Last weekend, I accompanied my family on our traditional local weekend getaway my parents have been doing since the early ‘70s; the annual trip across state lines to Door County, Wisconsin. It may just be my own nostalgia for camping trips, hikes, and campfire stories of childhood, but I would still recommend the region to Twin Citians looking for a local weekend adventure, especially during the fall. Why let the Chicagoans have all the fun, right?
Door County is that little peninsula that sticks out into Lake Michigan from the eastern side of Wisconsin. From St. Paul, it takes about five hours to get there. Usually, we leave at four in the morning and arrive in time for breakfast. It is a quaint, rustic type of place, with rocky shorelines, thick deciduous forests (particularly dramatic with the changing leaves), along with plenty of farms and orchards offering a nice selection of produce. For the most part, we’ve stayed in the campsites at Peninsula State Park, a thickly wooded and hilly park tucked into the center of the region, making it a convenient place to access most of the fun stuff in the county. Plus, it has some nice hiking trails up bluff ridges and down to the rugged Lake Michigan coastlines. It’s probably the best deal of places to stay around, but make sure to make reservations early.
For those of us who do not have our own boat, a car is probably the most convenient way to traverse the peninsula, though there are plenty of scenic bike routes as well, and I’ve been wanting to try that out sometime as well. Numerous places offer bike and kayak rentals, and I’ve even seen a few of the towns offer free bike “borrowing” at the community centers. Pretty fun!
Along the county’s shorelines are a variety of little villages and hamlets, formerly farming and fishing communities, now each with their own little restaurants and shops. It’s pretty touristy, even if by October the large crowds of summer have begun to thin out a bit (I guess I wouldn’t really know, I’ve never been there in the summer). Still, there are plenty of high end shops offering works of art, camping supplies, clothes, and various trinkets- though there are bargains to be found as well. In some places, there’s a definite funky, DIY ambiance in the county that I really enjoy.
Here are a few of my favorite spots, aside from the celebrated tourist institutions of the peninsula, your Al Johnson’s and fish boils, say.
For the last few years, one of the highlights of the trip is the Hands On Art Studio, also known as the “Art Barn,” in particular the Adult Night on Friday Evenings. A variety of studios housed on a working farm in the interior of the peninsula, the various artists allow visitors to try their hands at making a variety of DIY projects, including fused glass, mosaics, painting, and metal work. Very fun to come home with your own piece of art, especially the fused glass. It’s good to come with some ideas, of course, so start coming up with a plan before you go. Of course, being Wisconsin, there’s a nice variety of beers available to spur the creative process.
After letting your creative juices go, you may be hungry. There’s certainly no shortage of places to eat around the county, but my favorite is probably Czarnuszka Soup Bar in Ephraim. A tiny little storefront, Czarnuszka offers just hardy, Eastern European style soups, three or four varieties a day from a constantly changing menu. Including both vegetarian and non-vegetarian items, my favorite has to be the Bohemian Potato Soup, a constant. A bowl of soup, a roll, and maybe a drink is a great lunch, and extremely affordable too. Bring cash, though. Also, a bowl of soup is a great lunch as well, as it will satisfy you but allow you to save room for the other things you know you’ll be eating later in the day.
Things like Sweetie Pies, which, admittedly, we stop at more than is probably healthy. But hey, we don’t eat pies everyday! This may be a bit more touristy, but it must be mentioned. When you find yourself in Door County, you will probably find yourself wanting pie. This is especially true in the fall. This place has the best selection and the best quality, I feel. If you want your rhubarb pie uncontaminated with other fruits, go here. There is also pumpkin, pecan, and a variety of other fruits and mixtures as well, including a delectable caramel apple.
The Door County Brewing Company seems like a lively and interesting place to try various microbrews. Went here for the first time last year, and it was a very nice craftbrewery. They specialize in Belgian style ales as befitting the culture of the Belgian immigrants who moved into the area, so there is a lot of interesting saisons and farmhouse ales. My favorite, of course, was Bare Bottom Madness, a Pale Ale brewed with oats. I like hoppy beers and I like oats, so together they were great! I’d recommend checking them out, having a flight, and picking up a growler for the next gathering.
Autumn foliage at the Ridges Sanctuary
If you don’t have time to go on an all day hike up to the top of the bluffs at Peninsula State Park, but you would still like a little walk through nature, a visit to the Ridges Sanctuary, Wisconsin’s oldest land trust, founded in 1937. Some lovely walking trails, meandering through the thick conifer forest, among marshy swales created over a few millennia by Lake Michigan, make for some very nice nature walks, and you can be done in an hour or so. If you want, you can also walk down the the Lake Michigan shoreline and look at the zebra mussels!
Looking forward to my next visit already, and who knows, maybe next time I’ll experience it during the summer (or the winter, that would be interesting as well!)