23/02/2024

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Fall in Door County, Wisconsin: A Guide to Fun, Foliage & Food

13 min read
Fall in Door County, Wisconsin: A Guide to Fun, Foliage & Food

Fall in Door County, Wisconsin is home to one of the best foliage displays in the Midwest. That’s reason enough to visit! But it’s also far quieter than summer, beaches are deserted, apple orchards are at their peak, parking and traffic aren’t an issue, and local businesses and attractions are still open. (Some close in winter.)

Door County has been called the Cape Cod of the Midwest by National Geographic. The moniker has stuck – though locals aren’t a fan. Still, it’s a fair comparison. The two share many of the same attributes including hundreds of miles of scenic shoreline, picturesque coastal towns, and fish boils standing in for clam bakes. 

If you need more reasons to visit Door County in fall, consider checking out its five state parks, 11 lighthouses, locally run shops, galleries inspired by nature, outdoor activities like hiking and biking along with a community of welcoming people that are famous for their Midwest “nice“.

Pack your favourite fleece, throw in a rain coat and come see what you can do in Door County in fall. And before you go, check out my Instagram reel so you can get a real feel of what fall in Door County looks like.

This post includes some affiliate links. If you make a qualifying purchase through one of these links, I will receive a small percentage of the sale at no extra cost to you. Thank you very much for your support.

Looking out at beautiful fall foliage from Sven's Bluff Overlook in Peninsula State Park
Looking out at beautiful fall foliage from Sven’s Bluff Overlook in Peninsula State Park

Looking for a quick list of the very best things to do in Door County, Wisconsin in fall? 

  1. Go to a fish boil.
  2. Admire the fall foliage from atop Eagle Tower in Peninsula State Park.
  3. Visit Door County Coffee and pick up one the seasonal favourites like pumpkin spice or caramel apple coffee.
  4. Check out the limestone caves at Cave Point County Park.
  5. Take a hike in Whitefish Dunes State Park.
One of the views from Eagle Tower in Door County during prime fall colours
One of the views from Eagle Tower in Door County during prime fall colours

Tip for catching prime colours in Door County in fall

If you want to book a trip to Door County in fall to coincide with peak colours check out the Wisconsin Fall Colours map. You want to visit when colours are between 75-80%. I visited when colours were at their peak of 100%!

Where is Door County?

If you live in the Midwest, especially Chicago, there’s a good chance you know where Door County, Wisconsin is located. You might even have a summer cottage there. But for the rest of you, imagine a thumb jutting out into Lake Michigan, 150 miles north of Milwaukee. That thumb, a narrow peninsula that extends 70 miles into Lake Michigan is Door County. 

Location map of things to do in fall in Door County 

                                                   

  • Click on the three dots near the top right hand corner to email a copy of the map.

What are the top fall foliage spots and scenic drives in Door County?

Don’t miss a drive through Peninsula State Park during a Door County fall – somewhere between the 10th and 25th of October. The colours when I was there were blow-me-away beautiful. I think you’ll enjoy the colours even more if you get out of the car and onto one of the numerous hiking trails in Peninsula State Park. Then you’ll be completely surrounded by a forest of yellow and orange.

I’d also recommend driving the 66-mile long Door County Coastal Byway, now a National Scenic Byway. The loop includes State Highways 42 and 57 as it passes through quaint villages, farming communities and takes you all the way up to Northport at the tip. 

This is what it looks like in Peninsula State Park in Door County in fall
This is what it looks like in Peninsula State Park in Door County in fall
Love the contrast of dark tree trunks and brilliant coloured fall foliage
Love the contrast of dark tree trunks and brilliant coloured fall foliage

What are the top attractions in Door County in fall?

Go to a fish boil

As I’m dropped off at the White Gull Inn, I’m told “You’re going to want to catch the traditional fish boil on your camera.” Good advice, as its like nothing else I’ve seen before.

While Scandinavian in origin, fish boils have been a popular Door County tourist attraction since the 1960’s. They take place outside from May until October, usually on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.

Lake Michigan whitefish are cooked in a large kettle over a fire, tended to by a boilmaster. When the time is deemed right, the master throws kerosene on the fire, engulfing the kettle in flames, and causing the overboil – to the sound of oohs and aahs from the crowd. Then a couple of guys show up with a long rod they use to lift the kettle off the fire and let it drain. 

