A Death At Devil’s Doorway

A Death At Devil’s Doorway

A 27-year-old man died Saturday at Devils Lake State Park after falling some 50 feet from the cliffs near the Devil’s Doorway rock formation on the southern end of the park’s east bluff. Our condolences go out to his family.

These days, when anything happens in the world, people take to social media to express their thoughts and opinions. Often in a tragedy such as this, the comments are warm and heartfelt. At the same time, others will take the opportunity to put their own stupidity on full display. There are also folks who really are trying to understand how accidents such as this happen in the park and asking some generally good questions. I want to address a few of thoes today.

Warning Sign - Garden of the Gods. Illinois

Warning Sign – Garden of the Gods. Illinois

First, it’s true that there are no “warning signs” or fences posted along the tops of the cliffs at Devil’s Lake State Park. In our travels around the country personally, we’ve seen various combinations of on-location notices. Do they help? Well, that’s a matter of debate. The sign above is one of many located at the Garden of the Gods in Illinois. Anyone who’s been there will tell you signs are not stopping anyone who wants to climb on the rocks. On the other hand, they might slow people down enough to stop some accidental falls. I often see adults and kids run up to cliffs out of excitement! It would only take one misstep…

Devil's Doorway Ledge

Devil’s Doorway Ledge

Folks often say something like; “Stay on the trail”. Well, we don’t know if the person who fell over the weekend intentionally went off the trail. In general though, “staying on the trail” is good advice for many reasons. Hikers should stay on the trails and not climb on the rocks. That said, at this particular location, Devil’s Doorway, the trail is a bit sketchy and not terribly obvious. There are two trails down to the famous rock formation. Both come with some risks. The trail from the east has a hidden, quick turn onto the ledge you see above. It would be easy to trip or slip on the corner or anywhere along this ledge for that matter. It’s also fair to say, that the “trail” isn’t well marked here. It’s basically, anywhere there is flat rock. Erosion damage where both trails come together leaves no clear idea where the “trail” begins or ends and funnels downward toward the cliffs.

I also don’t think hikers who come down to Devil’s Doorway from the east bluff trail above, fully comprehend the sheer cliffs they are walking on. The photo below was taken at a distance with a telephoto lens. It gives you a better idea of what the area looks like. You can see the ledge or “trail” from the photo above if you know where to look. It’s fair to say that all it takes is one mistake…

The Face of Devil's Doorway

The Face of Devil’s Doorway

Things get much more dangerous when you add water. We try to express this issue many times throughout the year. Our local quartzite is smooth. It’s slippery on its own and is worse when even covered by a layer of dust or loose dirt. Add water and it becomes like ice. Sometimes, there’s just nothing you can do but stay off of it. On Saturday we had mixed weather with some showers.

erosion damage on the east bluff

Erosion damage along the East Bluff Trail.

One solvable issue is erosion on the cliffs. This is a problem I’ve written & ranted about many times. For years now, the trails have not been maintained in a way that recognizes and accommodates the high volume or use habits of hikers. The end result has been huge areas of erosion that are not only damaging to the environment but when wet, can create mud “slides” where no amount of tread could stop you from sliding toward the cliffs. One of those damaged areas is indeed at Devil’s Doorway. General over-use and erosion probably had nothing to do with this weekend’s accident, but is certainly an issue that needs to be addressed.

It’s important to put the weekend’s tragedy in perspective. Although this was not the first fall of 2017, this was the first death at the park this year.* Folks familiar with the park will tell you that there is about one death in the park per year on average. When you consider that about 3 million people visit the park each year, falls and deaths at Devil’s Lake State Park are rare events. Most people stay safe regardless of some of the things you may see them doing out there!

Still, with each tragedy comes an opportunity for discussion and reexamination and there are fair questions. Could the park do more to educate visitors? Can trails be marked and maintained better? Should some Iconic rocks simply be off-limits to hikers who want to climb around on them? Can we look but not touch? In the end, we also have to realize that there will never be a way to make a natural environment completely safe. Sadly, accidents such as this one will happen again.

