Door County is the only place in Wisconsin where the sun can be seen rising from and setting into large bodies of water within a span of 20 miles. That’s the width of the 70-mile-long peninsula in the state’s northeastern corner that forms the thumb of Wisconsin’s mitten.
Although narrow in size, “the Door,” as it is known, offers a breadth of activities that can easily fill a 48-hour weekend with a wealth of memories. From wineries to water sports, galleries to golf courses, theater to hiking trails, the Door has far more activities than its modest land mass suggests. Combine all that with the area’s bucolic serenity and its 64 nationally registered historic sites, and you have an unparalleled summer destination.
During the summer, the sun rises early above Lake Michigan, which washes the peninsula’s eastern shore – the Door’s quiet side. From our base at Sturgeon Bay’s White Lace Inn (16 N. Fifth Ave., 920-743-1105), a lovely Victorian bed-and-breakfast complex, the sunrise was just minutes away. We returned to sample the inn’s wonderful breakfast, including French toast stuffed with fresh Door County cherries, the peninsula’s signature crop.
For a peaceful start to the day, we took Hwy. 57 north to Whitefish Dunes State Park (3275 Clark Lake Rd., 920-823-2400), an 865-acre day-use park that’s home to the state’s largest collection of sand dunes. You can laze on the natural sand beach or take a groomed two-mile walking trail to the top of Old Baldy, the state’s largest sand dune, for a bird’s-eye view of the park and its many avian visitors.
The adjacent Cave Point County Park provides dramatic lakeside hiking trails, picnic areas and its namesake dolomite formations, carved by thousands of years of Lake Michigan waves. It’s one of the Door’s most picturesque and most photographed areas.
Hwy. 57 winds leisurely through the small communities of Jacksonport and Bailey’s Harbor, home to the three of the peninsula’s 10 lighthouses, all of which are open to the public. Once a shipbuilding mecca, the Door’s maritime heritage and its lighthouses are among the area’s most popular attractions.
The tiny community of Rowleys Bay tucks into a cove across from Newport State Park at the peninsula’s north end. The family-owned Rowleys Bay Resort (1041 County Rd. ZZ, 800-999-2466) offers a variety of activities, including one of the best of the area’s many fish boils.
Backtracking from Rowleys Bay took us to to Hwy. 42, which runs the length of the peninsula’s Green Bay side. This area is generally abuzz with visitors from throughout the United States. The little community of Sister Bay is home to Bay Shore Outdoor Store (2457 S. Bay Shore Dr., 920-854-7598), one of several outfitters of kayak tours along the shore’s rocky coast.
A typical three-hour kayak tour puts in at Garrett Bay at the Door’s northernmost end. Paddlers parallel the cliffs, which contain rare Native American pictographs. The tour ends where it begins, overlooking the submerged wreckage of the schooner Fleetwing, a grain-and-lumber hauler that sank just offshore in 1888 and is a National Historic Register site.
The athletic traveler can follow the kayak tour with a 10-mile bicycle ride through Peninsula State Park in Fish Creek, which traverses the Sunset Trail through a variety of natural landscapes. Bikes can be rented from Edge of the Park Rentals (2045 Shore Rd., 920-868-3344).
If you have a more competitive nature, you might want to try your hand at one or more of the four nine-hole courses at Egg Harbor’s Alpine Resort and Golf Course (7715 Alpine Rd., 920-868-3000). The Blue Nine alternates bluff-side fairways with stunning scenery and a spectacular ninth hole featuring a 100-plus-foot drop from the tee to the fairway. Play it well and what is considered Wisconsin’s most scenic hole may become your greatest golfing memory.
For the casual esthete, the bay side of the Door is littered with art, including the wide variety of creative local work found at Egg Harbor’s Woodwalk Gallery (6746 County Rd. G, 920-8682912). Margaret Lockwood, a weaver turned painter, and her husband Allin Walker created the gallery from a historic barn.
The area also features a great deal of theater, including Peninsula Players (4351 Peninsula Players Rd., 920-868-3287), which celebrates 76 years of performances this year. American Folklore Theatre (Green Gables Hwy. 42, 920-854-6117) offers original musical theater with a distinctly humorous Wisconsin flavor. Both venues are located near Fish Creek. Door Shakespeare, which plays two shows in repertory throughout the summer, is located near Bailey’s Harbor.
But the Door’s greatest attraction may be its peacefulness and, for those lucky enough to find it, reflective solitude. At the end of a busy day, check into Ephraim’s Village Green Lodge (1 Cedar St., 920-823-2404), grab a waffle cone at neighboring Wilson’s Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlor (9990 Water St., 920-8542041), one of the Door’s oldest businesses, and just sit by the water. You might catch the sun setting just beyond Peninsula State Park’s outermost tip with a burst of color that makes you wonder why it took you so long to find this wonderful place.