Fall in Door County
On this Wisconsin peninsula, autumn colors gild a much-loved landscape.
Around the Upper Midwest, Door County is the tourist destination that other tourist destinations envy.
Everything a tourist loves, it's got: Lighthouses, craggy shorelines, sand dunes. Golf courses, boutiques, bistros. Bicycle paths, hiking trails, beaches.
There's a little bit of New England in the white-frame buildings of Ephraim, where tourists click photos of Wilson's, a century-old ice-cream parlor.
There's a little bit of Europe in Sister Bay, where goats graze on the sod roof of Johnson's Swedish Restaurant. There isn't much that's not picturesque.
One October, while taking a photography course at the Clearing in Ellison Bay, I found that Door County also is a great place to look for fall color.
Each day, the leaves on the trees brightened, and by the end of the week, they had burst into a spectacular array of scarlet, gold, vermilion and russet, lining highways and forming canopies over country lanes.
And in the warm sunshine, everything else seemed vivid, too: The yellow submarine I saw leaving the marina in Sister Bay. The white and red pumpkins I bought from a roadside cart. The wildflowers I photographed along Europe Bay beach.
In the middle of the peninsula, peak usually comes at the end of the second week of October and often lingers into the third week. Along the shores of Green Bay and Lake Michigan, you may see color into the fourth week.
It's not hard to find your own colorful moments in Door County. Here's a starter guide, a springboard for autumn wanderings.
Go to a festival
In fall, Door County's orchards and farm markets overflow with produce, and it's time to celebrate. Reserve early for weekends, because everyone loves a festival.
Who doesn't like arts fairs, pumpkin bowling and apple pie-eating contests?
Here are the festivals in 2023:
Sept. 29-Oct. 1, Door County Lighthouse Festival around the peninsula.
Stock up on goodies
In fall, the shops hold sales, and the orchards and farm markets overflow with produce.
When I stopped by Seaquist's Farm Market just north of Sister Bay, it was enticing customers with a hay-bale maze, pumpkin painting, a blues/gospel band, an apple-tossing game and lots of free samples.
Everything looked marvelous — freshly made doughnuts, cherry cider coolers, berry pie, chocolate cherry bars, jars of chocolate amaretto sauce with cherries and pecans . . .
So I bought some. Okay, I bought a lot. In Door County, fall comes only once a year.
It's also fun to visit wineries, which offer tastings and tours. There are eight of them on the Door County Wine Trail.
See fall color by car or bike
The small county roads that thread through the peninsula's interior are perfect for prowling by vehicle and also by bicycle.
The most famous stretch is County Road 42 from the ferry landing in Northport, because it winds back and forth like ribbon candy.
A scenic 25-mile route includes that road and the best sights at the "tip of the thumb." From Ellison Bay, take Garrett Bay Road to Hedgehog Harbor, stopping at a plaque that marks the wreck of the schooner Fleetwing, bound for Chicago with a load of lumber when it went down in an 1888 gale.
The harbor is just short of Porte des Morts, or Death's Door, the name the French gave the treacherous strait between Washington Island and the tip of the peninsula, which takes its name from the passage.
Cottage Road leads to Gills Rock and joins Wisconsin 42, which ends at the ferry landing in Northport. From there, Porte des Morts Road leads to Park Lane, which leads to Weborg Park, a tiny park atop a rocky beach that's fun to explore.
Heading west, take Park Drive to Timberline Drive and south to Europe Bay Road.
From there, you have three options: east to Europe Bay beach, south on Newport Drive to the east trailhead leading to the Mink River (look for the "Schonbrunn" sign), or west to Wisconsin 42, in which case you'll turn right on Badger Road, left on Birchwood Road and return to Ellison Bay on Garrett Bay Road.
On the Lake Michigan side, the roads around Cana Island Lighthouses and Baileys Harbor also are favorites, and that's where you'll find Rustic Roads 38 and 39.
By car or bicycle, it's a lovely 36-mile loop from Ephraim on County Road Q across the peninsula to Cana Island Lighthouse and Baileys Harbor, then on County Road F to Fish Creek and through Peninsula State Park back to Ephraim.
Go for a hike
There are lovely trails in five state parks and 28 state natural areas.
In the Mink River Estuary just east of Ellison Bay, Nature Conservancy trails lead into the estuary from each side. From County Road P/Mink River Road, watch for a green-and-yellow sign marking a small parking lot.
From there, it's a beautiful hour-long walk through a corridor of cedar and along a forest floor turned bright yellow by the fall leaves of ferns and baby maples.
In Peninsula State Park, the beautiful two-mile Eagle Trail follows the bluffs.
Whitefish Dunes has nature trails through a variety of landforms. Cave Point County Park, just north of Whitefish Dunes, is a good place to clamber around on the craggy shoreline.
At Potawatomi State Park, hike along the bay on the first part of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.
Near Baileys Harbor, Ridges Sanctuary has stunning trails that cross a series of sand ridges and wetland strips called swales.
Trip Tips: Fall in Door County
Getting there: If you're coming through Green Bay, you'll save time if you don't follow Wisconsin 29 into town; instead, take U.S. 41 north two miles, then I-43 around Green Bay to Wisconsin 57.
Accommodations: There are hundreds of B&Bs, cottages, condos, cabins and motels.
For a guide, see Where to stay in Door County. Reserve up to a year in advance for fall weekends.
Golf: The 18-hole Peninsula State Park Golf Course is a lovely place to play.
Information: Door County tourism, 800-527-3529.