Hiking at Plum Island in Door County



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Abandoned Coat Guard Lifesaving Station at Plum Island in Door County WI
Abandoned Coast Guard Lifesaving Station at Plum Island in Door County WI

Plum Island is located off the tip of Door County between Northport and Washington Island. Until recently it was the property of the Coast Guard which operated a range light and life saving station between the front and back door channels of Port Des Morts passage (translated to Deaths Door).

The Island was closed to the public until recently when the land was transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It is now open to the public throughout the summer months. But, getting there is still a trick. You'll need to motorboat, sail, or kayak to Plum Island if you want to trek it's 3 miles of hiking trails. 





Lower Range Light at Plum Island in Door County WI
Looking towards the lower range light at Plum Island in Door County WI




A group of ecotourists began to assemble dockside at Shoreline Charters in Gills Rocks. Skipper Jim Robinson made his last preparations. It was a sunny and blue skied Memorial Day weekend in 2017, and the waters at Deaths Door were calm. Ridges Sanctuary had dubbed this weekend The Festival of Nature - arranging a menu of naturalist led hikes and tours. At the top of the list was a rare chance to visit Plum Island - an island which has been closed to visitors until recently when the US Fish and Wildlife Service took ownership from the US Coast Guard.

Once our group of 12 nature buffs were loaded and comfortable we were off skimming the waves in a 33 foot utility craft - once built for the Coast Guard and now rechristened as a charter under the name "The Shoreline". Captain Robinson pointed out houses of the famous set onto the bluffs at Gills Rock, and then Plum Island came into view.

Plum Island divides the Ports Des Morts Passage into the front door and the back door channels - the back door being the Detroit Island Passage. The red light atop the upper range light at Plum Island still directs ships entering Green Bay from Lake Michigan into Deaths Door.

Ships entering Green Bay from the Lake can cut through between Washington Island and Door County at Ports Des Morts (Deaths Door). The first light they see is the Pilot Island Light House - centered at the eastern head of the passage. If they keep the Pilot Island light off to their Starboard Side the next lights they'll see are two lights of the Plum Island range light.

The range lights are lead markers, and when a mariner closes the marks it means that the upper light appears above the lower light. Buoys mark the shoals extending off Europe Bay. The Nine Foot Shoals and Waverly Shoal Bell Buoy are marked with green buoys. The green buoys indicate that the safe channel is north of the buoy and and the red lights on Plum Island indicate that the safe channel is south of the island. Once a ship follows the range lights into the channel and it has passed the green Waverly Shoal buoy they adjust 48 degrees to the west so that they pass safely between the lights at Northport and Plum Island.

All of this is very important because Deaths Door has lived up to its name. Deaths Door contains more shipwrecks than any other section of fresh water in the world. The Detroit Channel, between Plum Island and Detroit Island, is littered with isolated shoals and shipwrecks. The Plum Island Life Saving Station was located closer to that action on the north end of the island.

Our captain crossed the channel heading straight toward Lobdells Point on Washington Island until he had passed the shoals extending off Plum Island and then swung back in for a landing at the newly reopened dock. We were greeted at the dock by Ranger Dustan Hoffman of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Hoffman's enthusiasm for all things nature is infectious. He's the kind of ranger who likes to get his hands dirty. Maybe due to living out on Washington Island and being charged with patrolling the uninhabited islands around Green Bay he was just very excited to be around new people. He skipped the long speeches and jumped into action - escorting us to a blooming field of rare and endangered Dwarf Lake Iris and Broomrape. He pointed out the abandoned eagles nest along Eagle View Trail. And, took the courageous of our group to the top of the upper range light for a 360 degree panoramic aerial view of the island.


Endangered Flowers at Plum Island in Door County WI
The Dwarf Lake Iris is a federally listed threatened flowering plant .
The largest known community of Lake Iris is at Plum Island along the trail
to the wetlands from the Lifesaving Station. For this reason, this trail has been closed.

Arriving at Plum Island, the first things you'll notice are the retired Coast Guard life saving station and boathouse. The Lifesaving station was established in 1897 and was used until 1990. It is built in the Duluth Style designed by George Russel Tolman. This style was based on an earlier Marquette Style life saving station design that featured shingle siding and gables. The Duluth Style returned to earlier station designs which included a large lookout tower. The Plum Island Life Saving Station is the last of the Duluth Style stations on the Great Lakes.

In 1939 a separate boathouse was added. This boathouse is of the Roosevelt Architectural style, a symmetrical style with colonial revival detailing, gabled roofs, multi-pane windows and large corner boards with capitals - always painted white with green shutters and a red roof. The Plum Island boathouse also includes dormers which are typical of the style.


Abandoned Coat Guard Lifesaving Station at Plum Island in Door County WI
Abandoned Coast Guard Lifesaving Station at Plum Island in Door County WI

To the west of the life-saving station is a welcoming set of interpretative panels set beneath a trellis. And just south of the welcome panels the trails begin. You'll find a low carved wood sign directing visitors to the three established trails on the island.

