Content Produced in Partnership with Door County Visitor Bureau
Generally, when someone shows you where they are on their hand, they’re referencing a city in Michigan, but the Badger State has been known to do it too and Door County is actually the “left thumb” of Wisconsin. A 70-mile peninsula comprised of over a dozen lake and bay towns, it’s the kind of place with whitewashed Cape Cod homes, red barns, American flags blowing in the breeze, and no one on a hurry to get anywhere. Benches and Adirondacks line the shores just calling for you to slow down, take a seat, and watch the waves.
For those that want more than a sleepy summer waterfront getaway (although there’s plenty of that too), Door County isn’t a secret to Midwesterners, but to the rest of the US, it might be. A collective of waterfront communities, each has their quirks and personalities that are perfect for the ADD traveler because you can change stretches of sand every 30 minutes. So why commit to just one beach when you could have 300-miles of shore at your disposal? There are so many places to see and so many things to do you couldn’t possibly fit it all in one weekend. Here are just a few of the highlights of this choose your own adventure destination.
A peninsula is almost entirely surrounded by water, which means a good majority of the attractions in Door County are water-logged. With Green Bay on the west and Lake Michigan on the East, “Death’s Door” is where they meet, a notoriously dangerous strait for the original explorers. There are over 250 shipwrecks scattered throughout the area (more than even the Bermuda Triangle!), the result of inexperienced sailors, unpredictable weather, and a rocky shoreline. Extra intriguing for today’s intrepid adventurers, the idea of SCUBA diving and snorkeling in the Great Lakes may sound odd but is quite a popular pastime. Christina Nilsson, Fleetwing, Australasia, and Grape Shot are all great beginner wrecks that are no more than 10-30 feet underwater (some can even be seen from shore).
Or on the Water
If you’d rather get a lay of the land from above the water, Door County Adventure Rafting is a rip-roaring ride that’ll take you to some of the more remote wrecks and lighthouses only visible by boat. Make no mistake though, this is no lazy day on the lake. A military-grade rig called a Zodiac Hurricane, the uniquely designed vessel has a rigid bottom and rubber sides that were specifically made for big waves and rough waters (and you better believe, we did have three-foot waves) that can go up to 50 mph so hold on. The highlights include Pilot Island, which less than 2% of visitors get to see, home to both an abandoned lighthouse (making it all the more photogenic) and a national wildlife refuge that was like a scene out of The Birds, and an old coast guard station.
For a calmer day on the water, Door County kayak tours are available on both sides of the peninsula, which are especially popular near Cave Point County Park. Watch the waves crash into the craggy cliffs, shaping the rock and take in the epic landscape. It’s a popular spot for cliff jumpers and families to picnic, making it all the more fun that Peninsula Kayak Company armed us with water guns for our unknowing victims (#savage). They also generously offer to tow you if your arms need a break or just prefer a lazy ride.
Sample the Local Produce
Is it still considered farm-to-table if you’re picking fruit right off a vine and eating it before you even make it to a table? Literally branch to bench, you can pick your own everything in Door County with country stores and orchards more common than any sort of chain grocery store. You’ll find strawberry and tart cherry-flavored everything (think: delicious juices, pastries, jams, and salsas), homemade fudge, gluttonous ice cream sundaes, and Wisconsin cheeses galore. Seaquist Orchards Farm Market is the largest in the area, but be warned: visitors take their free samples seriously (I got pushed out of the way just trying to take a photo of the spread).
Pro Tip: Renard’s Cheese is the place to stock up on legen-dairy products before heading out of town. They even have novelty cheese shapes for last-minute gifts (yes, even as Packers players).
Then Wash it Down
With eight wineries and cideries along the Door County Wine Trail, you’re never more than a stone’s throw from somewhere to sip and swirl. Lautenbach’s Orchard Country Winery & Market is one of the best with free tastings and vineyard tours that start as early as 9 am (you can’t drink all day if you don’t start in the morning, right?). The Midwest taste buds tend to gravitate toward the sweet and fruity side with Moscato’s, ice wines, and dessert wines some of the more popular palate pleasers (not even mad about it), but they do have drier reds and whites if you’re so inclined. Of course, we always advocate for tasting a bunch before committing.
