As a kid, some of the most thrilling words out of my mom’s mouth were, “Go find your aqua socks.”

Like Indiana Jones with his weathered fedora, slipping into my water socks meant adventure was afoot. It also meant we were headed to the only place where I needed such serious pieces of outdoor gear: Door County, Wisconsin.

Even decades before anyone uttered the phrase “screen time,” I recognized that I wasn’t really an outdoorsy kid — not quite a city slicker, but maybe more of a mall rat. Family vacations typically focused on water parks and arcades, but heading to Door County from the Chicago suburb where I grew up was an opportunity to unleash another side of myself — one that chilled with baby goats rather than loitering at stores, and skipped stones rather than skee-balls. 

The trips to Door County came about because of my best friend, Jenna, who came from a certifiably outdoorsy family. Her parents, both teachers, owned a modest lakeside cottage outside of Sturgeon Bay. There, they spent summers hiking, biking, kayaking, and generously offering to let a certain mall rat tag along on trips. 

Up north, we spent days cycling the rolling roads of Potawatomi State Park with Jenna’s mom, then floating aimlessly on inner tubes in Lake Michigan. At night, we’d climb the creaky stairs to the tip-top of the A-frame cottage to play Solar Quest (a galactic version of Monopoly) before falling into bed and quizzing each other on how many moons of Jupiter we could name without looking at the game board. Door County was where I first saw the northern lights. After roasting marshmallows at a beachside bonfire, Jenna’s dad, who taught junior high science, pointed to glowing green streaks in the sky and whispered, “aurora borealis.”       

Now, with a little mall rat of my own, I’ve been thinking about those summer trips and how much they meant to me. I’d like to introduce my son to the baby goats, hit the Potawatomi trails and just maybe give him a glimpse of the northern lights. 

If you’d like to do something similar — reconnecting with nature or simply experiencing what I’d call a classically epic Midwestern summer vacation — here are my tips for making it happen. 

Looking for other less-visited North American destinations? Here are our suggestions

A red squat lighthouse building at the edge of pier leading out into a lake
Sturgeon Bay attracts fewer crowds than other areas of Door County © Matt Anderson Photography / Getty Images

Step 1: Choose where to base yourself 

Door County is a peninsula that’s about 70 miles long and 18 miles across at its widest point, meaning your base doesn’t have to define your entire trip. If, for example, you choose the eastern side, which sits on Lake Michigan, you can still drive to the opposite, Green Bay coastline for an afternoon of shopping or wine tasting.

Sturgeon Bay

Vibes: Sturgeon Bay is laid-back (thanks to fewer crowds than in some of the more tourist-packed towns farther north) and an easy-breezy base packed with historic charm, including the Door County Maritime Museum. This is where I spent my idyllic summer vacations, and I’d still recommend it for families traveling with kids.

Do: Bring your kids to meet fur-covered kids at the Farm, where you can bottle-feed baby goats, lambs and pigs, plus get an authentic feel for rural life. This was always a beloved attraction of mine, and I’m confident that even the most Minecraft-obsessed modern kids will get a kick out of it as well.

Eat: Feast on locally caught whitefish and experience a classic Wisconsin supper club at Nightingale Supper Club, which dates back to 1913, or go for a Schnitzel-fied German twist at Mill Supper Club, established in 1930. 

Stay: Waterfront Glidden Lodge boasts a “free Lake Michigan sunrise every morning.” It also has a private, sand beach, indoor pool and multi-room condos with fully equipped kitchens that are ideal for families. 

Egg Harbor

Vibes: A bit more buzzy than Sturgeon Bay, Egg Harbor has shopping and dining galore, making it ideal for the traveling gourmand or a girlfriends’ getaway. But, of course, you can’t go anywhere in Door County without stunning natural scenery, so you’ll still have access to hiking trails and beaches. 

Do: Shopping is a major draw in Egg Harbor, where you’ll find locally crafted ceramics and jewelry sold in an early 20th-century barn (Woodwalk Gallery), a cornucopia of cave-aged cheeses (Door Artisan Cheese Company), and a complex of 18 boutiques in one spot (Main Street Shops).

Eat: Perch sandwiches and parmesan truffle fries come with waterfront views at Burton’s on the Bay, a seasonal restaurant at the upscale Alpine Resort.

