Newport State Park’s Newport Trail: Frosted Footpath

Newport State Park is a gem in the Wisconsin State Park system. It’s Wisconsin’s only wilderness park and an International Dark Sky Park – one of only forty-eight in the world. In the daytime, it’s a great place to hike. As it happens, I have not yet written a summertime post on this park. In the last couple of years I’ve covered The Europe Bay Trail (read here) and Rowleys Bay area (read here), both while the Door Peninsula was in the frosty grip of winter. This post, as you may have guessed from the title, will not break the trend. Wisconsin trails are an icy delight in cold weather, and the shoreline adds another level of frozen wonder. On January 13, 2021, even though it hadn’t snowed in over two weeks, there was still a sparkling blanket of KonkiwIn, the word used by the indigenous peoples of the peninsula for “snow on the ground”. I pulled in to the park’s Lot #3 just after 1:00pm, hopped out and headed for the trailhead.

The Newport Trail departs from the same open picnic grounds as the Europe Bay Trail. While the EBT heads north, the Newport tracks south into the Newport Conifer-Hardwoods State Natural Area, on a small peninsula that separates Rowley’s Bay from Lake Michigan. This is the same peninsula as my Rowleys Bay trek – just on the east side, rather than the west. This hike will share some trail with that hike. As I headed south, it was on a wide flat trail that cut straight into the forest. A hundred yards in, I came to a tee. Turning left, I headed east toward Lake Michigan.

I’ve been having trouble with my right knee. I will elaborate in a future post, but one of the symptoms of this trouble is that lateral pressure on that joint is extremely uncomfortable. Not far down the trail I discovered that hiking on a slippery surface was going to be problematic. Even the slightest lateral slip sent me through the roof. Normally, I would not have felt the need to wear spikes on this trail, which varied from crunchy snow to dry trail – with sporadic patches of ice. I stopped and dug my microspikes out of my daypack. The steel traction kept my knee stable, and I was able to move with more confidence.

The beach was bathed in weak, winter sunlight, and the lake was free of ice. The aquamarine water of Lake Michigan lapped at the shore and wispy clouds hung in the pale sky. Having looked my fill, I turned my attention back to the trail.

For the next three-quarters of a mile the Newport Trail would hug the shoreline, which alternated between areas of sandy beach and rocky, juniper-choked verge. Despite the lack of lake ice, the jumbled rocks at the water’s edge were varnished with a sugar-glaze of frosty verglas. The surrounding pines hung heavy with crystal. As I gazed across the lake to the horizon, a thin strip of pink separated lake from sky.

Eventually I turned away from the shore, and wound through tall, leafless forest and bramble. The woods were quiet, serene and, as an added bonus, completely free of other hikers. Winter in no way keeps Wisconsinites out of their parks or off of the trails, but on this day the Newport Trail was particularly solitary. As I hiked, virtually the only sound was the crunching of my spikes in the crisp snow.

Eventually I returned to the shoreline, this time on the Rowleys Bay Trail. Here, the piled rocks and low-hanging junipers were virtually ice-free. The sun glittered on the water, which lapped gently at the pine-fringed sand of the empty beaches. Across the water, I could just make out the houses in the small community of Rowleys Bay; further north was the Mink River Estuary, one of few high-quality estuaries left in the United States. From the Nature Conservancy website:

“As a Great Lakes coastal wetland and forest landscape, it [the estuary] provides habitat for a number of important plants and animals including Great Lakes fish, many species of migratory and breeding birds, and many mammals representative of a northern Wisconsin mixed conifer hardwood forest.”

After nearly a mile on the shore, the trail once again cut inland and beat a northeasterly track back toward the trailhead at Lot #3. The lapping of lake water faded into the distance, replaced by the tranquil quiet of the Wisconsin woods in winter. I was moving more slowly now. My knee felt tired, and my spikes clicked over rocky outcrops in the trail. The downside to the stability microspikes provide on ice is that, on stone, that stability is reduced to less than that of just shoes. Fortunately, the inland trail was mostly flat and smooth as I worked my way northward. Often my path cut straight through the forest, a colonnade of towering pines to each side. Eventually the trail split, and I merged back onto the Newport Trail. One mile later, I was stashing my pack in the back of my Subaru.

For solitude, Newport State Park is the premiere park in northern Door County. The 2,373 square acre park offers eleven miles of Lake Michigan shoreline and its thirty-eight-plus miles of trail are delightfully low-traffic. Even at the height of tourist season on the Door Peninsula, I meet a mere handful of people on Newport’s trails. What you won’t find on these trails is a lot of elevation. You will find secluded beaches, peaceful lakes, rocky shoreline, and quiet forest. And very dark skies. Like many parks that provide a high level of peace and tranquility, Newport State Park is on the way to exactly nowhere. Tucked away at the northeast tip of the peninsula, Newport SP requires a planned trip. And plan you should. Spring, summer, winter, or fall, this is a great hiking destination. Check it out when you’re in Door County, but don’t tell anyone I sent you – I sure as heck don’t want to be held responsible for the trails getting crowded. ♦

Date: January 13, 2021
Location: Ellison Bay, WI
Trailhead: 45.236921, -86.987507
Distance: 5.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 52 feet
Difficulty: Moderate

BIT|Hiker acknowledges the indigenous peoples who are the original inhabitants of the lands on which we hike. Our research for this post indicated we were on ancestral lands of the Potawatomi.

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