Door to Adventure – Wisconsin’s Door County Peninsula

Wisconsin’s Door County Peninsula Blends Northern Woods and Scenic Shoreline Tranquility.

A geographic thumb that juts defiantly into Lake Michigan, Wisconsin’s Door County is a narrow peninsula that packs a huge punch, mixing miles of scenic shoreline with a vibrant artistic culture and a rich array of outdoor recreational opportunities.

Picture a string of New England fishing villages scattered amid tidy cherry and apple orchards topped with a dollop of Midwestern friendliness. Blend it into a serene, kicked-back setting and you’ve got the genial flavor of this popular place, where the pace is laid back and the sunsets simply terrific.

A bucolic blend of rolling farmland, rocky shoreline, dense woodlands and quaint harbors, it’s easy to understand why Door County has been named one of the Top 10 Vacation Destinations in North America by Money magazine. And it’s most affordable when experienced from the comfort of a trailer or motorhome.

Tucked beneath the awning of his 32-foot motorhome, with a good book in one hand and a decent brew in the other. John Hirsch settled deep into his camp chair and concentrated on catching the light afternoon breeze that spun off the water surrounding Door County’s Peninsula State Park.

Door county Wisconsin lighthouseThe late June day had grown warm, with temperatures climbing into the mid-’80s. The breeze was a built-in benefit of camping in Door County, a slender spit of land hemmed on both sides by northern lake waters — massive Lake Michigan to the east and sprawling Green Bay to the west. Those cool lake winds are one of the essential ingredients that make Door County eternally popular with summer campers.

Hirsch had earned this. Earlier in the day, he and his wife had paddled the bay just north of nearby Fish Creek. By late afternoon, they were back in camp, red kayaks drying belly-up in the sunshine like slabs of salmon. So Hirsch seized a moment to put his feet up and enjoy the essential Three B’s: Beer, Breeze and Book.

“We like to take a trip up here during the spring and the fall when most of the kids are back in school,” said Hirsch, of Wisconsin, “But during the summer we try to get out and visit our state parks in Wisconsin, which offer so much of what we like.”

Among Wisconsin’s state parks, Peninsula State Park is consistently the state’s most popular camping destination, with terrific hiking/biking trails, scenic vistas, sandy beaches, a top-notch golf course, historic lighthouse, and a respected outdoor theater program.

Campers like Hirsch say once you’ve visited, you’ll be drawn back time and again, just like he and his wife. When it comes to Peninsula State Park campsites, there isn’t a bad seat in the house.

“We’ve camped here many years, and usually wind up around Nicolet Bay (campground),” he said. “This is the first time we’ve tried Weborg Point (campground), and we really love it. In fact, we may have the best spot in the whole park,” he added, studying the sparkling water just down the hill from his campsite.

Land of liquid beauty

That enticing blend of big water and sprawling shoreline — sometimes dramatically craggy, other times rimmed with soft sand beaches – keep Door County visitors coming back for more.

This place is about water, and water is everywhere: the serene bays and beaches, the inland lakes and trickling creeks, and nearly 300 miles of shoreline that provide plenty of liquid scenery.

But beyond the first-rate fishing, boating, swimming and scuba-diving — you can get an up-close look at some of the region’s famed ship-wrecks — there is plenty to draw you back to dry land. As destinations go, it’s an outdoor enthusiast’s dream. At only 75 miles long and 10 miles wide, this compact peninsula boasts five state parks, 11 golf courses, nearly 100 galleries and art museums, more than a dozen county parks, and 10 lighthouses, more than any other county on the Great Lakes.

The tranquil natural setting brings visitors by the droves; some 2 million people will trek here every year for the soothing landscape, which makes for great biking, hiking, golfing and sightseeing. Slip beyond the colorful, but sometimes congested, villages that dot the western edge of the Door County Peninsula — Egg Harbor, Fish Creek, Ephraim and Sister Bay — and you wouldn’t believe that many tourists are in town.

