How Door County Taught Me to Love Fall

Fall was a language I didn’t truly speak until I went to Door County in October. 
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(Photo: Dan Eggert/Door County)
  • Fall has many superfans, but I wasn’t one of them until I spent a long weekend in Door County, Wisconsin. 
  • The region offers plenty of ways to go deep in the changing season, including on hikes and bike rides, scenic trolley rides, and from a tower that offers incredible views of Lake Michigan and the surrounding forest.

I like sweater weather, crimson forests, and hot drinks on cold days, but until I spent three days at the peak of fall color in Door County, Wisconsin, I didn’t fully understand the magic of autumn. 

It’s not that I haven’t given it a go: I’ve sipped cider in Vermont and leaf peeped my way through Massachusetts and Maine. And while it was both pretty and charming, the crowds of leaf peepers and Instagrammers jockeying for position next to forests of ruby and gold seemed to get in the way of the actual magic of fall.

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So this fall, instead of heading to New England, the epicenter of autumn fever, I headed to a quieter version of fall: the thumb of Wisconsin’s glove, Door County. 

Getting to Door County

I flew into Milwaukee and hopped in a car for the two hour drive north. As Milwaukee’s suburbs turned to farmland and then farther north, forests started to hug the highway. I could feel the chill of the air through the car window, and beyond the glass, trees robed in canary yellow and tangerine orange glowed in the dusk. Farm stands beckoned with the promise of fresh apple cider donuts. And apple orchards unfurled for miles, trees heavy with fruit.

What to do in Door County in Fall

As a long weekend getaway, Door County offers all sorts of ways to make the most of fall. the towns and villages of the peninsula mix quaint and cool–from breweries to cool restaurants and boutiques, the towns felt alive, not frozen in time. Hiking, biking, and scenic drives get you up close to the fall colors. And, since this is the land of lighthouses (there are 11), a stop at a lighthouse is a must as well.

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Here are my top five things to do on a fall trip to Door County

Door County Trolley

View out the window of the Door County Trolley fall foliage tour
The Trolley windows go down so you can lean out and take pictures of the fall color (Photo: Christine Sarkis)

Hop the Door County Trolley and you’ll get a friendly guide who knows where all the best spots for marveling at the turning trees, and Great Lake views. I loved that the driver was as excited for all the fall colors as his passengers, and that when you don’t have to drive yourself, you can devote all your energy to just enjoying the scenery.

Whitefish Dunes State Park

View of the fall foliage in the forest trail to Old Baldy at Whitefish Dunes State Park in Door County, Wisconsin
Walking under a canopy of color at Whitefish Dunes State Park in Door County (Photo: Christine Sarkis)

The beautiful but not strenuous hike through Whitefish Dunes State Park to Old Baldy, Wisconsin’s highest sand dune, was as much about the journey as the destination. Walking through a forest illuminated by trees wrapped in yellow, orange, and occasionally red will long live in my memory as a perfect fall moment. And the climb up Old Baldy, which is a sand dune but mostly looks like a hill, offers the ultimate view of the surrounding forest and lakes. 

The Ridges Sanctuary

View of autumn trees and the lighthouse at The Ridges Sanctuary in Door County, Wisconsin
Boardwalks protect the fragile ecosystem at The Ridges Sanctuary and create different paths for exploring nature (Photo: Christine Sarkis)

Particularly for people who are curious to learn about local ecology and wildlife, The Ridges Sanctuary is a must. Spend some time in the visitors center (the gift shop is good, too) before heading out on the boardwalk through the sanctuary. Keep going until you get to the lighthouse–in fall especially, the colors are spectacular. Join a guided hike to make the most of the scenery. 

Cana Island Lighthouse

Cana Island Lighthouse on a rainy day in fall
Even on a rainy day, Cana Island Lighthouse offers lovely views of Lake Michigan (Photo: Christine Sarkis)

I visited a few lighthouses on my trip, but Cana Island was the only lighthouse where I climbed the spiral stairs and got an incredible view of the lake (and a close-up look at the lens). Door County is known for its lighthouses and its maritime history, and visiting a lighthouse is a fun way to learn more about the rich shipping history of Lake Michigan.

