Door County, Wisconsin is one of those places that most people haven’t heard about. However, if you’re an outdoor enthusiast, foodie, or enjoy the arts and culture, then perhaps it’s time you visited this undiscovered paradise.

Within 19 communities there are 300 miles of scenic peninsula shoreline along Lake Michigan, five state parks, 19 county parks, 11 historic lighthouses, and more than 50 public beaches. With a year-round population of under 30,000 residents, and a summer population that can soar as high as 250,000, the area is often referred to as, “the Cape Cod of the Midwest”.

The Great Outdoors

Founded in 1851, Door County is named after Death’s Door, the water passage that lies off the tip of the peninsula where the waters of Lake Michigan and Green Bay converge. Death’s Door is the English translation of Porte Des Morts, the name given to this treacherous water passage by early French explorers based on Native American stories they heard, and their own perilous experiences. For a close up look at 19th century shipwrecks that sit beneath the water surface, experienced adventurers can try their hand at sea kayaking, snorkelling or scuba diving.

Other outdoor activities include sailing, golfing, fishing, biking, swimming, camping, hiking, horseback riding, parasailing, kayaking, biking, boating, ziplining, stand up paddle boarding, and swimming.

Peninsula State Park was established in 1909, and offers nearly 4,000 acres of wilderness that is a local favourite for hikers who climb more than 150 feet along the Eagle Ridge Trail winding along cliffs, springs, and forested terrace. Cyclists should check out the 10-mile relatively flat fine gravel Sunset Trail that passes through varied landscape that includes Weborg Marsh, cedar and maple trees, and cliff-side communities. 

Nicolet Bay‘s natural sand beach provides scenic swimming and is one of the best spots in the county to experience the beautiful waters of Green Bay by kayak. A short paddle away is Horseshoe Island, a great place to rest or go for a short hike, before returning to mainland. 

Hike to “Old Baldy” at Whitefish Dunes State Park – the highest sand dune in Wisconsin, and home to eight significant Native American villages dating from 100 BC to the late 1800s. Nearby Cave Point County Park has several picturesque limestone sea caves.

Explore Newport State Park by mountain bike – Wisconsin’s only formally-designated wilderness park. With over 2,000 acres and 11 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, the park offers 30 miles of hiking trails and 17 miles of mountain biking trails. Beautiful scenery, wonderfully shaded and not very crowded, it’s perfect for a seasoned biker that wants to get up some speed and cover some significant distance as well as beginners that are just out to enjoy the morning on two wheels.

Door County Adventure Center is located along the pristine shoreline of Rowley’s Bay, where thrill seekers can explore the treetops or the water, and get their adrenaline flowing on a zipline, kayak, or SUP. 

Ridges Sanctuary in Baileys Harbor is Wisconsin’s oldest nonprofit nature preserve, a designated State Natural Area, an Audubon Important Bird Area, and National Natural Landmark, that features native wildflowers along its five miles of rustic trails and bridges.

The Shoreline offers a narrated boat cruise, passing lighthouses, limestone cliffs, caves, shipwrecks, quaint waterside villages, and more. Great for a more relaxing day on the water.

Culinary Delights

Grasse’s Grill in Sister Bay was conceived by owner and Chef Jimmy Grasse while growing up on his family’s dairy farm. Open for breakfast and lunch, dinners can enjoy gourmet Angus burgers, vegetarian and gluten-friendly selections, specialty salads, craft beers, a varied wine list, and home-made desserts. 

Wild Tomato Wood-Fired Pizza and Grille in Fish Creek features not only great wood-fired pizzas, salads, sandwiches and burgers, but also a new attitude toward giving to the community by using local sustainable products. 

Wilson’s Restaurant & Ice Cream Parlor in Ephraim has been a Door County landmark since 1906, featuring its old-fashioned soda fountain, home-brewed draft root beer, jukeboxes and ice cream specialties, like Cherry Berry Delight, Classic Turtle Sundae, banana split, extra-thick malts, ice cream coolers and more.

Fred and Fuzzy’s Waterfront Bar and Grill is located on the edge of Little Sister Bay, offering casual outdoor on-the-water dining, complete with wonderful sunsets, premier storm watching, live entertainment, and Door County Cherry Juice Margaritas.

Rowley’s Bay Restaurant is located within a vintage waterfront resort, and features a storyteller who weaves the tale of the fish boil outside around the fiery cauldron on Rowley’s Bay before dinner is served inside.

Local Arts, Culture, and Tradition

The area attracts a wide range of artists as well, boasting over 100 art galleries, museums, and performing art venues. It’s also well known for its cherry orchards, and all things that are produced with this wonderful fruit.

Experience outdoor stage productions at Northern Sky Theater located within Peninsula State Park, or attend a performance at Peninsula Players Theatre (est. 1935), America’s oldest professional resident summer theatre that’s nestled within a unique setting on sixteen forested acres along the shores of Green Bay. 

Door County is among the top cherry producing regions in the country with more than 2,500 acres of cherry orchards. The cherry trees normally bloom in mid to late May with cherries ready for picking in mid July to early August. Be sure to check out the Cherry Fest in Jacksonport.

As in other parts of the country, there’s been a growth in the alcohol beverage producing market, with several wineries and microbreweries now in operation, along with a distillery and a French-style cider house. Take home a bottle of the many local produced cherry wines.

Shipwrecked Brew Pub prides itself on delivering nothing but 100 percent hand-crafted Door County beers. With several year-round and seasonal brews offered, brewmaster Rich Zielke and head brewer Sam Koelling are able to produce 1,100 barrels – or 34,100 gallons – of beer a year!  Door County Brewing Company is a family owned craft brewery established in 2012. They source as many local ingredients as possible to produce beers based on local influences and heritage. Stabbur Beer Garden at Al Johnson’s is an authentic Swedish family-owned beer garden and restaurant. 

Finally, no visit to Door County would be complete without sampling a traditional Door County Fish Boil. This Scandinavian tradition dates back to the county’s lumbering and fishing heydays and mixes locally caught Lake Michigan whitefish steaks, onions, and potatoes in a large kettle. The meal is cooked outdoors over an open wood fire and is highlighted by a fiery “boil over” which sends flames soaring into the air and signals that dinner is ready. Of course, no dinner would be complete without a piece of cherry pie.

Door County will no doubt remain in your mind as a collection of tiny communities with big personalities, and endless recreation opportunities.

The County is also a member partner with both IGLTA and Wisconsin LGBT Chamber of Commerce.

Click here to learn more about how you can discover the great outdoors in Door County, Wisconsin!

About the Author

Bryen Dunn is a freelance journalist based in Toronto with a focus on tourism, lifestyle, entertainment and community issues. He has written several travel articles and has an extensive portfolio of celebrity interviews with musicians, actors and other public personalities. He’s willing to take on any assignments of interest, attend parties with free booze, listen to rants, and travel the world in search of the great unknown. He’s eager to discover the new, remember the past, and look into the future.