There’s a sandhill crane nesting in the middle of a patch of restored marsh, the bird’s partner calling out as it returns to their nest.
A few hundred feet away, a beaver pops out of its lodge in the middle of the marsh, then dips back under water after spotting human visitors.
Andres Quintero quietly takes pictures of the animal inhabitants of Indiana Dunes National Park, the newest of the US National Park Service’s 61 headliner national parks.
As Quintero hikes with a park ranger to the summit of Mount Baldy sand dune, 126 feet high, he is rewarded with a spectacular view of Lake Michigan, the Chicago skyline visible to the northwest and the Northern Indiana Public Service Corp. Power Plant operating to the east.
Quintero is almost finished with a three-year quest to visit all 61 national parks across the United States and its territories.
“This park is really surprising because I wasn’t expecting that there would be a 61st national park, and I didn’t expect it would be in the Midwest. So, it’s been like a really pleasant surprise to be here,” says Quintero.
The nation’s newest national park “has these sand dunes with this beautiful yellow grass, and the most surprising part is that, right here in Lake Michigan the color of the water, you would think it’s a Caribbean beach,” he says.
Indiana Dunes, which was elevated from a national seashore to a national park earlier this year, has just 15,000 acres along 15 miles of Lake Michigan’s southern shoreline. It’s about an hour from South Bend, Indiana, and two hours from Chicago O’Hare International Airport.
The park offers sandy lake beaches for day trippers, birdwatching, hiking over dunes and through forests and wetlands and campsites where Quintero and his fiancée, Rachel Catterson, stay for several nights.
A quest to visit all the parks
As part of his three-year quest, Quintero has traveled almost 80,000 miles; gotten a divorce from his first wife, who had joined him for part of the quest; become a US citizen and found a new love.
Quintero, who has two more parks to visit to complete his journey, says the nomadic life suits him.
“I like to be my own boss. I like to do things at my own pace. I like to tell myself what to do, and this life perfectly fits that mold,” he says. “Every day is waking up under a different sky,” he says. “That really frees you, gives you liberty that I’ve never felt before.”
Indiana Dunes wasn’t even on his schedule until Congress passed legislation in February turning it into a national park.
“Back in February, when I was kind of running away from winter and I saw that and I found that they created this national park, I said ‘Well, I have to go. I have to go,'” Quintero tells CNN. “I have to experience it for myself.”
Quintero and Catterson are spending several days at the park, hiking Mount Baldy, wandering along Cowles Bog Trail, exploring West Beach, taking pictures of the sand dunes bordering the south side of Lake Michigan, the animals hiding in plain sight, the marshland and leafless trees preparing for spring.
Posters pay for the journey
Catterson, whom Quintero met two years ago while visiting Olympic National Park, joined him midway through his quest after meeting there.
From their few days camping and exploring the park, and the resulting photos, Quintero has already sketched a poster design in his journal, inspired by the lake, the dunes, the birds and the grasses he’s seen and heard in this national park.
Before he leaves the park, he stamps the poster design with the National Park Service “Passport” stamps found at every NPS site.
Sales of the posters he designs for each park fund the trip, and Catterson maintains the website and the books for the business.
They mostly camp at park service campsites, but they’ve modified their station wagon to convert into a bed during cold winter nights. They book the occasional hotel room if they need a hot shower and bed with a mattress.
Lost in a world of natural wonders
The early inspiration for his quest started in Bogota, Colombia, where Quintero was born and raised.
Surrounded by skyscrapers and concrete and more than 8 million people, “we don’t really have anything close to like the outdoors there, just buildings, cars and people,” he says.
Quintero got lost in the world of National Geographic specials, where he was introduced to a wild world unlike anything he’d ever seen. The imposing nature of Yellowstone, Yosemite and Glacier national parks awakened something in him.
It wasn’t until he moved to the United States in 2014 that he explored his first national park, Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio.
“When I first came to the US, and I saw this protected, frail land, I just kind of fell in love with it,” he says.
It started in Ohio
A graphic designer by training, Quintero started sketching Cuyahoga, which welcomed more than 2 million visitors in 2018. (Cuyahoga was the 13th busiest national park in the country, behind behemoths such as top-ranked Great Smoky Mountains National Park and second place Grand Canyon National Park.)
“I really like the idea of going out into outdoors and being able to just take a break from civilization,” he says.
At some point, he realized that he needed more of a challenge in his life, and visiting and getting inspired by all the national parks sprang to mind.
“I was thinking like, ‘Man, how am I going do that?’ But also I answered myself, ‘Well, this is what adventure … adventure is all about putting yourself out there.'”
On April 16, 2016, he started his quest to visit every headliner US national park, starting with Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky.
What do you need for a quest?
He quickly learned he didn’t need that much.
“The most important tool to a quest like this is a vehicle,” he says. “I live in my car. It takes me everywhere — that’s a necessity. For me, I need a spacious vehicle where I can sleep. Cause sometimes you don’t even find room in the campgrounds in the national parks.”
“Second, you need the internet,” he says, “especially for me, since I distribute and share my art online. And this is what keeps me going with this quest. I need to be checking the internet and know what customers are getting my posters.”
“And what else? You need a really good pair of shoes. Look, these shoes have been with me for almost three years. I’ve hiked thousands of miles with these shoes on. They are kind of peeling a little bit, but they’re still pretty in good shape.”
His favorite park is ….
He always gets asked about his favorite park. “It’s really hard to pick because each park is a story itself, and is a story that’s going to mean something different for everybody.”
“At least for me, it’s hard to pick a favorite one, but I would say that the most meaningful, for my story, for my own quest, have been the ones in Alaska, especially Kenai Fjords. That was a really amazing experience for me.”
And Yellowstone was very special because he saw a bison for the first time.
“That was something really spiritual, really transcendental in my life. Seeing the bison for the first time, looking at this big animal right between the eyes, seeing how big, powerful and noble they were.”
Olympic National Park also holds a special place in his heart.
“Olympic because it’s right in the heart of the Pacific Northwest,” he says, “because that’s where I met my fiancée, who joined me on the quest.”
Two more parks to visit
The couple still have two more parks to visit: Katmai National Park & Preserve in Alaska and the National Park of American Samoa. They plan to fly to visit both in July. Then they’ll be done.
That begs the obvious question: What’s next?
After being on the road for years, he and Catterson may settle down for a while, Quintero says.
But in the next breath, he already has an idea for a new journey: Driving from the northern end of North America to the southern end of South America.
That would be another epic quest.
“We’ll go all the way from Alaska to Argentina,” he says. “We’d like to keep doing this nomadic life, visiting places, illustrating these places that give us a lot of inspiration for our art.”