The Ridges Sanctuary: Improvements in Accessibility and Lots of Nature

Looking for a hike that will accommodate everyone?

IMG_6898Access to services and facilities for disabled persons in the United States is improving. Rising awareness has led to better usability of amenities traditionally thought to be beyond the reach of those whose mobility may be impaired. But how are we really doing?

My friend Erin, who is twenty-seven and a wheelchair-user (due to cerebral palsy), has this to say:

“It’s hard when people like me and my friends have to turn around while everybody else goes for a walk or a hike. I wish more outdoor places were accessible. It would be exciting. I would be included when people come to visit.”

The answer seems to be … meh. Erin cannot be alone in her frustration. There are 19.4 million people in the U.S. who struggle with physical mobility. While technology is helping disabled persons do more, see more, and experience more things, hiking trails are lagging behind in accessibility. What if you want to, for example, just experience the nature for an hour or two without the help of additional technology? The Hidden Brook Boardwalk at Ridges Sanctuary in Baileys Harbor, Wisconsin has got you covered – at least for a third of a mile. That may not sound like much, but for persons with reduced mobility it may be more than they’re used to. Baby steps.

IMG_6943The Ridges Sanctuary is just north of town on Route 57. It’s hard to miss, and that’s good because you shouldn’t miss it.

From their website:

“In 1937, The Ridges Sanctuary became Wisconsin’s first land trust. Founded to preserve the original 30 acre parcel, The Ridges has grown thoughtfully and strategically to ensure the protection of the most biologically diverse ecosystem in Wisconsin. Today, with the support of over 1700 members in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, and the hard work of our staff and more than 100 committed volunteers, The Ridges permanently protects over 1600 acres of the most critical lands in our community.”

The Cook-Albert Fuller Nature Center is a state-of-the-art facility with interactive exhibits on the cultural and natural history of the sanctuary. Stop in, look around and plunk down five bucks – the fee to hike at Ridges. In our opinion,  a five-spot is totally worth it to support the good work the staff does here. If you need help finding rare plants on the trail just ask – a volunteer will often walk you right to them!

IMG_6896Now, a little about this area and its eco-system. Again, from the website:

“The Ridges is named for its distinctive topography – a series of 30 ridges and swales formed by the movement of Lake Michigan over the past 1100 years. The Ridges Sanctuary is internationally recognized for the incredible diversity of plant life found here. Nearly 500 vascular plants find their home in this rich complex of boreal forest and wetlands.”


The trail departs directly from the parking area at the nature center. If you’re thinking, great, just another boring wooden path that goes a little way into the woods, bear with me – this boardwalk is that, but it is also significantly more. The trail winds its way through a boreal forest of white spruce and balsam fir, with informative signs every few feet discussing the specific aspects of the ridge and swale eco-system. At eight feet wide, the boardwalk has ample room for wheelchairs and those with walkers or other mobility aides to pass comfortably. A toe-rail marks the edges of the trail, and railings are provided when the path is high off the ground or when it passes over water.

IMG_6907The boardwalk crosses Hidden Brook (where there is a covered bridge with shaded benches for resting) and snakes through the woods offering up close and personal access to the wide variety of flora and fauna The Ridges has to offer. Side spurs on the trail jut out over water-filled swales allowing every visitor to be within a couple of feet of aquatic plants and animals in a natural setting.

IMG_6940IMG_7076IMG_7064On our visit, we saw blooming water lilies on which sat fat Iberian green frogs. Azure damselflies, and chalk-fronted corporals buzzed about landing on railings and defying our attempts to photograph them. Elsewhere on the boardwalk we passed lady slippers, gaywings, irises, and carnivorous purple pitcher plants. The vast majority of these things were mere inches off the trail. A placid doe wandered close to the path. She cast us the occasional furtive glance, but was otherwise content to munch on leaves a few feet from where we stood.


An Iberian green frog rests on lily pad

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IMG_6931A roving staff member helped us find the exceedingly rare and endangered ram’s head orchid, a tiny, pink-speckled cousin of the larger, yellow lady slipper (also an orchid) that is so common on the peninsula. Unfortunately, this specimen’s bloom was well past its prime, wilted and turning brown. All along the way there were plenty of welcoming benches and excellent mobile service.

