Door County top five
Door County, in northeast Wisconsin, is eight hours from central Iowa. The county is on a peninsula that juts out into the water, with Green Bay on the west side and Lake Michigan on the east.
It’s one of the Midwest’s top visitor destinations, but for some reason I’d never been there before. I think I had the idea that it was overly touristy. People go for different reasons, I suppose: to camp, shop, tour the wineries, fish, kayak, browse art galleries, or maybe just relax. I visited “The Door” last week with my husband, Dave, and I was surprised by all the things I really liked about it. Here are my top five:
How many lighthouses can one person photograph? All of them – that would be my answer. But, sadly, not all lighthouses are accessible by car and/or on foot. Many of them are located out on an island somewhere, or they’re on private property, or they’re just out of bounds for some reason.
So my realistic goal was just to see and photograph as many as possible. Of the 11 lighthouses on the peninsula and its islands, I found five, and half the fun was just getting to them:
- Baileys Harbor Range Light
- Canal Station Lighthouse (above)
- Canal Station Pier-head Lighthouse
- Cana Island Lighthouse
- Eagle Bluff Lighthouse
My favorite by far was the Canal Station Pier-head Lighthouse. It’s bright red, and it sits on a tiny, rocky island just off the coast of the U.S. Coast Guard station near Sturgeon Bay. This lighthouse is the featured photograph on the cover on the 2015-2016 “Key to the Door” vacation guide. It’s a beautiful thing.
But we almost didn’t get to see it. We had a terrible time finding the Coast Guard station, and even when we did, there was a big warning sign, with a stop sign and orange barricades in the road. Plus, I still wasn’t sure where the Pier-head Lighthouse was even located; we could easily see the less unique Canal Station Lighthouse (built in 1899) from the car, but not the red one that I so desperately wanted to see.
But then I carefully read the whole “warning” sign and found a loophole: There’s about a four-foot walkway that’s public, surrounded by private land on either side. As long as you walk straight down that ribbon of asphalt, it is apparently OK and not considered trespassing. At the end of the road is the pier that juts out into Lake Michigan, with the tiny, rocky island at the end.
It was windy as we made our way down the ever-narrowing pier. I began to hold on to the steel beams with both hands. But, oh my, it was worth it. Just take a look at this beauty, built in 1882:
This was probably my favorite experience on the Door County peninsula. But the other lighthouses were fun, too.
Eagle Bluff (above), built in 1868, is located on a steep bluff in Peninsula State Park and is easily accessible by car. So easy, it almost seemed like cheating, and there were a lot of people there.
The Cana Island Lighthouse (above) is a bit trickier to get to, but it’s well worth it. You have to pay $7 per person to walk across the causeway to the island and tour the lighthouse, built in 1869. To climb into the light tower, it’s an extra five bucks. This is a great lighthouse, and the grounds are nice, too.
The Baileys Harbor Range Light (above) has a unique story: Between 1869 and 1969 the range lights were used by navigators to safely enter Baileys Harbor on the Lake Michigan side of the peninsula. When the upper and lower lights were lined up, the sailor knew he was in safe water. The lighthouse is not open to the public, but you can walk around the exterior.
STATE AND COUNTY PARKS
Door County has five state parks and 19 county parks, and the ones we visited were all fantastic. We were hoping for some good hiking and great scenery, and we were not disappointed. Be aware that you need a park pass to visit the state parks ($10 per day or $35 per year for out-of-state cars).
We visited one state park on the western shore of the peninsula: the 3,776-acre Peninsula State Park. This may be the premier state park in the system; it has a huge golf course, the aforementioned lighthouse, bike trails, camping, swimming beaches, a theater, a nature center, and 20 miles of hiking trails.
We took two well-marked hikes: the Trail Tramper’s Delight and the Sentinel Trail, both quite nice, with gentle terrain. Other trails offer more of a challenge, with steep, rocky descents and access to remote areas.
On the Lake Michigan side, we visited Newport State Park, Wisconsin’s only formally designated wilderness park. With 2,373 acres of forest, wetlands, and upland meadows and only one mile of road, you could spend days here hiking the 30 miles of trails and camping in 16 remote campsites. We hiked the Upland loop, a narrow, 2-mile trail with plenty of rocks and tree roots to keep things challenging but very little up/down climbing, so it was relatively easy and probably the prettiest hike we took in Door County. Much of Newport State Park is edged by Lake Michigan, with coves and bays all along the way.
