MICHIGAN CITY, Ind. (AP) — A towering sand dune at the Indiana Dunes National Park has kept up its inland creep, covering up an access road and threatening to bury a parking lot in the coming years.
The park’s landmark Mount Baldy has largely been closed to public climbing since a 6-year-old boy was rescued in 2013 after being buried in a cavity in the dune that researchers blamed on decaying sand-covered trees.
The dune lacks much stabilizing grasses, so winds off Lake Michigan have taken as much as 30 feet off its previous 125-foot peak, National Park Service Ranger Rafi Wilkinson told The (Northwest Indiana) Times. Sand from the dune moved about 10 feet this past year, covering part of a road leading from the parking lot for those visiting Mount Baldy and its nearby beach on the park’s eastern edge.
“Even five years ago, there was a row of parking spots that are now under Mount Baldy,” Wilkinson said.
The shifting sands could eventually consume the entire parking lot and a restroom building at the site.
“It’s an extremely popular place to park, but the lake always wins,” Wilkinson said. “Mother Nature always wins at this level. It would be impractical to remove that much sand.
The Indiana Dunes National Park drew nearly 2.3 million visitors during 2020, its second year with national park status. Congress approved the change from the national lakeshore designation it had held since 1966.
The loss of parking at Mount Baldy could hurt tourism to the lakeshore and Michigan City, which is just east of the park.
“Mount Baldy is iconic. We consider this our connector with the Dunes,” said Jack Arnett, executive director of the Visit Michigan City LaPorte tourism agency. “The park, Mount Baldy and the dunes are huge economic drivers for us.”
People often trample the pioneering grass while climbing up Mount Baldy, despite warning signs about possible sand cavities similar to the one that trapped a 6-year-old boy from Sterling, Illinois, for more than three hours in 2013.
Park rangers lead about 50 guided tours a year between Labor Day and Memorial Day along approved paths that don’t disturb the sensitive ecosystems.
Wilkinson said park officials hope to preserve access to Mount Baldy but don’t yet have firm contingency plans.
“We’re obviously concerned and worried about that parking lot facility and the recreational opportunity it provides,” he said. “But we’re also here to preserve nature and protect nature. So there’s the argument you should stay out of nature’s way and not intervene.”