Stay: In addition to the Alpine, which has freestanding one- to three-bedroom cottages with private porches and modern interiors, the Landmark Resort has multiroom suites perfect for groups. Though the Landmark’s accommodations are more of a condo-style setup, it is more budget-friendly than the Alpine.

Two children and an adult cycle down a woodland trail
There are great cycling trails around Fish Creek © Cultura / Getty Images

Fish Creek

Vibes: Whether it’s your first time visiting the area or you only have a weekend to experience it all, Fish Creek is ideal for a Door-County-greatest-hits experience. Top-notch biking, hiking, dining and shopping are all nearby. However, the area is one of the most touristy and gets crowded — make restaurant reservations in advance. 

Do: Get a bird’s-eye view of Peninsula State Park, Green Bay and surrounding islands from the 60ft-tall Eagle Tower. Take 100 steps to the top or wind around a fully accessible, foliage-surrounded ramp.

Eat: Fish boils are a Door County tradition that date back to the 1800s when Scandinavian settlers needed an easy way to feed big groups. Attend a modern-day version at Pelletier's Restaurant & Fish Boil, complete with locally caught whitefish cooked over an open flame.

Stay: Experience Door County history just by checking in at the Whistling Swan Inn & Restaurant, the peninsula’s oldest operating inn. It’s conveniently located in downtown Fish Creek and right across the street from Pelletier's.   

Bailey’s Harbor

Vibes: Tranquility is the name of the game on the peninsula’s Lake Michigan coast, aka “the quiet side.” This makes Bailey’s Harbor perfect for low-key couples or families that don’t need to be in the center of Door County’s shopping and dining scene. 

Do: Ride a hay wagon and explore maritime history in one fell swoop at Cana Island Lighthouse. A walkable causeway connects Cana Island to the mainland; but when water levels rise, it’s tough to get across without getting wet. Fortunately, a tractor-drawn hay wagon is there to give you a complimentary lift.

Eat: Chives Restaurant is a farm-to-table spot from the same owner as the steak-focused Barringer’s in Fish Creek. For more casual fare, Chives also operates two food trucks next to the restaurant during the summer. One serves pizza and the other has a sandwich and fish fry menu.

Stay: Set on 130 acres, Gordon Lodge has it all: a private, sand-covered beach; a pool and hot tub; six different nature trails; and bikes, kayaks and paddle boards to borrow. You’ll also have your pick of accommodation types, including standalone houses and cottages, or guest rooms in the property’s lodge. 

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A wooden pier leading out into a lake with a peddle boat moored at the end
Book accommodations six months ahead of travel, as summer is peak season in Door County © AMCImages / Getty Images

Step 2: Book your accommodations

Summer is peak season in Door County and visitors flood in from around Wisconsin as well as the Chicagoland area. Book your accommodations six months in advance to have your pick of places, especially if you’re aiming to visit during a holiday period. In addition to the stays mentioned above, one-off cottages and houses listed on Airbnb, VRBO and more local sites, like Door County Escapes and Rent Door County, have their advantages, namely privacy.

However, if you’re only staying for a night or two, you may have better luck searching hotels and resorts, as some municipalities have recently instituted limitations on short-term rentals lasting less than a week. If you can swing it though, having your own piece of the peninsula is priceless, whether it’s on solid ground or floating. That’s right, rentals even include houseboats, such as the two-bedroom Pier Relax’n, docked next to the Sturgeon Bay Bridge.

Step 3: Plan the best things to do with your days in Door County

Eat well then hit the beach in Sister Bay 

Not only can you feed goats in Door County, you can feed yourself while checking out goats, too. Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant & Butik has goats that graze from the grass-covered roof. Located in Sister Bay, the restaurant, which is famous for its Swedish pancakes in addition to its four-legged friends, is a must-visit. Afterward, make a day of it and go for a splash at Sister Bay Beach — treasured for its crystal-clear water and kid-friendly raft and playground.

Learn to cook in Ellison Bay

Head to the tiny northern hamlet of Ellison Bay to learn how to cook with Wisconsin cheese at the Savory Spoon. The Very Cherry Delight class takes advantage of another prized Door County product and features lamb rib chops with cherry kirsch pan sauce, as well as cherry apple pie. After you gobble up your creations, you’ll still have time to venture to Newport State Park, a prime place for stargazing as it’s one of the darkest spots in Wisconsin and a designated Dark Sky Park — one of only 18 in the US. 