The last state park we visited was Whitefish Dunes. There we followed the “red trail” to “Old Baldy,” the tallest sand dune in the park. I found the hike to be tedious, with too many steps to climb with too little payoff. But the beach just a few yards from the parking lot was very pleasant (above).
Other state parks include Potawatomi, located south of Sturgeon Bay, and Rock Island, which is on the north side of Washington Island (a ferry ride from the peninsula) and can only be accessed by boat or yet another ferry.
Of the nearly two dozen county parks, we visited Ellison Bluff near Ellison Bay (above) for its beautiful views and a very nice, easy hike, and Cave Point near Jacksonport (below) for the crashing Lake Michigan waves against the limestone cliffs.
We also watched a gorgeous sunset at Sunset Beach Park in Fish Creek on our first night there.
WINERIES AND FARM STANDS
Door County’s wine trail includes more than half a dozen unique wineries and vineyards – and that doesn’t include the distillery, cider house, and brewery. So you could easily spend an entire day driving from tasting room to tasting room, if that’s your thing.
I am more inclined to choose just one and enjoy it fully. We chose Simon Creek Vineyard & Winery, which is located pleasantly off the main highways near Jacksonport. There we found free tastings of Simon’s red, white, rose, cherry, and dessert wines (the region is famous for its cherry wine, which sounds terrible, but tastes pretty good, although I doubt I could drink a whole glass), plus, of course, wine for purchase.
We chose a bottle of cabernet and sat in Adirondack chairs out on the lawn, listening to a singer and guitarist and very much enjoying the view.
Also fun – especially in the fall – are the many farm stands, orchards, and markets. We hit as many as we could. Most of them are on the main highways (State Hwys. 42 and 57 span the peninsula). We saw apples, gobs of cherry products (unfortunately, fresh cherry season is in July), local wines, gourds, and a gazillion pumpkins. (I bought a huge one for just $4.50.) One place even had a petting zoo.
CHARMING SMALL TOWNS AND FARMLAND
Small villages dot the shoreline of Door County. With enchanting names like Egg Harbor and Fish Creek, it’s fun just to walk through these towns, peek into store windows, and stop for a beer or cup of coffee.
Equally engaging are the farms you’ll find off the beaten path, along roadways with names like Plum Bottom, Sunny Slope, and Maple Tree Road. I liked the barns, the orchards, the vineyards, and the cows. If you go, be sure to drive the side roads, because they’re delightful.
I’m a vegetarian, and to raise the level of difficulty of finding a restaurant, I’m trying to eat healthier. So, no more French fries, no more mac & cheese, no more grilled cheese sandwiches. No more pie a la mode for lunch. But I had absolutely no problem finding good, healthy, veggie-friendly food in Door County, and Dave, a dedicated carnivore, was happy, too.
I had two meals at The Cookery in Fish Creek: grilled veggie kabobs and vegetarian fettuccine. I ate a wonderful spinach salad with goat cheese, toasted hazelnuts, and blackberries at Bier Zot Beer Café, a charming “European gastropub” in Sister Bay. I fell in love with the wood-fired pizza at the Wild Tomato in Fish Creek. And I even found a pretty decent walnut burger (weird, I know) at The Bistro in Egg Harbor. We were lucky that the weather was so nice; we ate many of our meals al fresco. Good breakfast also abounds in Door County, and many restaurants serve breakfast all day long. We avoided the top tourist meal: the fish boil.
AND THE REST
I think there are about two million places to stay in Door County: charming inns, resorts, B&Bs, condos, cottages, lodges, and yacht clubs. I found the choice overwhelming a few months back when I started looking for a place for two people to stay for four consecutive nights in September. Many of these places were already booked for the dates that worked best for us. Of the ones that were still available, some of them were really, really pricey. Dave managed to find a place, the Settlement Courtyard Inn, located just outside Fish Creek. Our room had a kitchenette, gas fireplace, and tons of space, so we were pleased with our choice. The Egg Harbor/Fish Creek/Ephraim/Sister Bay section of the peninsula has the most to offer in terms of lodging, food, and drink. If you want something more remote, consider Baileys Harbor or Jacksonport on the Lake Michigan side.
One other thing I’ll mention that I really liked about Door County was the almost total lack of any national chains. With the exception of a few in Sturgeon Bay, the largest town on the peninsula, you won’t find a Super 8, McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, or Olive Garden anywhere. There’s no Marriott, and nary a Subway. Talk about relaxing!
Here are some parting shots: