Some say Whitefish Dunes State Park (920/823-2400), approximately eight miles northeast of Sturgeon Bay, is the most pleasant park in the state system. The beach is indisputably so—miles and miles of mocha-colored dunes sculpted into ridges by the prevailing winds.
This park is day-use only; no camping. Great picnicking, though, is found right atop the limestone ledges overlooking the lake. Do check out the nature center for its exhibits on the geology and anthropology of the area.
A caveat: Do not take swimming lightly here. The concave bend of Whitefish Bay focuses all the current, forming tough riptides. Predicting where these form is never entirely possible and lifeguards are never on duty.
Everybody comes for the big dunes—among the highest on Lake Michigan, east or west. They were formed by numerous advances and retreats of ancient lakes and, later, Lake Michigan, and zillions of storms. Sand banks first closed off Clark Lake in what is now the mainland, and as vegetation took hold three millennia ago, wind deposits began piling up atop the sandbar. The result is a microcosm that couldn’t possibly occur on the bay side of the peninsula—a wide beach rising to forested dunes. The tallest, Old Baldy, stands 93 feet high.
The one rule to follow dutifully is stay off the dunes. Many of the grasses holding together the mounds are peculiar to this park, and once they’re gone, the dunes are done for (just take a look at the lifeless gashes created by motorcyclists before the park was established). Plank-and-rope boardwalks allow beach access on the Red Trail; at the midpoint it branches away from the water to link with longer trails through mixed hardwood, red pine, or oddball wooded dune areas—13 miles in total.
Continuing on the Red Trail to its southern end, hikers can reach the only climbable dune—Old Baldy, which offers panoramas of Lake Michigan and Clark Lake inland. From there, it’s possible to link with longer trails. Farthest to the north, a short access trail to the White Trail leads to Cave Point County Park, likely the most photographed parkland in Door County .
From south to north in Whitefish Bay, the geology shifts from dunes to mixed sand and stone and, finally, at Cave Point, to exposed limestone ledges thrusting up to 50 feet above the water of the Niagara Escarpment—the bedrock of the peninsula. Eons of crashing waves have hewn caves and cenotes that show up as blowholes of sorts as the surf pounds and crashes, echoing like rolling thunder. The whole effect is not unlike the crumbled parapets of a time-worn castle.
Sea kayakers have a field day snooping around this small promontory. Straight-faced old-timers tell of a schooner that slammed into the rocks at Cave Point in 1881 (true). Laden with corn, the ship cracked like a nut and spilled its cargo (true), and within a few days, corn had mysteriously appeared in Green Bay on the other side of the peninsula (hmm).