by Oliver Smith, The Telegraph, February 21, 2019
America’s newest national park - its 61st in all - is a 15,000-acre expanse of rolling dunes, freshwater beaches and oak savannah that’s home to scores of rare plants and more than 350 species of bird. It’s also got a rather amusing name.
The Indiana Dunes, on the southern shores of Lake Michigan, lured daytrippers from Chicago long before Steven Spielberg invented his swashbuckling action hero, and in 2017 the area was visited by more than 2.1 million people. Until last week it was known as Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore; now it has a more prestigious moniker.
Rangers celebrated the granting of National Park status is modest fashion. A Tweet showed one holding aloft a handmade cardboard sign bearing the word “Park” in front of a sign, obscuring the word “Lakeshore” in the area's title.
It is Indiana’s first national park, and already among the most visited in the country, benefitting from its close proximity to America’s second city. The Chicago skyline can be seen from its eight beaches, which are backed by sand dunes up to 200 feet high.
Fifty miles of scenic walking trails take in the dunes, as well as wetlands, prairies, meandering rivers and forest. More than 1,000 types of plant can be found, making it one of America’s most biodiverse protected areas. Birdwatchers can spot geese, ducks, herons, gulls, grebes, hawks and vultures, to name a few. Kayaking and horseback riding is popular; overnight visitors can camp.
National Park status has been a long time coming. A University of Chicago botanist, Henry Cowles, first highlighted the ecosystem in 1899 before pushing for the creation of a “Sand Dunes National Park”; he was rebuffed by Congress in 1916. Ten years later a small state park opened to the public, and the stretch of shore was protected from development during the 20th century thanks to the efforts of a long-running “Save The Dunes” campaign. In 1966 the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, run by the National Parks Service, was established.
Last week’s redesignation was something of a surprise - the Trump administration explicitly opposed making it a national park last summer - but a welcome one. “This is a big recognition,” Amy Howell, the director of communications for Visit Indiana, told CNN . “It will put Indiana on the map. [The park] has more plant and animal species than Hawaii, and I don’t think people realise.”
At a glance | America's 10 newest national parks How to get there
Indiana Dunes is less than 50 miles from Chicago and can be reached by rail using the South Shore Line in around 90 minutes. For more advice on visiting see the NPS website.
Five more places to see spectacular sand dunes
The largest sand dune system in England - a mile wide and nearly four miles long - is Braunton Burrows in Devon, just up the road from Saunton Sands . A Unesco-designated biosphere reserve, it is home to 500 varieties of wild flowers and lots of rabbits - the name comes from the warrens found within.
As well as attracting tourists, Braunton Burrows played a vital role during the Second World War as a training ground for US soldiers preparing for the D-Day landings.
The Dune of Pilat
The highest dune in Europe? Methyr Mawr’s Big Dipper is pipped to the title by the Dune of Pilat, a 360-foot (110-metre) behemoth in Arcachon Bay, around 40 miles from Bordeaux. It is a striking sight – an inexplicable slice of Arabia on an otherwise forested stretch of coast.
It is a relatively new addition and is growing (in 1855 it was reportedly just 35 metres high) as well as moving inland at a rate of around four metres a year. More than 1 million people visit annually.
For another surprising French landscape head east. Around a four-hour drive inland you’ll find the Chaine des Puys, a string of volcanoes and craters in the Massif Central that was recently named a World Heritage Site.
Soaring far higher than anything Europe has to offer are the dunes of Namibia. Sossusvlei, in the Namib-Naukluft Park, contains dozens of spectacular apricot-coloured examples. The suitably named “Big Daddy” is the highest in the area: 325 metres from base to peak. Further north, however, there’s an even bigger one. Dune 7, near Walvis Bay, has a rather less impressive moniker (so called because it is the seventh dune one encounters after crossing the Tsauchab river) but is slightly bigger, at 383 metres. They can be admired on a self-drive itinerary; see our Namibia guide for more advice .
Peru is another hotspot for giant dunes - and they make Namibia’s look positively titchy. The coastal region to the south of Lima, around Nazca and Ica, is teeming with them. Huacachina, a backpacker village on the outskirts of Ica, which surrounds a small oasis, is a popular base for sandboarding tours using 4x4 buggies.
The biggest dune of all, however, is Cerro Blanco, to the east of Nazca. It measures 3,860 feet (1,176 meters) from top to bottom – that’s higher than Ben Nevis. The descent from this monster - on a freshly waxed board - takes four minutes at top speed.
The tallest dunes in North America are found in Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park. Star Dune is the highest, soaring to 755 feet (230 metres).
Hiking from the park’s main visitor centre to First Ridge - where you’ll find the best views of the 30 square miles of dunes - takes around two hours. Or head east to explore a contrasting landscape of creeks and forest. Other popular activities include stargazing and wildlife watching (elk, bear, cougar, deer and marmot all call the area home).