Doorway to Adventure – Door County
July 31st, 2021 (Part 2)
Door County is a resort area that rivals New England. It is calm, quaint, and rooted in the outdoors, arts, and delicious food. Located on a picturesque peninsula jutting out into Lake Michigan with limestone cliffs and sandy beaches, amid the shores of Green Bay – it is known for its long shoreline and wonderful state and county parks. Fun fact – Door County has more lighthouses than any other county in the U.S.
We crossed into Door County just after 1 p.m. We still had a few hours before we could check into our hotel in Sturgeon Bay.
After a quick stop at a County Park to get a view of ‘Green Bay’ – the left arm of Lake Michigan, we looked at the map.
“Why don’t we visit Potawatomi State Park…it is only a few miles from our hotel.”
We were both too tired for intense hiking after the early flight but wanted to catch the scenery and see what hiking was available if we came back later in the week.
Potawatomi State Park is one of five state parks in Door County. Located a stone’s throw from city of Sturgeon Bay, this wilderness hideaway features two and half miles of shoreline on Lake Michigan’s Green Bay.
The Park was established in 1928 and is named in honor of the Native Americans that inhabited the area the shores and islands of Green Bay when Europeans first settled in the area. The tribe called themselves ‘BO-DE-WAD-ME,’ which means ‘Keeper of the Fire.’ The spelling and pronunciation eventually changed to Potawatomi.
Upon entry, a friendly park employee, gave us a map and detailed some of the highlights of the park including the scenic shoreline drive and Ice Age Trail. My mom and I purchased an annual pass for Wisconsin’s state parks – less than $40 for the year. As we are going to be touring numerous regional parks this was a way to gain access and support the park system.
We started our park tour meandering the scenic Shoreline Road, which runs parallel to Lake Michigan’s Sturgeon Bay. The road wandered through a dense forest of sugar, maple, basswood, white cedar, and white birch. Many of these giants grew atop uneven and towering rock formations.
“According to the brochure, we are on The Niagara Escarpment, a dolomite rock formation that extends all the way to Niagara Falls in New York/Canada.”
“That makes sense why it is so hilly here,” we discussed. “The bluffs in Potawatomi rise nearly 150 feet. You feel like you have a mountain view of the lake. It is stunning.
We stopped briefly at the boat launch to take pictures and read about the Ice Age Trail.
“The Ice Age trail is a 1000-mile national scenic trail. The footpath meanders through Wisconsin, highlighting the landscape features cut and carved by glaciers over 12,000 years ago.” I noted, reading up on the trail. “This Potawatomi Park trailhead is the eastern terminus of the trail system.”
“Kind of like the Appalachian Trail?” My mom thought aloud
“The Ice Age is such a critical geological turning point in our history as a continent. To think that glacial ice thousands of years ago could lead to such beauty and biodiversity is stunning.”
In hindsight, I wish I’d pushed through my jetlag to hike the trail, but we decided to continue our scenic drive on the park road. We veered inland, climbing steep bluffs to reach the Old Ski Hill Overlook.
Wisconsin’s winter recreation is renown, especially for cross-country skiing. This rambling steep hill is a skier’s dream.
We wrapped up our park tour at the popular Observation Tower – recently reopened to the public. The tower was built in 1932 and enjoyed for decades by visitors who climb the wooden tower for amazing views. Unfortunately, years of rot and decay mired the tower’s stability. It was closed to the public in 2017 and set for demolition, but park advocates fought for this landmark. It is now on the National Registry of Historic Places and fully restored.
“It is 2:30 p.m.,” we noted as we left the park. “Why don’t we drive through Sturgeon Bay – investigate the downtown before we check in?”
We chose Sturgeon Bay due to its central location and really being the ‘doorway of Door County.’ It is located at the midpoint of the ninety-mile-long Door Peninsula. It is an economic and shipping hub – you must drive over the picturesque Bay strait to reach the heart of downtown. Be prepared for shipping lane draw bridge delays. To learn more about Sturgeon Bay I recommend their amazing tourism site.
While I enjoyed our stay in Sturgeon, I personally would recommend booking outside of Sturgeon Bay. It was a little too industrial for my tastes compared to the rest of bucolic Door County. What is great about Sturgeon Bay are the wonderful bay views, rich history (Door County Maritime Museum) and delicious restaurants. Key highlights in Sturgeon Bay include the main campus of the Door County Maritime Museum and iconic Canal and Pierhead lighthouses.
Before checking into our hotel, we decided to stop at Target to load up on supplies like Kind bars, cereal, waters and purchase a more detailed map of Wisconsin and the area.
We checked into our hotel around 3:30 p.m. and unloaded the car. My mom and I rested for half an hour before plotting out the next stage of our adventure…
“Why don’t we drive to Cave Point and Whitefish Dunes State Park?” I suggested. “It is not far, twenty minutes or so. We can explore that area of the peninsula then grab some dinner?”
Located 12 miles northeast of Sturgeon Bay on the eastern edge of Door County Peninsula, Cave Point County Park is considered on of the most photographed spots in Wisconsin. Its rugged beauty is indescribable. I first learned about Cave Point when plotting our trip. It was listed a ‘must-see’ in Door County. We were not disappointed.
Cave Point County Park sandwiched by neighboring Whitefish Dunes State Park (next stop) is a juxtaposition of the clear blue-green waters of Lake Michigan and wave worn Dolomite/limestone ledges (Niagara escarpment), hidden underwater caves and the site of shipwrecks.
Words cannot do justice to the jagged wave struck cliffs against the piercing blue waters. Families crowed the rocky beach, daringly jumping into Lake Michigan from the rocky ‘Cave Point cliff’.
