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Outdoors in Door County

Beaches, bays and forests are keys to this lovely peninsula.

The view from Eagle Bluff.

© Beth Gauper

In Peninsula State Park, there's a panoramic view of Green Bay from Eagle Tower.

Fish boils, cherry pie, chic shops and a nonstop stream of tourists.

Yes, that’s Door County, all right. But so is this:

Secluded beaches of fine white sand. Estuaries lined with herons. Hiking and bicycle trails winding through sun-dappled cedar forests.

Like Minnesota’s rugged North Shore, Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula was settled by hardy Scandinavian fishermen and loggers.

This shore, however, is closer to big cities, which have been sending up vacationing hordes for a century. During the summer, the hubbub can seem overwhelming.

"Oh, it’s just like Chicago down there,’’ says Charlene Berg, who operates Gallery 10 in Gills Rock, at the quiet tip of the peninsula. "If I have to go down there during the season . . .’’ She fluttered her hands in the air and grimaced, as if she’d stuck a finger into an electrical outlet.

But there are good reasons so many people come to Door County. The towns are irresistibly picturesque: Fish Creek, which has so many shops the streets are perfumed by potpourri.

Ephraim, where the waterfront is lined by old-fashioned white-frame hotels and steepled churches. Sister Bay, with its pretty waterfront gazebo and the goats grazing on the turf rooftop of a restaurant famous for Swedish pancakes.

Tourists taper off between Ellison Bay, where the old Door can be felt at the Pioneer Store and Viking Restaurant, and Gills Rock, at the ’’tip of the thumb.’’ In Gills Rock, life revolves around Hedgehog Harbor, home of fishing boats and the ferries that take tourists to Washington Island.

"I like to call Door County a long strip of flypaper,’’ says David Weborg, whose family were early settlers in Gills Rock.  "Everyone gets stuck down at the bottom. We’re way out in nowhere up here.’’

Nowhere is an exaggeration; plenty of tourists go through Gills Rock. But the part of Door County to which Weborg is referring — its less-frequented beaches, bays and forests — is the other good reason to visit.

The northern Door Peninsula is a wonderful place to be outdoors, with swimming either from placid beaches on the Green Bay side or more dramatic ones on Lake Michigan.

Kayaking near Baileys Harbor.

© Door County Tourism

A kayaker paddles around Cana Island Lighthouse near Baileys Harbor.

It’s got 58 miles of hiking trails in three of the state parks. There’s boating of all kinds, and the bicycling is superb — on pastoral county roads through the interior, along the lightly traveled lake side and in Peninsula State Park.

Even a single day's bicycling can reveal the Door at its best. One day in late August, I bicycled a 36-mile route in which everything came in twos — lighthouses, beaches, wildlife.

Bicycling across the peninsula

Starting from Ephraim, I climbed past the 1859 Ephraim Moravian Church, whose Norwegian members founded the town in 1853 with a rigorous morality still reflected in the village’s ban on liquor sales.

From there, County Road Q, lined with blue aster and Queen Anne’s lace, led to the other side of the peninsula and Cana Island Lighthouse, whose white tower rises from woods at the end of a rocky causeway.

Just outside Baileys Harbor, Ridges Road leads to the beach at Ridges County Park and to Ridges Sanctuary, a nature refuge marked by the harbor’s 1869 lower range light.

Baileys Harbor is a quiet town, with a few shops, restaurants and the Blacksmith Inn, a B&B in a 1912 half-timber and stovewood blacksmith’s house facing the harbor.

County Road F led past dairy farms and to a 1916 frame storefront at the junction of Maple Grove Road.

It was Gloria Hardiman’s Maple Grove Gallery, filled with hand-woven scarfs, hats and tunics of luxurious chenille, wood and mohair, and Hardiman was at the counter patiently answering the favorite tourist question: "Do you live here year-round?’’

Maple Grove led to Fish Creek and Wisconsin 42, then south to the entrance of Peninsula State Park, where the five-mile Sunset Trail envelops bicyclists in a cedar forest. Here, I spotted a pair of does and braked just before the lead one bolted across my path; the other doe just missed a boy on a recumbent bike.

Still in a corridor of cedar, the trail follows the bay shore, wound past the 1868 Eagle Bluff Lighthouse and descends to Nicolet Beach, which was filled with bathers and boaters.

Shore Road led to wooden Eagle Tower, which gave everyone who climbed it a panoramic view of the bay, Horseshoe Island and Ephraim, gleaming white in the afternoon sun.

Peninsula State Park in Door County.

© Beth Gauper

A couple relax on Eagle Bluff in Peninsula State Park.

It was a downhill swoop into town, past the park’s 18-hole golf course, the Potawatomi totem pole and red-and-white Wilson’s Restaurant, a 1906 ice-cream parlor that looks as if Hollywood built it.

I spent another day bicycling around Washington Island, getting there across the narrow passage whose turbulent currents earned it the name Porte des Morts, or Death’s Door, from which the peninsula derives its name.

There have been hundreds of shipwrecks along the Door’s 250 miles of shoreline, but the water was docile when I was there, and after bicycling, I went rowing along the sheer rock cliffs of Hedgehog Harbor.

Kayaking and swimming

Another day, I rented a kayak at Rowleys Bay Resort on the Lake Michigan side and paddled into the Mink River Estuary, a Nature Conservancy preserve. Its marshy shore literally was lined by herons and egrets  — as soon as I’d scare away one, I’d spot another.

And the beaches! My favorite was the long, pine-fringed crescent of Europe Bay Town Park, straight east from Ellison Bay. Hiking trails from adjacent Newport State Park pass it.