Everyone troops into the dining room and in short order is served an all-you-can-eat feast of freshly-caught whitefish, boiled potatoes, coleslaw, homemade bread – and a piece of local cherry per to wrap up the meal. 

Book a fish boil at one of these Door County restaurants.

The Fish Boil at White Gull Inn
The Fish Boil at White Gull Inn

Visit Cave Point County Park 

Cave Point County Park is small – just 19 acres – but the park is a year-round not-to-be-missed beauty located just north of Whitefish Dunes State Park. It showcases the Lake Michigan shoreline’s white limestone cliffs that form part of the Niagara Escarpment.

It’s a short walk from the main parking lot to the trails alongside the lake. Find a safe spot – and then marvel at the crashing waves that continue to erode the limestone cliffs. In storm conditions, waves can reach heights of 30 feet! Should you visit in summer, you can book a kayak tour and see dozens of underwater caves that aren’t visible from anywhere you stand on land.

I loved walking along the top of the limestone sea caves beside Lake Michigan
I loved walking along the top of the limestone sea caves beside Lake Michigan
Beautiful shoreline of white limestone cliffs in Cave Point County Park
Beautiful shoreline of white limestone cliffs in Cave Point County Park

Hop on the Door County Trolley

You can’t beat a 90-minute trolley tour in Door County in fall. Joe Berns, our locally-based trolley driver shared his considerable knowledge about the peninsula as we drove past some of the most scenic sights Door County has to offer. You can see from the photo below how colourful the trees were in the third week of October.

Surrounded by colour on the Door County Trolley
Surrounded by colour on the Door County Trolley
You can open the windows and lean out to catch shots from the Door County trolley
You can open the windows and lean out to catch shots from the Door County Trolley

Attend coffee college at Door County Coffee

Door County Coffee offers a coffee college and a tour of the plant. It’s a fun way to learn about coffee and what makes this family-run company tick. Did you know they receive 40,000 pounds of coffee beans each week? We also learned that when it comes to flavouring coffee most coffee companies only flavour one side of the bean. They do both – and I didn’t find their pumpkin spice coffee we were served the least bit overwhelming.

The number of coffee bean flavours they offer is nothing short of astonishing. Highlander Grog is their most popular flavour though they have seasonal coffees that fly off the shelves like Candy Cane as we get close to Christmas.

Not only can you buy coffee and other gift items, but you can enjoy breakfast and coffee on their premises.

They have the most amazing coffee flavours at Door County Coffee
They have the most amazing coffee flavours at Door County Coffee

Visit the Cana Island Lighthouse

To get to the Cana Island Lighthouse you must walk or take a tractor ride across a causeway with Lake Michigan practically lapping at your feet. The lighthouse has stood proudly on the shores of Lake Michigan for 140 years – though the lighthouse keepers are long gone.

Of course the highlight of a visit is climbing the 97 twisting steps to the top – and then marveling at the view of Lake Michigan and the Door County peninsula. What a place this would be in a storm!

Timeline of major happenings at the Cana Island Lighthouse
Timeline of major happenings at the Cana Island Lighthouse
The Cana Island Lighthouse in Door County
The Cana Island Lighthouse in Door County
View from the top of the Cana Island Lighthouse on a fall day in Door County
View from the top of the Cana Island Lighthouse on a fall day in Door County

Eat freshly picked locally grown apples

On a fall visit to Door County I recommend visiting at least one apple orchard so you can taste just how amazing a locally grown just-picked apple is. I visited Krowas Orchards, home to apple trees that were first planted in 1961. It’s a eight-acre farm with nine varieties of apple trees – including four varieties I’d never heard of before – Sweet Sixteen, Northwest Greening, Honey Gold, and Macoun. 

Krowas Orchards is a family business – with the kids all helping to pick apples in the fall. I loved what Cherie Krowas had to say about their family business – “A family that hoes together stays together.

Dan and Cherie Krowas - the third generation owners of Krowas Orchard
Dan and Cherie Krowas – the third generation owners of Krowas Orchard
Bins of freshly picked apples at Krowas Orchard in Bailey's Harbor
Bins of freshly picked apples at Krowas Orchard in Bailey’s Harbor

Try fresh cheese curds at Renard’s Artisan Cheese

Cheese is big all over Wisconsin. You’ll find plenty of cheese in Door County – and deep fried cheese curds on almost every menu. They are seriously addictive! 

