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.
7. Washington Island
So many Indians had fallen victim to the turbulent currents between the tip of the peninsula and Washington Island that the Indians called it “place of death.” On hearing this some 300 years ago, French explorers dubbed the strait Porte des Morts (loosely translated as Death’s Door), from which Door County derives its name. Visitors can safely traverse these same waters on a brisk ferry ride to Washington Island. Once there, you’ll find the oldest Icelandic settlement in America. With more than 100 miles of roadways, the island is ideal for biking. At Jackson Harbor you can take another ferry (no cars allowed) to Rock Island State Park, the site of Potowatomi Lighthouse—the first one built on Lake Michigan.
8. Newport State Park
Back on the mainland, this 2,400-acre park was once the site of a logging village and is now a semi-wilderness containing several forest, wetland, and meadow commu-nities and 11 miles of shoreline. Though nature has certainly reclaimed the land, traces of Newport’s early days can still be seen amid the ruins of old loggers’ cabins. Adjoining the park is Europe Lake, a spot so serene that it’s hard to believe it lies only a few miles from the spirited surf of Lake Michigan.
As you approach Ephraim’s white steeples and white picket fences, you quickly discern that this is a place of elegant simplicity, a town that reflects the purity and plainness of its Moravian founders. When they arrived at this lovely site in 1853, they called it Ephraim, a Hebrew word meaning “the fruitful land.” Their spirit lives on in the Moravian church, which contains a pulpit handcrafted by the first pastor. Nestled along the shore of Eagle Harbor, Ephraim hosts a festive regatta every July.
10. Peninsula State Park
Stop at Peninsula State Park for a glimpse of what the north woods looked like before Door County was settled. Grayish-white cliffs, deep green forests, beige beaches, and the bright blue waters of Green Bay combine to form an ageless portrait of nature’s splendor. With three-quarters of its 3,800 acres unspoiled by man, the park is the largest in Wisconsin. Stupendous views can be seen along Shore Road and Skyline Road, and from Eagle Tower and Eagle Bluff Lighthouse. Continuing south on Rte. 42, visit Fish Creek, a lively vacation village. From Egg Harbor, take Road G into Road B to enjoy a relaxing tour of Green Bay’s coast along quiet country byways.
Looping back through Sturgeon Bay and continuing south, the drive passes through Algoma. The town has a scenic walkway along the Ahnapee River that affords views of boats, old fishing shanties, and the Algoma lighthouse.
12. Point Beach State Forest
As its name implies, the 2,800 acres at Point Beach State Forest encompass the best of both worlds: in addition to a sunny lakefront beach, the preserve includes a shady northern pine forest. Bulging out into Lake Michigan, Point Beach features some six miles of sandy shore, as well as nature trails, picnic areas, and outdoor beauty at its best.
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