On a drive up the eastern shore of Wisconsin, the road ends in Door County, a charming 75-mile peninsula sandwiched between Lake Michigan and Green Bay that attracts more than 2 million visitors each year. Door County has been called ‘The Cape Cod of the Great Lakes’ due to its laid-back coastal charm and the historic small towns that dot its peaceful shores.
Despite being one of the premier destinations in the Great Lakes, Door County, settled in the 1850s by primarily Scandinavian and Belgian immigrants, retains a slow pace of life and rural vibe that make it feel worlds away from the hustle and bustle of Chicago or Milwaukee. In fact, outside of Sturgeon Bay (Door County’s only ‘city,’ with a population of around 10,000), no chains or franchises are allowed. But who needs them? This breathtakingly beautiful county features 300 miles of shoreline, 53 public beaches, 16 communities, 11 historic lighthouses, eight wineries and five state parks – not to mention 19 county parks, three microbreweries, and a distillery.
Making your way north
Most visitors enter Door County from the south and, in general, towns get smaller the further north you travel. First you’ll pass through the comparatively gritty Sturgeon Bay (famous for its maritime history, including ship-building in WWII) and continue northward until you reach Egg Harbor. The popular Shipwrecked Brew Pub (housed in an 1882 building that was one of the oldest in Door County) suffered a fire last summer, but is expected to reopen by summer 2018. In the meantime, stop in at Harbor View Grill for cocktails and flaky whitefish tacos before you stretch your legs at the adjacent Harbor View Park to enjoy your first full view of the shimmering blue waters of Green Bay.
A bit farther north is the bustling town of Fish Creek, with a delightfully walkable downtown lined with shops, bars and cafes, like the popular Wild Tomato pizza joint and frozen custard purveyor Not Licked Yet. Fish Creek Boat Tours leads scenic cruises along the bay, checking out the turn-of-the-century mansions of ‘Millionaire’s Row,’ historic lighthouses and many natural areas. Fish Creek is also home to Peninsula State Park, which includes an 18-hole golf course (one of 11 golf courses in Door County).
Take me to the other side
Across the peninsula from Fish Creek, on the more laid-back Lake Michigan side of Door County, Bailey’s Harbor is a delightful little hideaway and home of the rustic Door County Brewing Co. Tap Room & Musical Hall. Pick up a pint of Little Sister Witbier or Polka King Porter and participate in friendly lawn games out front, or listen to live bands in the back. But no trip to Bailey’s Harbor is complete without a pilgrimage to the Blue Ox, the city’s legendary dive. The burger is famous here, but the playful staff and the people-watching are equally satisfying.
Just north of town is Gordon Lodge, a cool spot with a summer-camp vibe. Come here to hang out by the water or hike in the woods. Grab a drink by the fire pits before heading to the lodge’s excellent Top Deck Restaurant, which boasts expansive views of Lake Michigan and some of the freshest fish in the area (whitefish is big around these parts, as you’ll learn).
Ice cream, fish boils and rooftop goats
Back over on the Green Bay side, the town of Ephraim couldn’t be cuter if it tried. With a proud Scandinavian flair and some of the finest waterfront parkland in Door County, the 1906-established Wilson’s Restaurant & Ice Cream Parlor serves up cool treats that are pretty much the definition of summer on the lake. Across the street, you can rent your own pontoon boat at South Shore Pier Boat Rentals to explore nearby bluffs, lighthouses and beaches while getting a unique vantage point of the scenic Door County coastline. Then again, if you just wanted kick back in the sun and crack open a few beers on the boat, no one would blame you. The Old Post Office Restaurant is an iconic local spot here for fish boils, a Great Lakes tradition similar to crawfish boils in the South, where whitefish, onions and potatoes are boiled up together in one big pot over an open fire. The whole thing is set ablaze just prior to serving, making for a dramatic finish.
North of Ephraim is Sister Bay, which makes an excellent base for exploring the less developed section of Door County. The once sleepy town is one of the region’s finest, and has added a German-style beer hall, new lakeside amphitheater and an alarmingly fun outdoor Swedish beer garden in recent years. The most famous spot here is Al Johnson’s, known around the world for its ‘goat cam’ that records the live goats (repeat: live goats) that graze the roof of this Swedish cabin-style restaurant.
If you’re in more of a hurry, Grasse’s Grill makes an excellent spot for to-go fare, with healthy, hearty soups and sandwiches. Take the short walk to the water and eat on a picnic bench overlooking the bay at Sister Bay Beach, the largest waterfront beach park in Door County. Paddle boats and canoes can also be rented. Don't leave Sister Bay without making the pilgrimage to the glorious Fred & Fuzzy’s Waterfront Bar & Grill. Order a bratwurst with all the trimmings. Watch the sunset. Sip a refreshing cherry margarita. Repeat.
Peaceful parks and dramatic views
Passing through the small hamlet of Ellison Bay and the picturesque Ellison Bluff State Natural Area, you’ll reach the northernmost town on the main Door County peninsula. It’s called Gills Rock. And it’s amazing. The town consists of little more than a few shops, a maritime museum and one of the best restaurants in Door County, The Shoreline. The food (particularly the fresh-boiled whitefish topped with a homemade pesto) is spectacular, and the views are even better. Stop by on the 4th of July, when the entire town erupts into one giant party, with fireworks over the water and a scene straight out of Mayberry.
But perhaps the best reason to visit this little slice of Door County is Newport State Park, featuring oft-deserted beaches that are a huge contrast to the crowded trails of Peninsula State Park. Open a book, lay out a blanket and commence relaxation. An even bigger secret can be found just a short drive away at Europe Bay Beach, located at the end of Europe Bay Road. On this virtually locals-only beach, you can explore the sand dunes and take in the wonderful solitude.
Once you’ve reached the northernmost tip of the peninsula, there’s still more to explore. One of the best things to do in Door County is to ride the ferry from Northport (just north of Gills Rock) across the legendary Death’s Door strait, the infamous site of many shipwrecks for early French explorers. These days, the trip is much safer – just load in your car and you’re off on your merry way.
The ferry drops you off in the town of Washington Island, a small collection of homes and shops where the majority of the island’s 700 or so residents live. But the main attraction here is world-famous Schoolhouse Beach, which offers stunning views of brilliant, Caribbean-clear waters from its limestone-pebble shores. Regardless of how tempted you might be, resist the urge to take one of the rocks home with you: it’s illegal.
There’s yet another island just a short ferry ride away. On Rock Island State Park, the only ‘room’ to rent is a campsite by the water. No vehicles are allowed on this primitive island, home of the oldest lighthouse in Wisconsin (the 1836 Pottawatomie Lighthouse), a few historic stone structures and a small strip of beach.
For most visitors, this is the end of the road. But with dozens of additional named and unnamed barrier islands located off of Door County’s coasts, is it really?
Make it happen
The rise of the automobile brought tourism to Door County, and it’s still the best way to explore this rural region. Time your visit for the high season, between April and October, to make the most of your trip.