Freshly caught local whitefish is definitely the area’s signature dish, the traditional – and iconic preparation at a Door County Fish Boil. Caught literally yesterday by Lake Michigan fishermen, the 100-year old tradition was brought over by the original Scandinavian settlers as a way to easily and cheaply feed the immigrant population. Groups gather around a 1900s style smoking, open-flame cauldron for hours that’s a bit like dinner and a show but feels like you’re just watching water boil. It seems pretty strange and anti-climactic until the boil master does his thing and whoosh the entire thing is engulfed in a massive fireball of flames (seriously, step back or you’ll lose an eyebrow).
A handful of restaurants in Door County offer nightly fish boils, but the Old Post Office is the most well-known for their killer waterfront views and because the servers will debone the fish for you. The food is not fancy by any means, in fact, it’s about as no-frills as it gets served buffet style. You’re dished up a chunk of fish, coleslaw, potatoes, and onions, seasoned with nothing but salt and then the entire plate is doused in melted butter. Along with a slice of cherry pie for dessert, it’s one of the tastiest and most memorable meals you could possibly have on vacation.
Want to try a different variation of seafood? Some locals prefer their fish smoked, which is what Charlie’s Smokehouse is famous for. Located at the very tip of the peninsula, they literally serve cold whole fish (skin, eyes, and all) wrapped in newspaper as a normal afternoon snack (just be sure to pick around the bones). Personally, I preferred Harbor Fish Market & Grill’s three-course woodfired Lobster Boil, but that’s just me. They also have a killer whitefish chowder that’s one of the best soups I’ve had in awhile.
See the Infamous “Goat Restaurant”
For another unique Door County dining experience, Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant is basically known the world over for their grass rooftop that’s home to a handful of grazing goats. Stop and stare because it is that weird and has been known to cause quite the traffic jam (you can also watch them on their live “goat cam” if you’re so inclined). What started as a prank over 50 years ago, it just kinda stuck and became their thing. Beyond the kitsch factor, they’re also known for their lingonberry (a cross between a cranberry and a current) pancakes and Swedish meatballs (yes, even for breakfast, take that IKEA) and recently opened a killer beer garden.
And Play with Other Baby Animals
The Farm is every animal lover’s dream with baby goats, kittens, and other cuddly (and sometimes hilariously awkward) creatures running amuck around a massive 40-acre property. You can buy corn and bottles to feed the days-old farm animals, learn how to milk a goat, and pet the piglets. Allow yourself plenty of time for snuggles because I seriously thought I was headed to a glorified petting zoo and man, was I wrong. You could easily spend all day being amused by the animal antics. There are different pens and corrals for the different species and ages, but they’re all incredibly friendly and accustomed to being around humans. Designed to teach children about homesteading and rural heritage, it’s a feel-good place the whole family will fall in love with and want to return to year after year. And spoiler alert: they have new babies each year.
With 11 historic and highly photogenic lighthouses, make it a scavenger hunt to see as many as possible and find your favorite. The Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal is home to two beauties, including that iconic red one that Instagram loves. You can walk under the pier along the seawall, but be careful as water levels are extremely high right now (it was both incredibly wet and windy and I almost had an IG vs. Reality moment where my bag got swept out to sea). Cana Island is another unique one you can climb up and tour for panoramic views of the shore. Housed in a narrow island off Baileys Harbor, to get there, you have to ride on the back of a wagon hitched to a big-wheeled tractor that’ll have you laughing the entire time at the absurdity of riding a lifted tractor across a lake.
And Hit All the Other Instagram Spots
Blessed with no shortage of scenic spots, you could pretty much post up anywhere along the waterfront for sunset and be guaranteed a good picture. Beyond that, some of the most popular photo ops in Door County are the old Norwegian chapels (Boynton Chapel at Bjorklunden is a personal favorite), the heavily graffitied and colorful Anderson Dock that doubles as one of the many area art galleries, and the Winding Road near Gills Rock.
Slightly reminiscent of Lombard Street in San Francisco albeit much less hilly, it’s best seen when the autumn colors are in full effect. Located at the very tip of the peninsula, it was intentionally designed by local artist, Jens Jenson, to force travelers to slow down and appreciate the beauty of their surroundings. We fully support and encourage that message.
Where to Stay: Roots Inn & Kitchen
If you travel for food, Roots is an adorable b&b attached to one of the best restaurants in Door County with the best breakfast in town you can only get if you stay there (and trust me they make sure the FOMO is real). Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it’s in Sister Bay which is more or less the middle of the peninsula, which offers easy access to just about anywhere. Run by a young husband and wife duo, they know hospitality and service and go above and beyond to make sure your stay is memorable and cozy. Ironically, my room was themed like a Colorado ski lodge so I felt right at home.
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