One of the most popular vacation spots in the entire Midwest is Door County, Wisconsin. A narrow peninsula that juts 70 miles into Lake Michigan, Door County is bordered by 300 miles of shoreline and dotted with dozens of parks and nature preserves. It’s a scenic destination beloved by outdoor enthusiasts, serenity-seekers, and foodies alike.
From my home base in suburban Chicago, I’ve been a frequent visitor to Door County during all four seasons on both personal and media trips.
Fall is my favorite time of year, and for great reasons: The crowds and vehicular traffic are thinner than in summer, the foliage is brilliant, the attractions and eateries haven’t shut down for winter yet (if they do), and the pace is more relaxed. The air is comfortably crisp, so pull out your favorite fleece jacket or Nordic sweater, and you’re good to go.
Door County is located in southeastern Wisconsin, about 155 miles north of Milwaukee and 180 miles northeast of Madison. Within the county are 17 charming towns and villages, each boasting its own personality and allure.
Here are my picks for amazing fall experiences sure to warm your heart and body in Door County:
The Best Places For Leaf-Peeping In Door County
Within Door County are 5 state parks, 19 county parks, and many preserved natural areas, so you’ll be surrounded by colorful foliage as the leaves turn from green to golden yellows and brilliant reds. There are many ways to experience the autumnal splendor, from on the ground to high above it all.
1. Eagle Tower
Get a bird’s eye view from Eagle Tower in Peninsula State Park in Fish Creek. The tower, opened in 2021, is a 60-foot-tall wooden structure with an observation deck high above Green Bay. Climb the 100-stair steps to get to the top, or stroll the gentle, winding, wheelchair-accessible ramp. Or do as I did, take the ramp up and the stairs down.
Two more dramatic vista overlooks in Peninsula State Park are Sven’s Bluff and Eagle Panorama.
2. Hike The Sentinel Trail
From the Eagle Tower, you can hop over to Sentinel Trail, which makes a leisurely 2-mile loop canopied by beech, maple, and red pine trees.
3. Bike On The Sunset Trail
Also in Peninsula State Park is Sunset Trail, a scenic, mostly flat, 10-mile bicycle trail flanked by cedars and maples. I hadn’t ridden a bike in years, but a battery-assisted rental from Nor Door Sport and Cyclery in Fish Creek gave me the extra oomph I needed to navigate the pathway.
4. The Ridges Sanctuary
A densely forested nature preserve, The Ridges Sanctuary in Baileys Harbor is intersected by four easy trails through a diverse ecosystem. The first, 0.3 miles from the main building, the Cook-Albert Fuller Nature Center, is a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk. Don’t miss the spur to the iconic Baileys Harbor Range Lights, a two-level lighthouse built in 1869. Trek on your own or with a guide.
Pro Tip: Door County’s leafy color show typically peaks in mid-October, but Mother Nature often has a mind of her own. Plan your visit by tracking the progress of fall colors in various locations on the Interactive Fall Report.
5. Door County Trolley
Get a guided overview of the county with a tour from Door County Trolley. The hour-and-a-half-long Narrated Scenic Tour winds through the villages and countryside as you take in the stunning scenery and far-reaching vistas. Along the way, your personable guide fills you in on the local history and legends.
Fashioned after the old-timey trolleys that once roamed urban streets as an early form of public transportation, these modern-day vehicles are cushioned and heated. The trolley station, designed with retro flair, in Egg Harbor has a comfortable waiting area, beverage bar, and gift shop.
Other trolley tours are themed for such interests as wine, cocktails, lighthouses, and ghost-hunting, and they vary in length.
6. Sister Bay Scenic Boat Tours
From the decks of the Norra Dorr, a 149-passenger custom catamaran by Sister Bay Scenic Boat Tours, you have wide-angle views of rocky bluffs and forested hillsides. Book the Sunset Live Music Cruise, when the setting sun casts a golden glow upon the waters.
The sunset tour, roughly an hour and a half long, begins and ends at the Sister Bay Marina. The route varies to maximize the spectacle. Take a seat on the upper deck for unobstructed picture taking, which is where you’ll find me, and let the soft breezes ruffle through your hair. Or anchor yourself on the enclosed lower deck, where the entertainment, refreshment stand, and restrooms are. Either way, you’ll be able to hear the live music and narration that points out significant sites. The Norra Dorr is wheelchair-accessible and pet friendly.
