Door County peninsula juts into Lake Michigan just beyond the point where two highways become one road. Like it or not, you have to slow down as 57 and 42 join to lead you to a place where life moves at a gentler pace and the pleasures are both wild and tame.
With two dramatic shorelines, this thin strip of land boasts expansive beaches, thick forests, lush prairies, and high cliffs overlooking the lake. Waves crash into sea caves, and the horizon spreads out in a penumbra of blues—pale aqua shallows darken to deep-water indigos. Everywhere there are flowers—buff lavender, pale chicory, daisies—and lush green meadows. You can spend afternoons watching vibrant orange butterflies trailing a field of Queen Anne’s lace, or scrambling along boulders before plunging into icy crystalline waters. But pack a sweater for haunting August nights under a velvet canopy of stars.
Door County is also quite civilized. Highway 42 strings a necklace of towns along the Green Bay coast while Highway 57 parallels Lake Michigan’s grassy dunes and bone-white beaches. The roads are well marked. In high season, they’re often clogged with traffic, so the best way to experience Door County is by foot, boat, or bike as you sample from the smattering of museums, lighthouses, galleries, and eateries. You can catch a live performance, take a class or seminar, and chow down on cherries and boiled fish. But make sure you leave time to lounge on a weathered dock with a good book. You’ll need a long weekend or a week to make the most of the trip. It’s an easy six-hour drive from the Twin Cities, but take time to stretch out and enjoy this skinny peninsula that’s so fat with summer’s sweet promise.
TO DO IN DOOR COUNTY
To get a sense of Door County’s legacy and lore, begin in Sturgeon Bay, the largest shipbuilding port on the Great Lakes, with two active yards of racing yachts and Great Lakes freighters, some in excess of 1,000 feet. If your companion happens to be a 10-year-old boy (or has the heart of one), linger outside the gates at Bay Shipbuilding Co. (605 3rd Ave. N., Sturgeon Bay) to watch work at the giant dry dock and gantry crane. Then head down the busy waterfront to Door County Maritime Museum
(120 Madison Ave. N., Sturgeon Bay, 920-743-5958) and delve back in time into the lives of fishermen, ship captains, craftsmen, inventors, and lighthouse keepers.
Farther up the coast, history lives in Ephraim, the hamlet at Eagle Harbor settled by Norwegian Moravians in the mid-1850s. They decreed all buildings be painted white or not at all and have retained that elegantly sparse weather-beaten sensibility. Today more than 30 of the buildings are registered historic sites. Ephraim is also the only dry township remaining in Wisconsin, so you might as well stop for a root beer at Wilson’s Restaurant & Ice Cream Parlor (9990 Water St., Ephraim, 920-854-2041). This glorious throwback serves up handcrafted root beer floats, tabletop jukeboxes, and mile-high sundaes made to share. Dine at the Old Post Office Restaurant (Edgewater Resort, 10040 Water St., Ephraim, 920-854-4034).
Eleven lighthouses (dcmm.org
) are scattered along the peninsula’s shoreline, each with dizzying views. Eagle Bluff Lighthouse in Peninsula State Park is perched 76 feet above Green Bay, and on a clear day you can see all the way up the island chain leading to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and the cities of Menominee, Michigan, and Marinette, Wisconsin. Lighthouse docents share stories of the keepers who manned the light from 1868 to 1926, such as William Duclon and his wife, who raised seven boys at Eagle Bluff and lived there for 35 years.
Door County houses two stunning retreat centers devoted to intellectual and creative pursuits. The Björklunden
(7590 Boynton Ln., Baileys Harbor, 920-839-2216), run by Lawrence University on 425 wooded acres, offers one-week classes in such topics as the region’s flora and fauna, poetry, and drawing. The Clearing (12171 Garrett Bay Rd., Ellison Bay, 920-854-4088, theclearing.org), designed by landscape architect Jens Jensen and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, spans 128 acres of woods and cliffs. It hosts one-week classes related to the humanities, natural sciences, and arts, including landscape photography and paper arts. In addition, Hands On Art Studio (3655 Peninsula Players Rd., Fish Creek, 920-868-9311, handsonartstudio.com) serves up an array of classes—ceramics, welding, glass mosaics—at all levels. Newbies can paint a pre-thrown pot that the staff will fire for pickup the next day. It’s also a fun place to shop for jewelry, stained glass, pottery, and watercolors by local artists.
You can take in a live performance every night of the week. More than a dozen venues across Door County (including Washington Island) serve up plays and musicals, classical music and concerts, poetry slams, and spoken word contests. Check The Pulse website for calendars and tickets.
The iconic Wisconsin fish boil is offered at dozens of locations and is worthy of your bucket list. A huge cauldron hangs over a roaring wood fire roiling with boiling fish and potatoes. The “boil master” throws kerosene on the flames, which leap across the pot to burn off the scum while the overflow of water extinguishes the fire beneath. Fish and potatoes are then served doused with drawn butter.
When cooked this way, whitefish, fresh off the boat, is sweet and firm like lobster. Accept help from the waiter when he offers to debone your fish; whitefish is tricky and the bones can stick in your throat.
Though legend holds that fish boils originated in Scandinavia, the method was created to feed hungry loggers efficiently. At last sampling, the fish boil at White Gull Inn (4225 Main St., Fish Creek, 888-364-9542), which is among the best, includes a slice of homemade pie bursting with tart local Montmorency cherries.
