If you live in the Midwest just the mention of Door County, Wisconsin brings visions of towering pines, cool lake breezes, and outdoor adventure of all types.
While the county has long been a getaway for Chicagoans escaping the city for a different view of Lake Michigan, today’s Door County is easily accessible for anyone due to two airports: Austin Straubel International Airport in Green Bay and Appleton International Airport in Appleton.
Fun Facts About Door County, Wisconsin
You’ll easily find Door County on a map- it’s the pointy bit of Wisconsin that spears into Lake Michigan on the east side of the state. Want a good visual of the state? Hold up your left hand, curl your fingers under, leaving your thumb out. Your thumb is Door County.
Thumbs Up for Door County!
My few days in Door County were packed with- mostly outdoor- activities! The first, and probably most important, thing I learned is to S L O W down and enjoy where you are. You’re on ‘Lake Time’ here.
Beyond that, I picked up these nuggets of information you may find helpful for your own visit.
Door County is a Peninsula
Now, this goes without saying. It’s surrounded by Lake Michigan so of course it’s peninsula. But it really becomes obvious as you drive the length of the county and take in the 300 miles of shoreline; small bays on the west and the Great Lake to the east.
It’s the “Cape Cod of the Midwest”
I know this is meant as a compliment, but I’m going to say that I enjoyed Door County more than I did Cape Cod. (And it is much more affordable!) So let’s use this phrase that I found in my National Geographic map of the Door Peninsula: a coastal retreat in the heart of the Midwest.
I suppose if you must compare it to someplace else, the Atlantic coast of Maine would be my choice.
You Should Beware Death’s Door – or Not?
Door County is named for the dangerous straight between the end of the peninsula and Washington Island known as Porte des Morts or ‘Death’s Door’. Though the waters are rough and may be home to more shipwrecks than any other freshwater in the world, the name actually traces back to a battle between rival Native American tribes in which a fierce storm blew in and many lives were lost.
The French fur traders may have embellished the legendary tale a bit to discourage British exploration of the peninsula and competition from other fur traders.
I’ll Meet You By the Water
Of the 15 communities in Door County, more than half of them make reference to their watery location in their name. Egg Harbor, Baileys Harbor, Sister Bay, Ellison Bay, Fish Creek, Sturgeon Bay, and Washington Island, are only a few of the coastal names you’ll discover.
Each small town has a different vibe, so you’ll want to take time to discover all of them.
There are So Many Lighthouses
With 300 miles of shoreline and notoriously treacherous shores, it’s no surprise that Door County is lined with lighthouses – 11 in all. Some can be viewed from land, but to really understand the importance and maybe even the relief ships captains felt when they spotted these beacons, try to view as many as you can from the water.
Two experiences I recommend:
For a relaxing tour hop aboard an evening cruise with Door County Boats from either Fish Creek or Sister Bay. You’ll catch sight of beautiful Eagle Bluff Lighthouse as well as an incredible sunset.
If you like a bit of adrenaline then you must join Door County Adventure Rafting for one of their tours. The high-speed RIB (rigid-hulled inflatable boat) bounds over the waves of Lake Michigan leaving you breathless and exhilarated. When you slow your knowledgeable guide shares the history that you find on the shore, the islands, or even beneath you.
I took the Lakeside Tour, but I’ve got plans for the Death’s Door Tour the next time I visit!
Annual Door County Lighthouse Festival
Spring event has been canceled
Fall dates: October 3-4, 2020
You Need to Enjoy the Outdoors
If you look at a map of Door County that marks parks and nature areas you soon realize that this is a county made for outdoor activities!
You’ll find five state parks in Door County – Peninsula State Park, Whitefish Dunes State Park, Newport State Park, Potawatomi State Park, and Rock Island State Park. All offer hiking trails, boating, and fishing, most offer camping, and one (Peninsula State Park) even has a golf course.
Newport State Park was even named as Wisconsin’s first International Dark Sky Park, and trust me, the stars are incredible over Lake Michigan. I stopped in my tracks as I took in the sheer number of stars as I wandered away from my campsite.
Door County also has 19 county parks circling its coastal boundaries. In these parks you’ll find more hiking trails, horseback and cycling trails, swimming beaches, picnic areas, and even a lighthouse to tour at Cana Island.
