A place with towns called Fish Creek, Egg Harbor, Sister Bay and Gills Rock has to have character. Such a place is Door County, Wisconsin, a finger of land that sticks 75 miles out into Lake Michigan from the city of Green Bay, forming a huge natural harbor in the only Great Lake entirely within the U.S.
The peninsula has more than 300 miles of shoreline and holds some 30 islands, which amounts to plenty of boating options. There are five state parks, 10 lighthouses, multiple nature preserves and conservation areas, and any number of county parks. Besides world-class boating and fishing, there’s excellent hiking, bicycling, canoeing, kayaking, wildlife watching and birding to be had.
Canoeing and kayaking are also good ways to experience the bays and small rivers of Door County. The islands on the bay side (like Horseshoe Island in Nicolet Bay) are popular destinations for these activities. Various outfitters can provide equipment or even guided tours.
Parks and Rec
Door County’s five state parks are Potawatomi, Whitefish Dunes, Peninsula, Newport and Rock Island. Potawatomi State Park, the southern-most in the county, contains 1,200 acres of rolling wooded terrain with two miles of shoreline.
Rock Island State Park, the northern-most, is accessible by boat or ferry. It’s a short distance beyond Washington Island. There are 10 miles of hiking trails, a naturalist program and 5,000 feet of beach. The Pottawatomie Light (built in 1836), the oldest lighthouse in Wisconsin, is located on Rock Island.
Peninsula State Park is Wisconsin’s most visited state park. Hikers and bikers can explore its forests, marshes and cliffs. The Eagle Bluff Lighthouse is open for tours. A golf course, the American Folklore Theatre, a fishing pier and a boat ramp are other amenities, along with a station to rent bicycles.
Newport State Park on the Lake Michigan side of Door County is designated as a wilderness park. It consists of more than 1,400 acres and has 11 miles of shoreline, 3 miles of sand beaches, and 1 mile of shoreline on Europe Lake. Its backpacking campsites scattered along the shoreline make Newport an ideal destination for those wanting to really enjoy the natural wonders here.
The fifth state park on Door County is Whitefish Dunes. This is the most popular day-use park in the state because of its high sand dunes and excellent beaches. It has 15 miles of hiking trails, an observation platform and a nature center with displays on the ecology and geology of the area. There’s also access to Clarke Lake, one of the few inland lakes in Door County.
The largest lake in Door County is Kangaroo, with more than 1,100 acres near Baileys Harbor and Jacksonport. Its main feature is the Kangaroo Lake Natural Area. Kangaroo Lake also provides a place to enjoy boating and fishing. There’s a causeway along Wooden Lane that affords bank fishing for bluegill, large and smallmouth bass, and northern pike.
Other lighthouses on the peninsula are the Cana Island, Bailey’s Harbor Range Lights, Old Baileys, Canal Station, Pilot Island, Plum Island Range Lights, Sherwood Point and Chambers Island. Many are not open to the public or are accessible only by boat.
The Cana Island Lighthouse, north of the town of Bailey’s Harbor on the Lake Michigan side, serves as the third branch of the Door County Maritime Museum, the other two being in Sturgeon Bay and Gills Rock.
The Canal Station Lighthouse or Pierhead Light (built in 1882) is located at the Lake Michigan end of the Sturgeon Bay Ship Channel.
Sherwood Point is only open to the public during the annual Door County Lighthouse Walk, held the third weekend in May.
Bailey’s Harbor Range Lights are located in the 100-acre Ridges Sanctuary. It’s designated as a state natural area and is an important birding location that features native wildflowers along its 5 miles of trails.
Many small communities in Door County have distinctive names that remind visitors of their colorful history. Bailey’s Harbor, which sits in a protected cove, was named for a Captain Justice Bailey, who happened upon the cove during a fierce storm in 1848.
Egg Harbor, by historical accounts, was named when a “friendly” confrontation in 1825 by two parties ended in a large egg-throwing fight.
Ephraim on the Green Bay side of Door County has an interesting background. The village was founded in 1853 as a religious community and since then has prohibited alcohol sales; it’s presently the only dry town in Wisconsin.
Gills Rock is situated at the end of the Door Peninsula and is the point for several underwater shipwreck tours for scuba divers. The Door County Maritime Trail provides divers and boaters means to explore more than 200 shipwrecked vessels that line the coast.
Fish boils are common in Door County. This is an entertaining way to sample the regional fare, usually white fish from Lake Michigan. Many credit Scandinavian immigrants for bringing the fish boil to Door County. They were originally used as a quick and economic way to feed large crowds of lumberjacks and fishermen. As the area grew as a tourist destination, fish boils became a popular attraction at local restaurants, including the Old Post Office Restaurant and Pelletier’s.
With so many opportunities for outdoor recreation, and with so many attractions to visit, Wisconsin’s Door County is a “must” for your summertime boating bucket list. For more information, contact the Door County Visitor Bureau at (800) 52- RELAX or (920) 743-4456, or visit www.doorcounty.com.
Rounding the extreme northeastern tip of the Door Peninsula was difficult for ships and is not recommended for recreational boaters unfamiliar with the waters. The currents between Green Bay and Lake Michigan are especially unpredictable and strong in the relatively narrow strait between the Door Peninsula and Washington Island — a distance of just over 3 miles. From the mid-1600s to 1910, more than 100 ships sank on the rocky shores of the strait, earning the channel its French name Porte des Morts, which means “Death’s Door.”
Door County Marinas
Egg Harbor Marina, 920-868-2048, www.eggharbormarina.com
Ephraim Yacht Harbor, 920-854-4010, www.eyhdc.com
Alibi Marina, 920-868-3789, www.alibimarina.com
Kewaunee Municipal Marina, 920-388-3300, www.cityofkewaunee.org/marina.html
Salmon Harbor Marina, 920-388-2120, www.salmonharbor.net
Sister Bay Marina, 920-854-4457, www.sisterbaymarina.com
Yacht Works Inc., 920-854-2124, www.yachtworks.net
CenterPointe Marine, 920-746-1912, www.centerpointeservice.com
Wave Pointe Marina & Resort, 920-824-5440, www.wavepointe.com
Skipper Bud’s Harbor Club Marina, 262-697-3200, www.skipperbuds.com
Skipper Bud’s Quarterdeck Marina, 920-746-8200, www.skipperbuds.com
Bay Marine of Sturgeon Bay, 920-743-6526, www.baymarine.net
Kap’s Marina, 920-847-2640, www.kapsmarina.net
Shipyard Island Marina, 920-847-2533, www.shipyardisland.com
Author: James Richardson is a contributor to HeartLand Boating magazine