Before I wrap up today, I want to take a moment to recognize everyone with our local ropes rescue team who put their own lives at risk every time someone needs help out there. Thank you!

To everyone else, Be safe out there!

* According to park superintendent Steve Schmelzer.

***Obligatory Disclaimer:  This website is NOT associated with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The views expressed in this blog are mine and do not represent the views of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

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  1. Paulette Walker Smith

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments. My sympathies to the family of the young man who died. I am 67 years old and took my last hike down the east CCC trail about 7 years ago. It was fall and the leaves were slippery. I knew I could not continue to safely negotiate the trail and declared it my last time on this particular trail. There are many other beautiful spots to hike in Devils Lake. I do think it would be helpful to have a sign at the top explaining the sheer steepness, lack of rails and potential slipperiness of some of the trails. First timers may not know this.

  2. Michele Prue

    Stay on the trails!

    My son fell from the West Bluff in the Fall of 2015 – 80 feet!

    We fortunately were Blessed with a different outcome!

    Enjoy the park and be smart!

  3. Mary Bivens

    Yes, thank you, I found your entry today comforting. I too sympathize with the family. I am a cautious hiker and I know that most of us are. Accidents happen everywhere. We must do all that we can to prevent them, but that is all we can do. I hiked this trail for the first time last October when I was 72. Admittedly, I did not know what I was getting in to. If I had known how strenuous it would be (especially coming down) I would have started earlier and taken more water. That said, I’m glad I did it. The experience was exhilarating.

  4. John Geers

    Well written article.

    I can’t help but think that many of the maintenance and education issues could be solved with proper funding of our parks.

    We cannot assume funding would prevent accidents but it would be nice when these things happen to not look on with regret as to what could have been avoided.

  5. Joe salemi

    My heart goes to the family in this tragic death.
    And thank you Derrick for your continued and insightful work for this beautiful and unique place where my ashes will someday be.

    Because the Midwest is not known for cliffs, people are generally unfamiliar with the actual magnitude of these cliffs. As you point out, the approach widens and all first timers are surprised by what is there.
    So here, as you aptly write, we have a confluence of human safety and ecological protection. I think it would be prudent but correct to physically address these issues effectively.

    Destinations in Colorado, Utah, California and Alaska and Wyoming where tourists can easily access dangerous and sensitive areas will often have rails, signs and even finished concrete at the approaches. These safe guards are not needed in wilderness areas because the traffic is less and the population more aware and prepared. DLSP needs these safe guards.

    I posted earlier today on a different site where endless descriptions of the sort of person and numbers of people that visit DLSP never reach to suggested solutions so appreciated in this great article.
    Thanks Derrick.

  6. MSC

    I am an experienced hiker, runner and explorer – have put on 1,000’s of miles at DL…in the bluffs and more. Once upon a not too long ago time, I was on West Bluff, coming down towards the south shore boat landing area – just at the top of the steps. It had rained during the night – and it was now early evening. I went down…and had to be rescued. Severe injuries. I did all the “right things” – and it still happened. I have also seen so many people push their luck. These are dangerous bluffs….we must be careful and understand what “could” happen. I can’t even imagine the sadness this person’s loved ones must feel.

  7. John Schneider

    Was there Saturday around 2pm….we spent some time at Devil’s Doorway. People climb on that rock. I actually said to one of the people in my group at that time that’s it’s a wonder more people don’t die here. I go there every labor day weekend….and I am constantly telling people in my group to be careful….walk slow near the cliffs. I personally don’t go near the edges …because clearly one misstep…and it could be tragedy. But I guess that is part of the attraction of it all. A little danger to go with the beauty. People just need to have more respect for the trails and cliffs. Possibly more signage and reminders might help. Maybe even a “In Memory of” sign at the main entrances to the bluffs might be a wake up call to people too before their venture begins. Maybe they will try harder to not be on that list.