Peninsula State Park

the view from Eagle Tower at Peninsula State Park in Door County Wisconsin
The view from Eagle Tower includes lake and fall foliage views (Photo: Christine Sarkis)

Peninsula State Park feels like autumn’s crown jewel. To drive or a hike (or better yet, both) through the park is to be surrounded by a sea of golden leaves. The park also includes an 18-hole golf course, a lighthouse, and pull-outs where you can stop to enjoy the lake and forest views. And if you’re visiting while the park’s Eagle Tower–a 60-foot-tall observation deck reachable via steps or an accessible canopy walk–is open (it usually closes for the season at the end of October), it’s absolutely worth a stop.

Where to Eat (and Drink)

Hill Street

Interior of Hill Street restaurant and bar in Fish Creek, Wisconsin
Hill Street has a big bar, booths, and in warmer weather, outdoor seating (Photo: Christine Sarkis)

From the second I walked into Hill Street in Fish Creek for a rainy day lunch, I liked this place. The vibe is swank lounge meets dive bar, with pretty cocktails and a remarkable menu. I had the strange but fantastic Charlie Brown sandwich (charred broccoli and pickled smoked onion drizzled with peanut sauce and sprinkled with peanuts, served on a hoagie). 

Door County Coffee

exterior of Door County Coffee in fall
(Photo: Christine Sarkis)

Door County Coffee feels like a hub–it’s packed with locals and visitors, the whole place smells like roasting coffee, and the breakfast options are as good as the coffee (and the coffee is good). Bonus: As you’re waiting for coffee, you can watch through the window as the roasters work hard on the next batch of freshly roasted beans. 

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Sister Bay Bowl and Supper Club

Sister Bay Bowl and Supper Club bar with view into the bowling alley
Sister Bay Bowl is part supper club, part bar, and part bowling alley (Photo: Christine Sarkis)

Supper clubs are a thing in Door County, and a fun place to have a local experience is at Sister Bay Bowl and Supper Club. Come a little early (or stay after dinner) for some bowling in the vintage bowling alley tucked away at the back of the bar. The supper club serves up old-fashioned cocktails and local favorites like fried lake perch, broasted chicken, and of course fried cheese curds.

Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant

Al Johnson's pancakes, meatballs, and other Swedish specialties
I sampled my way through the greatest hits of Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant (Photo: Christine Sarkis)

If you talk to people about Door County, they may refer to Al Johnson’s as “the place with the goats on the roof.” This massive log cabin houses both a restaurant and a shop, and is a popular spot that serves up Swedish favorites like Swedish meatballs and strawberries-and-cream-topped pancakes. It’s a fun stop and feels cozy and hearty on cold fall days. Note that the goats aren’t there every day, and if it’s windy or rainy they stay home at their farm. 

One Barrel Brewing

Beer and cider flight at One Barrel Brewing in Door County
The tasting flight can include both One Barrel’s beer and cider (Photo: Christine Sarkis)

This is Madison’s One Barrel Brewing’s first outpost, and also a sign of the next generation putting a fresh spin on small-town life in Door County. The beers are a mix of traditional and creative, there are tasting flights so you can choose your fave.

There are indoor and outdoor tables (it was super cold the day I went so I stayed inside, though there were people hanging out around the fire pit outside when I left), plus some couches near the stacks of board games. There’s also a pop-up pizza spot (Pizza Bros) here that serves remarkably good pizzas. I recommend the So Smokey.

White Gull Inn

White Gull Inn fish boil in autumn
White Gull Inn’s fish boil in action (Photo: Christine Sarkis)

I was told by a local that, these days, traditional fish boils tend to be more for tourists than for locals, but even so, I found White Gull Inn’s version to be both fun and about ten times more delicious than anything called a “fish boil” has any right to be.

