Low snow doesn't disappoint on the Door Peninsula
According to the National Climate Data Center, the average annual snowfall in Wisconsin's Door County is 48 inches. The Door County Visitor Bureau make the most of it, promoting cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, sledding, sleigh rides, dog sledding, winter camping, ice fishing, snowmobiling and winter festivals.
I made reservations at the Open Hearth Lodge in Sister Bay. With great enthusiasm, we five amigos packed our snowshoes and winter clothing in two vehicles and drove to the Door. To our chagrin, however, we arrived on the heels of a late December melt and rain so there was very little snow. The peninsula was covered nicely in white, but the snow was shallow and the trails had only a half inch to three inches of snow cover. Switching from snowshoeing to hiking, we would not be disappointed. I still got a feel for the snowshoe trails we traversed in boots.
Named for the rough water passage at the tip of the peninsula - "death's door," or as French explorers called it, "Porte des Morts," - Door County, Wisconsin, is 70 miles long and two to 18 miles wide. The landmass includes about 300 miles of beach along both Green Bay and Lake Michigan.
We began our trail search on the far northeast end of the peninsula at Newport State Park. Newport is a 2,400-acre park and offers six miles of snowshoeing trails and 12.5 miles of cross-country ski trails. The park is free of snowmobiles since it is designated as a wilderness-type park.
After looking the map over, we decided to take a recommended snowshoe route called the Lynd Point Trail and Fern Trail loop. Both singletrack trails make up a 2.2-mile circle that led us out to a magnificent forested point jetting into Lake Michigan.
It was a very windy day sending three- to four-foot waves crashing up against the massive limestone rock beds and ice formations along the point. Curiosity took us off trail for a while to explore a small part the picturesque beach. It is recommended by park officials that snowshoers stay away from shoreline rock and ice formations due to its dangerous conditions. So we were soon back on trail.
Near the end of the point, we discovered two campsites ideal for winter camping. The camps were nestled among a mixture of deciduous and coniferous trees with a fire ring and a couple benches. They looked awfully inviting. At the point where Lynd Point turns into Fern, the snowshoe trail then runs parallel to the ski trail. Snowshoers need to keep off the ski trail.
The Upland Trail is a two-mile circle also designated for snowshoeing. The trailhead begins behind the park office. One other small circular trail called Sugarbush Trail is used for snowshoeing as well and is on the northwest end of the park. There is a parking area for Sugarbush north of the main entrance on Newport Lane.
Our next stop was at Baileys Harbor on Highway 57 at the Ridges Sanctuary. This 1,600-acre boreal forest is the oldest private nonprofit nature preserve in Wisconsin and is designated as a State Natural Area and a National Natural Landmark. For a $4 trail fee, you can snowshoe along its five miles of scenic interconnecting trail loops. Fridays at 1 p.m. there are snowshoe hikes guided by the sanctuary's naturalists. Since we visited on a Tuesday, our group missed the scheduled event. But we had an opportunity to hike in and see their nature center and historic cabin.
On our way toward the next state park just south of Jacksonport, we stopped along the way to visit Cave Point County Park. The trail along the lake is relatively short but provides a very interesting view of Cave Point where Lake Michigan waves were rolling and smashing into a carved out limestone cliff and cavern. Unique ice formations bordered parts of rock ledges and outcroppings along the beach.
There is a snowshoe trail that cuts across the southwest corner of the county park called the Black Trail, which is part of the trail system at nearby Whitefish Dunes State Park. The state park main entrance is a short drive down from the county park on Schauer Road.
Whitefish Dunes State Park is an 863-acre, day-use only park, offering 13.5 miles of trails. Nine miles of those trails are for cross-country skiing and 4.5 miles are open for hiking and snowshoeing. The park is sandwiched between Whitefish Bay on Lake Michigan and inland Clark Lake.
The primary snowshoe trail again is the Black Trail that begins at the parking lot near the park's nature center and is branched with the Brachiopod Trail. The trails go through a mixed hardwood forest with many exposed rocks. After we visited the nature center and had a friendly talk with the ranger, we hiked on the Beach Trail, which is also open to skiing and snowshoeing, giving us a pleasant walk along the beach to see the wave action rolling in from Lake Michigan.
On the road again, we crossed the Door Peninsula en route to our last stop for the day, Peninsula State Park. Located at Fish Creek off Highway 42, this park is said to be the busiest and most popular of all the Door County parks, although, that was not the case during our visit. Since there was very little snow on the trails, we seemed to be the only visitors that afternoon. When the snow comes back, this park will again be abuzz with excitement for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, sledding, tubing and snowmobiling. Established in 1909, Peninsula State Park is the second oldest Wisconsin state park. Its 3,776 acres is a mix of hardwood, meadows and cliffs. Two thirds of the park is beachfront.
