Hike This: A Learning Experience at The Ridges Sanctuary

Wandering along trail after trail last year was a nice way to get to know the great hikes of the county, but now that group hikes are returning, guided hikes offer a more educational experience.

Although there’s a variety of terrains throughout The Ridges Sanctuary, it’s hard to get lost here – just walk parallel to the ridges and swales, and you’ll reach the nature center. The boardwalk is wheelchair accessible and provides benches and gathering platforms along the way. And this summer, lake levels have receded enough to expose a sandy path that veers off toward the beach.

Water levels receded enough to offer beach access this summer. Photo by Jessica Gatzow.

During a recent hike, tour guide Doug Otopalik started at the beginning of The Ridges’ history: The limestone beneath our feet formed more than 450 million years ago, and mile-high glaciers covered the area 12,000 years ago. In 1937, The Ridges became the first sanctuary in Wisconsin. 

The property is considered to be the southernmost boreal forest in Wisconsin. Biodiversity surrounds hikers immediately and only increases as the hike goes on. Otopalik pointed out the irises, gaywings and star flowers bordering the trails and explained how to identify trees such as black spruce and hemlock. 

He welcomed the knowledge of participants, too, which at times sparked friendly debates – such as one about whether to identify tamarack trees as deciduous or coniferous. Participants also shared suggestions about favorite books, some of which are available in The Ridges’ nature center. 

The guide’s subject varies at every stop, from the water-purifying qualities of the swales to the mosquito-repelling qualities of the cedars. The group even spotted some unusual wildlife, such as a look-alike morel and a carnivorous pitcher plant. 

When they rise to the surface, lily pads turn color from rust to green. Photo by Jessica Gatzow.

As part of a research project, 28 orchid species grow at the sanctuary, each blooming at different times during the season. The project’s goal is to determine which factors – deer, soil and fungus conditions, or others – cause some to be endangered. 

Throughout the hike, Lake Michigan roared nearby, so the temperature  felt cool even on a sunny day. Most trails are partially shaded, and the trees offer some protection from the wind. 

Guided hikes are available Monday – Friday, 10 am – 12 pm, as well as during special summer events. Check the calendar at to plan your guided hike.

Platforms jutting out from the boardwalk offer views down the wide swales. Photo by Jessica Gatzow.

Where: 8166 Hwy 57 in Baileys Harbor

Distance: 1 mile

Difficulty: Easy and wheelchair accessible; trails are not steep or obstacle heavy

Highlights: If you’re lucky, you might see the giant snapping turtle home at one of the swales. Before transitioning to the beach, a boardwalk includes two functioning lighthouses. 

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