Outdoorsy vacation places can discourage not-so-athletic travelers like our Cultural Heritage TravelingMom. In Door County, Wisconsin, however, she found just the right activities to engage with dense northern woods and abundant lake waters. Extreme-sports families can get their adrenaline rush, too, on paths that intersect with those of modest athletes when desired.
Early autumn was a good time for me to explore Wisconsin’s long narrow peninsula named Door County. Joy finding the first whisper of fall temperatures with blue skies and bright sunshine. I wanted to match my modest hiking, biking, and boating skills in a place with a whopping five state parks and 300 miles of shoreline.
Secondary motive: if I could successfully enjoy four days of outdoor activities in September, perhaps I could stretch myself to try the winter. Since I live in the deep South, that’s a big deal of an idea.
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Silent Sports is Door’s Idea, Not Mine
This Wisconsin county brimming with villages and little townships is an hour north of Green Bay. They’ve romanticized some of their activities, calling them silent sports. Suited me well since the whooping and hollering kind of sports scare me.
I started with pontoon biking.
Silent indeed, except for the lapping water below my dry feet. Pontoon bikes sit on big yellow inflatables. Pedaling and steering feel just like the on-road kind of bicycles.
Balance is a bingo! So simple and steady. I rode around for an hour, barely talking to my partner. We selected a tandem bike but solo looks just as delightful.
TravelingMom Tip: Pontoon biking is a fine alternative to kayaking on windy, choppy days. I was hesitant to paddle that morning on Lake Michigan for fear of tipping, but felt secure on this bike.
Getting To Door County
Think of Door County as the shape of a thumb, 70 miles long. The attached part is 28 miles wide but the tip only four. That means seeing water often and easily, with getting to the other side a breeze.
I flew in to Appleton, Wisconsin, but Green Bay’s airport is an option too. Rent a car and head north. Family farms with red barns and silos offer the first hint of changing landscapes, some with quilts painted on the peak under each roof.
Sometimes the drive is a fairtytale, entering forests so dense the play of light is limited and mystical. Five state parks open options to explore.
That’s a lot of parks for one county. I feel the same way about Door’s 11 lighthouses.
Roam All The Villages
The people of Door County love their communities, as innkeepers and shopkeepers and eatery owners often say.
Community here means villages and townships with storybook names. Sturgeon Bay is the single city. Egg Harbor, Sister Bay, Fish Creek and Ephraim are some of the beloved communities.
It’s clear people live here specifically because they want to. As a traveler, I find that sets the tone for genuine, and pleasant, visitor experiences.
TravelingMom Tip: Linger over coffee in the place it’s roasted and ask cheerful local folks why they’re contented.
“We like to enjoy ourselves,” says Randy Morrow of the Door County Coffee & Tea Company. “We’re not like anywhere else. Door County infuses into your body.”
TravelingMom Tip: Ask lodging proprietors why they’re in this place.
“The people draw you in,” says Diane Taillon, proprietor of the Hillside Inn in the village of Ephraim. “This is a satisfying, low-key life for residents and for visitors.”
Taillon sees the sun as a key to year-round good cheer.
“Sunshine triggers good moods,” she says, “and even in the winter when our cold is invigorating, sunshine is plentiful.”
Adventure Rafting Calls For A Good Grip
No paddling required. No Upper body strength. Good news for me.
The only ability I needed for an afternoon with Door County Adventure Rafting was a good grip. My goal? Holding on to the handles of the rubber raft with a high-speed engine.
Speeding among shorelines and distinctive landscapes is not the only purpose of captain/owner Matt Olson. Sharing stories of Door County seafaring history and folklore is too. In the quiet pauses, adventure rafting became another silent sport.
Olson knows where to look for the 200 shipwrecks from earlier eras – and where to find the lighthouses that protect ships today.
Three Tips For Forest Encounters
Extreme athletes take to Door County’s woods for exhilarating mountain biking and rigorous hikes. My approach involved applauding professional actors and singers, stargazing and climbing wide wooden stairs with handrails.
- Theater in the Woods — Peninsula is the park with Northern Lights Theater – outdoor acting excellence telling local stories with clear references to Broadway tunes by Rogers and Hammerstein. This is professional theater under the stars, requiring a paved walk in the woods to reach the stage.
- Super Starry Skies – Newport is the park with an official Dark Sky designation, one of only 54 in the world. Says who? Why the International Dark Sky Association.
- Vista Viewing – Potawatomi is the park I saw from up above, after climbing 100 steps of a wooden tower for big views of water and woods. This too was a silent sport, except for catching my breath now and then. Little kids at the top were mesmerized too.
TravelingMom Tip: If you like discovering international excellence in USA locations, check out the Mink River in Newport Park. It’s a Wetland of International Importance say UNESCO, WWF International, Wildfowl Wetlands Trust and Birdlife International.
Consider Eating A Gentle Sport Too
Cherries are the place to start. I devoured cherry cobbler, cherry pie, cherry milkshakes, dried cherries on beds of fresh, crisp greens and cherries as snacks.
I can’t picture a harvest of eight million pounds, often more. But I do recommend a handful of tart cherries, and every recipe served by all the chefs and mom-and-pop eateries.
Then move to fish. Tradition dictates whitefish should be boiled in enormous, outdoor kettles.
That’s a spectacle because boiling over is an on-purpose drama, forcing a burst of kerosene-induced flames from the fire underneath. Plan to arrive early and watch, not just show up in time to eat.
I recommend Rowley’s Bay Resort for the fish boil because it’s theater too. Peter Rowley is the early settler encountering Potawatomi Indians, portrayed by master storyteller Charlie Dickson, age 91. A retired drama professor, he walks visitors through Door’s County timeline with funny stories.
This is totally family friendly.
Swedish limpa bread and a side of pickled beets should be tried at the Rowley’s fish boil buffet to honor Door County’s Scandinavian settlers. Cardamom bread fits in that plan too, at Rowley’s and from the Icelandic bakery in the village of Ephraim.
Match Lodging Options To Personal Style
Just as the multitude of villages and townships is a Door County charm, so are the variety of lodging choices. I recommend finding a fit with the tool on the Door County Visitor Bureau website.
Ephraim is the village where I rested, and history and luxury are the reason.
The Hillside Inn is the only remaining one of a dozen gracious inns built on the waterfront a century ago.
With five suites and sunny living rooms, porches spanning the first and second stories and an expansive back lawn, the main building of this inn provides down bedding, featherbeds, fireplaces in every room, soaking tubs and tiled showers.
Families can choose either of the adjacent two and three-bedroom cottages.
That lawn is the scene of snow croquet each winter! For indoor silent sports at Hillside Inn, capture some snowflakes to preserve on black velvet.
Narrow Down Lighthouse Visits
Maybe it would be fun to visit 11 all lighthouses, but I settled for one.
Cana Island is the lighthouse I climbed, and afterwards I balanced the cardio benefit of climbing 97 steps with my own version of silent sports – sitting on a rock below.
The waters of Bailey’s Harbor lap up to plentiful boulders just below the base of the keeper’s house and exhibits about the history since 1869. Soothing sounds these waters deliver.
Musing about the seafaring captains and crews, and the lives of the keepers and their families added depth to the experience.
Ever vacationed on a peninsula? Or elsewhere in Wisconsin? Cultural Heritage TravelingMom delved into the Northwoods to learn more traveling tips. Then she checked out the Wisconsin supper clubs tradition.