While you might think New England has cornered the market for brilliant fall foliage colors, a visit to Door County, Wisconsin in October will change your mind.
Door County, over 2,000 square miles, is a peninsula flanked on three sides by Lake Michigan to the east and Green Bay to the west. The southernmost base connects the arm to mainland Wisconsin. Washington Island and Rock Island, also part of Door County, are a few miles off the northern coast of the peninsula.
When I visited in September, the trees started to turn into cloaks of fall foliage. The high season for clairvoyance is in October. Some of the 19 distinct communities I’ve seen are the top spots in the show.
Pro Tip: All state parks require a permit to be purchased at the entrance or at kiosks in parking areas.
1. Sturgeon Bay
I started my Door County adventure in Sturgeon Bay, not far from Green Bay. The resort’s owner, Andropolis Waterfront Cottages, told me that the bright colors of fall can be felt on their property at Sister Bay and Ellison Bay, with leafy trees descending to the water’s edge. These bays are on the western side of the peninsula.
Potawatomi State Park was a long way from my accommodation, with the best view of the fall foliage at Old Ski Hill Overlook.
Driving slowly through the park, you can easily see the trees growing on the limestone rocks. It’s an otherworldly experience.
The end (or start) of the Ice Age trail is near the observation tower, which would be a great place to get an aerial view of Sturgeon Bay’s fall foliage. However, the building is inaccessible as it is in poor condition and awaits funds to be rebuilt.
2. Peninsula State Park
One of the most popular state parks on the northeast shore of the peninsula at Fish Creek is Peninsula State Park.
Eagle Tower is a towering structure atop Eagle Bluff that opened in 2021 and offers panoramic views of the park, the village of Ephraim, surrounding islands, and the Upper Michigan coastline.
Eagle Tower offers a bird’s eye view of the beautiful fall foliage around Green Bay. Climb the 100 steps to the top of the tower or the fully accessible canopy walk that winds above the treeline. The 850-foot-high handicapped-accessible ramp makes the treetop views accessible to anyone above the Niagara Escarpment. The 5% grade has flat areas with benches to rest along the way. Grandparents appreciate the ease of use with their grandchildren on this new addition to the playard.
3. Ellison Bay Bluff
In the Ellison Bluff State Natural Area, take in the views from the observation deck accessed by wooden stairs or the wooden walkway that spans the cliff. Admire the shoreline below and 100-foot limestone cliffs, all with an aerial view of fall foliage.
The county park, located in Liberty Grove, is off the beaten path. But I’m told it’s worth the trip!
4. Highway 42 in Northport
Highway 42 is one of the most famous stretches of road in the Midwest. Jens Jensen, the famous landscape architect, designed the “ideal highway” that turns for no apparent reason and slows down traffic. The curves create a great image opportunity and a fun ride, especially in the fall. The time of day and the position of the sun have a significant impact on driving. I drove it late afternoon with almost no traffic and only deer in the brush along the road.
Pro Tip: There are only a few turnouts to park and photograph the road. I tried both ways. The view is more impactful when traveling north.
5. Washington Island
The only year-round island community, Washington Island is the largest of Door County’s 34 islands. With over 100 miles of road on 35 square miles to explore, Washington Island is accessible by vehicle/passenger ferry at Northport, the northern tip of the peninsula. The journey takes about 30 minutes through the water passage of Death’s Gate.
Pro Tip: Plan a full day to discover this island with a multitude of museums, theatrical and musical events and outdoor activities in the refreshing autumn weather.
6. Cana Island Lighthouse
Bailey’s Harbor on Lake Michigan (east side) in Door County is home to the Isle of Cana Lighthouse. In 2019, the lighthouse celebrated 150 years of guiding ships. In August, a $1.1 million lighthouse restoration project was completed. Luckily the lighthouse reopened to visitors 2 weeks before I arrived. This was the highlight of my Wisconsin lighthouse tour.
The white-clad new tower in its glade is beautiful, surrounded by trees whose leaves turn brilliant orange, red and gold in the fall.
Brave souls who climb the 97 steps of the spiral staircase to reach the Gallery Deck are rewarded with breathtaking panoramic views of Lake Michigan and the Door County Peninsula.