Fun Fact: A person who loves to watch sunsets is called an opacarophile.
Best Fall Shopping In Door County
Take advantage of end-of-summer sales or get a head start on your holiday gift-giving. A plethora of locally-owned businesses and specialty boutiques promise one-of-a-kind shopping.
7. Alpaca To Apparel
Cozy up to a boutique filled with apparel and home goods handmade from the softest of baby alpaca and rare vicuna fibers. Alpaca To Apparel, located in the historic district of Founder’s Square retail emporium in Fish Creek, also purveys bee-related items, including mead, which is wine made from honey.
8. Tannenbaum Holiday Shop
Invigorate your Christmas spirit at Tannenbaum Holiday Shop in a renovated 1879 Lutheran church in Sister Bay. Room after room is filled with lavishly-appointed holiday trees, along with themed decor, housewares, and hard-to-find collectibles. As a souvenir of my trips to Door County, famous for its production of cherries, I bought a glass tree ornament depicting a sprig of the ruby-red fruit.
A vibrant emporium of home furnishings, gifts, and fashion accessories, Bliss lends a sophisticated vibe (and dazzling store windows) to downtown Sturgeon Bay. The store tempts my credit card with all sorts of lifestyle wares, especially the extensive selection of holiday trimmings and party goods.
10. Al’s Butik
I positively drool over the traditional Scandinavian woolens and knits at Al’s Butik in Sister Bay. In addition to luxe apparel for men and women, you’ll find specialty foods and Nordic-inspired home decor. (The well-stocked boutique is in the same building as Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant, well-known for its Swedish pancakes served with lingonberries, and meatballs.)
The Flavors Of Door County Fall
Come fall, harvest bounties freshly appear on menus and store shelves throughout the county. Look for apples, cherries, pumpkins, and garden produce — and loads of filling comfort food.
11. White Gull Inn
Perhaps Door County’s most iconic cuisine is the fish boil, a mix of freshly caught whitefish and red potatoes boiled outdoors in a huge pot. Salt is the only added ingredient. The grand finale is when the boiler master tosses a bit of kerosene onto the flames, causing a spectacular spillover and burning off greasy fish oils.
Fish boils take place all year, but there’s something super energizing about sitting around an open fire when the sky is dark and the air is chill.
At the historic White Gull Inn in Fish Creek, your fish boil meal is served with lemon and tartar sauce in the handsome indoor dining room. Dessert is included — a slice of Door County cherry pie, of course.
12. Wild Tomato Wood-Fired Pizza And Grille
A casual eatery starring local and sustainable ingredients, Wild Tomato Wood-Fired Pizza and Grille has locations in Sister Bay and Fish Creek. Style your own pizza from nearly three dozen topping choices, or pick from the house creations. In the fall, the Late Summer Harvest Pizza showcases the season’s sumptuous pickings. While you wait for your order, watch talented chefs hand-toss pizza dough in the open kitchen.
13. Island Orchard Cider
Island Orchard Cider crafts hard ciders and vinegars from hand-harvested and freshly-pressed apples, cherries, and pears from the cidery’s own orchard. Visit the rustic taproom in Ellison Bay for flights, glasses, snacks, and bottles. A tasting menu includes four ciders including the robust, dry Oak Aged Apple Cider, and my fave, the rosé-like Apple Cherry Cider. Island Orchard Cider is open from April through December.
14. Door County Coffee And Tea
A small-batch coffee roaster in Sturgeon Bay, Door County Coffee and Tea brews up six of their very own seasonal flavors: Autumn Spice, Caramel Apple, Bourbon Pecan Pie, Door County Maple, Pumpkin Spice, and Wisconsin Harvest Blend. The coffees are available only from August through October, or whenever they sell out.
15. Seaquist Orchards Farm Market
From its vast apple and cherry orchards, Seaquist Orchards in Sister Bay produces and sells dozens of ready-made gourmet food products in its on-site country market and scratch bakery. The shelves are stocked with produce, pies, pastries, salad dressings, salsas, jams, mustards, homemade fudge, and more. The market is open only through October, but you can order online all year.
Staying In Door County
Door County offers a vast array of overnight options, including historic inns, bed and breakfasts, resorts, condominiums, and campgrounds. I’ve stayed at several, and it’s too hard to choose just one. Find lodging descriptions to suit your individual travel style, package deals, and an availability checker at Destination Door County.
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