Exploring Washington Island’s Natural Wonder

For a place with only 125.5 square miles and all of that surrounded by water, Washington Island boasts an incredible variety of outdoor destinations to plan an entire day around. Once you’ve experienced popular attractions like Schoolhouse Beach or Fragrant Isle Lavender Farm, you can find the hidden gems of the island’s four nature preserves, each with a treasurable feature. The inconspicuous trail entrances don’t often have designated parking lots or obvious signage, so look no further than here to map out your outdoor adventure on Washington Island. 

Colorful berries and flowers dominate the prairie landscape at Domer-Neff Nature Preserve. Photo by Jessica Gatzow.

Domer-Neff Nature Preserve 

Located adjacent to the Stavkirke, the Domer-Neff trail is filled with interest and sunshine. The trees are too young or located too far off the trail to offer hikers some shade, but the pollinators seem to welcome this arrangement. Against a buzzing soundtrack of unseen insects, monarchs and bumblebees move deliberately from flower-to-flower. The tree and plant varieties indicate biodiversity, as do the colors of red and orange berries on shrubs, or wildflowers in fluorescent fuchsia and vibrant violet. 

Where: 1800 Town Line Road. Park at the Stavkirke; the trailhead is just west of the parking lot. 

Distance: 0.6-mile loop

Difficulty: Easy; level, grassy terrain. 

Highlights: The prairie landscape thrives under lots of sunshine, so trail-goers may want to consider applying sunscreen. 

Little Lake Nature Preserve 

After parking along the patch of gravel on one side of Main Road, the trail to Little Lake begins on the other side, first cutting through private land. After descending from the rocky ridge into preserve property, the white cedar and hemlock forest leads you to Washington Island’s only inland lake. The end of the trail greets you with water views on both sides – Little Lake to the east and Lake Michigan to the west. The Michigan side’s long rocky shoreline contrasts with the cobblestones and marsh-dwelling plants of Little Lake. Taking a moment to absorb the serene view feels contradictory – as you gaze across the calm water and beyond to ridges of trees, the crashing sound of Lake Michigan invades your senses from the other side of the trail.  

Where: 2285 Main Road. Park on the gravel near the Land Trust sign. Trail begins across the road at private land access. 

Distance: 1.25 miles (one way)

Difficulty: Moderate; trail begins semi-steep with tree roots and rocks before leveling out.  

Highlights: Giant dragonflies and damselflies zip past the wetland plants near the shores of Little Lake.  

Although lacking designated parking lots, most access points for nature preserve trails on Washington Island can be found at Land Trust signs. Photo by Rachel Lukas.

Richter Community Forest Nature Preserve 

Not far from the ferry dock, Richter Community Forest is located along the quiet Green Bay Road. It features iconic trees of a northern hardwood forest  – sugar maple, red oak and hemlock to name a few – which seem to wave at you as some of their long branches hang low to the ground. Uprooted trees, mossy terrain and wildflowers characterize the undisturbed forest floor.  

Where: 300 Green Bay Road. Be prepared to park in the grass on the side of the road. 

Distance: 1.5-mile loop 

Difficulty: Easy to moderate; some rolling hills and muddy or rocky terrain. 

Highlights: The dense forest supports a great variety of fern and tree species. 

Large, yellow birch trees and brightly colored wildflowers characterize the trail between Richter Community Forest and Detroit Harbor Nature Preserve. Photo by Rachel Lukas. 

Detroit Harbor Nature Preserve 

Instead of taking the loop, you can follow the Richter Community Forest trail onto the Town of Washington Heritage Nature Trail, which connects to the Detroit Harbor Nature Preserve. (Although not accessible by this hike, this preserve also encompasses land on Detroit Island and the water in between the islands.) The Heritage trail features large yellow birch trees and prominent wildflowers. A small wooden sign on Henning Road calls it a “woodland walk bordering the road.” 

Where: Access from Richer Community Forest trail on 300 Green Bay Rd., or Henning Road. (Do not park near the Land Trust sign for Detroit Harbor on Lobdell Point Road. This area is heavily overgrown and better suited to hunting. By starting on the Richer Community Forest loop, you’ll reach the Town of Washington Heritage Nature Trail, which connects to the designated Detroit Harbor trail. Or, Henning Road has a trailhead to access the Heritage trail directly).  

Distance: 1.2 miles (including the connecting Heritage trail leading to Detroit Harbor Nature Preserve.) 

Difficulty: Easy to moderate; part of the trail involves hiking through tall grasses and over a few fallen trees, but wood chips line the majority of the path. 

Highlights: This shaded trail winds parallel to Lobdell Point Road.

The Art and Nature Center features work inspired by Washington Island and made by island artists. Photo by Rachel Lukas.

Expand your Education

The Art and Nature Center brings outdoor exploration indoors. In the nature area, abandoned wasp nests hang on the walls among educational posters. Connected to a tube leading outside so the pollinators may come and go as they please, a glass observation beehive allows visitors to watch honeybees at work. Other displays house small fish, toads, frogs, snakes and painted turtles. 

The gallery side displays art and jewelry for sale made by island artists. Paintings of the lavender fields, photographs of the Stavkirke, and mixed media interpretations of island wildlife give the art collection a distinct Washington Island theme. 

Worked up an Appetite?

In keeping with the theme for your outdoor island adventure, stop for lunch with a view at Jackson Harbor Soup. The covered patio deck and open grass areas provide plenty of outdoor seating with a view of Jackson Harbor and Rock Island. Walk up to the water while waiting for your food, and watch the ferry cross between the islands. 

There’s a story behind each sandwich at Jackson Harbor Soup. The Wreck of the Iris pulled-pork sandwich honors the 1913 shipwreck in the harbor – it’s “runaground in a pool of BBQ sauce” just as the schooner Iris ran aground. The restaurant’s daily soup offerings include Grammy’s potato soup, beer and cheddar and baked French onion. Look for creative specials like creamy jalapeno or shrimp bisque. For a bonus hike on the northeast side of Washington Island, head south of the restaurant to Jackson Harbor Dunes Park to access the Jackson Harbor Ridges State Natural Area. 

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