Add Color to Your Life in Wisconsin’s Door County
The historic Eagle Bluff Lighthouse Museum in Wisconsin’s Peninsula State Park looms over Door County’s narrow Strawberry Channel, a maritime sentinel ready to guide ships to shore should the waterway’s mercurial temperament suddenly shift from tranquil to treacherous.
Passengers on the 1.5-hour Peninsula Park Caves and Eagle Bluff Lighthouse tour shade their eyes from the noon sun to fully admire the red-domed tower.
In the fall, the landscape surrounding the lighthouse is as enchanting as the lighthouse itself.
Door County is Wisconsin’s unofficial leaf peeping capital, and this narrated tour that sails round trip from Sister Bay hits some of the most picturesque spots. Vivid autumn hues of gold and scarlet are at the peak of their evanescent glory, blazing ostentatiously against a blue sky.
Door Peninsula, a 70-mile piece of land that juts into Lake Michigan, is home to a series of small fishing villages-cum-resort towns that attract Midwesterners looking for a fall getaway.
Few activities are more relaxing than being on the water on a bright autumn day.
Guide Chuck Erickson says the perspective from the water can be more rewarding than a land view.
“The color contrast is much more obvious,” Erickson said. “The water is dark blue. The cedar trees on the bluff stay a dark green, but the taller trees that make up the top crown are all deciduous, and therefore, all the brilliant colors.
The tour offers an overview of the region’s maritime history. According to folklore, the Potawatomi and Winnebago Indian tribes gave Door County its name. They called the hazardous strait that links Green Bay to Lake Michigan “Death’s Door” after an epic battle between the two tribes resulted in the drowning of hundreds of warriors.
Other stories claim French explorers named the strait “Porte des Morts,” Death’s Door in English. It was shortened to Door County, a good thing since Death’s Door doesn’t exactly sound like an inviting vacation spot.
It’s unclear how the strait got its foreboding moniker, but one thing is certain - more than 200 shipwrecks remain beneath the waves in an eerie maritime graveyard. It explains why lighthouses like Eagle Bluff started popping up in the 19th century.
After the boat tour, climb to the top of Peninsula State Park’s new 60-foot Eagle Tower for a bird’s eye view of the fall color. Or take the less strenuous route and get to the top by strolling along the 850-foot canopy walk. The structure that opened last year replaced a 90-year-old tower dismantled in 2016.
If viewing the Eagle Bluff Lighthouse Museum from the water made you curious about what’s inside, pop in for a tour that reveals what life was like for lighthouse keepers and their families that kept the light burning from 1868 until 1926.
On a clear autumn day with calm waters, it may be hard to imagine being isolated on this limestone bluff during a storm as the wind shrieked and colossal waves crashed against the walls, but that was the reality for generations of lighthouse keepers.
The lighthouse remains a navigational aid today, but instead of burning oil, it is solar powered.
Those who take the 55-step spiral staircase to the top are rewarded with a sweeping view of Green Bay.
To see more of the region’s lighthouses, join Door County Trolley tours. Baileys Harbor Range Lights and the bright red North Pierhead Light in Sturgeon Bay are a couple of noteworthy historical sites.
Cycling is another way to immerse yourself in crisp autumn days. Zip along the park’s 9.6-mile Sunset Bike Route in a shower of autumn leaves. When you take a hydration break, you may spot chipmunks scurrying among the brush or deer grazing in clearings.
Door County fun doesn’t end at sunset. Newport State Park in Ellison Bay provides an out-of-this-world experience for stargazers. It’s one of only a handful of parks in the country with the Dark Sky Park designation. Because it’s among the darkest spots in Wisconsin (there’s virtually no light pollution) celestial bodies shine extra bright.
Everybody needs a little color in their life, so make the drive to Door County and marvel at some of the most brilliant autumn hues in the Midwest.
When You Go
Sister Bay Scenic Boat Tours. 920-421-4444, www.doorcountyboats.com
Eagle Bluff Lighthouse Museum. 920-421-3636, www.doorcountyhistoricalsociety.com
Door County Trolley. 920-868-1100, www.doorcountytrolley.com
Newport State Park. 920-854-2500, www.dnr.wisconsin.gov/topic/parks/newport
Where to Stay
Eagle Harbor Inn. 920-854-2121, www.eagleharborinn.com
Where to Eat
Rowleys Bay Restaurant at Rowleys Bay Resort is one place to experience the famous Door County fish boil. 920-854-2385, www.rowleysbayresort.com
Destination Door County. 1-800-527-3529, www.doorcounty.com