Spring Into Door County, Wisconsin
By James Richardson
March 22, 2016
Filed under Destinations
With its picturesque coastal towns, fish boils, cherry orchards and scenic beauty, this county is often called the ‘Cape Cod of the Midwest’
There are few places that awaken as beautifully during springtime as Door County, Wisconsin. The cherry blossoms in the orchards, the wildflowers of the woodlands and the greening trees are nature’s welcoming ode to spring. They all seem to beckon visitors … and many travelers heed the call.
Door County is a superlative-enriched destination. It boasts more miles of shoreline and more state parks than any other county in America. The county, which is a 70-mile-long peninsula, extends into Lake Michigan from the Green Bay area. It has five state parks and 19 county parks, as well as a large number of local parks, nature preserves and state natural areas, giving visitors a variety of options to explore its natural beauty. That totals to more than 23,000 acres of public and preserved land in Door County to explore and enjoy.
The county is among the top cherry-producing regions in the U.S., with more than 2,500 acres of cherry orchards. The cherry trees normally bloom in mid- to late May with cherries ready for picking in mid-July to early August. Hence, one of the reasons for the influx of visitors in the spring. It is a most beautiful time. But visitation continues through fall, when the landscape transforms into another colorful wonderland.
While traveling through the county soaking up local color, visitors have a host of options for outdoor recreation, absorbing history and culture, and for sampling the county’s cuisine at the many restaurants. The hiking, biking, golfing, fishing and boating keep visitors busy outside, while shopping allows time to peruse specialty shops. The numerous art galleries, museums, and lighthouses provide another side of the county. Door County has 11 historic lighthouses that dot the peninsula’s shores — one of the largest concentrations of lighthouses in any county in the U.S.
Door County is composed of a number of small towns with winter populations of only 200 to 300 that increases in the spring and summer to thousands. The towns are uniquely named; for instance, there’s Fish Creek, Egg Harbor, Ephraim, Gills Rock, Baileys Harbor, Ellison and Sister bays. Each has its particular flavor and history. For example, the name of the town of Egg Harbor, established in 1855, is generally thought to have originated from an egg-throwing battle between two ship crews after a race to the harbor. Another version says the name came from an early pioneer who found a nest of bird’s eggs along the shore. Take your pick.
Of the five state parks, Peninsula is Wisconsin’s most popular camping destination. Peninsula’s five campgrounds have more than 450 sites (157 sites with electric hookups) and accommodates large motorhomes. The park is also the county’s largest state park, with 3,776 acres along the body of water called Green Bay, which is between the mainland of Wisconsin and Door Peninsula. There is an 18-hole golf course, hiking and bicycle trails, swimming and fishing at Peninsula State Park. Eagle Bluff Lighthouse is also located here and is open for tours.
Besides Peninsula, only Potawatomi State Park has camping spaces for motorhomes (123 sites, 40 with electric hookups). This 1,178-acre park has more than 2 miles of shoreline on Green Bay and is located in the southern part of the town of Sturgeon Bay. There are biking and hiking trails as well as boating and fishing opportunities. All the county parks have an abundance of springtime wildflowers, including trilliums.
A hike in Ellison Bluff County Park in northern Door will reward the careful visitor with a peek at the rare pink lady’s slipper wild orchid. This 174-acre park also offers one of the most breathtaking views of the 100-foot-tall limestone bluffs as well as the waters of Green Bay.
The remaining state parks — Whitefish Dunes, Newport and Rock Island — are either day-use or only allow primitive camping. Getting to Rock Island requires two ferry rides. First, you’ll have to take the Washington Island ferry (motorhomes welcome), and from there, park the coach and take the passenger-only Karfi Ferry to Rock Island. The primitive 912-acre island is home to the oldest lighthouse in the state, Pottawatomie Lighthouse, which is open for tours Memorial Day through Columbus Day. Back on Washington Island, the Washington Island Campground offers 45 RV sites, most with water and electricity.
Beyond the island, there are several private campgrounds and RV parks located in Door County. Baileys Grove Campground, Fish Creek Campground, Quietwoods South Camping Resort, and Rustic Timbers are favorites and have facilities for motorhomes.