Our quintet drove in at the Fish Creek south entrance and traveled up Shore Road to a parking area near the Minnehaha Trail, a one-mile lakeside trail along Nicolet Bay designated for snowshoeing. This path is identified as an easy trail, but ends at Eagle Trail where it becomes difficult as it leads up the bluff to the Eagle Tower. From the tower, you can also snowshoe on the 2.8-mile Sentinel Trail loop.
Three from our group headed back to the car via Minnehaha, while two of us ventured up to the Eagle Tower. It was a brisk climb up the 75-foot tower but well worth it to see the massive frozen-over Green Bay, and the towns of Fish Creek and Ephraim below. I'm sure park officials would not want visitors on the tower when snow-covered for safety reasons. But during our visit, the tower was clear.
One other recommended trail for snowshoeing is the 1.4-mile circular Niagra Trail at the nature center on Bluff Road.
Our group called it a day as darkness was an hour away when we left Peninsula State Park. We drove back to Sister Bay for supper and then to our lodge to play nickel-ante poker until late into the evening. I lost $5.
The following morning after breakfast, four from our group headed back to western Wisconsin. I drove solo to the last park on my list, the 1,200-acre Potawatomi State Park just south of Sturgeon Bay on Highway PD, off Highways 42 and 57.
I a nice visit with the ranger who gave me information on snowshoeing there. And I picked up a park winter map as well. As in many Wisconsin state parks, you can snowshoe off trail as long as you stay off the cross-country ski trails and out of harm's way from snowmobilers. In Potawatomi, there are a couple of designated snowshoeing trails. The first one I sampled was a segment of the Ice Age Trail that runs parallel to the Sturgeon Bay shoreline. The trailhead starts at the parking area just a short distance from the nature center and camp area.
I found about four to six inches of snow at the start of the trail in a slightly open area. Since I was bound and determined to snowshoe in Door County, I put on my Northern Lites snowshoes and threw on my day pack. And with my hiking staff in hand, I headed up the trail. Less than a quarter mile in, I was walking on thin snow in a forested area that provided a thick canopy over the trail. At that point, I took off my snowshoes and carried them for the remainder of my hike. The trail eventually leads to another 75-foot observation tower sitting on a 150-foot bluff overlooking Sawyer Harbor. It is about a one and a half mile hike.
I then visited the short, circular half-mile Ancient Shores Nature Trail also designated for snowshoeing. The trailhead is located across the park road from the nature center. A large sign marks the trailhead, but the trail itself is not marked. However, it is easy to follow, since all you have to do is look ahead for the next interpretive nature signpost. Several dot the trail sharing information about the geology, fauna and flora around you.
Don't forget your state park sticker. Park stickers are required on all motor vehicles visiting state parks and recreation areas. One hour, daily or annual stickers for 2011 can be purchased at park entrances, at self-registration stations or online. For information, go to the DNR website at www.dnr.wi.gov/org/land/parks/fees.
Besides the areas we visited during our trip, I discovered there are many other opportunities for snowshoeing in Door County. In addition to Cave Point County Park, there are 18 Door County Parks that together make up 948 acres and 12 miles of groomed trails. For information and a map of the parks, go online to map.co.door.wi.us/parks/.
Most of the 5,000 acres of conservancy lands managed by the Door County Land Trust are open to the public for year-round passive recreational day use, including snowshoeing. Refer to their website www.doorcountylandtrust.org.
Another option open to snowshoeing and cross-country skiing is the 30-mile Ahnapee State Trail that begins just below Sturgeon Bay and heads south into Kewaunee County. Since snowmobilers also use the Ahnapee State Trail, caution is important should you decide to hike on any of its segments.
I drove home with the realization that, other than the short quarter-mile stretch I snowshoed at Potawatomi State Park, I still had not really "'shoed Door County," which was my primary goal for the trip. But it is not so much the feel of snowshoes underfoot that gives testimony to the area. Rather it was the trails and landscape we explored that tell the story and hold the beauty of the Door Peninsula for winter enthusiasts.
The peninsula does not see all the hustle and bustle of tourists it does during the summer months. Quite the opposite. The Door Peninsula is a serene and wonderful winter jewel nestled away from city lights and traffic noise. It offers a peaceful break for those who need wilderness-like tranquility - with or without snow and with or without snowshoes.