    1. Chris

      Thanks to all, especially for expressing condolences to the family of the hiker who left this world so tragically. Also, thank you for reiterating that those cliffs are as beautiful as they are super dangerous, in any type of weather, with any type of shoes etc. One simply must show humbleness, respect and sound common sense when visiting Devil’s Lake State Park. I’ve hiked and rockclimbed at the Lake for two decades and despite my knowledge of the area, my being careful that, at times, borderlines paranoia, I still stumble, slip, fall, minor little falls, thank G-d, but each time it is a scare. As a rule, I absolutely never go near the cliffs without being secured (anchored with my harness on, etc.). I just do not. I voice my concern,kindly but firmly when I see people getting too close. Yet, I do not think that warning signs will help. However, I do think that a few in Memoriam signs, at the bottom of the trails and on top of the very bluffs, with a list of the deadly accident (dates, say last 20 years, and age of persons, no name) would be a eloquent reminder that tragedy does happen.
      Also, folks, please wear proper shoes – I feel truly nauseous to my stomach when I see people going down/up the CCC trail, to name only one trail – in flip-flops — for G-d’s sake!! Please, be kind to yourself, your loved ones and others trying so hard to be safe, use common sense.

  8. MARYW

    1st and foremost,,,,,our condelscence to the family of this ADULT man……and his family.
    I have had the priveledge growing uo to camp in every state except Alaska and Hawaii,[sp]…We went camping because at that time,,it was cheap,for a family of 8,,,and WE LOVE being out in nature…Devils Lake is a gorgeous state park,,,just gorgeous….People come here to enjoy its beautiful,,views from those bluff….I also can’t help but think,,this Adult man came here to enjoy its beauty,,,,,,which he will be surrounded w/for eternity now..
    This is why there is a word accident,,,,,no-matter what anyone ,”could” of done,,,hin sight is 20/20,,,,and accidents will NEVER stop happening,,no matter what anyone does…

  9. Dan

    Very good read, mindful and objective. It’s very tragic when someone dies at the park, because it’s truly one of Wisconsin’s treasures. I was actually on the bluff when that happened, though on the west side. I am always careful when I hike the bluffs – you just don’t know how stable the rocks are at any given point in time, though I always see people push the limits of safety when I’m up there – some even intoxicated or just trying to show off. I do think the park could do a little more with making some of the pathways safer, though I do come from the school of thought that when you’re up there you are at your “own risk” and you need to use common sense. I just hope these incidents never lead to shutting down the hiking trails because they are something I treasure each year I visit.

  10. Laurie

    We were there on Sunday. I will never hike this trail again. I was so relieved to make it back down. This is not a trail for kids, dogs, pregnant women or the elderly. I am athletic and was properly geared. I saw very overweight people hopping onto cliff edges, kids with crappy little flat bottom sandals (and seeing them slip), teenagers in flip flops, people in tennis shoes. Only a few were properly geared to take on this level of nature. All looked very happy, like it was a day at the beach. I do think the state has a responsibility in doing a better job at educating the public of the dangers these trails pose. Most places I’ve been to that see these types of tragic accidents do at least post warning signs and I’ve also seen memorials up. Why why why does the DNR not do a better job of letting the public know???!!! This accident should NOT have happened. At a minimum, the visitor guides need to be modified to better educate people and warning signs absolutely need to be posted. Raise the admission price by a couple of bucks if it’s needed to cover the cost. It’s absolutely ludricrous that these measures aren’t already in place. Hopefully something will be done.
    God bless that young man and my heart goes out to his family and friends.

  11. Tracey Gustke

    My prayers go out to this family. We were actually there on Saturday, in the late afternoon and it was slippery after rain. My husband and teens went to devil’s doorway and did not go on the ledge, but I was concerned. It was quite slippery going down as well.

