The crunch of boots on packed snow follows hikers along the Hidden Brook Boardwalk in the Ridges Sanctuary. Trees wear the thick, fresh snowfall like a gingerbread house flocked by heavy-handed toddlers.
Covering 1,600 acres on the east side of Wisconsin's Door County peninsula, this sanctuary near Baileys Harbor preserves some of the state's unique ecosystems, thanks to its location along the Niagara Escarpment — the rocky edge of an ancient sea — and surrounded by Lake Michigan.
I spotted small shoreline sinkholes earlier in the day, evidence of the area's karst topography, where dolomite limestone bedrock has been carved by centuries of water and shifting temperatures. Wind, sand, pounding waves and even reddish, gnarled cedar roots join forces to forge layered cliffs along the shoreline of the Great Lake.
"It's a very dynamic system," said George Cobb, a naturalist at the Ridges. Inside the sanctuary's visitor center, he pointed to an aerial photo that shows how the peninsula's ridges and swales stripe the landscape with natural terraces. "It's one of the most diverse areas of the state."
About 30 ridges alternate with swales — depressions that collect and filter rainwater and melting snow. In the spring and summer, moisture-loving orchids, such as grass pinks, ram's heads, showy pink and yellow lady's slippers, draw wildflower fans.
"We have 26 different kinds of orchids," Cobb says. Along the boardwalk, where visitors can join guided winter hikes, he helps us imagine a warmer, greener sanctuary, where volunteers track climate change and bird migrations and study species such as the endangered Hine's emerald dragonfly.
We pause at a swale. Two to 3 feet deep, it looks like a river gently flowing across undulating native grasses. The watery swale's dark, cool colors contrast with the snow-flocked pines and cedars and a moody, smudgy mix of sky and clouds.
Toward the end of the boardwalk, Cobb points out a set of historic range lights, like squat lighthouses. One looks like a bell-towered pioneer school tucked into the trees; a smaller one sits closer to shore. Long-ago ships loaded with lumber and limestone navigated Baileys Harbor's treacherous shoals by lining up the two lights, offering more accuracy than a single lighthouse.
A blissful silence settles around us. In this pocket of boreal forest, it's easy to imagine a moose coming through the thick firs. But while parts of Door County feel wild and rugged, like Minnesota's Lake Superior shore, the easily carved bedrock and the way Lake Michigan wraps this peninsula's 300 miles of shoreline tempers its climate and influences its culture.
Baileys Harbor (pop. 1,030) and other communities on this so-called "quiet side" of the peninsula often lure me, with a vibe that resembles New England coastal towns.
At Whitefish Dunes State Park, Lake Michigan's waves lap the sandy beach and the partly snow-covered dunes. I wander among remnants of shipwrecks with interpretive signs tucked into dense stands of cedar. The waves gurgle as they hit a rocky section of shore. As that shore steepens at nearby Cave Point County Park, the din increases.
I step cautiously to an edge where water and sand have chiseled shallow caverns. The largest waves come in clusters to roar against the cliff. Water sprays dramatically upward and coats green cedars and bare branches with ice that catches the pinks of early morning.
In deeper winter, I've seen calmer waves break up nighttime ice, creating impromptu and gentle concerts as glassy pieces collide. It's mesmerizing no matter the conditions, the pull of the Great Lake like a sea.
My nose begins to drip. My fingers feel numb. I make my way inland, where orchards provide winter mugs of steaming cherry cider, mulled wine, cherry-stuffed pastries and French toast to help thaw out anyone who comes to savor the offseason lull.
Things to do
Whitefish Dunes State Park grooms 12 miles of cross-country ski trails with views of Lake Michigan, a snowshoeing route and a history of settlements dating back thousands of years (1-920-823-2400; dnr.wi.gov). The Ridges Sanctuary, Wisconsin's first land trust in 1937, is likewise open to snowshoeing and skiing (1-920-839-2802; ridgessanctuary.org).
Snowmobilers can hop onto 250 miles of trails in the county. Most of the routes in the northern part of the county meander through woods and across private lands, making them more suited for scenic touring. Trail conditions are at map.co.door.wi.us/parks/snowmobile.
Stone's Throw Winery's libations pair well with hearty winter meals. It's one of more than a dozen wineries, distilleries and breweries that stay open year-round (1-920-839-9669; stonesthrowwinery.com).
Where to eat
Bearded Heart Coffee brews steaming mugs of Beautiful Burnt Goat (espresso, steamed goat's milk and burnt caramel syrup), honey-laced miel and teas, plus light eats including seasonal grain bowls and toasts topped with smoked whitefish or Door County Creamery chèvre (1-920-839-9111; beardedheartcoffee.com).
Chives Door County serves favorites such as chicken and goat cheese wontons, cold smoked salmon and potato pancakes, a ground short-rib burger topped with bacon jam, and a beef bourguignon with cheese spaetzle (1-920-839-2000; chivesdoorcounty.com).
Where to stay
The smell of cherry muffins and scones coaxes guests at Blacksmith Inn on the Shore down to a daily breakfast buffet, or trays can be taken up to guest rooms that overlook the harbor (theblacksmithinn.com).
Door County is dotted with rentals and historic hewn-log cabins, including Gustave's Getaway, built in 1887. Guests in the German-built 1917 Hensen Haus can look for Silurian coral fossils in the rocks around the fireplace (1-920-839-2288; gustavesgetaway.com).
The curve of land around the harbor provides a sunset view at Baileys Harbor Yacht Club Resort. State rooms and suites include kitchenettes (1-920-839-2336; bhycr.com).
How to get there
Baileys Harbor is a five-hour drive east of the Twin Cities.
St. Cloud-based freelancer Lisa Meyers McClintick has written for Star Tribune Travel since 2001, along with regional and national magazines.