It’s not often that a county is better known than the cities that county comprises. Travelers flock to Key West, Florida, not to Monroe County. But in northeastern Wisconsin, people don’t say that they’re vacationing in Sturgeon Bay or Baileys Harbor -- they say that they’re headed to Door County.
Door County encompasses the long peninsula that extends into Lake Michigan in northeastern Wisconsin. End to end, the peninsula is approximately 60 miles long. To the west is Green Bay (the body of water, not the city), and to the east is Lake Michigan. The city of Green Bay, Wisconsin, is southwest of Door County.
Door County has long been a summer vacation destination for people from Milwaukee, Chicago, and across the Midwest. People living as far away as Kansas City and Saint Louis have summer homes in Door County, and during the dog days of summer, they flock to the peninsula for a respite from the heat.
While Door County hasn’t been a secret in some time, some of its attractions are still waiting to be discovered. Here are eight hidden gems on the peninsula that you must visit.
1. Door County Maritime Museum
Door County is rich in maritime history. To the west, ships have long traveled into and out of Green Bay. To the east is Lake Michigan and all of its maritime history. In the center, near the southern end of Door County, is Sturgeon Bay.
Sturgeon Bay itself dissects approximately 75 percent of the Door Peninsula. To provide a shortcut from Lake Michigan to Green Bay, the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal was dug through the remaining 25 percent. At the center of that waterway sits the town of Sturgeon Bay.
The best way to learn more about the maritime history of the region is to visit the Door County Maritime Museum in Sturgeon Bay. Perhaps the most exciting thing about the museum is that visitors have full access to the historic tugboat John Purves. The John Purves was once a working tugboat that could accommodate a crew of 13. On your tour of the boat, you’ll see where these crewmen lived, from the cabins to the engine room to the galley. The tug was built in 1919, so you’ll get a glimpse of a full 100 years of history.
2. Boathouse On The Bay
The towns on the west coast of Door County have interesting names: Fish Creek, Egg Harbor, and Sister Bay. All three have something else in common -- waterfront dining with fantastic views of the sunset. While the towns on the Lake Michigan side get a view of the sunrise over the water, the Green Bay side provides the best sunset views.
Right on the water in Sister Bay, you’ll find Boathouse on the Bay. It’s a two-story restaurant and bar right across the street from the Sister Bay Marina. If it’s waterfront dining with the sun setting over the masts of sailboats that you’re looking for, this is the place.
The top level of Boathouse on the Bay is the Flybridge Bar, but you don’t have to be on the deck to get an amazing view of the marina. If the weather is cooperating, the doors to the downstairs are opened up to let the outside in.
The views aren’t the only thing to love about Boathouse -- the food is fantastic, too. Try the lobster mac and cheese, the Cajun pasta, or the Door County whitefish.
3. Hotz Memorial Town Park
Newport State Park and Peninsula State Park are the most popular waterfront parks in Door County, but in the summer, they can be insanely crowded. When I visited Peninsula State Park recently, I sat in a traffic jam near the campground, since there were so many cars going into and out of the state park! For a more relaxing experience, check out the little-known Hotz Memorial Town Park.
Located on the Lake Michigan side, Hotz Memorial Town Park is just north of Newport State Park, but it’s not nearly as crowded. From the main highway in Door County (Highway 42), turn off on Europe Bay Road and travel until it dead-ends at Lake Michigan. There are parking spaces right next to the lake for park visitors.
The most popular attractions at the park are the trails between Europe Lake and Lake Michigan. From the parking lot, follow the signs to the Europe Bay Trail and the Hotz Trail. The full loop is a very manageable, level 2.4 miles. But if you want a shorter walk, there are cutoffs in the center that can shorten your hike to less than a mile.
4. Washington Island
Washington Island, as the name might suggest, is not connected to mainland Door County by roads. The only access is by ferry out of Northport. The ferry ride itself is quite enjoyable, since you cross the boating passageway known as Death’s Door. But don’t worry -- it’s perfectly safe! The name was given to the area centuries ago by sailors trying to navigate around the many difficult-to-see islands off the northern tip of Door County.
Once you arrive on Washington Island, the possibilities are endless. Given that the island is only 6 miles long by 5 miles wide, my wife and I decided to ditch our car and rent bikes for our day trip. We ended up exploring the entire island on our bikes! Bikes are available to rent near the ferry dock.
There’s so much to see on Washington Island. If the lavender is in bloom, the Fragrant Isle Lavender Farm & Shop is a must-visit -- stop by the store for lavender-infused soaps, lotions, and even cookies. At the highest point of the island is the Mountain Park Lookout Tower. A climb to the top will give you a view of almost the entire island. There are many places to eat, but the best is the restaurant in the historic Hotel Washington. It’s only open for dinner, but the food is worth taking the late ferry back to the mainland.
5. Alexander Noble House Museum
Located in the heart of historic Fish Creek is the Victorian-era Alexander Noble House Museum. Alexander Noble was one of the founding fathers of Fish Creek, located on the Green Bay side of Door County, and his home, which was completed in 1875, is the oldest remaining structure in Fish Creek.
The home contains many of its original furnishings and provides a fascinating glimpse into life in Door County in the 19th century. And since the museum is located in the center of town, after your tour you’ll be able to browse the charming shops of downtown Fish Creek. The town is home to some of the best shopping in Door County!
6. Baileys Harbor Cornerstone Pub
Baileys Harbor is located on the Lake Michigan side of Door County. The harbor itself is bordered on three sides by land, so it’s a quiet place for boats to escape Lake Michigan. The town sits on the western side of the harbor.
In downtown Baileys Harbor, right at the intersection of the two main roads (Highway 57 and Route F), sits Baileys Harbor Cornerstone Pub. If you’re in Baileys Harbor for the day, perhaps visiting the Anclam Town Park Swimming Beach or maybe the Christina Nilsson shipwreck, you must stop at the Cornerstone Pub.
If you’re able, visit Cornerstone for the restaurant’s well-known Friday-night fish fry. Whitefish, walleye, yellow perch, haddock -- you name it, they fry it. But the menu isn’t limited to fish -- it includes everything from prime rib to burritos. Visit the website for a list of the beer currently on tap.
7. Whitefish Dunes State Natural Area
Farther down the Lake Michigan side you’ll find the Whitefish Dunes State Natural Area. These public lands are located on the isthmus between Clark Lake and Lake Michigan. The strip of land, only 2,000 feet wide, isn’t really land -- it mostly consists of sand dunes and sand-loving trees and shrubs.
Geologically, the area is quite unique. In one area, you’ll find the largest sand dunes on the western side of Lake Michigan, and less than a mile to the north, you’ll find cliffs overlooking the same lake.
There are several trails at the Whitefish Dunes State Natural Area. Some take you right to the water, where you can walk from the sandy dunes to the sandy beach. Others take you back into the woods and across to Clark Lake.
But the natural area isn’t all sand dunes. Cave Point County Park is also located there, and you can rent kayaks and paddle right up to the entrances of the cliffside caves.
8. Egg Harbor
No trip to Door County would be complete without a trip to Egg Harbor. Like most towns in Door County, it’s located right on the water. And if you’re looking for a relaxing stroll from shop to shop, you’ll love Egg Harbor.
Your starting point should be Harbor View Park. This public park is one block from the Egg Harbor Marina and is at the center of all the shops and restaurants. From there, you can head north or south.
Make sure not to miss the Egg Harbor Main Street Shops. And if you see the large bike rack out front, remember that many people come to Door County for just that type of getaway. Why not ditch the car, hop on a bike, and enjoy Door County at a more relaxed pace?