Take the ferry to Washington Island

An adventure to Washington Island begins as soon as you step foot on the ferry for the five-mile journey across Death’s Door (don’t worry it’s actually not dangerous — the waterway got its name for past treachery). Once on the island, pick bouquets at Fragrant Isle Lavender Farm, check out the architecturally stunning Stavkirke church or catch an outdoor concert at the Trueblood Performing Arts Center

A solo kayaker paddles towards a rocky overhang
Kayak out to the sea caves in Cave Point County Park © Alamy Stock Photo

Explore underwater caves by kayak

Some of Door County’s most thrilling natural landmarks can only be seen by kayakers or scuba divers. These are the sea caves at Cave Point County Park in Sturgeon Bay. Though divers will get an even better view, kayakers can still see the limestone formations below the water’s surface as they paddle by. Beginner kayakers should book a tour, like those offered by Door County Kayak Tours, as the water can sometimes be rough and difficult to navigate. And on that note, plan your kayak adventure for the beginning of your trip, just in case water conditions mean you have to reschedule. 

Pedal past bays, forests, cliffs and sand dunes

Potawatomi State Park — my old cycling grounds — has over 6 miles of paved road that creates a loop and snakes past bay, forest and limestone cliff views. For mountain bikers, the park also has 8 miles of off-road trails. Another scenic route is the Red Trail at nearby Whitefish Dunes State Park, also in Sturgeon Bay. Open to bikers and hikers, the trail leads to Wisconsin’s tallest dune, Old Baldy.

Hit the wine trail

Cheeseheads don’t just brew beer, they make wine, too. The Door County Wine Trail is made up of eight wineries sprinkled throughout the county, from Sturgeon Bay in the south to Fish Creek in the north. Worried about how you’ll get from place to place? Book a three-winery tour with Door County Trolley.

Step 4: Plan your menu and choose the best places to eat in Door County

If I had to distill the tantalizing tastes of Door County, I’d say it’s about fish boils and farm stands. For the fish, Pelletier's is probably the most famous and it does a boil every night. Old Post Office Restaurant in Ephraim is another great spot for the flame-filled extravaganza offered every evening except Sundays. For farm-fresh flavors, head to Wood Orchard Market in Egg Harbor or Lautenbach's Orchard Country in Fish Creek. Both have bakeries in addition to produce, and, if it hasn’t already become clear, you’ll notice that cherries are a big deal in these parts. Peruse the selection of cherry salsa, cherry jam and chocolate-covered cherries. At Lautenbach's, you can even pick your own cherries in July and August.

A single sail boat anchored in calm waters as the sunset casts pastel colors across the sky
The closest major airport to Door County is in Green Bay © Original photography by Neos Design - Cory Eastman / Getty Images

Step 5: Figure out how will you get there

From Chicago, we always drove. It’s about a 4.5-hour trip. (Side note: When we took a French exchange student one summer, he was so taken by the rural landscape after passing the stateline into Wisconsin that he gasped, “What country is this?!”) From Madison, the drive is roughly 3 hours, and it’s about 2.5 hours from Milwaukee. If you prefer to fly, the closest major airport is Austin Straubel International Airport in Green Bay. Be sure to rent a car so you can check out Lambeau Field, home of the Packers, before driving for roughly 50 minutes the rest of the way.

Step 6: Decide what to pack

My childhood aqua socks weren’t just a fashion statement — water shoes are a must here, as many of the beaches are rocky. Activewear and layers are also recommended to keep you comfy as you peddle or paddle. Plus, keep a sweatshirt handy for evenings, whether you’re dining waterside, taking in a radiant sunset or heading to a fish boil. For the most part, dining is casual, so no need to take up room in your suitcase with dressy clothes. Save that space for souvenirs. Speaking of which, there’s roughly a 99% chance you’ll buy a jar of cherry salsa or a local bottle of wine, so it’s not a bad idea to bring bubble wrap to protect your goods on the journey home. There’s also a 99% chance you’ll encounter a mosquito or two, so pack your bug spray — it is a Midwest tradition.

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