Inside Ridges Sanctuary, Door County

Twenty-two years. That’s how long the dwarf lake iris has sat on the federal list of threatened plants, but I know where it grows like a weed during this time of year.

Hundreds of the tiny blue-purple flowers, most no bigger than a thumbnail, mingle among junipers and pop through sand at The Ridges Sanctuary in Door County. We squat in rain to examine the delicate petals, each a marvel with three splashes of deep yellow per bloom. They will vanish before summer arrives.

The species is but one example of what makes these 1,400 acres at Baileys Harbor extraordinary.

“A huge number of people, even locally, don’t know we exist – or think we’re an exclusive country club,” notes naturalist Karen Newbern. “There was a time, in the 1970s and ’80s, when we didn’t want visitors coming through here, and we still struggle with this now.”

The Ridges is Wisconsin’s oldest nonprofit nature preserve, a place of research as well as protection. Between each of 30 ridges are swales – marshy depressions – and all “create a patchwork quilt of habitats” that are unusual for a condensed area.

Each ridge represents a former Lake Michigan shoreline, the oldest dating back 1,200 years. As shoreline recedes, vegetation sprouts and eventually morphs into boreal forests. The ridges continue to form at the water’s edge, in 30- to 50-year cycles; species tend to thrive here instead of fade away.

Consider the Hines Emerald Dragonfly, known for its brilliant green eyes and metallic body. The creature has been federally endangered since 1995, but you’ll find them at The Ridges in July. Karen says no place has a bigger population than Door County.

“We’re unique because such a large chunk of property has been well-protected for so many years,” she says. Efforts began in 1937 with the 30-acre Baileys Harbor Ridges Park, whose two range lights would assist in the navigation of Lake Michigan ships.

Milwaukee botanist Albert Fuller and landscape architect Jens Jensen teamed up to prevent the area from becoming a trailer campground, a change that would have forever compromised natural habitats.

Today’s big issues include neighborhood integrity and public awareness. Manure run-off from farms, beachfront lawn mowing and the threat of non-native plants – invasive species such as garlic mustard and buckthorn – are challenges.

So is making more people aware of The Ridges: It heightens appreciation for nature, boosts financial support but also increases vulnerability – no matter how many boardwalks are built as footpaths.

Karen shows a simple wooden cage that protected the dwindling population of lady slippers from deer. The device didn’t prevent people from digging up the wild orchid.

It didn’t seem to matter that the flower rarely survives transplanting.

For more about The Ridges Sanctuary, 8288 Hwy. Q, Baileys Harbor: www.ridgessanctuary.org, 920-839-2802. Five miles of hiking trails are open from dawn to dusk. The trail fee is $4 (free for ages under 18); additional donations are appreciated.

Guided field trips occur all year, but the sanctuary also hosts the Door County Festival of Nature, May 27-29, which involves programming throughout the peninsula that explains and celebrates the Niagara Escarpment.

The state Legislature has declared 2010 as The Year of the Niagara Escarpment, a reference to 230 miles of often-steep ledges and cliffs that skirt through six Wisconsin counties, then underwater in Lake Michigan. The 1,000-mile escarpment – an ancient sea bottom, created through erosion before glacier movement – stretches through Ontario, Canada, and as far east as New York. The escarpment is named after the cliff over which the Niagara River plunges into Niagara Falls.

For more about this geologically unique feature: www.escarpmentnetwork.org,

When in Door County, look for escarpment formations along the two-mile Eagle Trail in Peninsula State Park. Although described as a difficult hike, it’s easily managed in dry weather and when approached counterclockwise.

The DNR occasionally conducts guided hikes on Eagle Trail and dubs it the park’s most spectacular trail. For more: www.dnr.wi.gov, 920-868-3258.

Genuine lovers of nature are a good fit for the 15-room Blacksmith Inn on the Shore, where rooms overlook Lake Michigan and hammocks swing on private balconies. Follow the boardwalk, over marshland, from shore to pier. Borrow a complimentary bike or kayak (snowshoes and sleds in winter). Separate warbles from chirps while lingering in the lakefront yard.

“People who want to shop head to the other side” of the peninsula, says co-owner Bryan Nelson. The more rugged east shore tends to draw a quieter and contemplative crowd.

For breakfast: Continental breakfast means house-made granola, fresh muffins, fresh fruit and more. Available almost anytime: popcorn and fat cherry-oatmeal cookies. Look for bakery recipes near the registration desk.

The Blacksmith Inn, 8152 Hwy. 57, Baileys Harbor, is adults-only lodging. Rates, until October ends, are $235-285. For more: www.theblacksmithinn.com, 800-769-8619.

Details about the 17 other National Natural Landmarks in Wisconsin are at www.nature.nps.gov; the best-known of the bunch is Cave of the Mounds, near Mount Horeb (www.caveofthemounds.com, 608-437-3038).

“Roads Traveled” is the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.