Travel

To Get To This Idyllic Island, You'll Have To Cross Death's Door

Orchards. Lavenders. Maybe some ghost sailors.

Washington Island
Washington Island, Wisconsin | Destination Door County
Washington Island, Wisconsin | Destination Door County

Wisconsin's Door Peninsula has more than earned its nickname the “Cape Cod of the Midwest.” It's home to cherry orchards and porch-lined inns; cloyingly sweet small towns and sweeping Lake Michigan views. And off its shores sits Washington Island, a time-stands-still getaway where limestone beaches and lavender fields provide a backdrop that is, to many, a perfect distillation of Door County's unique pleasures. 

To get there, all you have to do is cross a six-mile underwater graveyard.

Long known as Porte des Mortes -- Death's Door -- the unpredictably turbulent stretch of Lake Michigan between the mainland and Washington Island is steeped in macabre history. It claimed both indigenous tribespeople and French fur trappers before it turned its appetite to ships: All in all, over the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, more than 250 vessels met the same grim fate navigating the waters. 

Today, en route to a lovely cottage vacation or a stay in a historic hotel amid the waves, you’d never know the strait’s unforgiving history. Though the waters that gave the county and the peninsula its name remain some of the most turbulent in the Great Lakes, they’re now a thoroughfare for ships, ferries, and intrepid divers. 

Here’s what to expect if you find yourself at Death’s Door -- and the paradise that lies on the other side.

MORE: More of what makes Door County a Midwestern treasure

Washington Island Ferry
Washington Island Ferry | Destination Door County

Getting across Death's Door is half the adventure

Back when Green Bay was Wisconsin’s largest port, Death’s Door was like a watery version of I-94, with schooners and wooden boats akin to semis creating rush hour traffic. The water here swirls relentlessly -- nevermind during storms -- thanks to clashing currents from both the bay and Lake Michigan. Rocky shoals dot the strait like little underwater minefields hidden just out of sight.

There are so many wrecks in the waters of Death’s Door that in places they are on top of each other. Though most date back to the 1800s, the cold waters of Lake Michigan act like a freezer, slowing down decay. Two hundred named shipwrecks are on the current roster, some so shallow you can snorkel or kayak to them, others requiring an oxygen tank and a 60-foot dive. 

To see one for yourself, the Fleetwing shipwreck (1867) in Gills Rock -- a tiny community and scenic spot near the peninsula’s end -- is a good place to start. It lies in about 15 feet of water less than 100 yards from shore, so to see it all you need to do is paddle out and look down. The most famous wreck area, however, is perhaps the Pilot Island Northwest Site, where the A.P. Nichols (1861), Forest (1857), and J.E. Gilmore (1867) all lie in the same spot, about 35 feet down. 

Keep in mind that under no circumstances should you attempt to canoe or kayak the strait itself. Paddling the coast, however -- like along the incredible sea cliffs of Whitefish Dunes State Park -- is safe, picturesque, and peaceful. At least, above water. Below, it too is a scene of tragedy (Australasia, 1888).

Most of us cross Death’s Door via the Washington Island Ferry. Drive up Highway 42 to Northport until the road ends, load up and park your vehicle (departures every 30–45 minutes), and get to the ferry’s top open-air deck. From up here, the only reminder of this violent past is a smattering of tiny lighthouses. The strait itself is a deep-blue, choppy inland sea where dangerous, rocky shoals are just hidden from view from the comfort of the ferry. As the cold waters pass under you, imagine what else does -- and be grateful for modern-day construction and technology.

Stavkirke
Stavkirke on Washington Island | Destination Door County

Exploring Washington Island

Across Death’s Door lies peace, respite, and serenity. Once you're on the island -- whose population is under 1,000 year-round residents -- you'll find a mere handful of roads winding between northern hardwoods, nature preserves, old-school cafes, farms, and beaches. 

Right off the main road is Lookout Tower at Mountain Park. Climb the 186 wooden steps to take in the six-mile-wide island's forested hills, orchards, and farms that stretch until the lakeshore. From here you might spot the bright purple fields of Fragrant Isle, one of the country’s largest lavender farms. Come down from the tower to get the ultimate ‘gram, pick a bouquet yourself, and watch the bees get flower-drunk off the plants’ fermented nectar.

Nose sufficiently delighted, look toward the woods just behind the farm. Hidden somewhere among the trees is a stavkirke, or stave church, modeled after its 12th-century twin in Borgund, Norway. The island has a tangible Scandinavian history -- it’s the second-oldest Icelandic settlement in the States -- which permeates the island. A clearly marked entrance to the prayer paths leading up to the church lies right off the road, great for a quick, quiet moment in the woods. 

Schoolhouse Beach
Schoolhouse Beach | Destination Door County

From here, make the three-minute drive to Schoolhouse Beach, one of the few beaches in the world made up of white limestone rocks. Over time, bits of nearby bluffs have eroded into the water, got polished and rounded by the currents, and washed up on shore. Bring decent shoes -- the stones are hardly tiny, walkable pebbles.

Before the day ends, stop at Nelsen’s Hall, where taking entire shots of Angostura Bitters -- the kind with the yellow cap found on every bar, usually to supply just a drop or two to your Old-Fashioned -- has been a local tradition since 1899. Washington Island is the world’s largest consumer of bitters, and if you want the locals’ approval, you’ll join the “Bitters Club.” Consider it a strange award for surviving Death’s Door. The bitters will sooth also your stomach -- and nerves -- as you brave the choppy waters to get back to the mainland.

Jacqueline Kehoe is a writer, photographer, and geology geek. See her work on Instagram at @j.kehoe.