250 Miles of Wisconsin Coastline: Door County Byways

from The Most Scenic Drives in America | 217

Route Details

Length: About 200 miles.

When to go: Popular year-round, but best in summer for water activities and in fall for spectacular foliage.

Lodging: Reservations highly recommended, especially from June through October. Those without reservations can inquire about accommodations at the Door County Chamber of Commerce’s 24-hour information plaza, located at Rtes. 57 and 42 at the southern edge of Sturgeon Bay.

Not to be missed: The Door County ”fish boil,“ an outdoor cooking tradition featured at many restaurants.

Nearby attraction: Green Bay Packer Hall of Fame, Green Bay.

Further information: Door County Chamber of Commerce, 1015 Green Bay Rd., P.O. Box 406, Sturgeon Bay, WI 54235; tel. 920-743-4456, www.doorcounty.com.

The Door Peninsula is often likened to a thumb jutting from the mitten we call Wisconsin. But a better description would be a double-edged sword, for the watery margins of this narrow spur of land represent two different faces of nature. The Green Bay coast offers cozy harbors and calm waters, while the Lake Michigan side lures visitors with its wild surf, sandy beaches, and superb fishing. Whichever one of these two worlds you fancy, it is never far away. With 250 miles of shoreline, the most of any county in the country, Door County can guarantee that you’ll never be more than 10 minutes from a scenic view.

1. Potawatomi State Park
Traveling north from Green Bay on Rte. 57, a short side trip leads to Potawatomi State Park. Located at the mouth of Sturgeon Bay, this 1,200-acre preserve is named for the Indian tribe that once occupied the land. The park is dominated by dense forests of sugar maples, pines, and birches but also contains a beach sprinkled with granite boulders brought from Canada by glacial ice. On clear days the park’s 75-foot-high observation tower affords a majestic view all the way to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, some 16 miles away.

2. Sturgeon Bay
The gateway to Door County and its largest city, Sturgeon Bay is named for the huge numbers of these fish that were once caught in its waters. This former lumbering community now boasts one of the biggest shipyards in the nation, producing vessels as varied as luxury yachts, racing craft, and naval ships. Its two historic districts have more than 100 distinguished old buildings. Visit the Door County Maritime Museum to discover its watery past.

3. Whitefish Dunes State Park
About 12,000 years ago the movement of a glacier left an indentation in the shoreline of what is now Door County, creating the basin of Clark Lake and Whitefish Bay. Over time, lake currents deposited sand in the bay and then moved it shoreward, forming the large sandbar that cut off Clark Lake. The dunes here are among the most imposing in Wisconsin, with the tallest, Old Baldy, rising 93 feet above lake level. At nearby Cave Point County Park, the waters of Lake Michigan create a not-to-be-missed spectacle: whipped by winds, waves pound against cliffs up to 50 feet tall.

4. Baileys Harbor
The oldest village in Door County, Baileys Harbor (founded in 1851) is home to the Ridges Sanctuary, one of the largest wildflower preserves in America. Named for its corduroy-like ridges of sand—the product of centuries of wind and wave action—this sun-dappled sanctuary holds some 1,200 acres of wooded ridges, boglike wetlands, and sandy beaches. Among the highlights of these rare ecological communities are carnivorous pitcher plants, 27 species of native orchids, and a century-old white spruce. For a treat, visit nearby Cana Island Lighthouse, a favorite with photographers.

5. Sister Bay
The road from this waterside village north to Ellison Bay passes some of Door County’s celebrated cherry and apple orchards, where you can pick your own fruit and buy jelly, jam, and juice at roadside stands. The area is especially beautiful in late May, when the trees are in full bloom. Another memorable sight—Al Johnson’s restaurant in Sister Bay—is noted for both its traditional Swedish cuisine and its strikingly unconventional roof, which is sodded in the style of an old European farmhouse. For an unforgettable vista, visit Ellison Bluff Park near Ellison Bay.

6. Gills Rock
Nearly everyone calls this part of Door County the Top-o’-the-Thumb because of its position on the tip of the Wisconsin “mitten.” In the waters offshore of the tiny village of Gills Rock, you’ll find some of the best fishing in the entire Great Lakes area.

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