Bailey’s Harbor, Wisconsin is shaped like a bowl with a tiny chip in the rim. A shallow shoal crosses the entire opening of the harbor. This made it treacherous for ships arriving to haul out white pine back in the 1800s, before modern navigation. As I stood in the wooded Ridges Sanctuary, I learned about the Ingenious folks who came up with a system of what they call range lights. It is a lighthouse with a white light that is 17 feet lower than the one in back, which has a red light.
“So what they would do as they were coming into the harbor is they would find the red light of the lower range light,” said Katie Krouse, director of operations at Ridges Sanctuary. “And they would line white on top of red. And if the lights were perfectly in line, then they were on range and they could get into the harbor safely. They could navigate through that narrow crack in the shoal and get into Bailey’s Harbor.”
Nowadays, the white pine is protected from loggers and the range lights are historical artifacts. Sailors can still choose to use them “if your GPS or common sense both fail,” Krouse said. Door County, Wisconsin is a beautiful place to visit if you want to explore the Great Lakes ecosystem, spend some time outdoors and appreciate classic, old-timey lighthouses.
On the waters of Lake Michigan
Door County is the thumb-shaped peninsula jutting out into Lake Michigan in the eastern part of Wisconsin. It’s long been a favorite Midwestern beach getaway, with its combination of water sports, adorable villages, agricultural fields and art galleries. If you love old red barns and lighthouses, you’ll find both in abundance here.
Lake Michigan is so gigantic, it feels almost like the ocean. Shipwrecks riddle the lake bottom. It’s a lake to take seriously, and, unless you’re a real expert, best explored with a trustworthy guide. The Door County Adventure Center offers a bunch of different tours. I took the Mink River Eco Tour, where we kayaked the ancient Mink River estuary, admiring pelicans, egrets, terns and the endangered Hine’s emerald dragonfly. The estuary is much more sheltered than the lake, so it feels safer.
It helps to have a Plan B if you’re planning lake adventures. Wind means cancellations of water activities. It’s just too dangerous. I’ve visited Door County four times, and on one trip half my plans changed due to wind. No SUP yoga, kayaking Cave Point or taking the Sister Bay Scenic Boat Tour on a 149-passenger, double decker vessel for me. These are all activities I hope to do in the future. Most of the Cave Point caves are now submerged, thanks to rising sea levels. But there are two caves that you can still kayak into if conditions are right. On my last visit to the Cave Point County Park, I watched waves slamming into the cliffs below. Definitely not kayak weather.
Door County green space
With five state parks, Door County has more than any other Wisconsin county. Plus there are 19 county parks. Whitefish Dunes State Park is a favorite, with its combination of beach, forest, 14.5 miles of hiking trails and Door County’s highest peak, Old Baldy. At 93 feet above sea level, this is one of the easier peaks to bag. Native history dates back to 100 B.C. here, and a little cultural village shows how people once lived.
The 1600-acre Ridges Sanctuary, home to the range light system, is one of my favorite places in Door County. It’s one of the best places to spot the Hine’s emerald dragonfly and also is home to rare orchid species. The name comes from the ripply ecosystem of ridges and swales cut out by a millennium of Lake Michigan waves. If you look at aerial photos, you can see that the area is striped with high and low swaths. Trees grow on the ridges, while the lower swales tend toward wetlands.
Peninsula State Park features the 9.6 mile Sunset Bike Route. My group rented bikes at Nor Door Sports & Cyclery. The bike pro there asked, “Do you want a road bike, e-bike, mountain or hybrid?” Not having been on a bike for three years, I asked for something small that I could jump off quickly if necessary. He set me up with a user-friendly little bike. Most of my comrades took off on e-bikes, so that was the last I saw of them for a while. I cruised slowly through the forest, getting glimpses of lakeshore between the trees. It was a beautiful, relaxing trail with a few hills but nothing major.
For nighttime fun, Newport State Park on the peninsula’s northern tip is an internationally recognized dark sky park. It’s a little spooky to walk on the pathway in darkness, then to lie down on the sand or a blanket and look up at the black sky. But the stars are magnificent. And on the way back we saw a mink cavorting in the road.
Other outdoor adventures
For mild thrills and treetop views, join a zipline tour with Lakeshore Adventures. Guides on the short but sweet four-zip course gave us extra challenges, such as starting one zip with a backwards trust fall off a platform! We also zipped over wetlands with a view of darling little turtles sunning themselves on logs. The course ended with a dual racing zip.
For classic lakeshore fun, tour some of Door County’s 11 historic lighthouses. Due to high Lake Michigan water, the Cana Island lighthouse, built in 1869, requires a ride through water on a tractor-pulled wagon. Or play a round of golf at the Red Putter, one of the cutest mini golf courses on Earth. It mimics Door County style with lighthouses, a little white church and a huge badger guarding one hole. This course was featured in the mini golf documentary “Through the Windmill.”
Door County’s original ecoroof-with goats
What’s better than an eco-roof? An eco-roof with goats, obviously. That’s what Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant in Sister Bay is famous for, in addition to traditional Swedish food. The goats live on a nearby farm. Every day, a truck pulls up and the goats who want to spend the day on the roof hop in. They return home at night to sleep in a cozy barn. Don’t worry, the goats only roof graze in decent weather. Once in a while, if visitors are really lucky, they might have the chance to go up on the roof and pet the goats. Watch your step!
Door County has a fairly high vegan quotient and it’s not super hard to find vegan food, though in many restaurants you might have to ask for something special. Some of the best places I’ve found are Lost Tuk Tuk, where about half the dishes are vegan. I was there for noodle night and got deliciously spicy noodles. Right next door, Prince of Pierogi offers a few Polish vegan dishes, such as cabbage rolls and sauerkraut and mushroom dumplings. Wild Tomato Wood-Fired Pizza and Grille stocks vegan cheese and sausage for pizza toppings. The Blue Horse Beach Café made excellent coffee drinks and sold vegan pastries.
Ever since 2006, Travel Green Wisconsin has promoted environmentally-friendly businesses in the state. Door County has almost 50 certified green travel businesses. A handy website helps you find them, whether you’re looking for a hotel where you can charge your electric vehicle or locally-sourced food. And if you really want to be a good visitor, read and sign the Door County Pledge before your trip.
Photography by Teresa Bergen