  12. Mary W.

    My deepest sympathy sign goes out to the family. He was way to young. I also think a memorial sign is a good idea. My husband and I were born in Baraboo and now live by Madison. DL is our favorite Park and we have in the past hiked both upper and lower trails on the East and West Bluff Trails. The park is indeed beautiful and all the rocks tend to challange the daring young people only. Most people tend to stay on the trails.
    THANK YOU Derik for putting together a wonderful article on Devil’s Lake. Now maybe a short history sign post just to warn people how slippery the granite is for the hikers. It would help the smart people, but not the daring people. We were at Devil’s Lake on Monday and had not heard yet of this incident. Were we next to a large family of peole who were talking about hiking, and there were a few that said they had hiked up the west bluff NOT on the trail but on the huge rocks. While they said it was the only way to hike, one of the girls said it was way to scarey and she would never do it again. But the other ones kept telling their friends it is the only way. There are always going to be the daring ones. Now the man who passed on Saturday did not sound like he was the daring, just one who was probably trying to climb ontp the Devil’s Doorway, and yes it was a damp and sometime rainy day making rocks slippery. My heart again goes out to him. God Bless them.

  13. Benita G.

    I also was at the park the day this young man fell. My family was hiking that trail. I did not realize how dangerous these trails were. I am 67 years old so i did not go with my family. I hiked the Parfrey Glen the day before and found that to be quite challenging. We saw some scarry climbers then. Namely a young father with a child in a back carrier climbing on rocks to take pictures. If he would have fallen that small child would have been injured also.People just use no common sense. God bless that young man and his family and friends, anyone who was with him at the time may be having an extremely hard time with it.

  14. amy

    My heart goes out to the family of that man, such a terrible tragedy. I was hiking with my family at devil’s doorway just a few hours before this accident. I remember being surprised at dangerous it was, and how fearless some people were. One person was actually trying to climb on top of the devil’s doorway. The light sprinkling of rain made the rocks very slippery. I agree with the idea of posting a memorial for the lives lost. Right on the trails near where the accidents happened would really make people stop and think. I think warning signs would help, but not as much as memorials.

    1. Michele Prue

      Prayers for peace and comfort for this family! But common sense abs and staying in the trails would be the solution to these accidents! My son fell 80-100 feet in October of 2015 all would have been avoided if he would have stayed on the trails and followed warning signs.

      1. Dan

        Thank the maker your son survived that big of a fall, to survive the sheer physics of that fall is nothing short of a miracle. I know the victim of this fatality through a friend; he was a risk taker who hung out with a daredevil crowd from what I gathered. Either way its very sad, especially for family and friends. I was there at the Doorway yesterday, it was almost sickening the way the crowd there was peer pressuring people and encouraging risky behavior.

        1. Walsdorf

          As the victims family, I think you must have spoken with people who were not recent friends. He had not “hung out with a daredevil crowd” for many years. His trips were solo, or with only one or few companions. He was a risk taker, but no one who knrw him would ever say he was influenced by or pressured peers.

  15. Randy Leff

    I on the other hand feel the blame lands on te park. I recently hiked this trail that by the way is NOT what I would ever consider a hike. This is more of cliff climbing. When I pay money to enter a park it better be maintained to the highest level. You admitted this trail has NOT been maintained in years. The park attendee that told us about this particular trail did NOT emphasis anything about the dangers of weather and it was raining/misting all day. If the park can’t maintain this trail properly, then take it off all maps and close it down. Shame on you!!!
    Very disappointed in Wisconsin!

    1. Author

      Hi Randy,

      As a point of clarity, I (and this blog or website) am not the park. I do agree with you as I said above that they trail could be better marked and maintained up there. I also agree that park staff could be more informed. Thing is, it’s not uncommon for visitor information staff to not actually hike those trails and know the conditions. This is to my mind, a flaw in training. When I worked at the park in the 90s, we were expected to hike all the trails and know them… This is not the case any longer.

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