Table of Contents[Hide][Show]
Situated on a peninsula between Green Bay and Lake Michigan, Door County, Wisconsin has been listed among Fodor’s 10 Best Small Towns in the United States. And no wonder. Door County features charming main streets, pretty marinas, historic lighthouses and woodsy state parks. Home to about 30,000 full-time residents, Door County also has accessible islands, sea caves, state parks, and a thriving local theater scene.
Disclosure: The writer was hosted for this trip.
A few years after my first visit to Door County, I returned to this pretty peninsula in Wisconsin. I was visiting Green Bay when I had an opportunity to join some friends for the short drive to Door County, which is ranked among America’s best towns to visit by Fodor. I found many new things to do on the Door Peninsula on this second trip. Despite its small size, there’s an array of outdoor activities as well as live theater and art galleries. In addition, friendly locals happily share their cherished traditions like weekly fish boils.
The 70-mile stretch of peninsula is surrounded by Lake Michigan to the east and the waters of Green Bay on the west. Several small pretty towns with a Cape Cod feel grace the shoreline. Up and down the peninsula are many third and fourth generation Door County residents who come home after college to help run the family business. You won’t find chain hotels or restaurants in this Midwest region. Independently-owned establishments and friendly customer service contribute largely to Door County’s old-fashioned charm.
The Towns of Door County, Wisconsin
About 30,000 full-time residents live in the various small towns of Door County. Among them: Sturgeon Bay, the county’s largest town. While Sister Bay’s beach, marinas and boat tours are the main attraction, visitors also come to see goats grazing on sod rooftops. Now there’s a photo opp!
Neighboring Ephraim (no longer a dry town) is a historic waterfront village with water sports, museums and shops. In Fish Creek, recently listed among America’s 15 prettiest towns by Forbes, we strolled on cozy streets adorned with colorful flowers and cute boutiques.
Top Things to do in Door County, Wisconsin
Door County Trolley
The first thing we did is to take a ride with Door County Trolley, which offers several themed tours. Based in the tiny town of Egg Harbor, the tour provided a nice overview of Door County. As we drove through town on our 90-minute narrated Scenic Tour ($22), our guide shared area history and local tips. For example, Fish Creek – founded by three brothers in the 1850s – was (appropriately) named for its fishing. Also, Sister Bay used to be called Big Sister Bay. The tour brought us to Peninsula State Park , where we made a couple of stops to admire lake views. The park is home to deer, turkey and other wildlife, and two cemeteries. Back in town, he drove us by a “gnome” tree. “No-one knows when it started,” he said of the tree decorated with gnomes.
Washington Island and Rock Island State Park
One of the main reasons I returned to Door County was to visit Washington Island and Rock Island State Park. These are definitely top things to do in Door County, and require a full day. We took the Washington Island Ferry to Washington Island, founded in 1850. (Fun fact: Washington Island marks the halfway point between the Equator and North Pole.) Our first stop was at the Stavkirke, a craftsmen-built church built totally without nails that resembles a Viking ship. Nearby, we dipped our toes in the cool, clear water of Schoolhouse Beach – one of only five worldwide beaches with all white limestone, smooth rocks. Touch but don’t take these pretty gems. There’s a $250 fine for removing these polished stones.
Our next stop was the Lavender Farm & Shop, where owners Edgar and his French born wife Martine Anderson cultivate their gardens without pesticides. Group tours are available to learn about the lavender farm. With views of the lavender fields, our outdoor lunch at the onsite Fragrant Isle’s Le Petit Bistro was simply delightful.
Rock Island State Park
We enjoyed beautiful sunny weather for our ferry crossing to the 912-acre pedestrian-only Rock Island. Aside from a few stone buildings and Wisconsin’s oldest lighthouse, the island is mostly undeveloped. There’s a nice beach and 10 miles of hiking trails, including one to the historic Pottawatomie Lighthouse, completed in 1836. The privately owned island was sold to the state in the 1960s. Today, docents live for week-long stints in the lighthouse and conduct free tours through the living spaces and lantern room.
Peninsula State Park
The 3,776-acre park has 40 miles of trails, campsites, eight miles of shoreline punctuated with 150-foot high cliffs. Park activities include biking, hiking, sailing and kayaking. Depending on the season, you can rent kayaks at Nicolet Beach and paddle two miles to the uninhabited Horseshoe Island. More scenic points within the park include the 1860s Eagle Bluff Lighthouse overlooking Green Bay.