Reminders are subtle. At Peninsula State Park, campers firmly insist that you have to make reservations a year in advance to have a decent chance to reserve one of the 468 campsites scattered throughout this massive 3,700-acre park. And RVers aren’t left out in the cold; 102 sites offer 30-amp electrical hook-ups. Weather permitting; the park’s four family campgrounds are open May through October.

Be advised: Generators and air conditioners are not permitted.

One of the most popular camping destinations in Peninsula State Park is Nicolet Bay, a 187-site campground tucked next to a sandy beach along the shoreline of Nicolet Bay. Some sites are located right on the water, and 34 offer electrical hook-ups. For a less congested setting with water views, consider Weborg Point campground, a small 12-site that juts into Green Bay. Campsites are lightly shaded; provide 30-amp electrical hook-ups and a bathhouse, as well as a concrete fishing pier. Seven sites feature lovely water views.

Tennison Bay is the only campground in the park open year-round. With 189 sites — 59 feature electrical hook-ups — you’ll also find a nature center, amphitheater, beach and boat ramp within easy walking distance. Located in the northern most edge of the park, heavily wooded Welcker’s Point campground is the only site that doesn’t provide electrical hook-ups. But once you’ve made camp in any of these richly wooded campsites, you can hike and bike or boat without feeling cramped by crowds. So do bring bikes and kayaks.

When RVing in Door County, those footloose visitors who are pulling a fifth-wheel, trailer or pop-up camper — or who’ve pulled along a tow car — has a definite advantage when it comes to sight- seeing. Even the largest villages are famous for their slow, narrow, winding streets, and you’ll have to hunt hard for adequate RV parking for especially big motorcoaches.

Case-in-point: While visiting one of the peninsula’s most popular lighthouses on Cana Island, road signs repeatedly warned that there was no parking. Curious, we continued on, only to find limited parking in a small turnaround at the road’s end. But big motorhomes wouldn’t have even been able to even turn around, much less park. Still, that shouldn’t stop you from visiting; just take the space issue under advisement.

The good news is that the peninsula offers a great blend of urban and rural elements and is relatively easy to explore. Once you make camp, you can always rent bicycles or sign up for trolley tours that will take you where you want to go (doorcountytrolley.com).

Looking for shopping, sunsets and tourist attractions? You’ll spend most of your time on the peninsula’s vibrant western side. It’s here that you’ll find Peninsula State Park and a string of small towns with great restaurants and unending shopping.

Seeking less crowds and tranquil views? You’ll want to focus on Door County’s unspoiled eastern edge, the “quiet side,” as locals call it, which features Whitefish Dunes State Park and Newport State Park.

The peninsula is so small that you really can’t get lost. All roads lead somewhere. And there are only two highways — Highway 42 hugs the western edge and Highway 57 meanders to the east. Do observe speed limits, as the roads are diligently patrolled.

Be advised: Door County operates somewhat on “island time.” That means if a map indicates your destination is a 15- mile drive, you might be looking at a 30-minute trip, once you factor in the achingly slow village traffic, which often gets bogged down with tourists. In a hurry? Stick to the two central highways and try to bypass the coastal communities.

Most roads off the beaten path will suffice just fine.

Camping galore

Though quaint bed-and-breakfasts and luxury resorts crowd the Door County coastline, don’t assume that campers are shut out.

On the contrary, the choices are abundant, from wooded state parks to small, cozy family campgrounds, large private camping resorts, and just about everything in between. And given the jaw-dropping prices of some Door County lodging, traveling by RV and trailer is the affordable way to go.

Mike and Shelly Prochnow, of Wisconsin, who’ve been camping here for years, admit that Peninsula State Park is generally their first choice. But when a chance to meet up with family members in Door County arose suddenly, they knew their favorite spot was out of the question.

With about two-week’s notice they were able to snag a spot at Door County Camping Retreat, located in the center of the peninsula just south of Egg Harbor.

With over 160 separate, wooded RV sites — and over 50 tent sites — Door County Camping Retreat bills itself as “the largest private campground on the peninsula.” The setting is rural and heavily forested, with a heated swimming pool and adjacent hiking trails.