Canoeing and kayaking are the best ways to explore the bays and rivers of Door County. The islands on the bay side, including Horseshoe Island in Nicolet Bay, are popular destinations for kayakers. Various outfitters can provide equipment or even guided tours to some of the area’s waterways. Besides kayaking tours, outfitters offer fishing, sailing and even Segway tours. Take a trolley tour for an insider’s look at some of the small towns and state parks.
The most visited lighthouses in Door County are the Eagle Bluff Lighthouse at Peninsula State Park, the Cana Island Lighthouse (one of the most photographed), the Pottawatomie Lighthouse on Rock Island, and Baileys Harbor Range Lights. The range lights are located in the 1,600-acre Ridges Sanctuary, which is a designated state natural area. Range lights differ from lighthouses in that range lights come in pairs and are used to precisely align a vessel within a narrow channel, such as in a river or the entrance to a bay. The one closer to the vessel is called the beacon, or front range, and the more distant and taller one is the rear range.
To get a feel of the county’s nautical heritage, visitors should make stops at the three sites of the Door County Maritime Museum. The main site is located in Sturgeon Bay next to a historic steel bridge. Exhibits include model ships and boats, and displays on shipwrecks. Another site of the museum is located at the Cana Island Lighthouse. Operational since 1869, the lighthouse is located on an island, just north of Baileys Harbor. But visitors reach and tour the lighthouse by walking across a causeway. The grounds contain several original buildings. A climb of the 97 steps of the light tower rewards with a view of the island, Door County peninsula and Lake Michigan. The third site of the museum is in the fishing village of Gills Rock, which is located at the northernmost point of the peninsula. The site consists of a wooden fish shack, a fishing tug, and exhibits on ice fishing and shipwrecks.
For shoppers, there are plenty of opportunities in the small towns. There are no malls, just independently owned specialty shops. Art galleries are also abundant. In Sturgeon Bay visit the Popelka Trenchard Glass fine art gallery and studio. A new gallery in Egg Harbor, the Cappaert Contemporary Gallery, is located in an 1873 log house. It features sculptures, paintings, glass, clay and jewelry. In Fish Creek, the Hands On Art Gallery allows visitors to create their own piece of art in glass, mosaics, jewelry or in paint.
There are several restaurants and eateries that most visitors will want to try. A good way to start the day is to make a stop at the Door County Coffee and Tea Co. for some gourmet coffee and a homemade breakfast. Another breakfast option, or any meal for that matter, is Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant & Butik. This is probably the most famous restaurant in Door County, due to the fact that, on most days, there are goats grazing on the restaurant’s sod roof. The Swedish pancakes are the restaurant’s most popular breakfast dish.
A good lunch stop in Ephraim is Wilson’s Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlor. It features hamburgers and sandwiches, an old-fashioned soda fountain with home-brewed root beer and ice-cream flavors that will satisfy any taste. Another lunch option is the Wild Tomato Wood-Fired Pizza and Grille located in Fish Creek opposite the entrance to Peninsula State Park.
No visit to Door County would be complete without attending a fish boil.
Fish boils are offered at many Door County restaurants and are popular meals for visitors. Potatoes, onions and locally caught whitefish are cooked together in a large kettle over a wood fire. At the end of the cooking, the cook, called the boil master, throws kerosene onto the fire, which causes the water to boil over, burning away the fish oil. The fish and vegetables are then served inside the restaurant. The meal is traditionally followed by cherry pie. Fish boils were originally used to feed large crowds of lumberjacks and fishermen. It was a quick and economical way to feed large groups of people. As the area grew as a tourist destination, it became a popular attraction at local restaurants. Two restaurants that have fish boils are Pelletier’s Restaurant & Fish Boil in Fish Creek and at the Old Post Office Restaurant in Ephraim.
With so many opportunities for outdoor recreation in Wisconsin’s Door County, and so many great places to eat and camp, the peninsula called Door is an excellent motorhome destination for spring. Or any season for that matter.
For More Information
Baileys Grove Campground
866-839-2559 | http://baileysgrovecampground.com
Door County Maritime Museum
920-743-5958 | www.dcmm.org
Door County Visitor Bureau
800-527-3529 | www.doorcounty.com
Fish Creek Campground
920-495-2267 | http://fishcreekcampground.com
Quietwoods South Camping Resort
920-825-7065 | www.quietwoodscamping.com
Rustic Timbers Door County Camping
920-868-3151 | http://rustictimbersdoorcountycamping.com
Washington Island Campground
920-847-2622 | www.washingtonislandcampground.com