MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Fall in Door County

On Wisconsin peninsula, autumn colors gild a much-loved landscape.

In fall, Door County produces plenty of pumpkins.

Beth Gauper

Door County markets overflow with pumpkins in fall.

Around the Upper Midwest, Door County is the tourist destination that other tourist destinations envy.

Everything a tourist loves, it’s got: Lighthouses, craggy shorelines, sand dunes. Golf courses, boutiques, bistros. Bicycle paths, hiking trails, beaches.

There’s a little bit of New England in the white-frame buildings of Ephraim, where tourists click photos of Wilson’s, a century-old ice-cream parlor.

There’s a little bit of Europe in Sister Bay, where goats graze on the sod roof of Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant. There’s not much that isn’t picturesque.

Of course, things can get a little hectic, a little crowded. Door County has been discovered.

“It’s so close to so many urban areas that people love it; they love it to death,’’ says Matt Schaeffer, an East Troy, Wis., vegetable farmer who grew up visiting his uncle on Washington Island. “It’s beautiful.’’

One October, while taking a photography course at the Clearing in Ellison Bay, I found that Door County also is a great place to look for fall color.

Each day, the leaves on the trees brightened, and by the end of the week, they had burst into a spectacular array of scarlet, gold, vermilion and russet, lining highways and forming canopies over country lanes.

And in the warm sunshine, everything else seemed vivid, too: The yellow submarine I saw leaving the marina in Sister Bay. The white and red pumpkins I bought from a roadside cart. The wildflowers I photographed along Europe Bay beach.

Peak usually comes the second week of October and sometimes lingers well into the third week. Look first inland, then along the shores of Green Bay and Lake Michigan.

It’s not hard to find your own colorful moments in Door County. Here's a starter guide, a springboard for autumn wanderings.

Tourism 101 in Door County

There are certain things every tourist has to do. Outdoor fish boils are the Door version of a lutefisk feed, a humble peasant repast that, through the years, has acquired a folkloric cachet.

One of the best places to have one is at Rowleys Bay Resort (formerly the Wagon Trail), where I found Hubert Marchewa standing over a boiling pot one afternoon, looking at his watch.

A Door County fish boil.

Beth Gauper

During a fish boil, kerosene is added to the pot when the fish and potatoes are done, causing the water to boil over, carrying away fish oils and dousing flames.

“Eighteen minutes for potatoes, seven minutes for onions, seven minutes for fish,’’ said Marchewa, a Pole who was one of the Door’s legions of imported workers. “The fish is very good. It doesn’t look good, but when you take it out, it’s good. “

The Viking Grill in Ellison Bay also is a good place to go for fish boils. Dessert usually is cherry pie, another Door tradition.

Other tourist favorites: Many people like to get a cone from Wilson’s, the 1906 frame restaurant in Ephraim, and eat Swedish pancakes at Johnson’s in Sister Bay, though there’s always a line.

Getting away from the crowds

Actually, it’s not that hard; the best way is to come midweek. But even on weekends, the villages of Egg Harbor and Fish Creek peel off many of the tourists heading north, and traffic thins beyond Sister Bay.

In Ellison Bay and Gills Rock, visitors still can glimpse the old Door.

“We’re still laid-back up here, and we want to stay that way,’’ says Russ Maiworm of Ellison Bay. “We don’t mind growing, but we want to keep it civilized. Not like in Sister Bay — that’s just wacko, all those condos.’’

In Gills Rock, ferries provide transportation to Washington Island, a mellow outpost of Scandinavian fishing and farming families who actually welcome tourists.

“The locals really enjoy the tourists who come,” says Matt Schaeffer, who was waiting for the ferry with his dog, Gidget. “It relieves the isolation they feel; six months a year they just sit there and look at the same people.’’

That’s still not the end of the line; from Washington Island, backpackers can take another ferry to Rock Island, once owned by a wealthy inventor.

Today, it’s a 912-acre state park, with 40 campsites, 10 miles of hiking trails, a lighthouse and a unique stone "boathouse.''

Spending time outdoors

There’s a lot of development on the Door Peninsula, but almost all of it is along the Green Bay shoreline between Egg Harbor and Sister Bay.

The interior is countryside, sprinkled with orchards and a few artist’s studios, and the Lake Michigan shoreline is lined by estuaries, beaches and forests, including those in Newport State Park, Wisconsin’s only designated wilderness park.

Walking at Kangaroo Lake SNA.

Beth Gauper

Kangaroo Lake SNA, just south of Baileys Harbor, is one of many state natural areas with hiking trails.

Newport surrounds the peninsula’s best beach, a long, pine-fringed crescent straight east from Ellison Bay, and it has the choicest and most secluded campsites, right on Lake Michigan near Europe Lake.

Whitefish Dunes State Park, south of Jacksonport, has nature trails through sand dunes.

And Peninsula State Park, wedged between Fish Creek and Ephraim, is a tourist destination in itself, with its 1868 lighthouse, wooden viewing tower, 18-hole golf course, theater, cedar-lined beach, hiking paths and paved bicycling trails.

Cave Point County Park, just north of Whitefish Dunes, is a good place to clamber around on the craggy shoreline.

