Seaside Delights in Door County, Wisconsin
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Seaside Delights in Door County, Wisconsin

Tour a lighthouse, parasail, or chow down at a fish boil on this Great Lake peninsula.

Cape Cod of the Midwest

Wisconsin may be known for its wacky, over-the-top family attractions, but one spot defies that stereotype: Door County.


Cana Island Lighthouse,
copyright Jeff Davis/
Door County Chamber of Commerce

Also known as the "Cape Cod of the Midwest," this Lake Michigan peninsula is blessed with 250 miles of unspoiled coastline, 19th-century fishing towns, sand beaches, and old-fashioned ice-cream shops. Not a Starbucks in sight.


Lautenbach Orchard
Country Market, copyright Door
County Chamber of Commerce

Door County does get its share of wild and crazy tourists each summer. Even so, nothing could be more removed from the hoopla of nearby Wisconsin Dells than "The Door." You can sample the area's shops, galleries, inns, restaurants, cherries, and calm bay beaches by driving up one side of the peninsula and down the other.

Shipwrecks in Sturgeon Bay

The gateway to Door County is the shipbuilding village of Sturgeon Bay, which overlooks the channel linking Green Bay to Lake Michigan. At the waterfront Door County Maritime Museum, kids can man the controls in an authentic ship's pilot house, see real boats being built, and get a creepy thrill from the new exhibit, "Shipwrecks of the Great Lakes," with a special area devoted to the region's most famous disaster, the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Three miles north of the Sturgeon Bay Bridge, you'll find the quirky Collector's Showcase Museum, located inside the Chal-A Motel. More than 500 animated department-store window displays are scattered among antique classic cars, dolls, and toys at this offbeat attic of Americana. Barbie buffs will be in heaven here, with more than 1,500 versions of the glamour girl, from oldest to newest.

Setting Up Base Camp


Peninsula State Park,
copyright Door County
Chamber of Commerce

From Sturgeon Bay, take Highway 42 up the western shore to Peninsula State Park. This 3,700-acre preserve of high bluffs, cedar forests, and sandy beaches jutting into Green Bay makes an ideal base camp for tents and RVs. Beachside sites, biking, hiking, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, and golfing await your clan at this resort built by Mother Nature.

  • Biking. You can ride the popular five-mile Sunset Cycling Trail, which hugs the shore of Tennison Bay. Or mountain bike along eight miles of new dirt and gravel trails into the park's interior. Rent bikes just outside the park entrance.
  • Golfing. Putters from all over the Midwest travel here to play the Peninsula State Park Golf Course, with its rolling fairways overlooking Eagle Harbor (be sure to reserve a tee time well in advance).
  • Sightseeing. For a view as far as Michigan's northern peninsula, scale the 75-foot Eagle Observation Tower. Kids love touring the yellow brick Eagle Bluff Lighthouse, built in 1868.
  • Entertainment. In the evenings, catch a show under the stars performed by the American Folklore Theatre, a professional company specializing in rollicking original musicals based on folk tales.

Before continuing north, put the kids to work picking cherries, raspberries, or apples at Lautenbach Orchard Country Market, just outside Fish Creek on Hwy 42. While they're toiling, you can tour the winery or shop for preserves, dried fruit, and fresh-baked pies.

Waterlogged in Ephraim

Just outside Peninsula State Park is Ephraim, one of the Door's most popular vacation communities. At South Shore Pier, you'll find the most water sports activities in the county. For a bird's-eye view of the bay, book one of Wisconsin Water Wings' para-sailing trips. You'll fly 175 feet above the water harnessed to a parachute. There's a 50-pound minimum, but kids as young as 5 have gone up.

If heights make you dizzy, head next door to Stiletto Sailing Cruises and zip across the waves on a 27-foot catamaran. Cruises last 75 minutes and seat six people. Fishing charters, windsurfing, and kayak rentals can also be arranged at the pier.

To get way out on the water, drive up to Gill's Rock, at "the top of the thumb," as locals call the tip of the peninsula. Here, you can catch the car and passenger ferry to Washington Island. This 35-square-mile haven of beaches, farms, and wildflowers is perfect for a daytrip of biking and swimming. Native Americans named the water passage Death's Door for all the canoes that sank in the turbulent currents. Barring really awful weather, the crossing isn't too rough.

Don't want to bring the car along? The 65-foot Island Clipper also makes the 20-minute trip to the island. Tour the island on your own by renting a bike at the dock. Or take the Viking Train's (tram) 90-minute guided tour, which stops at Double KW ranch (an ostrich farm), Norwegian settler's cottages, the Farm Museum, and Schoolhouse Beach, a calm swimming area with a beach made of smooth, white stones.

If you want nature and nothing else, board a second ferry for the short hop from Washington Island to tiny Rock Island, the northernmost point of Door County. The entire island is a state park with 40 primitive "pack-in, pack-out" campsites, 10 miles of hiking trails, an abandoned fishing village, and quiet stone beaches.

The Wild Side

Heading back down the peninsula on Highway 57, you'll see the wilder side of Door County. Make Cana Island Lighthouse your first stop. Lake Michigan's tides will determine whether you walk, hop from rock to rock, or wade across the short causeway to this 132-year-old lighthouse overlooking Moonlight Bay. In any case, kids love the trek, and shutterbugs will click through rolls of film here.

