Around the World

Door County: Opening The Door to a Midwestern Gem

Mar 2024 | By Rosalind Stefanac

If you enjoy a good road trip, consider making the 10-hour drive from Southwestern Ontario to a charming stretch of coastal towns south of the border, still under the radar for most outside America’s Midwest. Nestled between the waters of Lake Michigan and Green Bay on a 113-km long peninsula in Wisconsin is a gem of a spot called Door County. And after visiting for the first time, it’s easy to understand why so many come back year after year, or settle permanently in retirement.

Door County is often dubbed the “Cape Cod of the Midwest,” but it deserves its very own moniker. With more than 300 miles of shoreline dotted with majestic limestone bluffs, beaches and 11 historic lighthouses—along with five state parks and more than 100 galleries, museums and performing arts venues—the Door peninsula has plenty to do for adventure- and culture-seekers alike.

Driving from the southern part of the peninsula to its northern tip takes a little more than an hour, but there are many days’ worth of vibrant towns, villages and communities worth stopping to explore—not to mention surrounding islands. Here are just a few reasons to put Door County on your radar.

Scenic Routes All Around

With all its natural beauty, Door County is a haven for hikers and bikers. With its expansive view of Green Bay and remarkable 150-foot cliffs, Eagle Trail is a moderate 2.5-mile hike that’s well worth the effort. For an easier but just as impressive forest route, there’s Sentinel Trail in Peninsula State Park. It features the 60-foot-high Eagle Tower, fully accessible via an 850-foot canopy walk that winds its way along the tree line to the top.

A guided walking tour of Ridges Sanctuary in Bailey’s Harbor, Wisconsin’s oldest non-profit nature reserve, is an impressive foray into the state’s most biologically diverse ecosystem. Here you’ll find everything from open beach to dense forest, along with 500 plant species (Check their website for typical blossoming periods so you can plan your visit accordingly.)

Island Hopping in a Day

Door County was named after the sometimes-treacherous water passage (Porte Des Morts or Death’s Door) that lies off the peninsulas’ tip where Lake Michigan and Green Bay meet. Weather permitting, cross the passage for a breathtaking view by ferry from Northport Pier to Washington Island, the largest of 34 named outlying islands and the County’s crown jewel. It’s an ideal place to explore some unique beaches, such as Schoolhouse Beach made up of smooth stones, or take a scenic hike. It’s also home to Fragrant Isle, where an aromatic stroll through fields of 30,000 lavender plants will send your senses ablaze. There is a café and gift store with lavender-infused products on site too.

From Washington Island, it’s a short ferry ride to Rock Island to tour Pottawatoie Lighthouse, the oldest in Wisconsin. This 906-acre, pedestrian-only state park also features 10 miles of hiking trails and an impressive boathouse completed in 1929, that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Cherries, Cheeses and More

With not a fast-food franchise to be found, there is a plethora of well-loved local eateries and fine food dining options. Door County is also renowned for producing award-winning cherry and cheese products. With its cooler spring temperatures and unique soil composition, it’s one of the top tart cherry-producing regions in the USA. Prime cherry-picking season runs from mid-July to mid-August, but there is no shortage of cherry-infused culinary delights worth sampling year-round, including pies, jams, juices and spirits. Island Orchard Cider in Ellison Bay produces a tasty sour cherry cider and co-owner Bob Purman, who moved to the County after vacationing there for many years, is happy to explain his cider-making process to anyone who pops in.

As Wisconsin is “America’s Dairyland,” it’s no surprise that Door County has also earned a reputation for producing fabulous cheeses. Its oldest cheese store is Renard’s, established in 1961, where third-generation cheesemakers still run the family business. Shop their store for unique offerings such as whip-string cheese and cherry cheddar, or stay a while to sample homestyle comfort foods at the Melt Bistro on-site.

Lodgings with a View

From full-service, luxury resorts to quaint lodges, there are accommodations in Door County to fit every taste and budget. At the family-run Square Rigger Lodge in Sturgeon Bay, pristine motel rooms walk-out to a spacious lawn and sandy beach overlooking Lake Michigan, and larger suites come with fully equipped kitchenettes. Like many in the county, owner Mary Riley and her family used to vacation in the area. In this case, they loved it so much, they bought the whole property when it came up for sale.

As an award-winning journalist with an insatiable wanderlust, Rosalind Stefanac enjoys sharing profiles of people and places she encounters along the way. Based in Toronto, Ontario, she has written for numerous Canadian publications, both in print and online, including Destination Wedding, Canadian Living, Ensemble Vacations and InBetween Magazine.