Off the beaten path – Door County, Wisconsin has it all!
While driving out of Michigan and heading into Wisconsin, we realized that we were leaving the eastern time zone for the last time, and that we’ve been through all six of North America’s time zones (Alaskan, Pacific, Mountain, Central, Eastern and Atlantic) during our travels. We’ve stayed at places where crossing timezones was a daily occurrence, and we’ve had to learn that booking a campground or a flight can be complicated by the fact that we could be an hour early or an hour late if we’re not careful. Oh well, we’ll be living in the Central timezone now for the next year or so – just when I was learning how to set all of the clocks!
Anyway, getting to our story…
When we mentioned to Rob and Rox (we met them via RVillage in April) that Door County, Wisconsin was on our itinerary, they were enthusiastic – being former residents of Wisconsin. Their list of must-do activities made it easy for us to explore the area, thank you guys! Fast forward to now, we arrived at Door County during the last days of summer and the Labor Day weekend. While it was quite busy, we felt the villages weren’t overrun by tourists and there was plenty of room on the outskirts to breathe and roam around.
Door County is the largest county in Wisconsin by total area, and it’s known as the “Cape Cod of the Midwest”. A sliver of land jutting into Lake Michigan, it’s framed by 300 miles of scenic shoreline along Green Bay to the west and Lake Michigan to the east. Along the two main highways – Highway 42 on the Green Bay side and Highway 57 on the Lake Michigan side – are several quaint villages. These are small midwestern towns full of all kinds of stuff that entice folks to stop, linger and shop.
The name Door County was derived from Death’s Door, the water passage that lies off the tip of the peninsula where the waters of Lake Michigan and Green Bay converge. Death’s Door is the English translation of Porte Des Morts, the name given by early French explorers to this treacherous water passage, based on Native American stories they had heard – and their own perilous experiences.
So what did we do during our one-week stay? A lot!
Since we’re not “arts and galleries” types, we stayed away from the hundreds of art galleries and shops. Door County has been Wisconsin’s “Cherryland” for more than 100 years, but we arrived well after cherry season and missed those events. But there were plenty of things to do and natural wonders to see for us active folks.
We ventured off the main drag and engaged in what locals refer to as “silent sports,” – biking and hiking. This was the first time I had heard the term, which also refers to kayaking, skiing, kiteboarding and diving. We were glad that engaging in the silent sports often involves scenic drives through various sections of the beautiful peninsula to get to your destination.
I’ll relate our activities to how the county is divided into four sections: Bayside, Door County North, Lakeside and Southern Door. The villages in each section have unique environments and offerings that we checked out. Leaving the main routes took us to 3 of the 5 state parks, 4 of the 19 county parks and a Land Trust property – where I found many wild mushrooms. We also visited 2 of the area’s 11 historic lighthouses. So, despite the overcast skies we were pretty active on this stop and filled our days with plenty of outdoor fun. We also managed to squeeze in the essential beer, wine and cheese tastings, plus a Fish Boil – a Door County food tradition.
Along the azure waters of Green Bay are the villages of Fish Creek, Ephraim, Sister Bay and Egg Harbor (our home base). These villages line the west coast of the peninsula and have been referred to as “a boater’s paradise”. The vibrant villages are where most visitors congregate, and they were indeed crowded over the Labor Day weekend. We were glad that we selected Egg Harbor as our spot – it just had the feel of a cool and quaint little village with plenty of excellent restaurants and good access to a marina where we could enjoy wonderful sunsets.
For our first silent sport, biking, we tackled 10 miles of hilly trails within Peninsula State Park. Located between Fish Creek and Ephraim, it’s a huge park with many walking and biking trails. We biked several of them with steep ascents and descents through white cedar and hardwood forests that gave us a great workout. It also passed through some meadows and bluffs, culminating with breathtaking views of the shoreline and its beautiful shell-filled beaches.
We were happy to attend a Door County tradition in Fish Creek – a fish boil! Watching the preparation of the meal is the main event, followed by sitting down and enjoying the delicious feast of fresh whitefish and boiled potatoes.
The potatoes, onions and whitefish (fresh from Lake Michigan) are cooked in a huge kettle over a wood fire. At the end of the cooking process, the “boilmaster” throws kerosene on the fire to super-heat the water and boil off excess oil from the fish. The resulting “flame-up” creates a spectacular fire that is the climax of the show. The fish and potatoes are then served with melted butter and cole slaw, followed by cherry pie – the traditional dessert here. Yum!
Door County North
By virtue of their remoteness, the villages of Ellison Bay, Gills Rock and Northport have a lesser concentration of people. I visited two parks here, a State Natural Area called Ellison Bluffs, and Door Bluff Headlands and the Newport State Park. This side of the peninsula offers more closeness with nature and features a densely wooded two-tiered rock terrace – part of the larger Niagara Escarpment rock formation that winds though the site – providing spectacular views from the bluff tops. Door Bluff Headlands is unique in its formation and history, and the 155-acre park has been preserved in its natural state. Walking down to the water was hazardous, as it sloped down severely. There is no developed trail, and I saw these amazing trees growing out at odd angles but still thriving amongst the rocks:
Newport State Park is located in Ellison Bay. Just like the two county parks, the 2,373 acres were developed to a wilderness requirement that only one mile of vehicle road can exist within the park. Exploring for only an hour ($5 charge), I followed the Upland Trail – where I encountered some interesting mushrooms (more on that in my next post).
The villages sitting on the Lake Michigan side of the peninsula – Baileys Harbor and Jacksonport – are pretty laid-back. They are referred to by locals as “the quiet side” of the peninsula.
Jacksonport is home to the 867-acre Whitefish Dunes State Park and Cave County Park – the only county park within a state park. Whitefish Dunes is home to the highest sand dunes in the state of Wisconsin. We also visited the Bailey’s Harbor Ridges Park along the shore of Lake Michigan.
Spending several hours walking the trails of these parks on a windy day, we enjoyed the quiet with few other people around. At Whitefish Dunes we noticed the beach was narrow, but pretty with lots of grass and sedge.
Cave Point County Park is a beautiful and geologically interesting forested park with a shoreline boasting several caves and outcroppings. The coastline has many cliffs with waves crashing into them, forming sea caves under the bluff line which rise 30 to 50 feet above the shoreline. We walked along the cliffs and enjoyed the relentless waves slamming into the rocks below.
The Southern Door
The villages of Sturgeon Bay and Carlsville are along the gateway to the peninsula. We passed through here on our way to our campground at Egg Harbor (Steve’s review here). Sturgeon Bay is the county seat, but it’s a large town and we decided not go back there to hang out. Wine tasting was our activity at Carlsville, and on our way there we noted its bucolic fields along highway 42:
While it’s true Door County is a tourist destination, we never felt overwhelmed by the crowds. The villages were very accessible, and driving around the county took us through pastoral countryside and simple historical places that delighted us. Our week-long, high-calorie stay was enjoyable, and being able to work off those calories using the excellent walking and biking trails made it the perfect place to spend our Labor Day weekend. We love this place!