While you might think New England has the market cornered on the brilliant colors of fall foliage, a visit to Door County, Wisconsin, in October will change your mind.
Door County, over 2,000 square miles, is a peninsula flanked on three sides by Lake Michigan on the east and Green Bay on the west. The southernmost base connects the arm to mainland Wisconsin. Washington Island and Rock Island, also part of Door County, are a few miles off the peninsula’s north shore.
When I visited in September, the trees started changing into fall foliage cloaks. The peak peeping season is in October. Some of the 19 distinct communities I saw are the spectacle’s top spots.
Pro Tip: All state parks require a permit to be purchased at the entrance or at kiosks in the parking areas.
1. Sturgeon Bay
I started my Door County adventure in Sturgeon Bay, not far from Green Bay. The resort owner, Andropolis Waterfront Cottages, told me that vivid fall colors could be experienced at their property, in Sister Bay and Ellison Bay, with the hardwood trees coming right down to the water’s edge. These bays are on the west side of the peninsula.
Potawatomi State Park was far from my lodging, with the best fall foliage viewing at Old Ski Hill Overlook.
Driving slowly through the park, you can easily see the trees growing out of the limestone rocks. It’s an otherworldly experience.
The end (or beginning) of the Ice Age Trail is near the observation tower, which would be a great place to get an aerial view of the fall foliage in Sturgeon Bay. However, the building is inaccessible because it’s in disrepair and awaiting funding to rebuild.
2. Peninsula State Park
One of the most popular state parks on the peninsula’s northeast shore in Fish Creek is Peninsula State Park.
The Eagle Tower is an imposing structure on top of Eagle Bluff that opened in 2021 and offers panoramic views of the park, the village of Ephraim, the surrounding islands, and the Upper Michigan shoreline.
Eagle Tower affords a bird’s eye view of stunning fall foliage around Green Bay. Climb the 100 steps to the top of the tower or the fully accessible canopy walk winding above the tree line. The 850-foot-high handicap-accessible ramp makes the view over the tree tops accessible to everyone positioned over the Niagara Escarpment. The 5-percent slope has level areas with benches for resting along the way. Grandparents enjoy the ease of use with grandkids on this new addition to the park.
3. Ellison Bay Bluff
In Ellison Bluff State Natural Area, enjoy the view from the observation deck accessed by wooden stairs or the wooden catwalk that extends over the bluff. See the shoreline below and the 100-foot limestone bluffs, all with an overhead view of fall foliage.
The county park, located in Liberty Grove, is off the beaten path. But I’m told it’s worth the trip!
4. Highway 42 Into Northport
Highway 42 is one of the Midwest’s most famous stretches of road. Jens Jensen, the famed landscape architect, designed the “Ideal Highway” that curves for no discernable reason and slows traffic. The curves create a beautiful picture opportunity and a fun drive, especially during the fall. The time of day and the sun’s position has an important bearing on the drive. I drove it late in the afternoon with almost no traffic and only deer in the brush alongside the road.
Pro Tip: There are only a few turnouts to park and photograph the road. I tried it both ways. The view is more impactful as you travel north.
5. Washington Island
The only year-round island community, Washington Island is the largest of Door County’s 34 islands. With over 100 miles of roads in 35 square miles to explore, Washington Island is accessed by a vehicle/passenger ferry in Northport, the northern tip of the peninsula. The ride takes about 30 minutes through the Death’s Door water passage.
Pro Tip: Plan a whole day to experience this island with a bounty of museums, theater and musical events, and outdoor activities in the refreshing fall weather.
6. Cana Island Lighthouse
Bailey’s Harbor, on the Lake Michigan (east) side of Door County, is home to the Cana Island Lighthouse. In 2019, the lighthouse celebrated 150 years of guiding ships. In August, a $1.1 million lighthouse restoration project was completed. Fortunately, the lighthouse reopened to visitors 2 weeks before my arrival. It was the highlight of my lighthouse tour in Wisconsin.
The new white-clad tower in its clearing is stunning, surrounded by trees whose leaves turn a brilliant orange, red, and gold in the fall.
