With miles of trails, hundreds of campsites, a beach, a lighthouse, an 18-hole golf course, and more, there’s no shortage of activities at Peninsula State Park. What elevates these experiences is the natural beauty of the park. I was interested in Door County because of pictures I had seen and descriptions from friends, but I had to go there myself to appreciate this gorgeous, diverse, and breathtaking destination.
Note: My experience at Peninsula State Park was part of a sponsored press trip. All opinions are my own.
1. Hike, Bike, Or Run The Sunset Trail
One of my favorite aspects of travel is finding new places to discover on foot or with two wheels, and the Sunset Trail at Peninsula State Park is one of the best ways to explore the park. The trail is popular with cyclists, but runners and walkers are welcome there too. My group opted to ride the trail with bikes rented from Nor Door Sport & Cyclery in Fish Creek. I used a hybrid, but Nor Door also offered a variety of rental bikes including e-bikes and fat tire bikes.
After a quick look at a map with someone at Nor Door, we set out to complete the main 9.6-mile loop. The trail itself is mostly made of fine, packed gravel that didn’t prove too technical for this city bike rider. There were some small hills along the path, but nothing I would consider a real climb.
Cruising through the trees at a casual pace was perfect for taking in the sights of the park. I was there in late October — near peak fall foliage season— and was captivated by the colors of the trees. Even under the overcast, slightly rainy skies, vibrant yellow and orange leaves provided contrast with the evergreens. An amber blanket of leaves covered the forest floor, but I was happy to note that the trail was mostly clear — after all, wet leaves don’t play well with bike tires.
I never get bored of this kind of bike trail. Along the way, there were plenty of chances to glimpse the waves of Green Bay gently lapping against the shoreline. Bluffs broke up the forested landscape here and there, providing more variation in the scenery around every bend in the trail.
Pro Tip: If the well-maintained trail proves too docile for you, there are also several miles of mountain bike trails connected to the Sunset Trail.
2. Eagle Bluff Lighthouse
It’s no surprise that Door County boasts quite a few lighthouses for its relatively small size. One of my favorites, Eagle Bluff Lighthouse, is located in Peninsula State Park. I stopped off the sunset trail on my bike ride, but there is also a parking lot in front of the lighthouse for those who prefer to drive.
The lighthouse was originally built in 1868 and opened to the public in 1964 after being restored. You can still take tours from mid-May through mid-October. It’s also no surprise that this structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places; it’s a perfect example of how a building can combine form and function to essentially become a piece of useful art. That is part of the appeal of lighthouses: They sit in unforgiving environments and save lives, all while looking peacefully appealing.
There are plenty of other lighthouses to visit in Door County, but this one is easy to get to and offers great views as a reward to those who take the time to stop and look.
Pro Tip: If you’re interested in maritime history, I recommend orienting yourself at the newly redesigned Door County Maritime Museum in Sturgeon Bay. Do this before checking out any lighthouses. At the museum, I learned about the significance of the peninsula’s lighthouses — considering that the county’s name comes from the treacherous nature of its waters.
3. Eagle Tower
Eagle Tower is the other manmade structure at Peninsula State Park worth checking out. Two other towers have stood in this location since the 1900s but were dismantled and replaced over the years. The current iteration, which was completed in 2021, is 60 feet high and stands 253 feet above the bay. Its height and position offer stunning panoramas of the park and the water that will stop you in your tracks.
The best thing about this tower — in my opinion — is the 850-foot ramp that leads to the observation deck. It’s fully accessible, meaning that people who use wheelchairs or have limited mobility can take in the amazing views as well. Most of the people in my group opted to use the ramp because it takes visitors up and around through the trees, which is a much prettier way to get to the top than the 100 stairs. This tower makes a great argument for accessible travel.
Pro Tip: Similar to Eagle Bluff Lighthouse, you can hike or bike here if you have the time, or you can park at the base of the tower for a quicker stop.
4. Stay At One Of The Five Campgrounds
If you have the inclination to stay in the park overnight, there are five campgrounds with 468 campsites available to choose from. Because of the area’s popularity, reservations are recommended. Among the five campgrounds, you’ll find fishing piers, boat launches, showers, flush toilets, and a few fully-accessible campsites, showers, and bathrooms. Some campgrounds offer electric hookups, but be sure to confirm this and the other amenities you’d like to have access to when you book your campsite.
5. Kayak, Canoe, Or Swim
After immersing yourself in Door County’s maritime history and culture, you may feel like getting out on the water yourself, and Peninsula State Park is a great place to do this. Guests can swim at Nicolet Beach, but kayaking and canoeing seem to be the most popular ways to see the water up close. There are 8 miles of shoreline at the park, which is perfect for casual kayak or canoe excursions. There are two boat launches: Nicolet Bay and Tennison Bay. You can bring your own boat or rent one from a local company.
I didn’t make it out onto the water while I was there because of the weather, but I really would have liked to explore the park from another perspective — a thought that jumped to the front of my mind while I was looking out over the bay from Eagle Tower, dreaming of paddling up to a small island. Visitors can get to Horseshoe Island by boat, which would be a fun little outing. Camping and making fires are prohibited on the island, but it would be a nice place for a snack or lunch. If you do snack anywhere in the park, be sure to pack up and throw out your trash.
Yet another way to experience nature at Peninsula State Park is by playing a round at its full 18-hole golf course. I don’t golf, so I didn’t try it out myself, but I spoke to someone who played there. He said that, despite the weather, it was a beautiful course that was fun to play.
If you’re not in the mood for a full round, you can play the 6-hole short course or hit a few balls at the driving range. The course also has a clubhouse where you can get a meal after you play.
7. See A Show At Northern Sky Theater
If you’d like to combine the majesty of nature with art and entertainment, consider getting tickets for a show at Northern Sky Theater. While the staging company has a new indoor theater in Fish Creek, you can still see shows at their amphitheater within Peninsula State Park. Since 1970, the outdoor theater has been used to stage performances of drama and music under the stars and among the pines.
The Door County Pledge
A common theme I encountered in Door County was its focus on conservation and responsible ways to enjoy the outdoors. Door County has been a popular tourist destination for a long time but is surging in popularity once again, according to some locals I spoke to. The Door County Pledge, featured in the video above, is an easy way to set your intentions to be respectful of the diverse beauty of Door County. Being a responsible traveler costs nothing but pays out handsome dividends that future generations can share.
To learn more about the unique natural history of the landscape and the amazing biodiversity that can be found in Door County, visit The Ridges Sanctuary in Baileys Harbor.
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