Pulling their 25-foot travel trailer makes it easier to take their pickup for exploration, the Prochnow’s acknowledged. For that reason, they liked the campground’s central location. Nearly everything seemed within an easy drive.

But they found the wooded sites a bit on the buggy side, and they missed being near the water to catch the day’s sunset; Peninsula State Park gets campers about as close to the water as you’ll find anywhere on the western side.

And sunset watching is an important ritual here. People practically make a sport of it. The key? Scope out a good vantage point early in the day so that you’ll have a prime spot around sundown. Most village harbors are great for catching a sunset, but also consider bluffs, beaches, county parks and scenic overlooks.

With 13 private campgrounds scattered throughout the peninsula and RV camping options at many of the state parks, you’re sure to find a place to match your interests. Drawn to nearby islands? Consider taking your RV on the ferry from North Port across the once treacherous “Death’s Door” passage to charming Washington Island to set up camp at Washington Island Camping Retreat. The ferry accommodates most RVs; you’ll be charged based on overall vehicle length.

Can’t leave home without a rod and reel? Check out Potawatomi State Park, near Sturgeon Bay, where fishing is good along the 2.5- mile rocky Green Bay shoreline. Canoe, kayak and bicycle rental is also available.

Looking to entertain the children? Harbor Village Resort, off Highway 42 at Carlsville, offers the area’s only outdoor water park. Or try Frontier Wilderness Campground, three miles southeast of Egg Harbor. In addition to wooded sites, you’ll find an indoor heated pool, arcade/activity center, miniature golf and three playgrounds.

Want to get away from it all? Journey north to the “top of the thumb” and stay at Wagon Trail Campground, a beautifully maintained, wooded setting that is “big rig friendly,” and offers the closest access to Lake Michigan and nearby Sand Bay Town Park, a nice stretch of beach and shallow bay perfect for kids.

It’s this end of the island that keeps Kevin and Denise Frye coming back. This Wisconsin couple manage to make it to Door County about one week every month. They appreciate the temperate climate, the natural setting and the recreational opportunities.

“The thing that brings me back is the weather and the bass fishing,” Kevin Frye chuckled. “You can usually fish in Green Bay or on the lake (Michigan) over here. If the weather’s bad on one side, it’s usually OK on the other.”

Frye advises RV campers to stock up on provisions early — before you leave home, preferably. Door County shopping is trendy, posh and very pricey. In fact, you may be hard-pressed to recognize a grocery store when you pass it. In a pinch, be sure to check out Main Street Market in downtown Egg Harbor, which is known for a great selection of wine and gourmet specialty foods.

The absence of cookie-cutter convenience stores is deliberate. In an effort not to spoil the region’s pristine quality, big box stores and big franchises are not to be found north of Sturgeon Bay. That means you’ll want to make time to stock up on provisions in Sturgeon Bay before you head north, campers advise. The same is true of gasoline, which always seems a bit more expensive the farther north you go on the peninsula. And stations are few and far between. For the most up-to-date information on all of Door County camping options, visit www.DoorCounty.com.

Plenty to do

Though at first you may find yourself going through Starbucks and Burger King withdrawal, Door County’s deliberate lack of chain stores, franchises and strip malls lends the region an air of freshness and originality. Here, creativity abounds, in the shops, artisan galleries, coffee houses and an amazing smorgasbord of locally owned restaurants, as low-key or as highbrow as you’d like.

Don't ForgetYou’ll definitely want to experience one of Door County’s famed Fish Boils — a feast of mild whitefish steaks from Lake Michigan, red potatoes and onions boiled together in a kettle of salted water. At the last moment, a dose of kerosene is tossed onto the open fire, causing a blaze to leap far above the kettle and the superheated fire to boil water over the kettle’s sides, dousing flames and carrying off surface fish oils.