The Island View Trail is the longest at 3.3 miles. It traces the route of the patrol road which circumnavigated the island. In the Coast Guard days of the island two patrol men walked the length of the patrol road in opposite directions scanning for ships in danger.

Today the trail is cut short of completing a full loop. Plum Island is host to many endangered plants. One of them, the Dwarf Lake Iris has established in a swale along the old patrol road west of the life saving station. This is the largest community of Dwarf Lake Iris known to exist - so a portion of the Island View Trail is closed between the wetlands and the life saving station.

The most popular trail to take is one of two that cuts across the island between the life-saving station and the lighthouse keepers house. This is the Eagle View Trail - so named because at its midpoint you can see a bald eagles nest. The eagles have moved to another nest on the island - so, not much chance of viewing eagles on the Eagle View Trail.

At the end of the Eagle View Trail you'll see the old light keepers house and the upper range light. Along this western shoreline you'll find a walkway to north point where a foghorn building is located. And, to the southeast you can walk to the lower range light.

For a return hike, you can take the Fern Island Trail, which as described in the name, is lush with the unfurling fiddleheads of ferns.

Getting out to enjoy Plum Island is daunting, but less so in 2017. The boat dock is repaired, and sailboats and motor boats can dock here now. Otherwise, you will need to canoe or kayak to the Island. If you can gather a group together you can also rent a charter boat at Shoreline Charters in Gills Rock. And, yet another way to access this remote island is to join the Friends of Plum Island organization and volunteer to pitch in on restoration efforts at Plum Island.

Ranger Hoffman is excited to get more people out to the island, so he'll be happy to see you if you make the voyage, and if you arrange your visit ahead of time, he'll be happy to show you all of the natural wonders that make this island and new wildlife refuge special.



Wetlands at Plum Island in Door County WI
Wetlands at Plum Island in Door County WI



Plum Island Hiking Trails 


COUNTY: Door
COMMUNITIES: Plum Island

ISLAND VIEW TRAIL (FORMERLY PATROL ROAD TRAIL)
TOTAL MILES: 3.32 Miles linear (6.6 miles out-and-back_
DIFFICULTY: Easy

EAGLE VIEW TRAIL
TOTAL MILES: .6 miles linear (1.2 miles out-n-back)
DIFFICULTY: Very Easy

FERN ISLAND TRAIL
TOTAL MILES: .5 miles linear
DIFFICULTY: Very Easy






Directions and Trail Map



If viewing on a mobile device, open the trail map above to load into Google Maps App by touching the expand rectangle in the upper right corner.

Address for your GPS: 12699 S Port Des Morts Dr, Ellison Bay, WI 54210
| coordinates: 45.312928, -86.947903 |

From Milwaukee3.5 Hours
From Madison4 Hours
From Green Bay2 Hours
From Wausau3 Hours
From Minneapolis6 Hours
From Chicago4.5 Hours


Photos


Trail at Plum Island in Door County WI
Trail at Plum Island in Door County WI

Looking at the Foghorn from the Upper Range Light at Plum Island in Door County
Looking at the Foghorn from the Upper Range Light at Plum Island in Door County

Plum Island in the distance at Plum Island Door County WI
Plum Island in the distance at Plum Island Door County WI

Lighthouse Keepers Quarters on Plum Island in Door County WI
Lighthouse Keepers Quarters on Plum Island in Door County WI

Abandoned Bald Eagle Nest on Plum Island in Door County WI
Abandoned Bald Eagle Nest on Plum Island in Door County WI

Endangered Flowers at Plum Island in Door County WI
One Flower Broomrape is a Special Concern listed flowering plant in WI.
It's rare habitats include Plum, Washington, Rock, and Summer Islands


Trail at Plum Island in Door County WI
Trail at Plum Island in Door County WI

Trail at Plum Island in Door County WI
Trail at Plum Island in Door County WI

Interpretative Sign for the Grape Shot Shipwreck at Plum Island in Door County WI
Interpretative Sign for the Grape Shot Shipwreck at Plum Island in Door County WI

Abandoned Coast Guard Boat House at Plum Island in Door County WI
Abandoned Coast Guard Boat House at Plum Island in Door County WI

Plum Island recently was transferred from the Coast Guard to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. It is now a National Wildlife Refuge - along with many other islands in Lake Michigan and Green Bay
Plum Island recently was transferred from the Coast Guard to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. It is now a National Wildlife Refuge - along with many other islands in Lake Michigan and Green Bay

Abandoned Coat Guard Lifesaving Station at Plum Island in Door County WI
Abandoned Coat Guard Lifesaving Station at Plum Island in Door County WI

Lighthouse Keepers Quarters on Plum Island in Door County WI
Lighthouse Keepers Quarters on Plum Island in Door County WI

Shoreline Charters in Gills Rock Door County offers lighthouse tours or private charters out to Plum Island
Shoreline Charters in Gills Rock Door County offers lighthouse tours or private charters out to Plum Island




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