Speaking of cherries, the region’s 2,000 acres of cherry orchards yield the nation’s third-largest harvest of cherries as well as one of Wisconsin’s biggest apple harvests. All those slow-moving tractors on the road mean you’ll hit occasional traffic jams, but you’re also in a pie wonderland. Sweetie Pies (9106 Hwy. 42, Fish Creek, 877-868-2744) uses fruit from just down the street. The buttery, flaky, hand-rolled and pinched beauties are worth the calories in a slice or three, which is why the shop blows through 100 pies a day of up to 30 varieties.
To accompany these gustatory pleasures, seek out Death’s Door Vodka and Gin, distilled from wheat grown on Washington Island (the last outpost of Door County). These spirits are named for the dangerous passage between Green Bay and Lake Michigan, known since the early shipping days as Porte des Morts, or Death’s Door, for the boats and lives it’s claimed. Toast to them as you sip your gin and tonic.
To sample all of Door County’s local specialties in one place, wander the Sturgeon Bay Farmers Market (4th and Michigan, Sturgeon Bay, 920-746-2914), where nearly 70 vendors sell cheese curds, cherries, berries, maple syrup, artisan sausages and meats, fresh-picked produce, and grilled brats. Several wool vendors bring their alpacas on leashes, too.
It’s easy enough to rent a good bike. Gravity Trails (1041 Co. Rd. ZZ, Ellison Bay, 920-854-9292) offers guided tours and cushy trail bikes. If you want to head off on your own, the Bicycle & Other Silent Sports Map of Door County offers a detailed map of roads, bike trails, hiking trails, kayak and canoe launches, lighthouses, and swimming beaches. The distances between towns are manageable (Egg Harbor to Fish Creek, for example, is a fast eight-mile pedal).
A good place to start a bike tour is just above Sturgeon Bay. Follow the dunes and rocky shore along the Lake Michigan coast and take the serpentine Glidden Drive across meandering Shivering Sands Creek to Clark Lake, then swing into the forest near Cave Point County Park. The shoreline is dramatic with cliffs and caves, and the course is cool with lake breezes that sweep the road as you glide through dappled shadows of birch and pine.
Farther north, set off from Baileys Harbor, take County Q to the wildflower preserve called The Ridges (where you’ll find dwarf lake iris and arctic primrose) to stunning Moonlight Bay, and beyond to Cana Island Lighthouse, then North Bay. Or follow the winding roads through Peninsula State Park, the 3,700-acre isthmus on the bay coast with views to the scattered islands. A few miles south, County B runs along the calm waters from Egg Harbor to the wide western mouth of the Sturgeon Bay Canal.
Each state park in Door County is a pathway into nature’s sanctuary. Some are steeper and more challenging than others, and all have maps so you can know beforehand what you’re getting into. The most dramatic hike is in Whitefish Dunes State Park, leading up to Old Baldy, the tallest sand dune in Wisconsin at 93 feet high. Your reward for hiking up is a boardwalk and a lookout area on top. Eagle Trail in Peninsula State Park runs along the base of Eagle Bluff in the park with a rugged two-mile trail and spectacular views of the lake. Europe Bay Trail in Newport State Park along the Lake Michigan shoreline takes you through the area’s one designated wilderness park.
Kayaking is the best way to see the astonishing Cave Point County Park Caves and Whitefish Dunes on the Lake Michigan side. The sea caves of craggy dolomite rock formed over the millennia are 15 to 20 feet high, and eerily cool and echoey. Paddle out and the shoreline changes drastically to Whitefish Dunes’ spectacular sandy beach. If you choose to paddle out on your own, take a map and consult an outfitter such as Bay Shore Outfitters (2457 Bay Shore Dr. S., Sister Bay, 920-854-7598), which has outposts along the Green Bay coast. Be warned: These waters can be treacherous, and the weather changes in minutes. If you’re not experienced enough to go it alone, Door County Kayak Tours (8442 Hwy. 42, Fish Creek, 920-344-6641) offers guided tours of the caves and the bluffs around Peninsula State Park on the Green Bay side.
Passengers can be as involved with the crew or as laid-back as they would like on one of Sail Door County’s (Sister Bay, 920-495-7245) cruises, based at the Sister Bay Marina. Choices include a lighthouse and islands cruise or a caves and bluffs cruise on Sail Door County’s 40-foot sailing yachts.
Take a two-hour ride tailored to various interests through Classic Boat Tours of Door County (Fish Creek Town Dock, 920-421-2080).
WHERE TO STAY
Door County’s B&Bs, inns, hotels, motels, and resorts run the gamut.
In peak season, it’s about $300 a night to stay at The Country House Resort (2468 Sunnyside Rd., Sister Bay, 800-424-0041), a pretty historic inn with spa amenities.
Eagle Harbor Inn (9914 Water St., Ephraim, 920-854-2121) offers rooms for $120 a night with full breakfast, or cottages with kitchens that dot five acres of charming waterfront. (Do try owner Natalie Nedderson’s cherry granola.)
More modest, the Robins Nest Cottages (4066 Main St., Fish Creek, 920-868-3541) are a terrific value at $90 a night. This collection of 1940s and ’50s cottages looks cramped from the outside, but the spaces are cheerful and airy within. Each has a deck, on which owner Robin Klatt places tomato and pepper plants for guests to pick from. The resort backs onto Fish Creek and the state park, and it has a small playground with nets for volleyball or badminton.