Stop again five miles south at The Ridges Sanctuary, a 1,000-acre nature preserve, where tides have formed parallel rows of strange, wooded, curving ridges along the shore. The Sanctuary hugs the edge of Bailey's Harbor, a quiet town of sandy beaches. Pop in at Bighorn Forge Ironworks, a 1900's blacksmith shop, where you might see the blacksmith pounding iron into weathervanes, candleholders, or fireplace tools (they make great souvenirs!).

Another eight miles south, you'll reach Whitefish Dunes State Park, where sky-high dunes frame a wide, sandy beach that's rarely crowded. Swimming here is like taking a dip in the ocean; beware of the rip currents. Wander up to the north end of the beach to Cave Point, where waves crash against massive limestone cliffs and huge boulders.

Dashboard

Type of trip: Outdoor adventure, camping, beach, water sports

Best for ages: 5 and up

Ideal trip length: Long weekend to one week

Distance: Milwaukee (145 miles); Chicago (240 miles); Minneapolis (325 miles)

Best time to go: September, for the best weather without crowds. Summer is great, except for the swarm of weekenders. Spring is too cool for camping and water sports.

Weather: 76/53 degrees in June, 81/58 in July, 71/48 in September. Expect calmer weather on the Green Bay (northwest) side, more fog and precipitation on the Lake Michigan (southeast) side.

Lodging: Door County's famous inns and B&Bs are best suited for couples and older folks. Families are better off sticking with rental cottages, motels, and campsites. Note: Many places billed as "resorts" in Door County are simply motels with a pool and playground. Wherever you plan to stay, book early for summer and September!

If You Go...

Door County Maritime Museum 120 N. Madison Ave., Sturgeon Bay Phone: 920-743-5958

 

Nature Trail, copyright
Door County Chamber
of Commerce

Collector's Showcase Museum Chal-A Motel, 3910 Hwy 42/57 Phone: 920-743-6788

Peninsula State Park 9462 Shore Rd., Fish Creek Phone: 920-868-3258, 888-WI-PARKS (campsite reservations), 920-854-5791 (golf reservations)

American Folklore Theatre Amphitheatre, Peninsula State Park Phone: 920-854-6117

 

Lautenbach Orchard Country Winery Market 9197 Hwy 42, Fish Creek Phone: 920-868-3479 Note: Pick-your-own cherries (mid-July through August) and apples (early September through October).

Washington Island Ferry Line Detroit Harbor, Washington Island Phone: 800-223-2094 Note: Must present valid driver's license at dock on Washington Island

 

Island Clipper Voigt's Marine Service, 12731 Hwy 42, Gills Rock Phone: 920-854-2972

 

Karfi Ferry From Jackson Harbor, Washington Island to Rock Island Phone: 920-847-2252

Rock Island State Park Route 1, Box 118A, Washington Island Phone: 920-847-2235

The Ridges Sanctuary Hwy 57, Bailey's Harbor Phone: 920-839-2802

 

Eagle Bluff Lighthouse,
copyright Door
County Chamber of Commerce

Dan Nauman's Bighorn Forge Ironworks 8152 Hwy 57, Baileys Harbor Phone: 920-839-9706

Cana Island Lighthouse County Hwy Q, (off Hwy 57), Baileys Harbor Phone: 920-743-5958 (Maritime Museum information). Note: Open May through October

Whitefish Dunes State Park 3701 Clark Lake Rd., Sturgeon Bay Phone: 920-823-2400

Door County Chamber of Commerce Phone: 920-743-4456

 

Side Trips

Bay Beach Park

On your way home, reward your little campers for roughing it with a stop at this old-fashioned, city-run amusement park.

There are 16 county fair-type rides, as well as a giant slide, playgrounds, snack bars, picnic areas, and a wading pool. 1313 Bay Beach Rd. (off I-83 at Webster Ave.), Green Bay, 920-391-3671, 888-867-3342. Open weekends May and September, daily Memorial Day to Labor Day.

The Inside Scoop

Favorite local spots:

  • Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant, 700 North Bay Shore Dr., Sister Bay, 920-854-2626. This lively eatery was built in Sweden and shipped to the U.S., piece by piece. Kids get a big kick out of the live billy goats grazing on the turf roof, and there's a special children's menu that's easy on the wallet.
  • The Cookery, Hwy 42 (Main St.), Fish Creek, 920-868-3634. This is THE spot for local cuisine. Don't miss the whitefish chowder and chunky cherry-applesauce.

Local food: A fish boil is the Great Lakes answer to a traditional cookout. Locals gather around a kettle over an open flame, toss in whitefish, onions, and fresh vegetables. At the last minute, a "master boiler" splashes the fire with kerosene (don't try this at home!), sending up a fireball that boils the kettle over and spills off excess oils. Served up with local red potatoes, cole slaw, and cherry pie a la mode. You'll find this feast everywhere, but top honors go to the White Gull Inn in Fish Creek. Be sure to reserve early. White Gull Inn, 4225 Main St., Fish Creek, 920-868-3517.

Best souvenir: You've seen them, you've climbed them, now you can bring them home. Ceramic miniatures of Eagle Bluff and Cana Island Lighthouses.

Annual event: Door County Festival of Blossoms, during the month of May, various locations. Call 920-743-4456 for more information. Countywide celebration of spring, with wildflower walks, shipyard tours, lighthouse walks, bass-fishing tournament, and weekend community fairs.

Reviewed May 2004.

shim