Door County Wisconsin Travel Guide
WILD SIDE: Take the road less traveled in Door County
The roiling waters off the bluffs in Cave Point County Park
DESTINATION Door County, Wisconsin
DISTANCE FROM CHICAGO 250 miles; 4.5 hours by car
According to my spanking new GPS, I am nowhere. Literally. I am in a place that does not exist, for the second time in as many days. Door County, Wisconsin, with roughly 300 miles of coastline and quaint New Englandy towns, may be one of the most visible targets when it comes to getaways. But there are pockets that remain elusive, that confound even the latest in supposedly fail-proof technology.
To vanish into nowhere (“Not Found” in the blunt parlance of personal navigation devices), you first have to follow Wisconsin’s crooked-finger peninsula north toward the tip to Ellison Bay. Pass through the tiny fishing town off the main tourist track, follow Porcupine Road to Ellison Bluff Road, and then keep going, even though driving down this narrow, rough stretch of back street feels like one long wrong turn. Ellison Bluff Road ends abruptly in a glen just steps away from a view that’s the stuff of dreams—perhaps even nightmares.
Picture an eagle’s nest made of metal and bolted into the side of a sheer cliff. This is what Ellison Bluff County Park offers. There, a short hike beyond the end of the barely paved road, only a small steel boardwalk attached to the crumbly-edged bluff stands between you and the violently churning waters of Green Bay hundreds of feet below. If you fall, you might indeed be Not Found. Ever.
Cave Point County Park goes one wilder. In the tiny town of Sevastopol, the bluffs are without barriers of any kind. A sign exhorts visitors to hang on to children and pets. Scramble along the slippery ribbons of trail at your peril. Most hikers stay up on the ledge; but you can rock-hop right down to the water, where grottos pock the limestone and sharp outcroppings offer quasi shelter should a sudden squall come up. When the wind is right, blowholes send flumes of water skyward with the force of whales spouting. Spend an hour wandering around in this misty never-never land and you’ll probably be ready to go somewhere that’s officially, well, somewhere.
Peninsula State Park is definitely somewhere. About 25 miles northwest of Cave Point, it is a prominent swatch of emerald green that ap-pears on every map of Door County you’re likely to find. More than a million people visit the park’s 3,776 acres every year, making it the Grand Central Station of Door County attractions. But even here, there are hidden surprises.
Take the brambly road less traveled—a spur near the park’s Fish Creek entrance—and you’ll come face to face with the wrought-iron entryway of a partially overgrown cemetery. The stones go back to the 1700s. Increase Claflin arrived in 1834 and became the “First White Settler in Door County,” according to his tombstone. Back then, the entire peninsula was an uncharted nowhere. Now, 176 years later, Door County still has slivers of terra almost-incognita. These places, beyond the endless array of fudge shops and too-cute tchotchke boutiques, maintain the power to astonish.
STAY: On the south end of Door Peninsula, The New Yardley Inn (3360 County Rd. E, Bailey’s Harbor; 888-492-7353, newyardleyinn.com) is Dillon and Suzanne Crager’s amiable four-bedroom farmhouse inn, which offers a sense of seclusion even in the busiest seasons. >> On a vacant stretch of the peninsula’s north end, Rowley’s Bay Resort (1041 County Rd. ZZ, Ellison Bay; 888-559-2466, rowleysbay.com) mixes log-cabin charm with creature comforts. The main lodge has one- to three-bedroom suites ($119 to $299).
EAT: There are many places to find a fish boil in Door County, but the White Gull Inn (4225 Main St., Fish Creek; 888-364-9542, whitegullinn.com) prepares its whitefish dinner ($18.95 adults, $12.95 kids) over an open fire. >> Door County Coffee & Tea Co. (5773 Hwy. 42, Sturgeon Bay; 920-743-8808, doorcountycoffee.com) serves decadent pastries, a potent espresso, and Dagwood-worthy deli sandwiches.
PLAY: Twentysomethings David Rack and Michael Fischer built a zip-line course in the semiwilderness behind Rowley’s Bay Resort in Ellison Bay. Gravity Trails (1041 County Rd. ZZ, Ellison Bay; 920-854-9292, gravitytrails.com) offers zip-line and bike tours ($45 each), and kayak trips ($48).
Photograph: Aaron C. Jors