You’ve never had a cherry until you’ve had a Door County cherry, but what can you do in this scenic northern tip of Wisconsin when it’s not cherry season?
Door County is a 20-mile-wide, 70-mile-long stretch of land sandwiched between Green Bay and the western shore of Lake Michigan. For more than a century, the Door, as some folks call it, has been home to acres and acres of cherry — and apple — orchards, and a thriving agritourism industry to go with it.
Fresh air and sweet cherries are why tourists originally flocked to Door County, but I went at the beginning of winter to experience the snowy side of this little pocket of the upper Midwest.
This region was originally inhabited by Potawatomi, Ho-Chunk, Ojibwe, Sauk, Menominee and Ottawa peoples, and white settlers first started moving to the region when loggers were looking for new sources of lumber to build the lakeside cities of Chicago and Milwaukee. They arrived by boat, often passing through the harrowing “Door of Death” between this sliver of land north of what is now the city of Green Bay and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
After the original forests were felled, farmers moved in and planted fruit orchards, which added to the appeal for citygoers throughout the Midwest who wanted to find a bit of natural solace during the summer months.
I’d never heard of Door County before visiting in December. Growing up in Southwest Missouri, we lived in the Ozark Mountains, not far from Branson, a totally different type of tourism experience that draws its own unique crowd each summer.
But in Door County, I felt like I was in a place more akin to Fredericksburg, the Hill Country destination built originally on agritourism but that now features a number of culinary, artistic and historical attractions that make it an appealing destination for families, couples, retirees and nature lovers.
Here are 7 magical things to do if you visit Door County:
Eat at a fish boil: If you’ve ever been to a crawfish boil or a fish fry, you can appreciate what happens when strangers gather together around a large pot of boiling water (or oil) to cook one common meal. People who have lived in this part of Wisconsin have likely been boiling whitefish for thousands of years, but this modern version has a distinct — and fiery — twist: kerosene.
At places like the historic White Gull Inn in Fish Creek or the Old Post Office Restaurant in Ephraim, a team of cooks tends to a fire and a large bubbling pot filled with Lake Michigan whitefish and red potatoes with a small slice cut off the skin so the salt can season the inside, according to our cook at the White Gull one frigid night in early December.
After all the ingredients have simmered for a bit, it’s time for the big show. The cook throws a tin can’s worth of kerosene on the fire to create an intense flame, which allows the fish oil that has accumulated at the top to overflow. (This makes a fireball worth seeing, so get there early enough to catch it.) These fish boils have been keeping Door County residents and visitors fed for more than 100 years, and these days, the finished product is served with a side of melted butter, coleslaw and bread.
A note about availability: Not all restaurants known for fish boils are open year-round — you’ll have to hit up The Viking Grill in Ellison Bay, Old Post Office Restaurant in Ephraim and Pelletier’s in Fish Creek during the summer months. Make sure you snag a reservation if you want to go. Restaurants sometimes have multiple boils a night, but many only have one seating.
Stroll through the Ridges Sanctuary: Door County’s position on the Niagara Escarpment, a ring of limestone that runs from Niagara Falls to Green Bay, means that you can see geological features here that are unique to the Great Lakes region. The Ridges Sanctuary is a nature preserve where you can see the region’s ecosystem at its most abundant. The 1,600-acre preservation features a prominent series of ridges and swales that create eco-highways through the forest. These waves of land mark the former shoreline of Lake Michigan, so you can measure time from swale to swale. Located near the town of Baileys Harbor, this nature preserve is the largest tract of undeveloped land in the region. Volunteers lead tours into what is the southernmost boreal forest in the county to learn about the preserve’s orchid and bird preservation programs. (Ask for Bill.) Don’t miss the lighthouse, an old (and innovative) two-building navigation system that helps boaters get through a dangerously shallow part of the harbor just off the coast.
