The Ridges Sanctuary and the Cana Island Lighthouse

View of Lake Michigan and a jut of land from the top of the Cana Island Lighthouse.
The view from the top of Cana Island Lighthouse. Photo © Carl Wycoff, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Map of Wisconsin's Door County
Door County
Baileys Harbor is sandwiched between the strategic safe harbor on Lake Michigan and Kangaroo Lake, the peninsula’s largest inland body of water. Travelers are so preoccupied with these two sights that it’s easy to miss the two large promontories jutting off the peninsula just north of town, forming Moonlight Bay. These two capes may be the state’s most awesome natural landmarks and definitely have the most inspiring lighthouses.

North along Highway Q is a critical biotic reserve, The Ridges Sanctuary (Ridges Rd., 920/839-2802, trails open daily, $5 adults), with 1,000 acres of boreal bog, swamp, dunes, and a complete assortment of wildflowers in their natural habitat. The eponymous series of ancient spiny sand ridges mark the advance of ancient and modern Lake Michigan. All 23 native Wisconsin orchids are found within the sanctuary, as are 13 endangered species of flora. The preserve was established in the 1930s by hardcore early ecologists, such as Jens Jensen, in one of the state’s first environmental brouhahas, incited by a spat over plans for a trailer park. The U.S. Department of the Interior recognizes the site as one of the most ecologically precious in the region; it was the first National Natural Landmark in Wisconsin.

The famed Baileys Harbor Range Lights are a pair of small but powerful lighthouses: a shorter wooden octagonal one across the road on the beach, the other 900 feet inland—erected in 1869 by the Coast Guard. There are 20 miles of trails that are well worth the effort, including three easy trails, ranging from just under two miles to five miles, that snake through the tamarack and hardwood stands. Also on the grounds is a nature center, with some of the best educational programs in the state.

Continue on Ridges Road to additional sites deemed National Natural Landmarks by the Department of the Interior and dedicated by the Nature Conservancy. Toft’s Point (also called Old Lighthouse Point) is along a great old dirt road that winds through barren sands with innumerable pullouts. A few trails can be found on the 600-plus acres that take up the whole of the promontory, which includes almost three miles of rocky beach shoreline.

To the north of the Ridges, the Mud Lake Wildlife Area is over 2,000 acres protecting the shallow lake and surrounding wetlands. In fact, its second-growth mesic ecosystem of white cedar, white spruce, and black ash is a rarity in Wisconsin. A prime waterfowl sanctuary, Mud Lake and its environs may be even more primeval and wild than the Ridges, and it is home to one of the few breeding spots of the threatened Hine’s emerald dragonfly along with a lengthy list of waterfowl, including ospreys. Canoeing is also very popular, as Reibolts Creek connects the lake with Moonlight Bay.

On the southern promontory of Moonlight Bay is the one must-visit lighthouse on the peninsula that everyone photographs, the Cana Island Lighthouse (10am-5pm daily May-Oct., $6, plus $4 to climb the tower), accessible via Highway Q to Cana Island Drive to a narrow spit of gravel that may be under water, depending on when you get here. Note that this is a residential area, so go slowly—blind curves are everywhere—and don’t park inappropriately. Impressively tall and magnificently white, the lighthouse is framed by white birch. One of the most crucial lighthouses in the county, it stands far off the coast on a wind-whipped landform. Built in 1870, it was considered a hardship station during storm season.

North Bay is also the site of Marshall’s Point, part of the North Bay State Natural Area, an isolated stretch of wildland completely surrounded by private development often touted as a potential state park for its remarkable microclimate and the fact that it’s one of the last remaining stretches of undeveloped Lake Michigan coastline on the Door Peninsula. You’ll find threatened and endangered species everywhere; most interesting is the fact that more than one million (of the local population estimate of up to 1.5 million) whitefish spawn in these waters.

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