By Dave G. Houser
For most of us, the Midwest doesn’t exactly pop to mind when planning a vacation.
There are no soaring mountains. Or towering redwoods. No steaming geysers or snowy glaciers. Or ocean or palm-lined beaches.
I agree that much of America’s heartland is flat, land-locked and best suited to farming but it offers a few surprises.
Wisconsin’s Door County is one of them. A narrow 70-mile-long finger of land jutting northward between Lake Michigan and Green Bay, the Door Peninsula is a popular getaway destination for residents of Midwest metro areas such as Milwaukee, Chicago, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Indianapolis.
But if you live elsewhere, listen up. You have no idea what you’re missing.
Rich in Superlatives
Door County is a region rich in superlatives. It has more miles of coastline (298), more lighthouses (11), and more state parks (5) than any county in the United States.
While these factoids may seem a bit dry, here’s a juicier tidbit: the Door region is one of the leading fruit producers in the nation. Tart, succulent Montmorency cherries and crunchy Ida-Red apples, in particular, grow in nearly 100 orchards. From spring to fall you’ll find them everywhere – in pick-it-yourself orchards, at roadside stands, in jams, preserves, and salsas, in wines and beers, and especially in those temptingly delicious pies served at eateries throughout the county.
Last September – just after the mass exodus of summer visitors – a friend and I paid a well-timed visit to Door County. We were blessed with sunny skies, near perfect temperatures and delightfully uncrowded conditions.
So please join us for a recap of our three-day driving tour along both the lakeside and bayside of this slender peninsula.
Into Door County, Wisconsin
Our tour got underway in Sturgeon Bay, Door’s largest community, and situated near the bottom of the peninsula. Sturgeon Bay boasts the Great Lakes’ largest shipyard and the city is home to the Door County Maritime Museum. The museum is an institution that anyone with nautical interests might want to include on their itinerary.
The peninsula’s seemingly pedestrian name has nautical roots, conferred by French explorers who met their match trying to navigate the devilish waters snarling around its northern tip back in the 1600s. Those who survived the shipwrecks named the passage Porte des Morts, or Door of the Dead – and the Door part stuck.
Our drive north along Green Bay on SR 42 led us through Egg Harbor, a charming little hamlet of 280 residents. Legend says gained its name from an egg fight between groups of wealthy vacationers. The town sits on a bluff above a deep, well-protected harbor that makes it a favorite anchorage of summer sailors.
Our destination for the day was Fish Creek, another small town about 15 minutes north. It was there we’d reserved a campsite for our rental RV at Peninsula State Park.
Fish Creek becomes Door Country’s social and cultural hub each summer with a busy schedule of music and theater events. Students from Birch Creek Music Performance Center stage concerts here. And the Peninsula Players, America’s oldest professional summer resident theater, present plays six nights a week from mid-June to mid-October.
On the way in, we encountered one of the park’s most outstanding features. It was the lush 18-hole Peninsula Golf Course, often cited as one of the most scenic courses in the state.
Peninsula State Park
Peninsula State Park is Wisconsin’s third largest state park, sprawling over 3,776 acres. It’s immensely popular, attracting nearly a million visitors a year. The park’s five campgrounds offer nearly 500 sites, 157 of them with electrical hookups.
Hiking, biking, and cross-country skiing trails lace the park, which is open year-round. During the summer months, kayaks and canoes are available for rent at Nicolet Beach. There’s also a nice stretch of sand for swimming and sunbathing.
Towering 150-foot tall limestone bluffs rise from the shore of Green Bay and provide panoramic views from stone-lined overlooks. The Civilian Conservation Corps constructed them in the 1930s.
Another key attraction is Eagle Bluff Lighthouse. President Andrew Johnson authorized construction of this handsome light in 1866, and it was completed in 1868. The lighthouse is open to visitors, and there’s a small museum in the former lighthouse-keeper’s home.
The following morning we explored the park for a couple of hours and then set out north again to see some more of the peninsula. Arriving in Ephraim (pronounced EE-from), a picture-perfect whitewashed Moravian settlement dating to 1853 that tumbles down a hill to a harbor bobbing with sailboats, we could see why Door County is so often compared to New England’s Cape Cod.
We walked through Harborside Park along the town’s gracefully curved waterfront and continued to the pier where Anderson’s Barn, an old graffiti-adorned warehouse, serves as home to the Hardy Gallery featuring exhibits by local artists.
With the noon hour approaching, our thoughts turned to lunch. We found that in Ephraim there’s no better choice of eateries than Wilson’s Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlor. A Door County institution since 1906, Wilson’s, with its red-and-white-striped awnings, old-fashioned soda fountain, and booths with Wurlitzer jukeboxes, is a throwback to an earlier era. We ordered patty melts and home-brewed root beer, topped off with an obligatory slab of cherry pie. It was like a trip back in time.
