New visitor center hikes visibility of The Ridges

dwarf-irisA longtime but quiet force on the quiet side of Door County gains wider visibility this month.

The opening of a unique visitor center at The Ridges Sanctuary moves the work of researchers and naturalists from obscure quarters to busy Highway 57 in Baileys Harbor. The Ridges is the oldest nature preserve in Wisconsin and deemed of international importance.

The $3.5 million project also restores adjacent habitat and adds a quarter-mile hiking trail that leads to a boardwalk in the 1,400-acre sanctuary. This wood-chip trail eventually will become handicapped accessible.

The sanctuary is unusual because each of 30 ridges and swales (marshy depressions) represents a former Lake Michigan shoreline. The oldest dates back 1,200 years, and the crescent-shaped formations morph from sandy beach to boreal forest, a rarity in Wisconsin. Within the mesh of evolved habitats is endangered and threatened species such as the dwarf lake iris and the metallic-looking Hine’s emerald dragonfly.

The new structure is distinctive because of its sustainable design, the first in Door County to gain Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. The project is expected to earn at least gold status because of extensive energy saving measures, respect for the local environment and use of reclaimed materials.

Two examples: Curt Wessel of Ellison Bay created an artsy reception desk with downed trees from The Ridges. Presto Geosystems of Appleton controls parking lot runoff by installing gravel pavement that is stabilized with grids made of recycled materials. Other features turn the property into a teaching tool, with ideas for average homeowners.

“We’ve been a quiet organization for most of our existence,” notes Judy Drew, assistant director at The Ridges. Research and preservation were priorities when the sanctuary’s first 40 acres were secured in 1937. That happened because botanist Albert Fuller of the Milwaukee Public Museum learned about a trailer park planned for the ecologically fragile area.

It was not until the mid 1960s, through naturalist Roy Lukes, that public education and access were added. By explaining why it was so special, The Ridges’ work gained fans and donations, but “being hidden away and doing little or no marketing” kept the destination relatively obscure as Door County tourism thrived elsewhere.

“If people don’t understand what we do, it’s hard to tell them why we should do more of it,” Judy explains. The new visitor center makes possible more classes, activities and exhibits. The gift shop expands. Webcam monitoring is conceivable from a new platform to attract ospreys.

“It’s a tremendous spot,” says botany professor Glenn Adelson, who made The Ridges a May field trip for his spring flora class at Lake Forest College, north of Chicago. He will return with students in mid-summer to study orchids because 25 species (of the 45 found in the U.S.) are found here.

The Ridges, as part of the Door Peninsula Wetlands, in January was designated a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention, a global network to protect the environment. The sanctuary’s newest acquisition is 170 acres at Clark Lake and Logan Creek, near Jacksonport.

The new Cook-Albert Fuller Center at The Ridges Sanctuary, at the corner of Highway 57 and Ridges Road, will be open all year and is where guided nature hikes begin. Visitors also may walk the five miles of looped trails on their own.

About 1,830 people are members of the nonprofit sanctuary; the fee is $40 per person, $65 for a couple and $95 for a family of four.

Backpack Adventure Camps for ages 4-10 are on weekday mornings, July 6-31. Upcoming for adults is the Living Green House Walk, July 17-18, a new event to showcase sustainably designed homes, some almost off the grid because of the levels of energy produced and reduced. ridgessanctuary.org, 920-839-2802

The Door County Visitor Bureau encourages travelers to upload photos taken at the peninsula and provides incentives for sharing your best shots. Learn more about these contests and awards at capturedoorcounty.com.

The 2013 hardcover book “Capture Door County: The Best of Door County in Photography” (Pediment Publishing, $40) is the best of 10,000-plus photos submitted, then ranked through 50,000 votes cast by the online capturedoorcounty.com community.

The next Capture Door County book will be called “Seasons Behind the Door: A Photographic Look at Door County’s Seasons,” and the bureau’s online incentives coincide with that theme this year.

For more about Door County tourism: doorcounty.com, 920-743-4456.