Discovering Hidden Beauty in Washington Island’s Little Lake Nature Preserve

When I was younger, I thought the woods were home to fairies and elves. Even now, the joy of discovering a new hike or a place of hidden beauty feels magical. Although talk of magic might sound silly coming from a 20-year-old, I take comfort in the fact that I’m in good company: Renowned naturalist and conservationist John Muir also recognized the otherworldliness of natural spaces. “Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world,” he said.  

The trail access to the Door County Land Trust’s Little Lake Nature Preserve is one such doorway. It’s not found between two pines, but it’s announced by a small, wooden sign on the side of Washington Island’s Main Road. Located between Gudmundsen Drive and Boyers Bluff Road, the entrance to Little Lake Nature Preserve is easy to speed past without a second glance. On paper, the 0.8-mile trail that unfolds from the access point appears as unassuming as its entrance. In reality, the trail is a hidden gem that’s well worth a visit during your next trip to Washington Island. 

The Little Lake trail winds through a portion of the preserve’s 33 acres. Little Lake, located a mere 250 feet away from the waters of Green Bay, was created thousands of years ago when waves washed gravel and cobblestones across a shallow bay of glacial Lake Nippising (now Lake Michigan). 

Photo by Len Villano.

Today the trail passes through stands of strikingly architectural white cedar and hemlock trees. Although uneven and sloping across slight changes in elevation, the trail is an easy hike. 

Along the way, the lacy blossoms of wild parsley sway on slender stalks, and delicate marsh bellflower begin to appear as the trail approaches the shore of Little Lake. The preserve contains more than 5,000 feet of shoreline in all. In addition to hosting many kinds of wildflowers, it also provides habitat for nesting and foraging waterfowl and migratory songbirds, including bald eagles, white pelicans, herons and black-throated blue warblers. 

As you walk, the trees begin to thin, and the trail eventually arrives at a rocky isthmus, with Little Lake to the left and Green Bay to the right. Little Lake is peaceful and marshy, its water dark and still. If you wait long enough and are quiet enough, you might see a kingfisher swoop in to disturb the peace in a colorful, flashing moment. 

To the right of the isthmus, the view opens up onto a hidden beach — but not just any beach. It’s covered with smooth, white rocks, which makes it look like the little sister of Washington Island’s famed Schoolhouse Beach — minus the crowds. The only sound comes from waves washing up on shore and filtering back across the polished rocks. 

In arguably the most definitive word on initially unassuming pathways, Robert Frost says, “I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.” The unexpected beauty of the Little Lake Nature Preserve reminds me that Door County is full of hidden wonders — especially for those who are willing to explore the trail less traveled.

Hiking the Door County Land Trust’s Little Lake Nature Preserve

Location: Washington Island 

Distance: 0.8 miles 

Difficulty: Easy