Here’s how the evening goes: You grab a drink and head out to the inn’s backyard, where you watch the chefs tend to the massive pot of boiling fish and potatoes over a big wood fire. There’s then a bit of storytelling, and then the big boil-over moment, which is fiery and exciting. From there, you’re seated inside and served fish and potatoes along with an outlandish amount of butter (spoiler alert: it’s served in a small teapot), along with coleslaw, bread, and other goodies. At the end of the meal, there’s a very Door County dessert: cherry pie. 

Farm Stands

Apple cider donut machine with apple cider donuts frying
Apple cider donuts being made at Wood Orchard Market (Photo: Christine Sarkis)

I stopped at Wood Orchard Market, but you’ll see a number of farm stands as you drive around between towns. These are the perfect spots to pick up fresh local produce, as well as Door County specialties like apples and cherries that are dried or turned into baked goods, salsas, and more.

And the apple cider donuts, hot from the fryer, are an absolute must. At Wood Orchard Market, head to the freezer and grab a six-pack of spring’s great delight: cherry donuts. I brought some home to do an apple cider donut/cherry donut taste test and decided I liked both best. 

Scaturo’s and Renard’s Artisan Cheese

Pies and cherries at Scaturo's in Door County
Scaturo’s makes its own pies, baked goods, and pizzas (Photo: Christine Sarkis)

I always appreciate a strong start and end to a vacation, and so am always on the lookout for my opening and closing meals in a place. I kicked off Door County with Jersey-style pizza at Scaturo’s, and it set the stage for high expectations. Crusts are made from scratch and are nicely thin and crispy, and toppings feature local meats.

On my way out of town, I detoured to the famed Renard’s, maker of the county’s most famous cheesecurds. I stopped for cheese, but stayed for an over-the-top sandwich at the store’s Melt Bistro. After some difficult menu decision-making, I settled on the spinach and artichoke artisan melt. If I could eat another one right now, I absolutely would.

Where to Sleep

Door County has a lot of hotels, motels, and resorts, so whatever your vibe and budget, you’ll find a just-right fit. Here are three spots I checked out and recommend:

Liberty Lodge at Sister Bay: The long front porch looks out on the lake across the street, and big comfy chairs and rockers pretty much insist that you slow down and enjoy the view. This historical but recently refreshed hotel is about a mile out of town in Sister Bay and feels unfussy but polished. Rooms have fireplaces and wood floors, beds are comfortable, and the daily breakfast features local specialties like kringle. 

The Dorr Hotel: You can’t beat the location of the Dorr Hotel, right in downtown Sister Bay but off the main street for a little more quiet. And while many of the hotels around here lean quaint and historical, the Dorr is quite modern, with a sleek lobby and serene, minimalist (but still comfortable and cozy) rooms.

Glidden Lodge Beach Resort: This traveler favorite is located on the south end of Door County in the larger town of Sturgeon Bay. It has one-, two-, and three-bedroom condo units, so you get plenty of extra space to spread out, which is great if you’re traveling with a family or group. All units have water views and the property sits right on the beach. 

In Door County, I finally understood why people love fall. Without the hype, without the crowds, Door County gave me room to realize that this is a time when the leaves show us that nothing lasts forever, but in a pretty way so we don’t get scared off and start spiraling about death. Fall here felt like a lovely send-off to summer, a gentle landing for winter, and the early preparations for the rebirth of spring.

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Christine Sarkis
A traveling parent and longtime travel writer and editor, Christine Sarkis is the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of FamilyVacationist. She is the former Executive Editor for TripAdvisor travel magazine SmarterTravel.com, she has spent nearly two decades finding and sharing the best places to go with an audience of enthusiastic travelers. Her stories have appeared on USA Today, Conde Nast Traveler, Huffington Post, and Business Insider. Her expert advice has been quoted in dozens of print and online publications including The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, and People magazine. She has also shared travel tips on television and radio shows including Good Morning America, Marketplace, and Here & Now. Her stories have been published in the anthologies Spain from a Backpack and The Best Women's Travel Writing 2008, and she is working on a travel memoir.