Jhe historic Eagle Bluff Lighthouse towers over the green bay of Lake Michigan, a maritime sentinel that has long guided ships to shore whenever the mercurial temperament of the narrow Strawberry Channel changed from tranquil to ominous.
From the double-deck Norra Dorr tour boat, passengers on a 90-minute tour snap photos of the red-domed tower. But in the fall, the natural beauty surrounding the 1868 lighthouse is as Instagram-worthy as the beacon itself.
Here in Door County, the unofficial capital of Wisconsin, the narrated cruise makes a round trip from the village of Sister Bay and reaches some of the most scenic spots. Vivid but fleeting autumnal hues blaze against a cerulean sky. Jagged rock formations reveal gaping holes that are portals to mysterious sea caves. Leaves flutter from the trees like delicate golden and scarlet butterflies, gracefully landing at the water’s edge.
The 70-mile-long Door Peninsula is home to a string of fishing villages-turned-beach resorts that draw throngs of Midwesterners seeking to escape the stresses of big cities. And few things are more relaxing than being out on the water on a beautiful fall day. Guide Chuck Erickson argues that the perspective of water can be more rewarding than a view of land.
“The [color] the contrast is much more evident. At this time of year, the water is dark blue. The cedars on the bluff remain a dark green,” Erickson said. “The taller trees that make up the upper crown are all deciduous and, therefore, of all brilliant colors.”
The boat tour delves into the maritime history of the region. According to folklore, the Potawatomi and Winnebago tribes gave Door County its name. They called the treacherous strait that connects Green Bay to Lake Michigan “death’s door” after an epic battle drowned hundreds of warriors.
Other stories claim that it was French explorers who named the strait “Porte des Morts”, Death’s Door in English. The name has been converted to Door County, a good thing since Death’s Door doesn’t really sound like an inviting vacation spot. Whatever the origin of the menacing nickname, one thing is certain: more than 200 shipwrecks remain under these waves in a strange maritime cemetery.
As the Norra Dorr approaches Anderson Dock in Ephraim, a graffiti-covered warehouse stands like a tattooed rebel among the hamlet’s pristine historic structures, some dating back to the 1850s when Scandinavian Moravians settled here.
The warehouse, which now houses the Hardy Gallery which exhibits regional artists, was not vandalized. Sailors once wrote on its walls the name of their ship and the date they were in port to create a record. Over time, tourists began to leave their own marks, and it is now a tradition of Ephraim.
colors on the ground
The fall colors of Door County can easily be enjoyed for a few days. For a bird’s eye view, head to Peninsula State Park on the northwest side of the peninsula and climb the stairs to the top of the new 60-foot Eagle Tower, perched atop above the treetops. Or take the less strenuous route to the summit by strolling along the 850-foot accessible canopy walk. The new structure opened in 2021, replacing a 90-year-old tower dismantled in 2016.
If viewing Eagle Bluff Lighthouse from the water has piqued your curiosity, step into the Lighthouse Museum for a tour that reveals the lives of the lighthouse keepers and their families who kept the light on until 1926 , when it was automated. On a sunny fall day with calm waters, it can be hard to imagine being isolated on this limestone cliff during a storm as the wind howled and colossal waves crashed against the walls, but it was reality for generations of keepers.
Those who climb to the top of the lighthouse tower are rewarded with breathtaking views of the endless canopy of color that frames Green Bay.
Fall for the apples
Later, join Door County’s delicious fall apple-picking tradition at the Orchard Country Winery & Market in Lautenbach.
A father places his toddler on his shoulders so she can reach a low red apple that glistens like a ruby in the sun. With a little help, she triumphantly captures her award, holding it aloft for her family to admire.
Fall is the season to reap nature’s bounty, and people come from far and wide to pick apples at this family-run Fish Creek orchard that’s been a Door County landmark for decades. Those who are inclined to ignore the option of choice can buy Macintosh, Gala and Honeycrisp apples at the market. Get some apple butter or a fresh apple pie.
Wine lovers also come to Lautenbach for a guided vine-to-bottle tour that passes through vineyards poised to produce plump fruit. A tasting will likely include Blackberry Bliss port-style dessert wine and the season’s favorite, Spiced Apple Sweet Wine.
You haven’t really visited Door County until you’ve been to the Fish Pot, the ultimate barbecue that originated with Scandinavian settlers in the late 1800s. Many restaurants in the area offer fish boils, but Rowley’s Bay restaurant in Ellison Bay is particularly popular due to its scenic waterfront location, known for its brilliantly colored sunsets.
The boil master tosses ingredients into a steaming black cauldron that could be a compelling Halloween prop, but there’s no newt’s eye or frog toe here – just Lake Michigan whitefish , potatoes and onions.
Boiling the fish encourages a sense of camaraderie among travelers, with strangers becoming friends around the fire. You will likely have the opportunity to swap stories about Door County and get ideas for your next visit.
If you are going to
Getting There : Door County is a five or six hour drive straight east of the Twin Cities. One-hour flights to Green Bay International Airport are also available; it’s another one hour drive to Door County.
Sister Bay Scenic Boat Tours: 10707 N. Bay Shore Drive, Sister Bay, Wisconsin; 920-421-4444 or doorcountyboats.com.
Eagle Bluff Lighthouse Museum: 10249 Shore Road, Fish Creek, Wis.; 920-421-3636 or doorcountyhistoricalsociety.com.
Lautenbach wine estate and orchard market: 9197 highway. 42 Fish Creek, Wis.; 866-946-3263 or orchardcountry.com.
Where to eat: Rowley’s Bay Restaurant – 1041 County Road ZZ, Ellison Bay; 920-854-2385 or rowleysbayresort.com.
Where to stay: Eagle Harbor Inn — Historic-style rooms with indoor pool and sauna. 9914 Water St., Ephraim; 920-854-2121 or eagleharbor.com.
More information: Destination Door County — 920-743-4456 or doorcounty.com.
Tracey Teo is an Indiana-based travel writer.
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