Synonymous with cherry pie and autumn leaves, Door County is a truly classic fall destination, not only one of the very best places in the Midwest, but in the entire country. It's not too late to catch the end of fall – here is why you should go and what you should do when you get there, whether it's now, next year or both.
1. It's really that great.
So you live on one of the coasts and you're thinking: I live in California. Who needs some lake in Wisconsin? How wrong you are – particularly at this time of year. Or, maybe you live in New York and you say to yourself, "Oh, please, The Catskills /Vermont / Whatever are totally the best." Don't be so sure about that. Take it from a true fall foliage fetishist – Door County isn't just some place like other places where the leaves turn. Located on a narrow peninsula jutting far into northern Lake Michigan, this iconic destination for generations of weekenders has somehow managed to keep from overdeveloping, with tiny villages punctuating endless open farm fields, elegant and diverse forest lands, rugged coastline, quiet harbors and remote islands that feel far, far from the Midwest as usual.
2. It isn't that hard to get there – from anywhere.
If you live within driving distance, you probably already know pretty much everything there is to know about Door County. For the rest of us, there's flying into Milwaukee (2.5 hours) or even Chicago (4 hours). If you really don't like driving, Green Bay's spacious, no-hassle Austin Straubel Airport has great connections from Midwest hub airports on a daily basis. Once on the ground there, you're about an hour from Sturgeon Bay, the southern gateway to Door County action.
3. Fall's in full swing.
So full, in fact, it's nearly over. Time to get a move-on if you want to see the last of the changing leaves. Bonus – this means that weekdays, things can be pretty quiet and there are some good deals out there – not that things are all that expensive anyway, at least via coastal standards.
4. There's so much scenery to admire.
If you're an avid hiker, hit the remote forest and beach trails in Newport State Park, far from the crowds. For something gentler but no less stunning, The Ridges Sanctuary near Bailey's Harbor is Wisconsin's first land trust, founded in 1937 to preserve the strikingly diverse ecosystems contained in a centuries-old collection of dunes. Scramble along the rugged coastline at Cave Point State Park or to the top of Old Baldy, the tallest point in Whitefish Dunes State Park at 93 feet above sea level.
5. Of course, you don't have to walk.
Prefer to bike? Go for miles in the stunning waterfront woodlands that comprise Peninsula State Park, located just on the edge of the town of Fish Creek, where you can pick up some wheels. Or, link up with Door County Bike Tours, which runs multi-day trips with leisurely, daily bike rides and accommodations at the Eagle Harbor Inn in the village of Ephraim. There's kayaking, there are Segway tours, or you could just do a self-guided drive – any road along the coastline, north of the Sturgeon Bay ship canal that marks the beginning of the county's most beautiful terrain, will be memorable. Don't neglect, however, the gorgeous, mid-peninsula side roads, through beautiful farm fields and forest, particularly beautiful at this time of year. The higher you go on the peninsula, the fewer people there are. But really, driving anywhere around here is a pleasure. The main visitor-friendly villages – with Fish Creek and Ephraim kind of at the heart of it all, as far as the good stuff is concerned – are easy to navigate and a pleasure to drive between.
6. The food is often very, very good.
Some restaurants here – okay, lots of them – are stuck in the past, but others are fairly spectacular, considering that this is still a fairly rural region with an almost minuscule year-round population. Start your day with the peninsula's best espresso (and very good pastries) at Leroy's Water Street Coffee, tucked away in a cabin just off the harbor in Ephraim. Next, try the cherry stuffed French toast at the White Gull Inn in Fish Creek, a total classic for a reason. Heading out into the wilds? Make an elegant picnic lunch at Schoolhouse Artisan Cheese in Egg Harbor – it's one of the best cheese shops in one of the cheesiest states in the nation. (There's other tasty stuff there, too.) For dinner, head to Wild Tomato in Fish Creek, a smart and fun pizzeria with a great menu of salads and pastas and perhaps the peninsula's best tap menu, a boon for beer lovers. Want something a little more restaurant-y? Go to The Cookery, also in Fish Creek, a fun American spot that's been at it since the 1970s but now has a shiny new home after a fire a 2008 fire. Whatever you eat, make sure to get the locally smoked whitefish spread to start. For a true classic, head down Bay Shore Drive toward Sturgeon Bay and The Birmingham, where you'll have an honest-to-goodness Wisconsin-style supper club experience any night you go, but Friday's – fish fry, of course, local fish – are the thing. As are the very good fried cheese curds.
7. And that's just the beginning.
Besides restaurants, there's the region's storied farm market scene, which means two things. Well, it means a lot of things, but two of the most important are (clearly!) cherry pie and cider donuts. You can get spectacular renditions of both at Seaquist Orchards, high up on the peninsula near Ellison Bay. You should start there. Also make sure to ask every local you meet what their favorites are. Then, try them all. You can work it off on the trails, later on.
8. Of course, don't forget the fish boils.
Touristy, yes. Delicious, also. This Door County tradition of boiling your dinner – complete with great ball of fire that signals it's time to eat – is actually a lot of fun. Pelletier's in Fish Creek strikes a nice balance for those unsure of the whole thing, backing up the spectacle with tasty plates of fresh Lake Michigan whitefish steaks (they'll debone, if you ask nicely) and simple but excellent side accompaniment of buttered potatoes and onions. It comes with – of course it does – a slice of cherry pie
at the end.
9. Make sure to get out on the water.
Yes, there's a whole lot to eat, but that's not all. The lake and bay are almost the best thing about being up here. Hang out around them as much as you can. Better yet, get out on them. Ride the ferry to Washington Island, an even quieter, equally scenic destination just off the tip of the Door Peninsula. The boat (it takes cars) crosses the historic and sometimes tempestuous Porte des Morts, or Death's Door strait – the site of many a shipwreck. Don't worry – most days, it's just a a magnificently scenic ride. For pure scenery it's hard to top a ride with Shoreline Charters, which runs small-boat sightseeing cruises out of both Sister Bay and Gills Rock on a variety of itineraries that showcase (and quite expertly) the beauty of the coastline.
10. Speaking of lighthouses!
A whopping 11 of the state's 35 are located right here – Cana Island Lighthouse is a firm favorite, not just because you can climb up it for a great view of Lake Michigan and the peninsula, it's also in a stunning setting on a point near Bailey's Harbor. The drive out – it's rather remote – is half the fun.
11. And, last but not least – don't forget to go see the sunset.
Wherever you do it – from the scenic viewpoint at Ellison Bluff, your car along Bay Shore Drive north of Sturgeon Bay or high atop the historic wooden Eagle Tower in Peninsula State Park – these are sunsets you shouldn't miss.
For more information on visiting and where to stay, visit www.doorcounty.com
Above image by Jon Jarosh /Door County Visitors Bureau