Why the Cape Cod of the Midwest Needs to Be on Your Travel Checklist
Seventy miles of pure lakefront bliss.
Some places have nice public beaches. Some have pretty nature parks. Others feature historic small towns. And then there’s Door County, a little summer retreat in Wisconsin that’s got all of the above, and then some.
Door County is sometimes referred to as the “Cape Cod of the Midwest,” and it’s been turning casual visitors into fierce repeat customers for generations. Perched about 50 miles northeast of Green Bay, the 70-mile-long peninsula packs a concentrated dose of small-town Americana, with wineries, cherry orchards, old lighthouses, remote wilderness, and plenty of beachy goodness.
You’ll be far from the only one there -- Door County stands tall as one of the Midwest’s most popular destinations -- but sometimes the classics stick for a reason. Here are the coolest things to see and do in Door County, and how to best experience all of its 300 miles of picturesque shoreline -- from the car, the kayak, and the trails.
Walk on a beach with no sand
Schoolhouse Beach is one of Door County’s most bizarre attractions. Instead of sand, you’ll find smooth limestone rocks that are so rare, it’s illegal to take from the beach. One of the only such waterfronts in the world, Schoolhouse may not be the world’s most comfortable place for sunbathing, but no matter: The crystal-clear water and quiet shore provide an instant mental refresh.
Get lost in the wilderness at Newport State Park
This International Dark Sky Reserve (a fancy title meaning: the stars are incredible here) extends along 11 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline. With a fraction of the crowds as the more popular Peninsula State Park, it’s the ultimate spot to go off the grid and roam the secluded coastal hiking dunes.
While you're here, might as well seek out the secret beach. Find it at the end of Europe Bay Road in the Europe Bay Woods State Natural Area, where you’ll have more than a mile of secluded beaches and windswept dune trails pretty much all to yourself. Consider it social distancing at its finest.
Explore Washington Island
Only accessible by ferry from the Door County mainland, this old-school fishing village (both the island itself and its main town are named Washington Island) seems little changed by the winds of time. Drive your car straight off the ferry and cruise around the idyllic 25-square-mile island. It’s got a few peaceful beaches and parks, as well as a small maritime museum. Have lunch at the funky Fiddler’s Green, where live bands soundtrack a cozy living room scene.
Spend a day in Gills Rock
In an area with as many absurdly adorable small towns as Door County, it takes a lot to stand out from the pack. But Gills Rock, a tiny hamlet on the northern tip of the Door County peninsula, might just take the cake. The beaches here are popular with divers, but most people just come to board the ferry to Washington Island. But skipping the town itself means missing out on charming local spots like the waterfront Shoreline Restaurant, one of the best spots for local fish in the county (try the perch if you know what’s good for you). And if you’re here on 4th of July, they throw a mean party and fireworks show.
Get into the action in Fish Creek
With a population of around 1,000, Fish Creek is one of the larger towns dotting the coastline (don’t worry, it’s still very cute). Stroll down Main Street, take a boat ride with Fish Creek Scenic Boat Tours, or embark on an excursion into the nearby Peninsula State Park -- a 3,776-acre forested coastal enclave that makes up one of Wisconsin’s largest state parks. It even has its own 18-hole golf course and outdoor theatre.
Take in majestic views along the coast in Ephraim
If there is a cuter town than Ephraim, we haven’t seen it. This proud Scandinavian-style village goes all out with a stout assemblage of Cape Cod-esque historic structures. Your requisite photo-op is at Ephraim Village Hall, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Outside of a few shops and restaurants, there isn’t much to do here besides stroll along the lake or rent a pontoon boat from South Shore Pier. Which is kind of the point.
Camp on a remote island at Rock Island State Park
This is about as far as you can get from civilization in Door County. Only accessible via two ferry boats (which are, unfortunately, not currently operating due to the coronavirus), the entire 900 acres of this island are state park land, which means no cars and nowhere to sleep that isn’t a campsite. Find one right along the coast off the Thordarson Loop Trail.
Hang out with rooftop goats in Sister Bay
This once sleepy community has expanded its beach and welcomed a number of new bars and restaurants in recent years. The most famous is Al Johnson’s, noted for its live goats that can be spotted roaming the roof of the restaurant. (You can also check them out via webcam.) But if you’re in Sister Bay and you’re not posted up for sunset with a drink in hand at Fred & Fuzzy’s, something must have gone horribly, horribly wrong.
Explore the quiet side in Baileys Harbor
Most of Door County’s main communities are located along Highway 42 on the Green Bay side of the peninsula. A quieter alternative can be found off the less-visited Highway 57 on the Lake Michigan side. The main town here is Baileys Harbor, home of the iconic dive bar Blue Ox. The locals-friendly 1887-era hangout is self-described as an “eating and drinking museum,” which is pretty accurate. It’s a short drive to Gordon Lodge, where you can explore the leafy grounds or kick back on their small private beach.
Go sea caving at Whitefish Dunes State Park
This large state park along Lake Michigan is rich in Native American history and cool Pictured Rocks-style bluff formations. For a closer look at the bluffs, head to the nearby Cave Point County Park to see one of Door County’s most iconic sights. While you can get a nice view of the rugged rock formations from the overhead trail, the best way to experience these beauties is definitely by kayak.
Jay Gentile is an award-winning freelance journalist specializing in travel, food & drink, culture, events and entertainment stories. In addition to Thrillist, you can find his work in The Washington Post, The Guardian, CNN Travel, Chicago Tribune, Lonely Planet, VICE, Outside Magazine and more. Follow @thejaygentile