by Jean Grant – Door County is the thumb of Wisconsin’s “mitten” and a popular Midwest vacation spot, a half-day’s drive from Chicago and Minneapolis. Bicyclists, hikers, boaters, golfers and food connoisseurs alike gather on the 70-mile long peninsula known for its lighthouses, scenic vistas, quiet ambiance and family adventures by land and by water. Green fields abound inland while quaint bays, harbors, villages and wooded natural parks dot the coastline. It’s an ideal destination for a weekend or week-long visit.
I was pleasantly greeted by late summer tranquility in a county that’s home to 30,000 year-round residents. The atmosphere was relaxing…the epitome of Midwest meets small coastal town. At 2 million visitors annually, tourism is Door County’s primary industry, and I could see why.
The culture is a blend of Scandinavian, French and Native American (predominantly the Potawatomi). Fishermen, loggers and early explorers settled in this once remote, windswept region with the earliest settlements dating back 2,000 years. Now, the county is home to agriculture, shipbuilding, small-town commerce and recreational parks. Whether by foot, pedal or paddle there is something for everyone in the family in Door County.
My Door County Trip Itinerary
- Kayak to limestone caves along Lake Michigan
- View shipwrecks and lighthouses by a speed boat tour
- Climb to the top of a 150-year-old lighthouse
- Hike through state parks
- Partake in Midwest cuisine
- Enjoy an entertaining open-fire fish boil
- Tour Door County Coffee Roasters
Best Door County Lodging
The county offers a range of accommodations, including hotels, B&Bs, cottages and campgrounds (some seasonal, a few year-round). I stayed at the The Landmark Resort in Egg Harbor in a room with complete kitchen, living area and a second floor loft, ideal for families. Pools, manicured wooded grounds and views of Green Bay made for a serene base camp for exploring. I recommend bringing food for meals, though the restaurant serves lunch and dinner.
Paddling and Cruising Door County
In tandem kayaks, we paddled 1.5 miles round trip on Lake Michigan to Cave Point near Whitefish Dunes State Park guided by Lakeshore Adventures. Although the choppy open water tested our endurance, placid clear emerald waters guarding stacked, rectangular limestone caves rewarded the work. This paddle is quite suitable for skilled older elementary children. Even more agile and adventurous? Try stand-up paddle boarding. Seeking a calmer option? Paddle inland at Kangaroo Lake or Clark Lake.
In the afternoon we cruised along the shores of Lake Michigan in a zippy speed boat. We observed scattered old shipwrecks and three of the county’s 11 lighthouses: Cana Island, Bailey’s Harbor Ranges and aptly named Old Bailey’s Harbor Birdcage. The boat owner who also served as our guide was entertaining and like all my Door County hosts, hospitable and knowledgeable. The 8-person speed boat is a thrilling experience for all ages.
Cana Island Lighthouse is also accessible by land…if you don’t mind either a tractor ride on the 300-foot natural causeway leading to the island or rolling up your cuffs and wading across in 8-inch-deep water. Both ways are enjoyable. Due to the fluctuations in lake level that occur every few decades, the causeway can be either dry or submerged. This idyllic lighthouse was built in 1869 and has weathered many storms. A gorgeous 97-step cast-iron spiral staircase brings visitors through a hatch to a third order Fresnel lens. Atop a brilliant white tower, we took in 360-degree views of the peninsula and Lake Michigan. An extensive museum and small beaches complete this must-see excursion for lighthouse lovers.
Small Treks Upon Land In Door County
Bring your hiking boots or sneakers, for Door County has five state parks, a dozen nature preserves, miles of biking routes and hundreds of hiking trails. The moderate but kid-friendly two-mile round trip Eagle Trail at Peninsula State Park weaves through old white cedars and brings hikers to the bottom of 150-foot rocky bluffs. Here the Niagara escarpment shows its full glory in the form of dolomite rock cliffs. The trail continues along Green Bay where saplings from two decades ago found root and now reside in lake water, robust and resilient to weather extremes. It was fascinating to imagine the bay iced over, several feet thick, in winter. Small caves in the dolomite are sure to please young and old.
I rounded out my hike in this gem of a park with a trip to Eagle Bluff Lighthouse. The park is home to signature bike trails, including the 10-mile Sunset Bike Tail that meanders through marsh, trees and cliffs. It’s also one of the only parks to offer year-round campsites. Looking to go for a dip either bay or lake side? The county has over 50 swimming beaches, Whitefish Dunes being one of the more popular ones.
Wisconsin’s only wilderness park, Newport State Park offers quiet alternatives with miles of hiking and biking trails through hardwood forests, meadows and wetlands on the northern tip of the peninsula. Rainy day or traveling during the shoulder seasons of fall and spring? Door County has many galleries, museums and art venues.
A Taste of Door County
At Wilson’s Restaurant, a century-old mom and pop landmark, I was introduced to the deliciousness that is fried cheese curds. Where have they been all my life? Oh yes, in Wisconsin, the state that is the top cheese producer at 2.8 million pounds per year. Needless to say, I brought some home. I also made sure to try cherries in every form: ice cream, pie, juice, bread pudding…Door County is among the top tart cherry-producing regions in the country.
What do you get when you combine salt, onions, potatoes and whitefish steaks in a big kettle and cook over an open fire? A fish boil at Rowley’s Bay Resort, which hosts buffets combined with a humorous performance by one of the village’s oldest residents. Even if you don’t like fish, it’s worth bringing the entire family for the experience, homey ambiance and generation-passed-down recipes.
There was no shortage of sunsets as a late summer pink-orange sun dipped down into Green Bay at Fred and Fuzzy’s outdoor eatery in Sister Bay, known for the on-the-water dinning and tasty casual cuisine. Before departing, I dropped into Door County Coffee, a family-operated, artisan coffee roaster. I snagged a brief “coffee college” crash course about coffee’s journey from fruit to cup, with a sneak-peek into their working facility, followed by a scrumptious baked egg breakfast. Their menu is sure to please even picky eaters. I brought home Death’s Door dark roast and Elite Espresso and have been enjoying them ever since. My trip wouldn’t have been complete without visiting Al Johnson’s goats grazing on a grass-covered roof, a hallmark of Door County and a must-see for kids.
Why is it Called Door County?
Alas, Door County didn’t acquire its name for being a door manufacturer. Founded in 1851, the county is named after Porte Des Morts (Death’s Door), the dangerous water passage between Lake Michigan and Green Bay, attributed to the region by early French explorers based on Native American stories and their own misfortunes. Over 200 shipwrecks in the lake and bay can attest to that fact.
Door County is a perfect family escape from the daily grind – relaxation, family-owned venues, wind and waves, lake and bay adventures and easy hikes through old woodland.
Note: Door County Visitor Bureau provided complimentary airfare, accommodations, activities, and dining for the purposes of this article.
Jean Grant is a scientist, author, and mom to two active, nature-loving sons. She currently resides in Massachusetts. She writes where her heart takes her…from castles to craters to crags of all kinds. Her website can be found at jeanmgrant.com.