It was another glorious spring day in Door County, WI. We were standing in front of the Deathdoor Bluff trailhead at the Door Bluff Headlands County Park. From there, the trail descends thirty feet to a narrow bench (or flat ledge) partway down the bluff. It continues west, slowly circumnavigating the headland. But that loop is not what we usually do first. We usually take a spur that descends another thirty or forty feet (and two more benches) to a sublime wooded shelf a mere ten to twelve feet above the waters of Death’s Door, the ship wrecking passage at the tip of the the county. This day was no exception.
We explored the lower bench as was our habit, then started the climb back up. Lisa gained the second bench and, rather than continuing upward, she unexpectedly set off east through the pines. I followed. The sun filtered through the trees as we navigated rocks and roots, discovering new mosses and ferns and enjoying the limestone bluffs. Lisa proclaimed it a “secret pocket of beauty”.
Eventually, we climbed back up to the first bench and headed down the Deathdoor Bluff Trail. The bluff trail tracked along limestone cliffs, through open pine forest, and provided many opportunities to step to the edge for a look out over the sparkling bay. At the top of the bluff, there was a splendid viewpoint complete with rustic bench. Our view was to the northwest, over the mouth of Green Bay to Michigan’s upper peninsula. The waters of Green Bay shone sapphire blue in the afternoon sun, and dame’s rocket blossoms fringed the tiny overlook as we contemplated the view. This is one of the most delightful spots in Door County, and although there’s no way to drive there, the hike to this viewpoint is a scant quarter-mile and less than one hundred feet of elevation. 160 feet below, a speedboat whizzed by.
Leaving the viewpoint, we traipsed inland away from the scarp and into dense forest. The trail was mostly level, and we scanned left and right for wildflowers in the thick duff that bordered our path. Ahead we saw a white-tailed deer; as we approached, she loped another few yards up the trail and munched contentedly on leaves until we got too close. Then she bounded off again and eventually we lost sight of her. Suddenly, while on a particularly narrow section of single-track trail, we heard a commotion ahead. The doe, in a state of blind panic, was charging down the trail toward us. Fifty yards. Forty. I stepped off the trail into the brush. Thirty yards. Lisa stood frozen in mid-stride like a squirrel in traffic. Twenty yards. Fifteen. I was just about to pull Lisa off the trail when the doe veered off into the undergrowth and vanished into the woods in a cacophony of crunching leaves and snapping twigs. Lisa turned to look at me with mouth agape. The deer had been no more than ten yards away when it changed tack. We stood in stunned silence for a moment before resuming our trek. There is no photo record of the incident.
Hearts pounding from the encounter with the doe, we tramped the trail in silence. Fifty yards further on we discovered the source of the doe’s panic. Two hikers, each with a dog, were coming down the trail, eager pooches straining at the leash. We delighted them with the tale of our cervine close encounter before moving on.
The next three-quarters of a mile the trail wound through forest thick with forget-me-nots, columbine and sarsaparilla. False Solomon’s seal with its fuzzy white flower reached out at us from beside the trail. We passed a tiny, concrete amphitheater of poured concrete. Wait. What? We were on the bluff in the middle of dense woods! Each tier of the lonely structure was only about six inches high and there were only three. It seemed an especially odd place for such a thing and we wondered what had once occurred there in the north Wisconsin woods.
Shortly after passing the lonesome little amphitheater, the trail emptied into a meadow. Just before that meadow stands a tree, twenty yards off the trail to the left. The tree is surrounded by a luxuriant patch of variegated goutweed. (It’s worth a little bushwacking to see it up close.) Goutweed doesn’t have a very appealing name, but the plant is a beautiful ground cover. With leaves similar to hosta, only smaller, the leaf of this species is a silvery-white with green center. The green is irregular, as if a child had painted a small leaf within each silvery large one. Another secret pocket of beauty.
The adjacent field was filled with blooming lilac and smelled like a flower shop. Grassy tracks criss-crossed the field, weaving in and among small groves of trees and shrubs. Dame’s rocket was in bloom, as were several species of honeysuckle. Purple ground ivy peeked out from under the tall grass on the side of the trail. Absent from the riot of color were the vivid pink and red dianthus we often see in this meadow – we were too early for those little gems.
Beyond the field, the trail snaked through the Wisconsin woods for another pleasant mile before terminating at a fire road. Sunlight filtered through the trees from the blue sky beyond, a light breeze rustling the leaves overhead. A squirrel chattered at us from atop a fallen log. When we stopped to snap her picture, she turned, nonchalantly, as if she hadn’t just been scolding us for trespassing in her woods. Striking a leisurely pace, we scanned the woods, stopping to examine interesting fungi on the deadfall that littered the forest. When we came to the fire road we turned right (east).
The fire road tracks for a couple of hundred yards through the woods before intersecting with Door Bluff Park Road (the only road in the park). The exceptionally minor drawback to this loop is that one must return to the parking area via this lane. However, the park road is a dirt track through the same pristine forest that we had been tramping for nearly three miles. Cars come by so infrequently that we often do the four tenths of a mile of road hiking without being hassled by the rumble of tires on gravel. Just before we reached the parking area, we noticed for the first time a spur off to our right and toward the bluffs. Following it for fifteen yards brought us to a tiny stone ledge that looked out over the trees to the azure waters of the bay far below. Washington Island could be seen in the distance; a hazy thin of green on a field of blue. One last secret pocket of beauty. We turned back to the road and headed for the car.
Door Bluff Headlands is a picture perfect hike in Door County – lightly trafficked, short, easy, and full of picturesque northern Wisconsin scenery. It is at the tip of the peninsula, farther north than even Newport State Park (another delightful hiking destination – read here and here). Take some time to explore the area and fill your pockets with (not really so) secret beauty. ♦
Date: June 12, 2020
Location: Liberty Grove, WI
Trailhead: 45.297265, -87.061132
Distance: 3.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 188 feet