Finally! I’ve wanted to see Door County for what seems like forever! I’ve heard so much about Door County for so many years, that it was finally nice to realize we were going to be able to explore the peninsula many describe as the thumb, or the “spout of the Wisconsin teakettle”. Door County is located between Lake Michigan on the east and Green Bay on the west.
Door County has also been referred to as “Cape Cod of the Midwest” and “California of the North” and yet could honestly see both comparisons when we were driving through the peninsula today. There are 250 miles of shoreline, more than any other U.S. county that alternate between rocky beach, craggy bluffs, choked orchards, bucolic heath and meadow. Despite what you would think about it being a cold and barren place in the winter months, it actually is protected and experiences relatively moderate winters! The northern tip is generally a few degrees warmer than the southern end, but the bayside vs. lakeside difference is more important climatically. We opted to drive up the east side, or lakeside so totally bypassed Sturgeon Bay on our way northward into the peninsula.
Our first stop was at the Canal Station Lighthouse. One of the oldest of its kind dating from 1899. This lighthouse originally used an experimental design in which only latticework guy wires supported the tower and lantern. The station was redone after the turn of the 20th century constructing the skeletal steel framework around the 100-foot tall light. The Coast Guard also has a lighthouse on the grounds that are “private property”, but still afforded some good camera shots. We had read that Door County has more lighthouses than any other county in the U.S. This includes the adjacent islands sprinkling the coastline.
We found a really nice, off the beaten path route (see the map we included for you to see our route a bit easier) that hugged the coastline and provided some views of some of the most magnificent homes along the coast! It was also located along another one of Wisconsin’s Rustic Roads (and still to be written about in a future coast), so we knew it would provide some interesting panoramas and unspoiled beauty and were not disappointed.
Our route took us through Jacksonport – it is only noteworthy because it is located on the 45th parallel, exactly halfway between the equator and the north pole. From there we continued to Bailey’s Harbor; three lighthouses! We stopped at the Visitor’s Center only to find out that one of the lighthouses is located on private land and inaccessible, nor visible unless one knows exactly where to look. The first lighthouse we encountered was the famed Baileys Harbor Range Light, constructed in 1869 and of unusual design from others in the area. Baileys Harbor was founded in 1844 when Captain Bailey and crew were floundering in a sudden squall when they espied a cove and took shelter. They were amazed to find a deep, well-isolated harbor and gorgeous cedar stands backing off the beach. The captain was so enthralled with what he found that he and the shipping company owner persuaded the U.S. government to construct a lighthouse at the entrance some years later. Thus it became the first settlement in Door County. Its harbor remains the only designated Harbor of Refuge on the peninsula’s lake side.
The second lighthouse was located a bit north of Baileys Harbor on Moonlight Bay and is probably the most photographed lighthouse in Door County; the Cana Island Lighthouse. It is also probably one of the most crucial lighthouses because of its location far off the coast on a wind-whipped landform. Built in 1870 it was at the time considered a hardship station during storm season. But today, it’s a pleasant stroll out across a gravel path to the grounds.
We opted to drive all the way up to Gills Rock and Northport, before heading down the bayside of the peninsula and to see where the ferries cross to Plum, Rock and Washington Islands. I did a little shopping in the two gift shops while Jerry strolled around watching the fishermen and the beautiful beach areas.
The trip southward was really when we could both see the comparison with the New England fishing villages – ice cream shops, antique shops, restaurants galore and every type of boutique one could think of. Roads were choked going through the towns with cute names like Egg Harbor, Ellison Bay (where we detoured to a beautiful city park overlooking the Bay on high cliffs), Sister Bay, and then into Fish Creek. This necessitated another detour to Peninsula State Park to see the Eagle Bluff Lighthouse built during the Civil War by U.S. lighthouse crewmen as the second of the peninsula’s lighthouses. A square tower about 45’ tall attached to the keeper’s house – this was considered a prized assignment because of the commanding view and the best salary – the princely sum of $50/month. And for 1880, that was a fortune. The lighthouse has been refurbished in the late 1950s removing over 80 layers of paint.
And from there we arrived in Ephraim (pronounced EE-frum) and our major detour! We stopped at a place we read was nearly a Door County law that one had to stop and enjoy; Wilson’s, the old-fashioned ice cream parlor! By now, think you have caught on to our love of ice cream. We stopped in this family owned peninsula institution that opened in 1906. Many modifications have been made to the original ice cream parlor throughout the years, but the charm is definitely apparent in the décor. We enjoyed a sundae and then continued on our route towards home.
We still breezed through Sturgeon Bay knowing it would be more readily accessible for a return trip at some future point while we are here and we could enjoy more. At this point, we had been “touring” for several hours and the envelope was being pushed! There was only one more stop in our sights and that was – yep, you guessed it; another lighthouse.
This was the Sherwood Point Lighthouse. Constructed in 1883 and automated in 1960, the 38’ high house guarding the bayside entrance into Sturgeon Bay was constructed with a 10-sided cast iron light. It’s closed to the public and many signs were saying it was private and no trespassing. The lighthouse and the old keeper’s house are used today as a retreat for the Coast Guard and only open during the Festival of Blossoms tour.
Another great exploration here in Wisconsin. And Door County was everything I had hoped it would be; a very enjoyable day and already look forward to a return visit.
Till the next time . . .