Head to Renard’s Artisan Cheese – for you guessed it – artisan cheese – and the yummiest and squeakiest of fresh cheese curds you ever did taste. My bag of cheese curds made it home to Canada.

Renard’s sources their milk for the cheese from small farms of 120 – 150 cows all over Door County. Cheese is made daily starting at 11:30 by Chris Renard – one of 85 master cheesemakers in the US  “to honor the family recipes that his father and grandfather perfected.”

In their shop you’ll find plenty of cheese to choose from along with local wines, jams, coffee, sweets, and balsamic oils. Don’t expect to walk away empty-handed.

Lots of cheese to choose from at Renard's Artisan Cheese
Lots of cheese to choose from at Renard’s Artisan Cheese

Eat fresh from the oven apple cider donuts from Wood Orchard Market

If you’re in the mood for fresh, hot apple cider donuts in Door County in fall, then be sure to visit Wood Orchard Market. Of course they have locally grown fresh produce and apple varieties galore, but they are really known for their cherries.

If I wasn’t trying to fly home with carry-on, I would have loaded up with pitted cherries, cherry salsa – a best seller, and cherry honey mustard – because I’ve never seen anything like that in Canada.

Dipping the fresh apple cider donuts into a hot cinnamon sugar mixture
Dipping the fresh apple cider donuts into a hot cinnamon sugar mixture

What are the must do outdoor activities unique to Door County in the fall?

Hike to the highest sand dune in Whitefish Dunes State Park

Whitefish Dunes State Park is the home of Old Baldy – the highest sand dune in all of Wisconsin. Don’t let the word ‘high’ deter you from doing the hike. I’d classify the beautiful walk through the woods as easy – with only a small amount of climbing at the end on stairs and a boardwalk to reach an observation platform offering views of Lake Michigan and Clark Lake.

In the park, not only are you treated to delightful walking through the forest, but to a vast expanse of beautiful beach on the shore of Lake Michigan. You can see we had the entire beach to ourselves in October!

What a pretty start to the walk to Old Baldy
What a pretty start to the walk to Old Baldy
It's a pretty walk in fall in Door County on the way to the highest sand dune in Whitefish Dunes State Park
It’s a pretty walk in fall in Door County on the way to the highest sand dune in Whitefish Dunes State Park
Sticking to the boardwalk to protect the sand dunes around Old Baldy
Sticking to the boardwalk to protect the sand dunes around Old Baldy
Do a loop hike and walk back to the parking lot from Old Baldy via the beach
Do a loop hike and walk back to the parking lot from Old Baldy via the beach

Climb Eagle Tower

Don’t miss a climb up 60-foot high Eagle Tower, completed to American Disabilities Act (ADA) standards in May 2021. There are two options to get the top  – either via an 850-foot long canopy walk that is wheelchair and stroller accessible or by climbing 95 stairs. 

From the top enjoy breathtaking views of Peninsula State Park, the surrounding islands, and part of the Upper Michigan shoreline. I got the best view of my four day visit to Door County from here – and in the fall the trees are a sight to behold.

The tower is open from May 1 – October 31 and occasionally between November 1 and April 30th if snow and ice conditions allow. Don’t miss it.

The view from 60 foot high Eagle Tower is marvelous
The view from 60 foot high Eagle Tower is marvelous
Looking out to Lake Michigan from the top of Eagle Tower
Looking out to Lake Michigan from the top of Eagle Tower

Hike the Sentinel Trail in Peninsula State Park

While you could spend several days hiking the 20 miles of trail in Peninsula State Park, I only had time for a taster. Sentinel Trail  – an easy two mile loop hike is an excellent choice, even on an overcast fall day in Door County – as the woods, filled with stands of beech, white birch and sugar maple – seem to glow yellow and green. 

Glorious fall hiking in Peninsula State Park
Glorious fall hiking in Peninsula State Park
You can't beat the Sentinel Trail for a gorgeous Door County fall hike
You can’t beat the Sentinel Trail for a gorgeous Door County fall hike

Walk the boardwalk in the Ridges Sanctuary

The Ridges Sanctuary is a wonderful place to visit for a nature fix. It’s the oldest non-profit nature preserve in Wisconsin and it’s open year round. Explore five miles of nature trails, including the Hidden Brook Boardwalk and tour the Bailey’s Harbour Range Lights. You can go self-guided or sign up for a tour.