Thrilling Boat Tours
Cruise Across Death’s Door
The weather was cold and gloomy on the morning we sailed from Gills Rock to see lighthouses on Pilot and Plum Islands. We sailed with Captain Jim from Shoreline Cruises, which offers coastal tours aboard Navy boats. These licensed Coast Guard passenger vessels are ideal for navigating the area’s rough waters, unpredictable weather and hidden shoals. There are more than 275 shipwrecks, with many of them lying less than 60 feet underwater. Hence the name Death’s Door.
Soon, Capt. Jim shouted “Land Ho” as we approached fog shrouded Plum Island, a stop for Monarch butterflies. Named for its “plum” location in the middle of the bay, the island has an 1896 lighthouse. Our next stop to Pilot Island was downright eerie. Thousands of cormorants have invaded the abandoned island, killing vegetation. Even from a distance we could smell the stench from these birds. Only a historic lighthouse remains on the 3.25-acre island.
Kayaking at Cave Point County Park
There are many kayaking opportunities in Door County. In fact, one of the top things to do in Door County is kayaking along Lake Michigan. Door County Kayak Tours offers several guided tours. On our two-hour Cave Point County Park tour (for ages 6 and older) we paddled through clear water along the rugged shoreline to coves and sea caves. After a while, the water became a bit choppy, so we decided to return to shore. From there, we walked along the cliffs we had just paddled along below. There’s a ledge where a few brave people (not me) jumped into the chilly water below.
Door County Adventure Rafting
Door County Adventure Rafting offers several tours, including a thrilling Zodiac ride on Lake Michigan. A smiling Capt. Matt put on rock music as we sped through the water on our way to the Cana Island Lighthouse. Laughing, we held on tight as he made some crazy turns. But we slowed for photo opps of the Cana Island Lighthouse, and Horseshoe and Strawberry Islands.
Art and Theater Things to do in Door County
Door County has a couple of great seasonal theater venues. Taking place in the Peninsula State Park Amphitheater, the Northern Sky Theater presents original musicals under the stars. The lakeside Peninsula Players Theatre has been presenting comedies, dramas and musicals since 1935.
In addition, there’s the Guenzel Art Gallery at the Peninsula School of Art that features art work, art classes, and outdoor sculptures.
Where to eat in Door County
There’s no better place than Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant to start an active day in Door County. Founded about 70 years ago by Al (now deceased) and his Swedish wife Ingrid, the Swedish-themed restaurant is run by their three children. Signature dishes include Swedish pancakes with lingonberries and meatballs. Add strawberries or cherries and whipped cream for an additional charge.
But live goats grazing on the sod roof outside steal the show. The website even features Al Johnsons Goat Cam. So, why goats? In 1973, Al’s friend put a goat on the grass roof as a joke. Now the goats are a big attraction.
Fred and Fuzzy’s Waterfront Bar and Grill
This is one of my favorite places to eat in Door County. Located on the edge of Little Sister Bay, Fuzzy’s is a casual beach eatery with good food, signature cherry margaritas (yum!) and amazing sunset views. The property also has 22 rental cabins.
More Door County Dining Options
Wild Tomato Wood-Fired Pizza and Grille
It’s here that I ate fried cheese curds, a Wisconsin staple, for the first time – and loved it! Owners/chefs Britton and Sara Unkefer create exquisite pizzas, such as the Fun Guy – a mushroom pizza with spinach and caramelized onions on garlic cream cheese.
Wilson’s Restaurant & Ice Cream Parlor
This Door County landmark has been serving classic burgers, sandwiches, fries and ice cream specialities since 1906.
Door County Coffee & Tea Co.
Only the best will do for business owner Vicki Wilson, who ensures customers enjoy top quality coffee made with Arabica beans roasted onsite. The charming restaurant also serves delicious breakfast (try a strata and hashbrown bake) and lunch.
Rowleys Bay Restaurant
Rowleys is a full-service eatery known for its traditional fish boil. The feast features freshly caught Lake Michigan whitefish, red potatoes and onions. Kerosene is thrown on the fire, causing the pot to boil over with fish oil.
Where to Stay in Door County
Door County has many unique lodging options. Some, like the Parkwood Lodge, are rustic, while others are situated on lake shores. One example is the Landmark Resort in Egg Harbor. Our spacious one-bedroom condo had a full kitchen and living room (with a sofa sleeper) overlooking the lake. Swimming pools, whirlpools, barbecue grills and walking paths make this an ideal lodging option for families.
How to Get to Door County, Wisconsin
From the Austin Straubel Airport in Green Bay, it’s about a one-hour drive to Sturgeon Bay in Door County. The next nearest airport is Appleton Airport, about an 80-minute drive to Door County.