Take your leaf peeping to a whole new level with the 3 Dune Challenge (Trail 8) at the Indiana Dunes State Park. This rugged 1.5-mile trail winds through wooded areas boasting plenty of vibrant native trees and autumn foliage and features hikes up the park’s three tallest sand dunes: Mt. Jackson, Mt. Holden, and Mt. Tom.

Girl runs up a steep sand dune. Fall trees line the sandy trail.

We have visited the Indiana Dunes State Park dozens of times over the years, and I’ve always wanted to give the 3 Dune Challenge a try. Fall was perfect for our first time, as the temps were cooler, visitors were fewer and the autumn colors were simply gorgeous. I’m so glad I didn’t let a mostly cloudy forecast deter our adventure. One thing I’ve learned about the weather along Lake Michigan is that it can change quickly. What started out as an overcast day wound up being mostly sunny about halfway through our visit.

The trailhead for Trail 8 is located next to the Nature Center, right off the parking lot. Although the trail is well marked, we still made sure to snap a photo of the map on the information sign at the beginning of the trail, just in case we decided to take the shortcut on our way back.

Fall Discovery Trail Charlene Lynn

Almost as soon as we began the hike, we found ourselves climbing a pretty steep incline. Hiking on sand takes a lot more strength and energy than walking on a more solid surface. The 3 Dune Challenge is the park’s most difficult hike, and the first incline gives you a pretty good idea of what to expect. Keep in mind, though, the ascent up the three tallest peaks will be longer—and often steeper—than this initial section. 

a wooden staircase heading down a dune surrounded by trees

The entire trail was surrounded by a variety of native trees, all at different peak color levels. Some sections were full of Sassafras trees that were already bright yellow, while others were just starting to turn red and orange with oaks and maples.

A young girl holds up a yellow leaf

Mt. Jackson, Mt. Holden, and Mt. Tom all had unique views of Lake Michigan and the changing trees. Mt. Jackson provided a quiet bench to soak in the views, and Mt. Tom had a wooden staircase and landing overlooking Lake Michigan and the duneland below.

A bench sits atop a sand dune looking out over a wooded landscape

Throughout our hike, we saw numerous trees along the trail with their root systems exposed. They were a fascinating reminder that the Indiana Dunes is ever-changing. It’s important to help protect them by staying on marked trails and not walking through areas of marram grass, both of which help combat against erosion.

Fall Discovery Trail Charlene Lynn

One of our favorite spots on the 3 Dune Challenge was the path down to the beach at Mt. Holden. It led us to a stunning view of white-capped waves on Lake Michigan and the Chicago Skyline on the horizon! When visibility conditions are right, the skyline can be seen from the shores of the Indiana Dunes.

The Chicago skyline seen from the Indiana Dunes State Park

Overall, the hike took us about an hour and 45 minutes to complete, with some of the time spent sightseeing and taking photos. Once we’d finished, we stopped by the Nature Center to get our complimentary 3 Dune Challenge sticker to celebrate our achievement.

A hand holds up a black oval sticker with white text that says 3DC and Indiana Dunes State Park

Before heading home, we parked near the Pavilion to spend some time on the beach just before sunset. Much to our surprise, dozens of seagulls had the same idea and sat perched, staring out across the water… just like us.  Smart birds!

seagulls standing on a beach

The Chicago skyline was again visible across the lake, this time surrounded by warm sunset hues. With views and hikes like these, it’s no wonder we keep coming back to the Indiana Dunes.

Three people in fall jackets pose next to a sign with trees in the background

Looking for vacation deals?

Sign up for the free Indiana Dunes Deals Pass! Discounts ranging from a free scoop of ice cream to savings on attractions are like finding buried treasure.

Dunes Deals Logo