Wind in your hair, water stretching to the horizon and heartfelt local hospitality. If that's the benchmark of a memorable winter road trip, then Door County will open up a world of vistas and sensations in a small space.
This famous peninsula forms the distinctive thumb of Wisconsin that juts for 75 miles into Lake Michigan. To the west are the waters of Green Bay. To the east, the sky opens over the expanse of Lake Michigan. Door County's lure is unavoidable: more miles of shoreline, more state parks and more lighthouses than any other county in the United States.
The county's western shore, sheltered from the brunt of Lake Michigan's vagaries, is spiced with a string of picturesque villages with lyrical names like Egg Harbor, Fish Creek, Ephraim, Sister Bay, Ellison Bay and Gills Rock. The eastern shore bears a rugged beauty and a wilder nature, punctuated by the towns of Jacksonport, Bailey's Harbor and Rowleys Bay.
The shores are laced together by a network of county roads that take their time amid farms and orchards. The moderating effects of the surrounding waters make Door County's climate ideal for cherries and apples.
The linchpin for these meanderings is Sturgeon Bay, the county seat and home to about one-third of the county's 30,000 year-round residents. The city straddles the shipping canal that links Lake Michigan to Green Bay.
WHAT TO DO
Enjoy the outdoors: In a county brimming with natural beauty, visitors can explore five state parks and 19 county parks. In winter, this means hiking, snowshoeing, sledding, cross-country skiing, ice fishing or snowmobiling in the midst of beaches, bluffs and forests.
Two personal state park favorites are Newport and Peninsula (dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/). Newport features easy to moderate trails, some of which hug the wintry Lake Michigan shoreline in a wilderness setting. Peninsula offers 16 miles of groomed, mostly double-tracked ski trails for beginners to experts. Peninsula is having a candlelight ski/hike, including a bonfire with refreshments, on Feb. 2 from 5:30-8 p.m. (1-920-868-3258; www.peninsulafriends.org).
Our family also enjoys Cana Island Lighthouse and Cave Point county parks in any season (www.doorcounty.com/what-to-do/parks). Cana Island Lighthouse, built in 1869, still guides navigation on Lake Michigan. The 9-acre island, accessible by a short walk across a gravel causeway, is open during daylight hours year round (lighthouse tours are held May through October). Cave Point, surrounded by Whitefish Dunes State Park, preserves a series of sea caves formed by the relentless pounding of Lake Michigan against the limestone bluffs.
Get festive on the bay: The Winter Carnival in Fish Creek, Wis., set for Feb. 1-3, offers ice sculptures, family-friendly games, music, food and a festive atmosphere under a large heated tent overlooking the frozen waters of Green Bay. (1-800-577-1880; www.visitfishcreek.com).
Enjoy the winter landscape: Cozy up in a heated trolley on a Winter Wonderland Tour, which includes a half-hour sleigh ride through scenic orchards and woods, a private tasting at a local winery and a fireside lunch at the English Inn in Fish Creek, Wis. The five-hour tours depart 9:30 a.m. Saturdays through March, as well as New Year's Eve ($60; 1-920-868-1100; www.doorcountytrol ley.com).
Take in the arts: Beautiful places attract artists looking for inspiration. Door County's lively arts scene includes painters, potters, sculptors, craftsmen, weavers and performers. As you wander the county's back roads and linger in the villages, you'll find scores of galleries, studios and museums. Some, such as the Blue Dolphin House Studio in Ephraim, are open most days of the week (closed Tue.-Wed.; 1-920-854-4113; www.bluedolphin house.com). Others are open only on winter weekends. It's best to call ahead. Consult the Door County Winter Guide for gallery information (www.doorcounty.com/pdf/winterguide.pdf).
Explore maritime history: The Door County Maritime Museum in Sturgeon Bay celebrates and preserves the region's maritime history, depicting stories of the sea told from the points of view of sea captains, sailors, fishermen, shipbuilders and lighthouse keepers ($8 adults; $4 ages 5-17; 120 N. Madison Av.; 1-920-743-5958; www.dcmm.org).
Check out a brewpub: The Shipwrecked Brewery Restaurant in Egg Harbor is Door County's only microbrewery, open on winter weekends (7791 Egg Harbor Road; 1-888-868-2767; www.shipwrecked microbrew.com).
WHERE TO STAY
The Thorp House Inn in Fish Creek and its cozy cottages, on the National Register of Historic Places, are nice for a couple's getaway or girls' weekend (www.thorphouseinn.com; 1-920-868-2444; rates start at $115).
The Door County Visitor Bureau offers a winter guide and other information: www.doorcounty.com; 1-800-527-3529.
Jim Umhoefer is a travel writer and photographer from Sauk Centre, Minn.