Have a pancake (or a slice of coffee cake) at Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant and Butik: Not many places in the U.S. serve lutefisk on the menu year-round, but Al Johnson’s is one of them. This restaurant that opened in Sister Bay in 1949 has undergone several transformations in its 70-year history, and today, it feels like a rustic Swedish diner where you can order meatballs with lingonberry jam, coffee cake and, a real Scandinavian treat, pickled herring. The restaurant often has a three-hour wait during the busy season, and it can be packed even during the winter months, but if you arrive when it’s warm, you’ll find goats grazing on the grass roof, a tradition that dates back to the founder, whose Swedish wife is still alive and visits the restaurant from time to time.
If the line for Al Johnson’s is too long during the warmer months, go to one of the area’s many cheese shops and pick up supplies for a picnic. We hit up Door Artisan Cheese in Egg Harbor for a tour and tasting. Everything in this part of Door County is less than 25 minutes away, and most tourists hops from town to town during their visit.
Stop for a sip at Door County Coffee and Door County Distillery: Door County Coffee ships its coffees all around the world, but it’s a treat to visit the roasting facility, where you can choose from dozens of varieties of the highest quality Arabica beans that owner Vicki Wilson can find. She and her husband started the company in 1993 and have grown it into an international company with strong online sales. But when it’s cold outside, grabbing a sandwich and a cup of coffee at the company’s flagship store and cafe is a quick way to warm up in more ways than one. Right across the street, you can find Door County Distillery and Door Peninsula Winery, one of the oldest boozeries in the area that first started in an old school building. It’s a good place to swing by for a bottle of something local to bring back to your hotel room or back home.
Hike around the woods: Peninsula State Park is one of the top outdoor destinations in Wisconsin, and although there wasn’t enough snow to cross-country ski during my trip in December, the park features beautiful outlooks over Green Bay where, on a clear day, you can see across the bay to the other shore of Wisconsin. The parks service recently finished installing a six-story outlook platform called Eager Tower that’s impressive on its own, but it’s particularly notable because of the long ramp that makes the tower ADA accessible. The ramp makes for a lovely stroll if it’s not too windy. You can camp in this park, but make reservations months ahead of time for the summer season. Here are a handful of other hikes to check out if you go.
Pause for a quiet moment in Boynton Chapel: This small wooden chapel stands in the picturesque Björklunden, a 441-acre estate on Lake Michigan that is managed by Lawrence University, which hosts adult seminars in the lodge during the summer months. There’s a reason this weathered church has become a popular destination for intimate weddings. The intricate carvings, created by the property’s late owners, Winifred and Donald Boynton, were modeled after a Norwegian stave church, complete with Norse dragons and references to multiple religions. During our visit, we learned that this was really Winifred’s project. She studied wood carving in Chicago and decided to create a monument to peace during the turbulent years of World War II. The result is this tiny chapel, often reserved for weddings so check ahead for visiting hours, that includes seemingly endless details and references to different religions and cultures. Look for the Norse dragons on the roof at this chapel and on several other houses in the area.
Leave your mark on Anderson Dock: The Scandinavians who founded the small town of Ephraim built the town’s church and school, as well as a dock that has become its own community gathering spot. The dock, which now houses an art gallery that is open during the summer months, has become a place where people and passers-through write their names on the building. It’s been happening since at least 1910, when shipmen would document their stay by leaving their name on the wood. It’s a delightful experience to see so many names and to think about how we all move from place to place, picking up a little something from everywhere we go and leaving behind a little part of ourselves, too.
Other highlights: One Barrel Brewing in Egg Harbor and Plum Bottom Pottery and Gallery, an art gallery and pottery studio, just outside Egg Harbor, as well as the Birch Creek Music Performance Center, a music summer camp for kids that also hosts public performances throughout the year. The newly opened (and Scandinavian inspired) Dörr Hotel in Sister Bay has the most wonderful fireplace, and it’s right next to Skip Stone Coffee Roasters, which sells the best ham-and-cheese breakfast sandwich I’ve ever had.