If you have kids in tow, they’ll undoubtedly holler out for a stop at Ephraim’s 1930s Firehouse. A Deco-style stone structure harboring a pair of vintage fire trucks, it now serves as a museum.
Goats On the Roof
SR 42 continues north to the tip of the peninsula. And like most visitors, we couldn’t resist a visit to the “top of the thumb,” as locals call it. Our mission got derailed, however, just a few miles up the road in Sister Bay.
Of course, we had to pay a visit to Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant to see the town’s most famous residents. They are a family of goats, which graze on Al’s sod-covered roof. Inside, dirndl-clad waitresses serve Swedish pancakes topped with lingonberries and drowning in whipped cream.
We were in orchard country now, and that mandated yet another stop – at Seaquist Orchards Farm Market – where we browsed a veritable cornucopia of Door-grown produce and farm products such as jams and jellies, juices, ciders and baked goods. We left with some cherry preserves and a bottle of oh-so-tasty apple butter.
Our next stop was Gills Rock, a hard-working New England-style fishing port at the edge of the peninsula. There we checked out the docks lined with nets and other fishing gear and then dropped by Bea’s Ho-Made Products. We watched Bea Landin and her crew brewing up a vat of cherry-apple jam as we nibbled on cherry oatmeal cookies fresh from the oven.
SR 42 winds to an end in nearby Northport. There we came upon a lineup of cars and RVs boarding a ferry to Washington Island. We didn’t have time for the half-hour trip (across the infamous Death’s Door Passage), needing to hustle back to Ephraim for a 7:00 pm dinner reservation, but we spoke with a couple that had just returned.
She said she enjoyed shopping at the various craft studios, while he said it was a great place if you liked watching paint dry. Sound familiar? RV campers should make note that Washington Island Campground offers 45 sites, most with water and electricity.
For visitors seeking further offshore adventure, however, there’s a passenger-only ferry that continues to tiny Rock Island, a forested state park that’s laced with hiking trails and is home to Pottawatomie Lighthouse. Built in 1836, it was the first light to serve Wisconsin’s shoreline.
Back in Ephraim, we were more than ready to sample Door County’s unique and legendary dining tradition – a fish boil – at the Old Post Office Restaurant. Assembled with fellow diners in a courtyard behind the restaurant, we watched as the resident “boil master” stoked a bonfire beneath a large cauldron filled with saltwater and chunks of Lake Michigan whitefish, potatoes, and onions. As the cooking process neared completion, he doused the fire with kerosene, creating quite a conflagration.
As the oohs and aahs subsided, we were led inside where a team of servers presented steaming platters of tasty whitefish, butter-drenched potatoes, and salads. A spectacle nowadays aimed at tourists, fish boils originated in the 19th century as a quick and economical means of feeding Scandinavian lumberjacks being deployed to clear land for farming.
Wild Side of the Door Peninsula
Thoroughly rested following our final night at Peninsula State Park, we set out to explore the Lake Michigan side of the peninsula. This necessitated a drive north once again on SR 42 to Sister Bay to connect with SR 57, a well-maintained two-laner that traces the lakeside shore south to Sturgeon Bay.
Luckily, our return to Sister Bay was timed just right for a Swedish pancake breakfast at Al Johnson’s – and permission to climb atop the roof for some photos of Al’s goats.
Just a few miles south of Sister Bay on SR 57 we reached Baileys Harbor where, following some cryptic directions provided by the Door County Visitor Bureau, we set out on winding County Road Q that eventually led us to our first objective of the morning, Cana Island Lighthouse.
The county and a local preservation society maintain the 1869 light as a maritime museum and it’s well worth getting your feet wet to see. It’s open to the public, seven days a week (10:00 am to 5:00 pm) April 30 – October 30. A modest entry fee includes access to the keeper’s house and the opportunity to climb Cana’s 102-step circular staircase for panoramic views over Lake Michigan.
Continuing south to Cave Point County Park, it became apparent that lakeside is definitely the wild side of the Door Peninsula. Here, a short hike leads to a dramatic scene as waves crash against jagged limestone ledges, etched with caves and overhangs, rising 20-40 feet above Lake Michigan. It was mesmerizing to watch as big rollers pounded the rock with a resonant boom and hiss.
The Final Leg
Whitefish Dunes State Park, our last stop before making the final leg of our journey back to Sturgeon Bay, joins Cave Point to the south. Most visitors come here to enjoy the park’s beckoning 1.5-mile stretch of sandy beach, but the preserve also is notable for its namesake dunes – the largest in Wisconsin. We hiked a boardwalk to the top of Old Baldy, the park’s highest dune at 93 feet.
It was a warm Indian summer afternoon and, reluctant to leave, we unlaced our booties and shuffled barefoot along the beach, lamenting that we hadn’t planned a longer stay. So don’t make the same mistake. Give Door County at least a week. You’ll love every minute of it.