Written By: Rebecca Sweat
Located on a 75-mile peninsula surrounded by the waters of Green Bay on the west and Lake Michigan on the east, Door County, Wisconsin, is fast becoming one of the nation’s most popular travel destinations. The county embraces 300 miles of picturesque shoreline that is dotted with bustling harbors, quaint seaside towns, pristine beaches, and quiet covers. Ten lighthouses guard the harbor and the 42 islands in the county.
The dozen shoreline communities along the Door County peninsula each have something unique to offer,but five tend to be a favorite among visitors. As you explore them, you’re sure to find something that appeals to you.
Door County’s largest town and county seat, Sturgeon Bay is an eclectic mix of Victorian-era buildings and modern hotels, resorts, restaurants, shops, and galleries. History enthusiasts will not want to miss the Door County Historical Museum, located in Sturgeon Bay’s historic district, to view exhibits depicting the county’s settlement from the early 1800s onward.
The Miller Art Museum and the Fairfield Center for Contemporary Art provide art lovers with a quality cultural experience. Also downtown is the Door County Maritime Museum, with displays relating to the city’s long shipbuilding history, a lighthouse exhibit, and a pilot house from a working freighter.
Just west of the city, Potawatomi State Park has miles of trails, excellent campsites, and an observation tower with an eagle’s eye view of the shoreline and woods.
Some of the most spectacular shoreline scenery can be found in or around Jacksonport, on Door County’s eastern shore. Lakeside Park, in the center of town, has a public swimming beach and several picnic areas. Cave Point County Park, located just a few miles south of Jacksonport, features miles of limestone bluffs and sea caves and is a haven for divers and photographers. A short drive away is Whitefish Dunes State Park, which boasts the highest sand dunes in Wisconsin, a unique lookout point called “Old Baldy,” an expansive swimming beach, and 15 miles of trails for hiking, biking, and skiing.
Jacksonport is also home to the county’s Cherry Festival, which take place annually in early August. There are more than 2,000 acres of cherry orchards in Door County, and the festival is a celebration of the harvest each year. Enjoy the music, parades, carnival rides, and, of course, baked goods made from cherries.
Located on Door’s western shore, Fish Creek is known throughout the nation for its active artistic life. There are more than 100 galleries and art museums in Door County, many of which are in Fish Creek. Art enthusiasts will enjoy a day browsing the different galleries or even taking an art class of their own. The Peninsula Art School and Guenzel Gallery offers on- to five-day workshops in ceramics, sculpture, jewelry and metalwork, painting, drawing, photography, and printmaking.
Performing arts are also big in Fish Creek. Top theaters include the Peninsula Players, America’s oldest professional residential summer theater, set right on the shoreline with breathtaking views of Green Bay; American Folklore Theater, an outdoor amphitheater featuring original plays and musicals performed by local actors and musicians; and the Door Community Auditorium, which plays host to dozens of nationally known artists and productions each year. Additionally, the Peninsula Music Festival draws musicians from America’s finest orchestras to perform ten concerts in Fish Creek over three weeks every August.
While in Fish Creek, be sure to visit the White Gull Inn for an authentic Door County fish boil dinner, a method of cooking that is unique to northern Wisconsin.
Settled in the 1850s by Norwegian and Swedish immigrants, Sister Bay is proud of its Scandinavian heritage. Quality shops, restaurants, and bakeries abound in the town center, featuring Scandinavian fare, unique gifts, and collectibles.
One of the most famous Door County restaurants is in Sister Bay, and that’s Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant. The menu features authentic Swedish cuisine – dishes such as Swedish meatballs, roast beef hash, limpa bread, and lingonberry pancakes, along with Lake Michigan-caught whitefish and fresh produce from area farms.
Just north of the western tip of the Door Peninsula is Washington Island, the County’s largest island and a very remote, back-to-nature kind of destination. The only way to get to the island is by car ferry from the mainland. The quickest trip is via the ferry from Northport, and that takes about 30 minutes. You also can take narrated boat excursions from Gills Rock, about 90 minutes each way.
Take in the island’s pastoral views by biking, hiking, or riding mopeds around the island (bikes and mopeds can be rented from local tour operators). Check out the island’s many gift shops and art galleries. Catch some rays at East Side Park Beach or the Sand Dunes Public Beach. For a great view of neighboring islands and Escanaba, Michigan, climb the 184-step tower at Mountain Park.
Once one Washington Island, you may want to take the 10-minute ferry trip over to Rock Island, home of Rock Island State Park. Cars and bicycles are not allowed on Rock Island, but it is easy to get around on foot. Be sure to tour the Potawatomi Lighthouse, an all-stone structure and the only lighthouse in Door County that you can climb to the top, and the Thordarson Boat House, an elaborate 1900s boathouse made entirely from local stone. Backpacking, hiking, diving, swimming, and kayaking are also popular. Of course, you may just be content to relax in your beach chair, admiring the brilliant white cliffs, cobblestone beaches, and turquoise waters.