Wisconsin’s Whitefish Dunes State Park, Door County, Sand Dunes Along a Great Lake

I love Door County. It’s one of those places that I only ever visit while in a vacation state of mind, so I only ever think positive things about it. Growing up outside of Green Bay and now living in Madison, getting there has always been a breeze. From family trips, to girls trips, to a couple’s getaway, it’s been a go to place for a quick yet memorable break.

Part of what makes it so great is the vast amount of things to do. There is seriously something for everyone. Every age, every interest, and every budget can find the perfect activity. I love that the area is a mix of settled civilization and natural/wild area. It’s cute tourist town meets Northwoods meets beach meets farmland. You can get outside and explore nature, stop at a brewery, and then head back to your cabin or lake house.

If you are looking to mix in some outdoor time into your next trip, and I hope you are, then I encourage you to consider Whitefish Dunes State Park.

Where are we in Wisconsin: The park is located on the Lake Michigan side of Door County, about 1/3 of the way up the peninsula.

Links to follow along or plan your own adventure:

Whitefish Dunes Park Website
Whitefish Dunes Map
Door County Tourism – Other things to do in the area

Whitefish Dunes, as you might expect, is named for the numerous sand dunes that dot the shoreline. Dune formation takes a long time, from decades to centuries. Dunes are formed when sand, carried in on the wind, encounters an obstacle like driftwood or a rock. Sand is stopped by the obstacle and deposited next to it, forming a dune. Grain by grain, the dune grows larger. Eventually new dunes form in front of the old dunes and plants move in to help stabilize the sand.

Visitors to the park will find a variety of activities, including biking, kayaking, fishing, hiking, and swimming. With a long stretch of sandy beach, swimming is probably the most popular activity. Some of the beach is pet free, but there is a pet beach where you can lounge and swim with your favorite pup. The beach can be accessed from various points on the Red Trail. If you are swimming, take note that the beach area 200ish yards from the visitor section is off limits to swimming due to the high prevalence of rip currents in this area. The area is marked, but there are no lifeguards at the park.

We were at the park to hike, which was a good thing, since I think it was only in the 50’s on this cloudy and chilly mid-May day. Starting from the parking lot, we hiked southwest on the Red Trail before cutting to the Yellow Trail by the way of “Old Baldy.”

Red Trail

Distance: 2.4 miles linear
Difficulty: Easy
Description: This easy trail brings hikers to several beach access points on its way to Old Baldy, the tallest sand dune in the park.

Starting from the parking lot, the trails are easily marked by colored arrows. There was also a helpful sign for Moxxi (our black lab.) That pointing doggo told her exactly which way to go to reach her beach, the pet friendly beach.

Shortly after setting out on the trail you encounter a series of reconstructed Native American buildings. Most of what is known about Native American history in Door County comes from the archeological work done at the park. The first known people occupying the land that is now the park were the North Bay people, dating back to 100BCE.

Walking through the forest in the center of the park, it would be easy to assume that the dune formation is limited to the shoreline near the lake. Interestingly, this is not true. The strip of land that is Whitefish Dunes State Park, the land between Clark Lake and Whitefish Bay/Lake Michigan, is almost entirely dune created. While most of Door County’s bedrock is dolomite, here you would need to dig a substantial way before finding the bedrock. Heavily compacted sand is what these trees are growing in and makes up most of what we encounter in the park.

Upon reaching “Third Beach Access” on the Red Trail, we turned left to head towards Lake Michigan. A series of steps here brings hikers and swimmers through/over the protected sand dunes to the beach area.

It’s easy to imagine why this area is so popular for swimming on a warm, sunny day.

Looking out at the vastness of Lake Michigan, the third largest Great Lake, a.k.a. one of the inland seas.

Looking back toward the shore you can see the dunes that this park was named for. Yellow signs tell you where to stop walking to help protect these fragile giants.

Being on the section of beach designated as dog friendly, we had to take advantage. We found a piece of driftwood and a game of water fetch ensued.

Nothing tires out a dog like jumping waves and running through water.

After getting thoroughly soaked and worn out, it was time to head back inland and dry off on the rest of the hike.

Continuing west on the Red Trail, you will reach the trail leading to the Old Baldy observation platform.

A series of stairs brings you to the top of Old Baldy. Make sure to stay on the path to help preserve the dune.

The stairs turn to boardwalk as you near the viewing platform.

At 93 feet above lake level, Old Baldy is the tallest dune in the park. From the top, you can see Lake Michigan in the distance.

Looking the other way, away from the lake, you can see for miles and miles.

Protected dune fauna successfully grows on the side of these sandy giants. The fauna is part of what helps stabilize the dunes and keeps them from crumbling or blowing away. This plant was growing all over Old Baldy.

After enjoying our time at the top of Old Baldy, we came back down the wooden path and turned north towards the Yellow Trail.

Yellow Trail:

Distance: 3.7 mile loop
Difficulty: Easy
Description: This peaceful trail loops through wooded dune land.

Having traveled to Old Baldy on the Red Trail, we didn’t hike the entirety of the Yellow Trail. Once we reached it, we turned east to head back towards the parking lot.

The trail coming down Old Baldy is boardwalk until it reaches more stable ground.

I love the colors of this unique dune forest. From the sandy ground to the various pastel shades of plant.

The park contains a wide variety of ecosystems, including various stages of dune formation (fragile and young to established and old,) dune forests, meadows, wetlands, and hardwood forests. This mossy looking plant was growing all over the forest. It looks so soft and welcoming. (Reindeer moss, maybe?)

We took the Yellow Trail all the way back to the parking lot before heading for a well earned post hike beer at One Barrel Brewing.

Swimming or hiking, I encourage you to plan a stop at Whitefish Dunes during your next Door County trip. A visit to the park is a great way to get up close and personal with Lake Michigan and learn a thing or two about a unique ecosystem.

A special shoutout and thank you to Scott Spoolman’s book, “Wisconsin State Parks,” which contains geological and historical information about a number of our state’s parks.

Leave a Reply