Passing the sandy beaches, lighthouses and little villages lined with tidy white clapboard bed-and-breakfasts, it’s easy to see why Door County is known as the Cape Cod of the Midwest.
And in the fall, the postcard-perfect forested scenery of the Wisconsin peninsula takes center stage.
“That’s the iconic shot,” a woman said as she pulled over her car on the Door County Coastal Byway to photograph the winding road as it zigzags sharply through a canopy of red and yellow.
This year, fall colors peaked later than the expected third week of October, sending tourists to the popular 70-mile peninsula to track down brilliant panoramas later in the year than usual.
“Our falls are getting busier,” said a man working at the Northport Pier Visitor Center, where a long line of cars waited for the ferry to Washington Island. “I think people just enjoy this time of year.”
And for good reason.
Even though Door County’s iconic cherry orchards are beyond harvest time and the weather is too brisk for sunbathing or swimming, there’s plenty to see and do in the fall and the quieter shoulder seasons. Visitors to five state parks filled up campsites, zoomed by on bicycles or trekked on foot on miles of tree-lined trails.
About half of the county’s 2 million visitors a year are from Wisconsin and a third are from Illinois, according to the Door County Visitor Bureau. Only about 5 percent are from the Twin Cities, five hours to the west.
Parks and lighthouses
Along the shore of Lake Michigan in Baileys Harbor, my family crammed in a filling breakfast at the Harbor Fish Market & Grille (1-920-839-9999; harborfishmarket-grille.com), including their famous French toast filled with cream cheese and cherries (no syrup needed), and then went off to explore Peninsula State Park.
We marveled at the thick stands of cedars and learned about the Eagle Bluff Lighthouse, built in 1868 with Milwaukee Cream City brick — one of 11 lighthouses on the peninsula. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, it has a solar-powered, toaster-sized light at the top.
Along the state park road, we gazed at scenic overlooks of the dense forests filled with a smattering of orange, red and yellow leaves (stop at the Eagle Panorama for an impressive view of the Green Bay shoreline and Horseshoe Island).
Next we headed back across the peninsula to Whitefish Dunes State Park and stood mesmerized by Lake Michigan’s waves. It’s striking how different it is from Lake Superior’s granite shores and dark waters — here, limestone and light blue hues. The park is known for its sand dunes, the highest in Wisconsin.
The sunshine yielded to rain and high winds. Luckily, with a plethora of food and drink options, Door County is a destination come cold or inclement weather. Who needs sunshine when there are fresh Wisconsin cheese curds?
After a cheese pit stop, we tried the apple cherry cider at Island Orchard Cider in Ellison Bay (1-920-854-3344; islandorchardcider.com), followed by a wine tasting at Lautenbach’s Orchard Country Winery & Market in Fish Creek (1-866-946-3263; orchardcountry.com). It’s difficult to drive too far in Door County without running into a winery.
Along the scenic byway, we passed more rows of cherry and apple trees, then rolled through the quaint villages that dot the peninsula.
“This is more like Lake Minnetonka,” my sister said as we passed through the Scandinavian town of Ephraim.
Door County has few chain businesses. Unique restaurants, boutiques and specialty gift shops line its villages’ main streets, with rows of white-painted buildings and white church steeples punctuated in the fall by brilliant red and yellow foliage.
Along the Green Bay side, we took in the brilliant fall colors as waves crashed violently against the beach and wind-whipped Packers flags hung next to American ones.
The county takes its name from Death’s Door, a dangerous passage at the end of the peninsula where Green Bay and Lake Michigan meet. Many ships were wrecked there long ago. We learned about the area’s boatbuilding history and escaped the rain at the Door County Maritime Museum in Sturgeon Bay (1-920-743-5958; dcmm.org). It documents the World War II ships, telegraph messages, lighthouses and the many “sea dogs” who have staffed lighthouses or ships.
Back in Baileys Harbor, we knocked back pints and listened to local bands perform at Door County Brewing Co. (1-920-839-1515; doorcountybrewingco.com), which this summer opened its trendy barnlike taproom decked with refurbished wood and old bricks.
A fish boil
But the main event for our weekend in Door County was the famous fish boil — a worthwhile experience no matter what time of year you visit.
“This is a very Scandinavian tradition,” explained the middle-aged master boiler, wearing a white apron.
At the White Gull Inn in Fish Creek (1-920-868-3517; whitegullinn.com), more than 20 people stood in the rain, wind and darkness for the entertainment: literally watching a pot boil.
Campfire flames licked the side of the giant pot as the boiler added red potatoes and salt. Settlers, then lumberjacks, were looking for an efficient large outdoor meal, he explained, so they gathered around a fire to poach their freshly caught fish.
After the lumber camps closed, the tradition continued, passed down at churches and family reunions. Now, the fish boil is a tourist attraction.
The boiler dumped buckets of Lake Michigan whitefish steaks into the pot. He waited. We watched.
Visitors took out their smartphones to take video as the boiler counted down: “5, 4, 3, 2 ... ”
He threw kerosene on the fire and the flames erupted into a big ball of fire, lighting up the dark night and the faces of the crowd as they gasped. The boiler explained that the fish oils rise to the surface, and when it boils over, the oils spill over the sides of the pot, leaving the fish ready to eat.
A crew carried the pot inside and served the fish with lemon, melted butter, coleslaw, red potatoes, fresh bread and homemade cherry pie. The room grew hushed as everyone huddled around steaming plates to devour their meals.
From the windows, we watched the boiler outside, preparing for the next fish boil, stoking the fire with cardboard from New Glarus Brewing cases and fresh wood stacked around the fire like a pyramid.
He stood in the dark, rainy night alone, waiting to begin again.