenging to walk, even when the trail is flat. This doesn’t last long, however. You soon start the next climb up a very wide trail but once at the top, you summited the first dune.
Final climb to the top of Mt. Jackson
Mt. Jackson is the first of the three dunes. At 176 feet, this is also the smallest of the dunes. Here is the view from the top.
View from Mt. Jackson
Just two to go!
Trail to Mt. Holden
From Mt. Jackson, you get to walk downhill, at least for a little bit. At the bottom of Mt. Jackson, the trail briefly levels out before it starts its climb up to the top of Mt. Holden.
Trail to Mt. Holden
There is not much of a view from Mt. Holden since the top of the dune is covered with trees.
Trail to Mt. Tom
It’s a long steep descent down Mt. Holden. Near the bottom of Mt. Holden, trail 8 intersects trail 7. If you are feeling tuckered out, you can skip the third dune and take trail 7 back to the parking lot.
Continue on trail 8 to Mt. Tom. To get to the top of Mt. Tom, you do not have to hike up a deep, sandy, steep trail. Instead, you get to climb a lot of stairs. Here they are.
Tim and I both thought that the stairs were much easier than hiking up the dunes. The view from the top of Mt. Tom is also very nice.
On top of Mt. Tom
Stairs leading down from Mt. Tom
Finishing the Hike
From Mt. Tom, you will hike down a series of staircases, walk through the woods, and then walk through the campground to get back to the parking lot. So, once you get to the top of Mt. Tom, it’s all downhill and very easy for the rest of the hike.
During the hike, snap a selfie on top of one of the dunes and post it on social media with the tag #3DuneChallenge. If you visit the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center, you can get a bumper sticker or purchase a commemorative T-shirt, your “badge of honor” for completing the challenge.
Tips to Have the Best Experience
How much does this cost? It costs $7 per vehicle for in-state residents and $12 per vehicle for out-of-state residents to enter Indiana Dunes State Park. There is no additional fee to do this hike. While in the park, we also recommend spending some time on the beach, visiting the Longshore Birding Platform for views of the park and the opportunity to do some bird watching, and if you want to do a little more hiking, trail #9 is also a nice hike in the park.
Bring water and snacks. This is a relatively quick hike but having some water is a good idea, particularly if you will be doing this hike when the weather is warm.
Sunscreen, hat, and sunglasses. Most of the trail is shaded, but you will be exposed to the sun periodically along the hike.
Footwear. Hiking shoes, running shoes, crocs, Keen sandals, flip flops, even bare feet are appropriate for this hike. Just be aware of the poison ivy growing along the edges of the trail.
Poison Ivy. Poison ivy is abundant along the edges of the trail. Stay on the trail, both to avoid contact with the poison ivy, but to also protect the plants that grow on these dunes.
Cellular Service. We had cellular service along the entire trail (we use Verizon).
Please practice the seven principles of Leave No Trace: plan ahead, stay on the trail, pack out what you bring to the hiking trail, properly dispose of waste, leave areas as you found them, minimize campfire impacts, be considerate of other hikers, and do not approach or feed wildlife.
If you have any questions about hiking the 3 Dune Challenge, or if you want to share your experience, let us know in the comment section below.
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USA TRAVEL INSPIRATION: For more great ideas on where to go in the United States, check out our article Best USA Road Trips, which has 18 sample itineraries for your next big adventure. You can also see more travel itineraries on our Travel Itineraries page and our National Park Itineraries.
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