Looking down the boardwalk to a lighthouse in The Ridges Sanctuary
Looking down the boardwalk in The Ridges Sanctuary

What are the best options in Door County for meals?

Scaturo’s Baking Co. & Cafe 

A fixture in Sturgeon Bay for over 20 years, this is the place to come for Jersey-style thin crust pizzas made from scratch with home-made sauce and local toppings. Try Truffle Burrata or the Peterstown. Finish with a homemade piece of pie.

Delicious thin crust Jersey-style pizza from Scaturos
Delicious thin crust Jersey-style pizza from Scaturos

Hill Street 

You can’t miss lunch at Hill Street in Fish Creek. I have never had a Charlie Brown sandwich before – but it’s one of the most delicious and eclectic sandwiches I’ve ever eaten. It featured charred broccoli, peanut sauce, pickled smoke onion, and green onions on a hoagie roll. I was in heaven.

Sister Bay Bowl and Supper Club

Plan an evening that includes bowling followed by dinner at one of Door County’s long standing supper clubs (one employee has been there for 37 years), famous for its old-fashioned cocktails. Enjoy an affordable, casual dining experience with Door County favourites like cheese curds and fried lake perch.

Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant & Butnik

If you’re after authentic Swedish food including their traditional Swedish pancakes with lingonberries, Swedish meatballs, pickled herring or Lake Michigan fried perch, Al Johnson’s restaurant is the place to visit.

If you time it right, you’ll also see goats grazing on the roof. Visit their gift shops for Swedish themed items, Scandinavian sweaters, the pancake mix and a whole lot more.

From top L to R: Honeycrisp sweet wine, fried cheese curds, apple cider donuts from Wood Orchard Market, White Gull fish boil meal and Swedish meatballs and pancakes from Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant
From top L to R: Honeycrisp sweet wine, fried cheese curds (everywhere!), apple cider donuts from Wood Orchard Market, White Gull fish boil meal and Swedish meatballs and pancakes from Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant

What are some of the lodging options in Door County?

There’s a good variety of lodging in Door County from waterfront hotels, to historic resorts to a modern Scandinavian designed hotel. Choose Sister Bay if you like being able to walk to cafes, restaurants and shops. Some options require a car. 

Check out the following accommodations in Door County.

Lots of colour around the Inn at Little Sister Hill in Door County in fall
Lots of colour around the Inn at Little Sister Hill in Door County in fall

Getting to Door County, Wisconsin

You can either fly to Milwaukee or Green Bay – the closest airport to Door County, just an hour south of Sturgeon Bay.

The driving distances to Sturgeon Bay, the city at the entrance to Door County, are as follows. 

  • Milwaukee Airport – 2.5 hours 
  • Madison, Wisconsin  – Approximately 3 hours
  • Chicago, IL – 4.25 hours
You'll see lots of farms with tidy red barns as you explore Door County in fall
You’ll see lots of farms with tidy red barns as you explore Door County in fall

Inspiration for more active vacations in the US

Oregon

Head to Redmond, Oregon for a host of activities like top-roping, hot springs, waterfalls, covered bridges and more.

Hop on a bike and enjoy the Cottage Grove Covered Bridges Bike Tour.

Arizona

You can’t beat the hiking in Arizona, especially in winter. The Havasu Falls hiking – camping experience is memorable.

The Aravaipa Canyon hike is like nowhere else you’ve been. You’ll need water shoes and a permit.

Mesa is a fun city that’s worth a visit – and it’s less than an hour from Scottsdale. 

Pennsylvania and Maryland

If you love biking check out the the Great Allegheny Passage bike ridefrom Pittsburg to Cumberland – on rail trails.

Continue on the rougher C&O Canal Towpath from Cumberland all the way to Washington, DC. You’ll need 6 – 7 days do the two trails together.

***Thank you to Door County for hosting my stay. All thoughts and opinions are mine alone. I can honestly tell you that Door County in fall is a gem of a destination to visit.***

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Fall in Door County, Wisconsin: A Guide to Fun, Foliage & Food

 

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