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Wisconsin State Natural Areas Program Blue River Sand Barrens (No. 69)

Blue River Sand Barrens

Photo by Thomas A. Meyer



Within the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway, Grant County. T8N-R1W, Section 6 SE¼. 129 acres.



Blue River Sand Barrens features one of the largest and best examples of this harsh and arid ecological community in Wisconsin. Sand barrens are upland communities that develop on unstable alluvial sands along rivers such as the Mississippi and Wisconsin. They are partly or perhaps wholly anthropogenic in origin, occurring on sites historically disturbed by plowing or grazing. The flat, sandy areas resemble dry prairies but contain actively moving sand dunes, and dunes stabilized by a thin forest cover of black and Hill's oak. "Blowouts", large, unvegetated depressions in the sand surface and eroded by wind, are scattered throughout. Early dune and blowout colonizers include lichens, false heather, bearberry, and sedges while species such as three-awn grass, June grass, rough blazing-star, hoary puccoon, sand cress, and prickly pear cactus are common in the barrens. Invertebrate life includes unusual species and an abundance of ant lions. Additional animal life includes vesper sparrow, Franklin's ground squirrel, and numerous nocturnal rodents. Blue River Sand Barrens is owned by the DNR and was designated a State Natural Area in 1968.


Driving directions

From the intersection of State Highway 133 and County Highway T in Blue River, go east on State Highway 133 1.9 miles, then north on Wightman Road 0.25 miles to the southeast corner of the area. Park along the road.


Blue River Sand Barrens is owned by:

  • WDNR


The DNR's state natural areas program is comprised of lands owned by the state, private conservation organizations, municipalities, other governmental agencies, educational institutions and private individuals. While the majority of SNAs are open to the public, access may vary according to individual ownership policies. Public use restrictions may apply due to public safety, or to protect endangered or threatened species or unique natural features. Lands may be temporarily closed due to specific management activities. Users are encouraged to contact the landowner for more specific details.

The data shown on these maps have been obtained from various sources, and are of varying age, reliability, and resolution. The data may contain errors or omissions and should not be interpreted as a legal representation of legal ownership boundaries.


Site objectives

Manage the site as an oak barrens and sand prairie reserve and as an ecological reference area. Natural processes and prescribed understory manipulation (see below) will determine the structure of the barrens and prairie. Provide opportunities for research and education on the highest quality native oak barrens and sand prairie.

Management approach

The ecological characteristics of the site will be primarily shaped by a fire management program. The native dominant oak barrens tree species (primarily oaks) are managed passively. However, some thinning of the canopy, understory manipulation and shrub control via harvest, brushing or fire may be needed to mimic natural disturbance patterns. Augmentation of the ground layer will only add species that historically would have been found on the site, using seeds or plugs from local genetic material species; this usually occurs in the early stages of restoration. The mostly passive canopy management and understory manipulation will determine the ecological characteristics of the oak barrens. The native prairie species are managed actively through tree/shrub control using tree harvest, brushing and especially fire to mimic natural disturbance patterns. Occasional fire-tolerant oaks, hickories, and native shrubs such as hazelnut may be retained at low densities. Other allowable activities on the entire site include control of invasive plants and animals, maintenance of existing facilities, and access to suppress wildfires. Salvage of trees after a major wind event can occur if the volume of woody material inhibits fire prescriptions.

Site-specific considerations

  • A field road is maintained along the east and north boundaries, and is also a state-approved snowmobile trail. Although removal of hazardous trees from over and near trails is an allowed activity, manipulation/removal of vegetation and soil disturbance should be minimized to the extent possible.
  • Easy access and open dunes occasionally entice off-road vehicles to drive on the dunes, which is prohibited. The site needs a regular law enforcement presence to reduce the vehicular abuse.


Very few State Natural Areas have public facilities, but nearly all are open for a variety of recreational activities as indicated below. Generally, there are no picnic areas, restrooms, or other developments. Parking lots or designated parking areas are noted on individual SNA pages and maps. Trails, if present, are typically undesignated footpaths. If a developed trail is present, it will normally be noted on the SNA map and/or under the "Access" tab. A compass and topographic map or a GPS unit are useful tools for exploring larger, isolated SNAs.

Allowable activities

In general, the activities listed below are allowed on all DNR-owned SNA lands. Exceptions to this list of public uses, such as SNAs closed to hunting, are noted under the "Access" tab above and posted with signs on site.

  • Hiking
  • Fishing
  • Cross country skiing
  • Hunting
  • Trapping

Prohibited activities

  • Camping and campfires
  • Collecting of animals (other than legally harvested species), non-edible fungi, rocks, minerals, fossils, archaeological artifacts, soil, downed wood, or any other natural material, alive or dead. Collecting for scientific research requires a permit issued by the DNR
  • Collecting of plants including seeds, roots or other non-edible parts of herbaceous plants such as wildflowers or grasses
  • Geocaching
  • Horseback riding
  • Rock climbing
  • Vehicles, including bicycles, ATVs, aircraft, and snowmobiles except on trails and roadways designated for their use

For rules governing state-owned SNAs and other state lands, please consult Chapter NR 45 Wis. Admin. Code [exit DNR]

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Last revised: Thursday, October 11, 2018