I ignored this hike for several years … I am a fool.
Why did ignore this hike? First, it’s short. Second, it’s 25 minutes away and in an area I rarely have reason to visit. Third, It just didn’t look like a good hike. Don’t ask me to explain that. Actually, my wife Lisa had similar misgivings. She cited an ingrained belief that a trail in a Land Trust Preserve (this one is) would be less well-maintained, less interesting, less … something. I’ll let her explain.
“I hate to admit it, but I made an assumption (one that was in no way fact-based) that the several state parks in our area were somehow superior to the smaller land trust parcels. In truth, these smaller outliers are beautiful, under-utilized gems, and I have put that particular prejudice to bed.”
The Door County Land Trust has been around since 1986. From their website:
“… the Door County Land Trust has worked to preserve, maintain and enhance lands that contribute significantly to the scenic beauty, open space, and ecological integrity of Door County.”
Most of the Trust’s protected areas have hiking trails. Short hiking trails. Short, flat hiking trails. If you follow this blog, you probably know that I am a bit of a short-flat-trail bigot. You also may have noticed that I am working on changing that. With COVID-19 on the loose, Lisa and I have not been able to do much hiking. When we have tried, we have found our local trails crowded with folks not observing reasonable precautions to stem the spread of the virus. The result? Two out of shape hikers who suddenly are interested in a few, flat miles just to get on the trail. Bay Shore Blufflands has the longest Land Trust trail in the county (at two and a half miles), and a surprisingly (for the midwest) impressive hill. We hopped in the car and headed out.
The Bay Shore Blufflands Nature Preserve is off of County Road B about seven miles north of Sturgeon Bay. It’s on the west side of the peninsula, 500 feet from the shores of Green Bay. We pulled into a tidy, gravel parking area with exactly zero other cars. Perfect.
A Door County Land Trust kiosk stood in a bucolic field that stretched for a quarter-mile to the base of a bluff. We cleaned our boots on the stiff-bristled brushing station provided at the trailhead to avoid spreading invasive plant species. Door County struggles with this – particularly garlic mustard. A winding trail, flanked with tall grass, milkweed, honeysuckle, and the occasional tree, snaked through a field at the base of the bluffs. The sun shone brightly although dark grey clouds gathered overhead. This is typical of the Door Peninsula – storms come in from the west but often break up over the bay and amount to very little on land. We weren’t worried. Lance-leafed coreopsis winked at us from the swards of grass to either side, and purple tufted vetch lay nestled among the verdure at our feet. A whitetail doe bounded away as we topped a rise. As we approached the bluff, twisted staghorn sumac rose above the surrounding flora offering their fuzzy, red seed-clusters to us as we passed. Soon we were passing through whole copses of the sumac as we drew nearer to the bluff.
We were tracking parallel to the bluff when we came to a junction. The wide grassy trail we had been following continued straight ahead, while another narrowed and entered the woods. We opted for woods. The trail dipped down into a wetland area and crossed a small stream via a quaint, but rickety-looking, wooden bridge. Across the bridge, we found ourselves staring up a long incline. We were about to climb the bluff!
The Door Peninsula is part of the Niagara Escarpment – the same series of rugged limestone cliffs over which the Niagara River falls in New York. This escarpment arcs through the Great Lakes, passing through New York, Ontario, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois.
Most loop trails in this area climb up onto, and down off of, the bluffs which encircle the peninsula. These bluffs can be as high as 200 feet in places, and this is where the rigor in a Door County hike comes from. Trouble is, most trails climb the bluffs only once. So up the escarpment we went, gaining 140 feet in two-tenths of a mile. In our under-hiked state, we were breathing hard, but it felt great. Once on the bluffs we passed in and out of fields and through wooded areas. The flora was different here too. Clover bloomed everywhere and orange hawksweed dotted the fields. Its cousin, meadow hawksweed, had yet to fully bloom, but tight, yellow buds foretold the riot of color that would soon blaze in these pastures. Canada mayflower and false Solomon’s seal cowered under larger shrubs and bashful pink columbine stood here and there, it’s shy blooms lowered to the hiker’s gaze.
It was in one of these bloom-filled fields that we felt the first drops of rain. Providence, however, was on our side, and we reached a top-of-the-bluff trailhead just as the sky opened up. We stood under the narrow kiosk roof and waited for this cloudburst to pass. Typical of the peninsula, it was over in five minutes and the sun shone throughout the shower. We looked for a rainbow, but none was forthcoming.
We had been headed east; now the trail doubled back, and we headed back west toward the bay, rolling over gentle hills through thick forest. On the first half of this loop trail, maintenance has clearly just been done; there were clipped branches littering the path. On the backside of the loop, the path was a little overgrown – a veritable tunnel of greenery. The recent cloudburst had soaked all the foliage, and we were getting wet. The day was warm uncommonly warm for this time in northern Wisconsin, so we didn’t mind.
After a half-mile of gentle ups and downs, we arrived back at the junction where earlier we had turned into the woods. Here we turned right onto the wide grassy path, and, rather than descending into the forest, instead crested a rise revealing more sweeping views of rolling Door County countryside. Added to the pastoral scene were views out over Green Bay which, despite its specific chromatic moniker, shone cerulean in the late afternoon sun. We passed through more stands of sumac before arriving at a dead end – a bench and a sapling stood in the middle of a natural cul-de-sac at the end of the line.
Eventually we turned back, retracing our steps through the field and back to the trailhead. As we approached the parking area a flock of pelicans soared overhead.
The Door County Land Trust properties are low-key gems in the peninsula’s outdoor scene. While we haven’t visited all of them (we’re rectifying that), Bay Shore Blufflands Nature Preserve may be the pearl of the collection. Most DCLT trails are around a mile long – some even less. Including our foray up the extension of the grassy trail we logged just over three miles despite AllTrails’ assertion that it is slightly under three. Those three miles were punctuated with pleasant views, wildlife, and wildflowers. Check this trail out if you’re in the area – or play the fool. ♦
Date: June 11, 2020
Location: Carlesville, WI
Trailhead: 44.934769, -87.390446
Distance: 3.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 250 feet