The Ridges Sanctuary, Wisconsin’s first Land Trust, protects over 1600 acres of animal habitat and diverse ecosystem, as well as preserving the Baileys Harbor Range Lights.
Well marked sanctuary trails and accessible boardwalks guide you along shorelines of Lake Michigan’s past. Depending on the season you can cross wetlands, wander though a carpet of wildflowers, and enjoy the antics of Monarch butterflies and Hine’s Emerald dragonflies, and listen for the call of over 60 species of birds.
Eating and Drinking in Door County, Wisconsin
As you pack for your trip to Door County I recommend adding ‘bring big appetite’ to your list!
It’s Wisconsin- Yes, There is Cheese
Renard’s Cheese will tempt you just after you cross the county border at Sturgeon Bay. Overseen by Cheesemaster Chris Renard, Renard’s produces over 3 million pounds of cheese each year and has plenty of options available to taste. Pick a few favorites and grab a latte or lunch from the deli. (Packing a cooler may be wise.)
Door County with a Cherry on Top
As you continue into the county you’ll notice that cherries are everywhere. In the cheese, in wine and ciders, featured on salads, and baked into breads. The combination of cool spring weather and soil composition make Door County a prime cherry growing location; home to the most cherry trees in the state and #4 in the nation.
Indulge yourself no matter the season! Take home cherry preserves, dried cherry trail mix, or cherry cider. Or visit during picking season to create your own fresh cherry delicacies!
Traveling to Door County for cherries?
View cherry blossoms from mid/late May through early June
Visit farms & roadside stands from mid-July to mid-August
Get Door County’s Everything Cherry Report
Give a Man a Fish…
Nearly every menu in Door County will list Whitefish. And while the name sounds like a generalization the Lake Whitefish, native to the Great Lakes, are related to salmon, but have a miler flavor.
While you’ll find Whitefish served a variety of ways- blackened, broiled, or in fish cakes- the Door County Fish Boil is definitely the most dramatic way to enjoy your first taste of the county’s favored fish.
It’s best to think of a fish boil as ‘dinner and a show’. My dining experience took place at Rowley’s Bay Restaurant, one of the peninsula’s vintage waterfront resorts.
Passing the boiling cauldron in front of the restaurant, we were welcomed into the bar where our group enjoyed a drink before decamping to Grandma’s Swedish Bakery (try the pecan roll!). Awaiting us was storyteller Charles Dickson, ready to embody Peter Rowley for whom the bay is named.
As Peter’s story of Door County is told the fish boil is prepared, each ingredient added in its time. First the potatoes are presented to the audience, followed by the onions, and then the fish.
After the fish is added it’s time for the spectacle: the boil over.
Kerosene is added to the fire causing the fats and brine that have gathered at the top of the cauldron to boil over in a very dramatic fashion.
Traditionally the fish boil dinner of potatoes, onions, and fish is served with melted butter and, more recently, tartar sauce. Rowley’s Bay Restaurant serves their fish boil on a buffet that also includes chicken, pork, and meatballs, salad, soup, and desserts.
More to Eat & Drink in Door County
Where to Stay in Door County
My recent stay in Door County was in a yurt at Wagon Trail Campground near the end of the peninsula. I loved the secluded sites at this campground- no rows of RVs or open fields of tents here! Read the full review of Wagon Trail Campground at Camping Tips for Everyone.
If you’re looking for a restful accommodation consider Country House Resort. This waterfront property follows a strict ‘no kids under 13’ rule so you are assured of a peaceful stay. Read a review of Country House Resort at Travel with Sara.
What type of stay do you prefer when you travel?
Hotel? Guesthouse? Bed & Breakfast? Holiday rental? Camping?
You’ll find every one of these available- by the dozen! The Door County website makes it very easy to find your perfect accommodation- you simply choose your preferred lodging, the price range you want, and the amenities you desire (including adult only, pet-friendly and accessible facilities) and your options appear instantly.
The hard part is choosing which to settle into for your stay!
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Midwest Drive Times to Door County, Wisconsin
Are you ready to give Door County, Wisconsin your own ‘thumbs up’? If you’re not flying in to one of the international airports here are approximate drive times from Midwest cities:
Chicago, IL 5 hours
Detroit, MI 10 to 11 hours (depending on route)
Indianapolis, IN 8 hours
Columbus, OH 11 hours
St Louis, MO 9.5 hours
Des Moines, IA 9 hours
St. Paul, MN 6 hours