A group of brave teenagers jumped off the ‘Cave Point’ ledge. This is a designated ‘dive stop,’ with deep water perfect for jumping in for a swim.
My mom and I hiked along the cliffs edge by a thick forest, stopping at a quiet vista to take in the scenery. I snapped dozens of pictures and said a prayer of thanksgiving as the quiet thunder of the lake waters crashed into the cliffs – soft and tempestuous.
After forty minutes of scenery at Cave Point, we drove several miles northeast to Whitefish Dunes State Park.
“I feel like we are standing by the ocean,” I searched for words as we caught our first glimpse of the shoreline. “The dunes are so high and rugged, and the water looks like something from the Caribbean…so clear.”
Whitefish Dunes encompasses 863 acres of forest, pristine shoreline, sand beach and the highest sand dunes in Wisconsin. It is a popular summer spot for lazing by the beach and kayaking. In the winter, the park is a destination for snowshoers and skiers.
We ambled along the scenic overlooks, before delving into a forest trail, showcasing the history of shipping in the area and the numerous shipwrecks that have haunted these waters.
Door County derives its name from the treacherous waters between the northern tip of the peninsula and Washington Island. For centuries this passage, defined by its rugged shallow coastal waters, has led to countless shipwrecks. Many Potawatomi and Winnebago lost tribe members in canoes, leading the Potawatomi to dub the waters the “door of death.’ Translated into French, it’s also known as the Ports de Morts – or ‘Death’s Door.’ Eventually Death’s Door was shortened to ‘Door County.’
Lake Michigan is a destination for scuba divers who go wreck diving. The unsalted lake water has preserved the history of these fallen vessels.
One vessel lost is that of the Scow schooner, Ocean Wave, which is located four miles off the coast of Whitefish Dunes at the bottom of Lake Michigan. The State Park exhibit on the shipwrecks chronicles how Ocean Wave succumbed to the waters.
“The two-masted wooden ship was a scow schooner, a boxy, flat-bottomed vessel of the late 1800s. Scow schooners could enter shallower harbors more easily than shapely vessels, and they connected small frontier towns to large city markets.
In the early morning of September 23rd, 1869, the Ocean Wave was delivering a load of limestone to White Lake Michigan, when she struck a ‘deadhead’ floating log or timber. She sank quickly barely leaving the crew time to launch the lifeboat. The crew rowed through the night and reached the shores of the Whitefish Dunes area.
Today, the bow of the Ocean Wave is largely intact and displays a figurehead, unusual for small coasting schooners. It is a crudely carved eagle, with open mouth and extended tongue. The sides of the ship have fallen outward, and the aft deck and its intact cabin lie nearby. The wreck of the Ocean Wave is marked by a seasonal WHS mooring buoy.” (From State Park sign)
We love history, so my curiosity was piqued to learn more about other shipwrecks and the stories of Lake Michigan’s rich shipping and cultural history.
Closing in on six-thirty, my mom and I were starting to get hungry. After leaving Whitefish Dunes State Park – we continued north towards the charming hamlet of Jacksonport. The road wound lakeside, showcasing beautiful lake views and quaint lake cottages.
“Wouldn’t you love to live in one of these houses – with your own lakefront view,” I dreamed. “At least in the summer – I don’t know if I could survive a lakefront winter.”
Saturday night proved to be extremely busy in the nearby towns of Jacksonport and Bailey’s Harbor (located on the eastern edge of the Door Peninsula), the restaurants were inundated with long waits and no parking. We decided to follow a sign to ‘Fish Creek,’ another lake village known for great restaurants, that is situated on the western edge of the peninsula.
Bailey’s Harbor and Jacksonport are only eight miles east of Fish Creek, and it proved to be a tranquil drive through the hilly farmland. Door County is know for its agriculture – one of the top cherry growing regions in the country.
When we arrived at Fish Creek, jetlag and hunger set in – we were on a mission for good food and quick.
We flagged a local from our car asking for their advice on where to eat and the best place to park. He provided great information on several neighboring restaurants but recommended the Loft.
“They have great burgers; wine and it is affordable – and they have their own parking lot.”
After parking, it didn’t take long for us to fall in love with Fish Creek. The historic lakefront town is steeped in culture and beauty. Storefronts and restaurants line the main street, with the harbor a quick distance from any spot in town.
The Loft is a semi-indoor/outdoor dining experience that is classy and cutting edge. The host led us up a flight of steps to the ‘loft’ – past a bar and a fountain to a corner table.
“The food looks delicious,” I spied nearby diners’ plates. “They have a great menu.”
My mom ordered a glass of malbec and I opted for a Shirley Temple with extra flavoring and Door County cherries. For dinner, I ordered the house burger with a gluten free bun and sweet potato fries. My mom opted for the locally caught whitefish over a bed of wild rice. We shared our plates – each enjoying tasty bites of the well-prepared dishes.
The whitefish reminds me of a light flounder. It was seasoned perfectly with a dash of spice. It is some of the best fish I have eaten.
After dinner, we walked to the harbor and enjoyed watching the sunset. The orange and pink hues colliding with the lake horizon, as the sailboats drifting into port. It was the type of moment you never want to leave – so peaceful and beautiful.
With nightfall, we strolled past the many resort gift shops, before stopping for ice cream at Grumpy’ s, one of several ice cream parlors in the area. My mom love ice cream and Wisconsin is known for having creamy delicious flavors. Grumpy’ s serves local Cedar Crest ice cream.
My mom ordered dark cherry and I tried the Mackinac – chocolate and caramel mixed. So delicious!
It was almost ten when we left Fish Creek and headed back to Sturgeon Bay. Before going to sleep, I reviewed travel brochures to plot out Sunday. Neither of us could wait for tomorrow’s adventure.