Once Lisa and I had tramped the planks of the entire accessible portion of the trail, we came to a tee. The Hidden Brook Boardwalk ended at a narrow and more weathered boardwalk that ran the several hundred yards between the Baileys Harbor upper and lower range lights. Surrounding this ruler-straight walkway was a sward of grass stippled with ox-eye daisies, lady slippers, and meadow hawksweed. Several trails that track east down Ridges’ ridges departed at right angles to the range light super-highway. We picked the closest one and headed out. We were on the Sandy Trail; true to its name, soft sand shifted underfoot as we threaded our way through the forest, in and out of clearings that were thick with grasses and shrubs. Delicate lyre-leafed rock cress peeked out from under the stiff, scratchy leaves of juniper that flanked the trail, while bright-red eastern teaberries lay nestled in the sand – rubies in the Ridges’ rough.  The flower-clusters on Labrador tea bushes were everywhere, splashes of waist-high white along our route.


The lower range light from the tee


Eventually, the Sandy Trail ended at a hard left turn. Via elevated boardwalk, the Cedar Trail spanned the marshy swale between the sandy ridge we were on and the next one over. As we crossed, we gazed up and down the swale, an endless, grassy lane through the Wisconsin woods. We continued to zig-zag our way through the sanctuary, down a ridge, across a swale, down a ridge, across a swale. With each trail came more resplendent woodland scenery, new plants, and interesting topography. Some swales were grassy throughways, others were watery lochs teeming with water lilies and croaking frogs. Canadian bunchberry, shrubby cinquefoil, and more of the deeply-hued pitcher plants hid among the grasses that blanketed the swales. Not so good at hiding was another doe who cast us a nonchalant glance from a tangle of deadfall.


Swale crossing

IMG_6967Finally, we arrived at the northernmost ridge trail: Winter Wren. This hibernal path would guide us back to the upper range light where we would pick up the boardwalk and head back to the nature center. That’s when it happened. Lisa stopped to photograph something along the trail. I was waiting, scuffing my boots on the trail and gazing around, when a tiny spot of color caught my eye. There, an inch from the trail and in imminent danger of being trampled, was a tiny ram’s head orchid – in full bloom! I pointed it out to Lisa; she was beside herself with joy. She had all but given up on finding one, especially one so in-the-pink. We both laid on the trail for several minutes with our cameras trying to get a perfect shot of the reclusive bloom. When we moved on it was with a sense of accomplishment – we had found the rare flower all on our own!



The Ram’s Head Orchid – this bloom is about the size of an average thumbnail

When we reached the outbuildings that surround the upper range light, it was to discover another riot of flowering plants. The area played host to pink and purple lupine, irises, valerian, golden alexander, and several colors of columbine we’re not used to seeing along Door County trails, though we suspected many of these to have been planted rather than springing up naturally. Once we had enjoyed the gardens, we headed down the long, strait trestle toward the lower light, turned onto the Hidden Brook Boardwalk, and followed it back to the trailhead.



The upper range light

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The Ridges Sanctuary is a treasure trove of unique geology and ecology, and the preservation work being done here is unparalleled. Ridges holds several important designations, among which are: “National Natural Landmark” and “Wetland of International Importance”. The Sanctuary is also a certified biological field station. So while The Ridges does not have a lengthy, rigorous hiking trail it does, along with neighboring Toft Point (read here), have an amazing wealth of educational and research value, while providing a superlative environment for plant enthusiasts, bird watchers, and ecologists. All that and it’s still a great place to hike – even if you do your hiking on wheels!  ♦

For more information on accessibility at The Ridges Sanctuary visit their website:

Looking for wheelchair accessible trails in Wisconsin? Look here:

For another post on ADA accessible trails in Door County see “Peninsula State Park’s Sentinel Loop: ADA Accessible Beginnings

Date: June 17, 2020
Location: Baileys Harbor, WI
Trailhead: 45.068126, -87.123829
Distance: 4.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 23 feet
Difficulty: Easy

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