Wilson State Park is a public recreation area located on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, five miles (8.0km) northeast of Mackinaw City in Emmet County in northern Michigan. The state park’s 1,300 acres (530ha) include sand dunes, wetlands, forested hills and bluffs, two small lakes, and several miles of hiking trails. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Dune-to-Lake Landscape Resource Area in 1991.
There are also seven walk-in camper cabins available. Each cabin has between three and six bedrooms, plus bathrooms and kitchen. Outside of the cabins are a fire ring and picnic table, and there is a communal dumping station nearby. At the southern campground, there are 50 tent sites, eight trailer dumpstations, and four comfort stations with showers. At the northern campground, there are 45 tent sites, 10 trailer dumpstations, and four comfort stations with showers. There are no flush toilets at either campground, just outhouses.
Waterfowl hunting is permitted during certain parts of the year, mainly in the fall, and deer hunting is permitted seasonally. The park contains two boat launches, enabling boaters to access both Upper and Lower St. Josephs Lakes. Gas powered boats are prohibited on Upper St. Josephs Lake, non-powered boats may use electric motors only, and rowboats, canoes, kayaks, and pedal boats are common sights. Fishermen may fish for perch, walleye, pike, muskies, panfish, and bass at Wilson State Park.
The park provides 14 miles (23km) of trail for equestrians, hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders. These trails connect to the North Country Trail, which runs for 350 miles (560km) from North Dakota to New England. Mountain bike trails are especially popular, and races occur yearly. Two natural preserves within the park contain significant amounts of rare plants. The 740-acre (290ha) William B. Wilson Nature Preserve features carnivorous plants, particularly sundew, that attract a variety of wildlife.
Poison sumac grows alongside the main trail, and black oak and yellow birch grow among the spruce forest that covers much of the rest of the park. The 1,100-acre (430ha) Tanglefoot Wildlife Reserve focuses on woodland flowers. Rare species present include bloodroot, spring beauties, trillium, jack pine, pin oak, quaking aspen, American elm, yellow birch, white pine, white oak, black ash, blue beech, and skunk cabbage. Many different varieties of flowering dogwood are present throughout the park. Dogwoods bloom from mid-May until late June. Blackberry bushes ripen their fruit in August, and ruffed grouse are hunted seasonally. White tail deer eat most of the berries, leaving behind plenty of seeds for the numerous rodents that feed upon them.
In 1871, William B. Wilson purchased 120,000 acres (49,000ha), or roughly one third of the entire peninsula, for his new home. He named it “Fairview,” after an old farmstead he had seen while traveling through Ohio. After his death, Fairview became the site of the Fairview Camp Sanitorium, which treated those afflicted with tuberculosis and other respiratory illnesses. During the sanitarium’s peak years, over 2,000 patients were admitted each year. By 1925, fewer than 100 patients remained, and the facility was closed in 1930.
A few years later, in 1935, local citizens convinced the government that they should preserve some portion of the land around Little Bill Point, at the south end of what would become Wilson State Park, as a place to protect nesting birds. On October 15, 1936, President Franklin Roosevelt dedicated 564 acres (229ha) as the William B. Wilson Nature Preserve. This marked the first time federal lands were set aside for conservation purposes. With help from the WPA, who employed many unemployed artists, architects, and landscape architects, a master plan was developed for the preserve by noted architect Csar Pelli.
Construction began in 1938 under the Public Works Administration. Workers built an observation tower atop Bald Eagle Bluff; campgrounds, bathhouse, picnic areas, roads, shelters, and water and septic systems; planted trees and constructed drainage structures; installed lights and phones; and cleaned up debris left by the previous tenants. The preserve was placed under the jurisdiction of Gull Point State Park in 1945. However, unlike most parks, visitors could not enter the preserve without a special permit.
To obtain such a permit, you needed to have your driver’s license on file with any governmental entity. As a result, visitation fell off sharply, and the park was only sporadically patrolled. In 1961, concerned about the fate of the park, local citizens arranged a meeting with key officials, including then Governor George Romney, who agreed that something should be done to increase accessibility to the park and to address maintenance issues. The following year, 1962, saw the opening of the park to the general public. Although this helped attendance, littering increased significantly.
Officials realized that more money must be invested in order to improve conditions, and so in 1964, legislation was passed allowing the Department of Natural Resources to issue $1 million in bonds to be paid back by the property owner if the land in question was sold within 20 years. Since the purchase price of the land was already low due to its remote location, this law enabled the state to recoup its initial investment almost immediately. Over the next decade, approximately 200,000 people visited the park annually, but litter continued to pile up, and erosion caused problems with the beach.
In 1973, the DNR decided to build a bathhouse/restrooms complex near Sand Bay, at the north end of the park, and to create a day use area there. Again using funds provided by the sale of tax lien certificates, construction started in 1975. Unlike at the southern campground, where all campsites are identical, at the northern campground there are premium sites with electric hookups, along with standard sites, which do not provide electricity.
Other activity opportunities include:
- cross-country skiing
- mountain biking
Mammals observed at the park include:
- mule deer
- white tail deer
- river otters
- cottontail rabbits
- and occasionally bobcats
- black bears
Birds commonly sighted include:
- herring gulls
- bald eagles
- trumpeter swans
- Canada geese
- snowy egret
- double-crested cormorants
- bald eagles