On the north edge of Bailey’s Harbor, The Ridges Sanctuary has five miles of trails and is known for its wildflowers, including more than 25 native orchids.

Farther along Ridges Road, across from the house with fire number 1981, a short drive leads to the trails of Toft Point Natural Area, where the family of environmentalist Emma Toft once ran a fishing camp.

There’s canoeing and kayaking on the Mink River, and Nature Conservancy trails lead into the Mink River Estuary from each side.

From County Road P/Mink River Road, watch for a green-and-yellow sign marking a small parking lot; from there, it’s a beautiful hour-long walk through a corridor of cedar and along a forest floor turned bright yellow by the fall leaves of ferns and baby maples.

A winding road in Door County.

Beth Gauper

County Road 42 from the ferry landing at Northport is famously winding.

Even town parks can be quiet refuges. Ellison Bay has a little park with a nice sand beach and pier.

For more, see Outdoors in Door County.

Fall color by car and bike

The small county roads that thread through the peninsula's interior are perfect for prowling by vehicle and also by bicycle.

The most famous stretch is County Road 42 from the ferry landing in Northport, because it winds back and forth like ribbon candy. 

A scenic 25-mile route includes that road and the best sights at the “tip of the thumb.’’ From Ellison Bay, take Garrett Bay Road to Hedgehog Harbor, stopping at a plaque that marks the wreck of the schooner Fleetwing, bound for Chicago with a load of lumber when it went down in an 1888 gale.

The harbor is just short of Porte des Morts, or Death’s Door, the name the French gave the treacherous strait between Washington Island and the tip of the peninsula, which takes its name from the passage.

Cottage Road leads to Gills Rock and joins Wisconsin 42, which ends at the ferry landing in Northport. From there, Porte des Morts Road leads to Park Lane, which leads to Weborg Park, a tiny park atop a rocky beach that’s fun to explore.

Heading west, take Park Drive to Timberline Drive and south to Europe Bay Road.

From there, you have three options: east to Europe Bay beach, south on Newport Drive to the east trailhead leading to the Mink River (look for the “Schonbrunn’’ sign), or west to Wisconsin 42, in which case you’ll turn right on Badger Road, left on Birchwood Road and return to Ellison Bay on Garrett Bay Road.

On the Lake Michigan side, the roads around Cana Island Lighthouses and Baileys Harbor also are favorites, and that's where you'll find Rustic Road 38 and 39.

By car or bicycle, it's a lovely 36-mile  loop from Ephraim on County Road Q across the peninsula to Cana Island Lighthouse and Baileys Harbor, then on County Road F to Fish Creek and through Peninsula State Park back to Ephraim.

On the south end of the peninsula, Travel Wisconsin has mapped out the Cave Point Tour, a 40-mile loop from the lighthouses to Sturgeon Bay to Cave Point. Parts of the stretch along Lake Michigan also are Rustic Road 9 and Rustic Road 77.

Apples for sale sign in Door County.

Beth Gauper

An old apple shack stands near Ellison Bay.

Stock up on goodies

In fall, the shops hold sales and the orchards overflow with produce. When I stopped by Seaquist’s Farm Market just north of Sister Bay, it was enticing customers with a hay-bale maze, pumpkin painting, a blues/gospel band, an apple-tossing game and lots of free samples.

Everything looked marvelous — freshly made doughnuts, cherry cider coolers, berry pie, chocolate cherry bars, jars of chocolate amaretto sauce with cherries and pecans. . .

So I bought some. Well, I bought a lot. In Door County, fall comes only once a year.

Trip Tips: Fall in Door County

2014 events: Sept. 20, Harvest Festival & Street Art Auction in Sturgeon Bay.

Sept. 27, Fall Harvest Fest at Fish Creek's Orchard Country Winery and Autumnfest in Baileys Harbor.

Oct. 11-12, Townline Art Fair in Ephraim and Pumpkin Patch Festival in Egg Harbor.

Oct. 17-19, Fall Festival in Sister Bay.

Oct. 24-26, Jack O' Lantern Days in Fish Creek.

Golfing in Peninsula State Park.

Beth Gauper

Peninsula State Park's golf course has views of Eagle Harbor and the town of Ephraim.

Fall color: It’s always hard to tell, but the waters of Lake Michigan make the climate more temperate, making colors show later than in areas just as far north.

The second week of October is a good bet for peak color, and in a good year, the color sticks around well into the month.

Getting there: If you're coming through Green Bay, don’t follow Wisconsin 29 into town; instead, take U.S. 41 north two miles, then I-43 around Green Bay to Wisconsin 57.

Accommodations: There are hundreds of B&Bs, cottages, condos, cabins and motels.

For a guide, see Where to stay in Door County. Reserve up to a year in advance for fall weekends.

Dining: If you like fish boils, they're held throughout the county. 

Wineries: You can sample wine at seven wineries on the Door County Wine Trail.

Hiking: There are lovely trails in the five state parks and 28 natural areas.

For more, see Outdoors in Door County.

Golf: The 18-hole Peninsula State Park Golf Course is a lovely place to play.

Information: Door County tourism, 800-527-3529.

Last updated on July 30, 2014
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