Story and photos Cheré Coen
Visitors flock to the 70-mile peninsula known as Wisconsin’s Door County for its dozens of charming communities accenting the 300 miles of shoreline fronting Green Bay on one side and Lake Michigan to the east.
Naturally, this oasis features numerous ways to enjoy the outdoors, whether on the peninsula or on one of its numerous named islands.
Even better, the county formed an alliance with Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics in 2019 to become a more sustainable tourist destination.
Here are seven ways to enjoy Door County’s great outdoors.
7 Outdoor Adventures in Door County
Explore a Cave
Door County consists of dolomite/limestone, part of the continuous Niagara Escarpment that stretches to New York. Over time, on the eastern side of the park, the waves of Lake Michigan have carved caves out of the bluffs.
These geologic wonders may be seen at the almost 19-acre Cave Point County Park, and are popular with paddlers. Be sure to take care if you choose to paddle close to the rugged cliffs.
Take the Ferry to Washington Island
Immigrants from Iceland settled on Washington Island in 1850 and the French who followed gave the region its name: “Portes des Morts” or “Door of Death” for the treacherous waters between the mainland and the island. Washington Island is Wisconsin’s largest — 36 square miles — and today 600 residents call it home.
A year-round ferry brings visitors to the island which offers the Schoolhouse Beach of wave-polished limestone rocks and Fragrant Isle lavender farm with numerous English lavender varieties blooming from late June through late August.
Fragrant Isle creates its own essential oils and serves lavender-enhanced food and drink so it’s easy to spend hours here. “It truly is relaxing,” General Manager Sarah Cornell said of the lavender farm.
For those who wish to remain on the island past the last ferry ride, there are several accommodations, including the circa-1904 boutique Hotel Washington with a dining room serving up seasonal dishes by local farmers and growers.
For a treat, don’t miss the numerous popcorn flavors at Island Popcorn Barn, all created with love one batch at a time.
Take the Ferry to Rock Island
From Washington Island, visitors can board another ferry on selected dates to Rock Island, a pedestrian-only island featuring the 1836 Pottawatoie Lighthouse, the oldest lighthouse in Wisconsin. Lotteries are held annually for those who wish to live in the lighthouse for a short period of time in exchange for docent duties.
The island also contains for public viewing the great hall and boathouse of former Chicago inventor Chester Thordarson.
Explore the Dark
It’s difficult to find a starry sky these days but Newport State Park offers one of the few places in the world where light pollution doesn’t reign. Newport, its 2,300 acres and 11 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline located at the northern tip of the county, is the first Wisconsin park to be designated an International Dark Sky Park.
The Ridges Sanctuary
Docent Bill Wolff gives an informative and passionate tour of Ridges Sanctuary, Wisconsin’s oldest nonprofit nature preserve that holds many titles: State Natural Area, an Audubon Important Bird Area and a National Natural Landmark. “It’s not just a walk in the woods but a place to be transformed,” Wolff said of the five miles of rustic trails.
The Ridges is named for the unique series of beach ridges created by wave action from Bailey’s Harbor off Lake Michigan. “It created a unique forest,” Wolff said of the ridges. “It looks like a roller coaster. We have a forest with hallways.”
In addition, the property includes the Bailey’s Harbor Range Lights, the only lighthouses consisting of two navigational structures still on range and functional as navigational aids. The upper lighthouse may be toured and it, too, hosts a lottery for those who wish to exchange docent services for a stay in the historic building.
The sanctuary offers education programming, tours and workshops in addition to research.
Get on the Water
Want to sit back and tour the waters off Door County without having to steer? Sister Bay Scenic Boat Tours offers daily narrated tours aboard a double decker boat that takes visitors around Fish Creek, Sister Bay, Ephraim and the many islands, among other spots.
There are sunset live music cruises, firework trips and more.
Take a Hike
Stroll the mile of Lake Michigan beach at Whitefish Dunes State Park, then hike into the 800-plus acres of forests to the highest sand dune in Wisconsin for a breathtaking view of the peninsula. In the winter months, the state park features ski touring, snowshoeing and other winter activities.
The largest Door County park is Peninsula State Park, which began in 1909 and contains hiking trails, picnic spots, biking trails, camping and much more. The 3776-acre state park also contains dramatic bluffs with a 60-foot accessible Eagle Tower where visitors receive a stunning view of Green Bay.
Hike the Eagle Trail with cliffs that parallel Eagle Harbor or the Sentinel Trail that highlights the county’s unique forest ecology. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife; we spotted a deer.
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