99% of Wisconsin State Park Visitors Skip Park Full of Rare Treasures

National and state parks across the country experienced a resurgence of visitors in the past couple of years. Wisconsin is no stranger to this trend. According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources park statistics, more than 20 million people visited their state parks, forests, trails, and recreation areas in 2023.

While the numbers are staggering, only 1% visited a state park brimming with rare natural treasures. Which park did people skip, and what are they missing?

Wisconsin’s Secret

Despite its wealth of offerings, Whitefish Dunes State Park has yet to attract the attention it deserves. It is one of five state parks in Door County, nestled between Lake Michigan and Green Bay. Some may quickly attribute the low visitation numbers to its location. However, Peninsula State Park, one of Wisconsin’s most popular parks, sits in the same county.

Park Manager Sarah Stepanik says Whitefish Dunes welcomed a modest 210,000 visitors last year. While this figure may not rank it among the state’s least visited parks, it certainly leaves room for more exploration and discovery. And it is quite a stark difference from the attendance of Peninsula State Park, which welcomed 1.2 million people last year.

What Makes Whitefish So Special?

Stepanik grows passionate when asked what makes the park so special. “So much! Whitefish Dunes was originally proposed as a national park due to its unique ecological landscape. Not only do we have the tallest sand dune in Wisconsin and on the west coast of Lake Michigan, but we also have areas of exposed Niagara Escarpment. This is a geological formation that follows the Great Lakes all the way from Wisconsin to Niagara Falls.

“Because of this, the park has many fossils dating back millions of years to the Silurian Period, when this area was covered by a warm, shallow sea. Throw in the extensive cultural history of the park, and you very quickly get a picture of an incredibly storied and significant area.”

Speaking further on Whitefish Dunes’ storied past, Stepanik says, “My favorite thing about the park is the cultural history. I have a background in archaeology, so I especially love that this park has a rich archaeological history, with Native habitation going back at least 1,000 years to the Middle Woodland period.”

Beyond the Dunes

Whitefish Dunes is known for its namesake sand ridges but offers visitors more jewels. Stepanik elaborates, “The shoreline is so charismatic here, and most people come just for that. While seeing the rare sand dunes along the beach and the beautiful Niagara Escarpment coastline are priorities, a lot of people forget that there’s much more to the park than just the coast.

“You can climb to the top of Old Baldy, which is the tallest sand dune in Wisconsin at 93 feet above lake level, and get a beautiful view of the surrounding area. You can also take a quieter walk along the 1.5-mile interpretive Brachiopod Trail to learn about the park’s ecology and geology. The trail also leads you through the park’s wetland area, which is a spectacular spot to sit and watch wildlife.”

Rare Flora and Fauna

Whitefish Dunes harbors a couple of species of protected snails. Due to their rarity and small size, the snails are challenging to spot.

Stepanik says, “As for rare plants, we have many. The two most charismatic are the Dwarf Lake Iris and Pitcher’s Dune Thistle. While Dwarf Lake Iris isn’t that rare of a plant where it grows, it can only be found around the shorelines of a couple of Great Lakes, which means it has a very limited amount of habitat. We’re fortunate enough to have some here along the rocky coastline.

“Pitcher’s Dune Thistle is an exceptionally rare plant. At one time, Whitefish Dunes State Park housed 90% of the living population of the plant. It is studied very closely by many botanists interested in sustaining the population.”

Unique Seasonal Attractions

Whitefish Dunes offers unique recreational activities based on the season. Summer visitors can enjoy swimming, kayaking, and lounging on the beach. During snowy winters, the park has four miles of cross-country ski trails and eight miles of trails for hiking and snowshoeing.

Guests may want to consider a winter visit for another reason. Stepanik says, “The winter can be an unexpectedly beautiful time to visit the park. It’s much quieter and less crowded, and if conditions are right, you’ll be able to see high waves and ice formations along the coast.

“Cave Point County Park, just north of the state park’s main entrance, is known for its ice-covered trees in the winter time backed by crashing waves. Whitefish Dunes’ beach gets large ice shelves and ice volcanoes.

“Because Whitefish Bay doesn’t truly ice over, slush piles up along the beach, forming a shelf. Because that shelf has so many cracks and holes in it, on wavy days, water will get squeezed through those cracks and out the holes on top of the shelf, forming an ice volcano.”

She cautions, “Because the ice shelf that forms along our beach isn’t true ice and is very unstable, we never recommend walking on it. It is not normal ice, so it is very unpredictable.”

Protecting a Delicate Ecosystem

Stepanik faces a significant challenge in preserving the park’s delicate ecosystem. “Specifically at Whitefish Dunes, it’s the shoreline we have to protect. Sand dunes are so unique, and they house many plant and animal species that are specifically suited to living on sand dunes, so if those dunes go away, so do those species.

“Unfortunately, we also have very unstable dunes here. The sand is very fine; there’s no underlying bedrock structure to support them, and we don’t have the prevailing winds to help heal damage, so our dunes are impacted very easily and take a very long time to recover. “Because of this, we don’t allow anyone on our sand dunes, which some visitors don’t understand or don’t agree with. Continuing to educate the public on why we keep the dunes closed to foot traffic is essential to keeping the dunes healthy well into the future.

“Likewise with the rocky shoreline. People assume rock will last forever, but the Niagara Escarpment is made of Dolomite, which is very soft. With Lake Michigan’s strong waves, erosion is a constant problem. Large chunks of the ledge fall off into the lake every year. Because of this, we do our best to educate people on why they shouldn’t remove stones from the area. Building cairns and throwing rocks into the lake are popular activities, but they’re very destructive and only help the erosion along.”

She adds, “Something I always try to express to our visitors is that the ‘I’m only one person’ mentality breaks down very quickly when you realize everyone thinks they’re the only person doing the destructive activity. Once one person does it, others will follow.”

Whitefish Dunes Deserves Admiration

Due to its wide array of natural treasures, Whitefish Dunes State Park deserves more visitors. However, visitors must respect nature and help preserve these treasures for future generations.

Scott McConkey | Wealth of Geeks

This article was produced by Media Decision and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.


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