The hardy souls who climb the 97 spiral staircase steps to reach the gallery deck are rewarded with sweeping panoramic views of Lake Michigan and the Door County peninsula.
Pro Tip: A hay wagon pulled by a driver on a John Deere tractor transports you over the causeway to Cana Island. The wagon ride is bumpy, but it is the best way to access the island. While you can walk across shallow water over slippery and loose rocks, the middle of the crossing can be treacherous.
7. Whitefish Dunes State Park
Old Baldy, the tallest dune in Whitefish Dunes State Park, is along the east side of Door County on Lake Michigan in Jacksonport. The rugged Lake Michigan shoreline boasts a mile of sandy beach and the highest dunes in the state of Wisconsin.
Fourteen miles of well-marked hiking trails through hardwood forests include a path to Clark Lake and an interpretive trail. A mushroom hike, led by a guide from the nature center, is offered twice in the fall. Imagine the splendor of hiking among the trees when they are in all their fall glory.
Pro Tip: If you need to use a restroom, arrive at the nature center before its 4 p.m. closing. Otherwise, pit toilets by the swim changing rooms are your only option, and not a good one.
How To Get To Door County
The Austin Straubel International Airport (GRB) in Green Bay is the nearest commercial airport to Door County. Well-known car rental agencies serve this airport, as well as ridesharing companies.
The historic SS Badger provides a shortcut across Lake Michigan between Ludington, Michigan, and Manitowoc, Wisconsin. The giant ship offers ferry service for passengers, automobiles, motorcycles, and RVs.
On the day I crossed from Wisconsin to Michigan, the water was calm and the sky was clear and bright.
Pro Tip: You can purchase a single-serving packet of Dramamine at the ferry office for the crossing if you need it.
From Chicago, take I-94 to Milwaukee, then I-43 towards Green Bay, then Highway 57 north. Two alternate routes will take you through Door County: I-43 on the peninsula’s west side or I-57 on the Lake Michigan side.
From Minnesota and the Twin Cities, take I-94 to Highway 29 into Green Bay. Follow the signs to Sturgeon Bay.
Getting Around Door County
On land, no true public transportation serves Door County and its many rural communities. You must drive between the towns because of the distance between them (or take a Segway or trolley tour, as noted below). Some ridesharing options may be available throughout the county.
Car Ferry To Washington Island
The Washington Island Ferry line makes up to 25 round trips from Northport to Washington Island daily. The 30-minute ferry ride is an exceptional opportunity to photograph Plum, Pilot, and Detroit islands and experience the fall colors on these small islands.
Ferry To Rock Island
Rock Island is the perfect destination to camp among the fall foliage, making it a truly unique experience. A passenger-only ferry runs from Washington Island to Rock Island daily. No vehicles or bicycles are allowed.
A Segway tour of Washington Island with Segway the Door Tours adds a unique opportunity to see the fall foliage up close. I joined our guide and two other guests at Washington Island Ferry dock where we had thorough Segway training before boarding the ferry.
We had perfect weather, albeit a little chilly, riding a Segway amongst the trees and exploring the island.
Pro Tip: Dress in layers for the ferry ride and riding a Segway on the island.
Door County Trolley
You can spend the best travel dollars with Door County Trolley, located in Egg Harbor on the main road. You won’t only get an overview of Door County on a narrated scenic tour, but you will also be able to enjoy the riotous colors of the fall foliage without driving and fighting the increased traffic of leaf peepers.
The narrated scenic tour is 1.5 hours and is the perfect place to start your fall foliage tour. One of the best stops is Peninsula State Park. With brief stops at bluff overlooks and viewing the Eagle Tower, you’ll get your bearings for a longer visit on your own.
The guides at Door County Trolley are dedicated experts on all things DC and are entertaining to boot. The trolleys are clean with an efficient system for boarding and seating. While they offer several tours, the narrated scenic tour should be your first. They also do a lighthouse tour that includes Cana Island Lighthouse.
Door County boasts some of the Midwest’s best fall color foliage. The biggest festivals come in October, along with the leaf peepers, and that’s apple harvest season, too. While summer crowds start to thin out in the fall, weekends are busier than weekdays.
Here’s an article to get your Door County visit started.