Pro Tip: A hay cart pulled by a driver on a John Deere tractor transports you over the causeway to the Isle of Cana. The wagon ride is bumpy, but it’s the best way to access the island. Although you can traverse shallow water over slippery, loose rock, the middle of the traverse can be dangerous.
7. Whitefish Dunes State Park
Old Baldy, the tallest dune in Whitefish Dunes State Park, is found along the east side of Door County on Lake Michigan in Jacksonport. The rugged shoreline of Lake Michigan boasts a mile of sandy beach and the highest dunes in the state of Wisconsin.
Fourteen miles of well-marked hiking trails through hardwood forests include a path to Lake Clark and an interpretive trail. A mushroom hike, led by a guide from the nature center, is offered twice in the fall. Imagine the splendor of hiking among the trees when they are in all their autumnal glory.
Pro Tip: If you need to use the restroom, arrive at the nature center before it closes at 4 p.m. Otherwise, the dry toilets near the swimming locker rooms are your only option, and not a good one.
How to get to Door County
Austin Straubel International Airport (GRB) in Green Bay is the closest commercial airport to Door County. Well-known car rental companies serve this airport, as well as ride-sharing companies.
The historic SS Badger provides a shortcut across Lake Michigan between Ludington, Michigan, and Manitowoc, Wisconsin. The giant ship offers ferry service for passengers, automobiles, motorcycles and recreational vehicles.
The day I crossed from Wisconsin to Michigan, the water was calm and the sky was clear and bright.
Pro Tip: You can buy an individual packet of Dramamine at the ferry office for the crossing if you need it.
From Chicago, take I-94 to Milwaukee, then I-43 to Green Bay, then Highway 57 north. Two alternate routes will take you through Door County: I-43 on the west side of the peninsula or I-57 on the Lake Michigan side.
From Minnesota and the Twin Cities, take I-94 to Highway 29 to Green Bay. Follow signs for Sturgeon Bay.
Getting Around Door County
On land, no real public transportation serves Door County and its many rural communities. You must drive between towns due to the distance between them (or take a Segway or streetcar ride, as shown below). Some carpooling options may be available throughout the county.
Car ferry to Washington Island
The Washington Island Ferry Line operates up to 25 daily round trips between Northport and Washington Island. The 30-minute ferry ride is an exceptional opportunity to photograph Plum, Pilot, and Detroit Islands and experience the fall colors on these small islands.
Ferry to Rock Island
Rock Island is the perfect destination to camp among the fall foliage, making it a truly unique experience. A passenger-only ferry runs daily from Washington Island to Rock Island. No vehicles or bicycles are allowed.
A Segway tour of Washington Island with Segway the Door Tours adds a unique opportunity to see the fall foliage up close. I joined our guide and two other guests at the Washington Island ferry dock where we had extensive Segway training before boarding the ferry.
We had perfect weather, if a bit chilly, riding the Segways among the trees and exploring the island.
Pro Tip: Dress in layers for the ferry ride and ride a Segway around the island.
door county cart
You can spend the best travel dollars with Door County Trolley, located in Egg Harbor on the main road. You’ll not only get a glimpse of Door County on a narrated scenic tour, but you’ll also be able to enjoy the vibrant colors of the fall foliage without driving and battling the increased leaf peeping traffic.
The narrated scenic tour lasts 1.5 hours and is the perfect place to start your fall foliage tour. One of the best stops is Peninsula State Park. With brief stops at clifftop viewpoints and sightings of Eagle Tower, you’ll find your bearings for a longer tour on your own.
Door County Trolley guides are dedicated experts on all things DC and are entertaining to boot. Carts are clean with an efficient boarding and seating system. Although they offer several tours, the narrated panoramic tour should be your first. They also do a lighthouse tour which includes the Cana Island Lighthouse.
Door County has some of the best fall color foliage in the Midwest. The biggest festivals are in October, with the leaf peepers, and it’s also apple harvest season. While summer crowds begin to dwindle in the fall, weekends are busier than weekdays.
Here is an article to start your visit to Door County.