The feast is drained, drizzled with butter and served immediately. What started as a thrifty way to feed large, hungry hoards of Northern lumberjacks and commercial fishermen lives on as a fiery, favorite tradition. You can find fish boils offered throughout the peninsula, but top-notch versions — with full flaming theatrics — can be found at the Old Post Office restaurant, at Edgewater Resort, in Ephraim, Pelletier’s Restaurant, in Fish Creek, Sandpiper Restaurant, Baileys Harbor, The White Gull Inn Restaurant, Fish Creek, and The Viking Grill and Lounge, Ellison Bay. Reservations are always recommended.

And you can’t really say you’ve been to Door County without sampling the ice cream at Wilson’s Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlor, a 100-year-old tradition in Ephraim. This old-fashioned soda fountain offers ice cream specialties and home-brewed root beer — the perfect warm-weather treat to take with you as you stroll across the street and check out Ephraim’s busy waterfront.

Once you’ve tired of the village scene, take time to enjoy the natural wonders, which may be found no farther than your own campsite. You might head to the “quiet side” of the peninsula to appreciate the scenery at Whitefish Dunes State Park, 863 acres of forest and sand dunes, which receives more visitors than any other day-use park in Wisconsin.

In addition to an extensive trail system through the state’s highest sand dunes, you’ll find a great beachfront, dubbed “the best beach in Wisconsin,” by Wisconsin Trails magazine. Take time to stop at Cave Point and view the sea caves continually being carved by Lake Michigan. Head north past Baileys Harbor and follow the signs to Cana Island Lighthouse, a short hike out to an 8.7-acre island that has been part of Lake Michigan nautical history since the days massive sail-powered schooners plied these waters. Though you can’t tour the 89-foot lighthouse — it’s still an operating navigational tool under the U.S. Coast Guard — you can wander the grounds, visit the beach and check out historical displays in the keeper’s house.

Lighthouse junkies take note: Special access to nine out of Door County’s 10 lighthouses is permitted for two days the third weekend of May during the annual Door County Lighthouse Walk.

While you’re in the area, be sure and swing into the Door County Bakery for sandwiches that might make you swoon — smoked duck, cambozola blue cheese and roasted garlic jam! — Or just grab a warm loaf of the legendary Corsica Loaf and head for the beach.

Continue toward the “tip of the thumb” and stretch your legs at Newport State Park, northeast of Ellison Bay. The former site of a late-1800s logging village, this is Wisconsin’s only formally designated wilderness park, offering 11 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, 3 miles of sand beaches, and 30 miles of hiking trails — 15 miles of those trails are open to off-road bicycling.

The camping here is only for backpackers, but day visitors are always welcome at this quiet retreat, and you’ll find adequate parking for even larger rigs. (For a small fee, you can get a one-hour pass to take a driving tour through any of Door County’s state parks.)

History runs deep here, from the Native American tribes who once fished these waters to French explorers, and Belgian, Moravian and Scandinavian settlers. You can explore the past at many historical attractions, history walks and museums, including Door County Historical Museum, in Sturgeon Bay.

Feeling adventurous? You might enjoy checking out the area’s maritime history firsthand by scuba diving around some of the 200 shipwrecks that lie in the waters surrounding Door County.

Even landlubbers can enjoy Wisconsin’s Maritime Trails, with land-based historic markers that tell of the ships entombed in the waters of Lake Michigan and Green Bay.

And with 58,000 yards of fairways, go ahead and pack your golf clubs. Mike Prochnow raved about Peninsula State Park’s championship 18-hole golf course, with its sweeping views of Eagle Harbor and challenging shots, including a 69-yard hole straight down a 50-foot cliff. Reservations are firmly recommended. For more information, visit www.peninsulagolf.org.

On the way home, leave time to stop at one of the many farm stands and home-grown produce markets that tout some of Door County’s most famous exports: apples and cherries. The history of Door County cherry production stretches back to the 1800s. Today, the county boasts over 2,000 acres of cherry orchards and 1,000 acres of apples — a good reason to tote along an extra cooler.

So grab a bag of fresh cherries, head to your favorite sunset-viewing spot and enjoy a lingering taste of this most flavorful region.

Door county facts

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