This idyllic peninsula bridges two great bodies of water with old world charm and nature's grace.
Story and photography by Darryl R. Beers
In the mid-1980s, unfortunate circumstances forced me to relocate to northeast Wisconsin. Little did I suspect that I would soon drop the “un” from unfortunate and embrace my new home as an unexpected blessing.
Brown, Kewaunee and Door counties combine to form the Door Peninsula, with the southern part of Green Bay to the west and Lake Michigan to the east. I’ve lived in all three counties and have delighted in exploring their beautiful back roads, forests, fields and shorelines.
The Great Lakes are often called “the third coast,” and the endless horizon off the east side of the Door Peninsula rivals any oceanic view, especially at dawn. But if early mornings are not your cup of tea, drive a few miles west and enjoy a sunset over Green Bay.
I have photographed the peninsula for 20-some years at all times of day, but sunrise is my hands-down favorite.
There is no way to feel more connected with nature than to be lakeside as the darkness gives way to the light of day, watching the stars fade as the soft hues of twilight brighten the sky. The wind is still, the water is calm and most people are happily snuggled in bed, apart from a few serious, early-rising fishermen.
Among the best places to watch the sun rise along the western shore of Lake Michigan are the lighthouses at Kewaunee and Algoma in Kewaunee County, and Sturgeon Bay and Cana Island in Door County.
Other great spots in Door County with public lake access include Whitefish Dunes State Park, Cave Point, Toft Point on Moonlight Bay, Newport State Park and Europe Bay. Each has something distinctive to offer, just as each sunrise is unique. Some of the most stunning dawns are in winter, when intricate and sometimes massive ice formations reflect the golden light.
The quaint villages along Highway 42 in Door County on the bay side are wonderful places to watch the sun set. Sister Bay, Ephraim, Fish Creek and Egg Harbor are my favorites, along with Peninsula State Park.
Red River County Park in Kewaunee County and Communiversity Park in Green Bay are also good places to kick back and end the day with a soothing sunset.
Grab a Pole or Paddle
As you’d guess, boating, sailing, kayaking, swimming and fishing are popular summer pastimes. Picturesque marinas dot the shoreline of all three counties.
Several towns along the lakeshore offer charter fishing with seasoned captains and guides. Fishing tournament enthusiasts can find somewhere to compete almost all summer. If you like to kayak, try the bay side, where the water is usually calmer and warmer.
The bay side also freezes over in the winter, which means great ice fishing. In January and February many of the smaller bays and inlets look like ice-shanty villages, a shivery testimony to the hardiness of local fishermen.
I recall one morning in February when I’d ventured out onto the ice of Sturgeon Bay to photograph the Sherwood Point Lighthouse. Several fishermen were already out there setting up in the frigid darkness well before dawn.
Afterward, as I packed up to leave, a late arrival who seemed not to notice I had a camera instead of a fishing pole yelled across the ice to me, “Catch anything?”
Thinking about the great lighthouse photos I had just captured, I smiled and yelled back, “Yes, I had a great catch!”
Much of the three-county area has a strong rural flavor. One of my favorite spots is where Door County converges with Kewaunee and Brown counties. Here at the 25-mile-wide base of the peninsula is one of the nation’s largest rural Belgian settlements.
In 1853, 10 Belgian families arrived here after a long voyage aboard the steamer Quennebec. Mostly poor farmers in their native Belgium, these immigrants were lured by U.S. government pamphlets that promised cheap land in the newly chartered state of Wisconsin.
Many front yards boast shrines to the Virgin Mary, some elaborate, others made with a simple inverted bathtub. I also enjoy hunting down some of the tiny old roadside chapels.
Majestic Belgian draft horses can still be found on many of the farms; Belgian food is served in many local restaurants. Several communities designate special weekends to observe Kermiss, a traditional harvest festival.
I especially look forward to spring, when the peninsula’s cherry orchards are in full bloom near Highways 42 and 57, as well as along the peninsula’s miles of photogenic back roads. In my experience, orchard owners are often happy to let sightseers and picture takers visit for a closer look.
Door County alone once had more than a million cherry trees over an estimated 10,000 acres. Though only about 2,000 acres remain, cherries are still a big deal here, with the tart Montmorency variety the overwhelming favorite of local growers.
Midsummer brings the cherry harvest. Most commercial cherries are collected with machines that shake the fruit from the trees, but several pick-your-own orchards offer a fun family activity.
At harvesttime, cherry stands dot the countryside, while bakeries and restaurants turn out delectable treats. I can almost taste the tart, juicy cherry pie as I write this!
“Death’s Door”? Really?
One of my favorite excursions is the ferry to Washington Island just off the peninsula’s northern tip. The island’s striking limestone cliffs and rocky beaches, like those of Door Peninsula, are part of the vast Niagara Escarpment that sweeps across the Great Lakes region from upstate New York to the Illinois-Wisconsin border.
Departing from Gills Rock or Northport, the ride is only 30 minutes. The six-mile crossing is a wonderfully relaxing experience on a balmy summer day, but the rocky strait earned a fearsome reputation among early sailors. The French named it “Porte des Morts,” or “Death’s Door”╤and that, unlikely as it seems, is where this idyllic peninsula got its name.
The small island supports a year-round population of 700, which swells to thousands in summer.
My favorite places on Washington Island include Schoolhouse Beach, with its unusual round stones; the Washington Island Farm Museum; the commercial fishing museum at Jackson Harbor; and the Stavkirke, a replica of an old Norwegian wooden church.
With relatively few cars, the island is bike-friendly. You can bring your own, or rent one close to the ferry docks.
The ferries run year-round, with special ice-breaking equipment for the frigid months. On occasion a ferry will get stuck in the ice; hardy island passengers have been known to get out of an icebound boat and walk to shore.
Less than two miles off the island’s northeast shore is Rock Island State Park. Rock Island has no year-round residents, and no motor vehicles are allowed. If you’re looking for peace and quiet, this is the spot. Many visitors like to come over for the day and picnic, while the hardier crowd will camp at a rustic lakeshore campground.
Two island attractions you won’t want to miss are the Viking Hall and Boathouse, built in the 1920s, and the 1856 Pottawatomie Lighthouse.
The latter brings back fond memories of waking in my tent at 3 a.m. and hiking through the darkness to the other side of the island. I can’t begin to describe the wonder I felt as the orange light of dawn slowly gave shape to the horizon and the lighthouse.
What a blessing it has been to live and work in this area, to experience this wondrous sliver of God’s Country every day in my own backyard. I’m living proof that you often end up exactly where you’re meant to be, whether you planned it or not.