One day, I bought a picnic of freshly smoked whitefish, crackers and local apple-cherry juice at nearby Mariner Market and hiked up to Europe Lake, whose sandy shores are just a block or so from those of Lake Michigan.

The beach at Rock Island State Park.

© Beth Gauper

The east edge of Rock Island is lined with white-sand beaches.

The evenings, too, were made to be spent outdoors — under the stars at a performance of the American Folkore Theatre, surrounded by the pines of Peninsula State Park, or walking through the grounds of the Peninsula Players, whose murky cedar forest, strung with colored lights, looks like a set for "A Midsummer Night's Dream.’’

No wonder tourists get excited about Door County. But the people I met helped me see it as more than a playground.

Tourism is the No. 1 topic of conversation among residents, who are wary of the changes it's wrought. Still, they don't hesitate to point a visitor toward favorite spots in a landscape they love.

So go see what it’s all about. Tread lightly, venture beyond the shops, and revel in the great outdoors of the Door.

Trip Tips: Door County outdoors

When to go: In late May and early June, see the rare wildflowers at Ridges Sanctuary near Baileys Harbor and at the 28 state natural areas in Door County. For more, see Spring in Door County.

July, the first three weeks of August and October weekends are hectic. Reserve far in advance.

A boardwalk in Logan Creek.

© Beth Gauper

A boardwalk winds across a boggy area in Logan Creek natural area.

Hotel rates start to go down in mid-August, and weekdays in September and October are very pleasant. For more, see Fall in Door County.

Accommodations: For a list, see Where to stay in Door County.

Camping: Newport State Park, Wisconsin's only wilderness park, has some rustic sites that are walk-in but gorgeous: Backpack Sites 14 and 16, on Lake Michigan and stone's throw from Europe Lake.

For more conventional camping, try Peninsula State Park, where sites are the state's most coveted. It's almost like a resort; the park includes beaches, bicycle trails, a professional theater and a golf course, and it's adjacent to shopping and restaurants in Fish Creek and Ephraim. 

The cost of a daily vehicle permit here is higher than in other state parks: $10 for residents, $13 non-residents. However, you can visit more than one park with it.

In Sturgeon Bay, Potawatomi State Park on Green Bay also is a good place to camp. For more about Sturgeon Bay, see The door to Door County.

Rock Island State Park has campsites on lovely beaches, but access requires two ferry crossings. For more about Rock Island, see Wisconsin's Icelandic outpost.

As at all Wisconsin state-park sites, sites can be reserved up to 11 months in advance at 888-947-2757.

Hiking: All of the state parks have great trails. At Potawatomi State Park, hike along the bay on the first part of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.

Schoolhouse Beach on Washington Island.

© Travel Wisconsin

On Washington Island, Schoolhouse Beach is famous for its smooth limestone.

Whitefish Dunes has trails through a variety of landforms. In Peninsula State Park, the two-mile Eagle Trail follows the bluffs.

At Rock Island State Park, hike to Pottawatomie Lighthouse and around the island.

Near Baileys Harbor, Ridges Sanctuary has stunning trails that cross a series of sand ridges and wetland strips called swales.

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.

There are also 28 state natural areas in Door County, which are maintained by the parks but have no services besides trails. There's  nice hiking at Toft Point, near Baileys Harbor.

One of the best hikes for a drizzly (or very hot) day is Logan Creek south of Jacksonport, where a canopy of cedar, hemlock and balsam fir protects hikers on two miles of trails. They're beautiful, with long, winding boardwalks that cross hummocky areas.

These trails are owned by Ridges Sanctuary, which charges a trail fee that also is good for the preserve itself in Baileys Harbor. From Jacksonport, take Wisconsin 57 2½ miles south to Loritz Road and go a quarter mile south. The natural area is on the west side of Clark Lake.

Kayak tours: Door County Adventure Center rents kayaks and offers kayak tours of the Mink River Estuary from Rowleys Bay Resort.

Waves at Cave Point County Park.

© Beth Gauper

Waves crash at Cave Point County Park near Jacksonport.

In Ephraim, Bay Shore Outdoors Store rents kayaks and offers daily guided kayak tours around the peninsula.

Bicycling: The Door is made for bicycling. For a short trip, ride the 9½-mile Sunset Trail through Peninsula State Park.

For a 36-mile ride, go 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.

For a 25-mile ride that takes in the best sights of the “tip of the thumb,’’ start in Ellison Bay and take Garrett Bay Road to Hedgehog Harbor, just short of Porte des Morts, or Death’s Door.

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, a bicyclist has 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.

If you’re on Garrett Bay Road on a Saturday between noon and 4 p.m., stop for the open house at the Clearing, a folk school in the Scandinavian tradition. Its stone cottages and buildings sit on 128 wooded acres on the bluff.

Swimming: It's best in late summer, when Lake Michigan warms up. Try the long, pine-fringed crescent of Europe Bay at Newport State Park.

There are beautiful beaches at Rock Island State Park, and if you like to camp, that's the place to be.

There's also are nice beaches at the town parks in Egg Harbor, Fish Creek, Ephraim, Sister Bay and Ellison Bay.

Peninsula State Park has a sand beach on Nicolet Bay with a snack bar, kayak rentals, playground and volleyball nets. For boat rentals, call 920-854-9220.

On the Lake Michigan side, Whitefish Dunes has colder water but plenty of sand and nature trails.

Nightlife: Northern Sky Theater performs in an amphitheater in Peninsula State Park in summer and at Ephraim Village Hall in fall,  920-854-6117.

Peninsula Players perform in a theater on the shores of Green Bay near Fish Creek, 920-868-3287. 

For more, see Arts in Door County.

Last updated on January 10, 2019