About four and a half miles from the Wisconsin mainland is magical Washington Island. The 35-square-mile island is located at the tip of the Door County peninsula and is home to 700 people. As our Community Spotlight shows, this is a popular place to get away from it all. With limited space and high demand during the summer months, this guide will help you navigate this Door County island vacation destination.
When Should You Visit Washington Island
As you'd expect, summertime is the most popular season to visit Washington Island. With the sun comes tourists who flock to the beaches, Sand Dunes Park and Percy Johnson Park. Visitors also love to explore the lavender fields in bloom, or to hike, bike, kayak. Come fall, crowds delight in the winding road to the ferry dock awash with fall foliage and the breathtaking views of the brillant colors from Mountain Park Tower.
You can avoid the crowds and visit in May and early June when ferry ride wait times are lower and most of the island's shops and restaurants are open for business. For a truly peaceful experience, consider visiting during the winter. Yes, many of the businesses are closed, but you can ride a ferry made to cut the ice and experience the beauty of ice sightings. Winter outdoor enthusiasts can ice fish and snowshoe when they bring their
Getting to Washington Island
Visitors can use their own boat and dock at Kaps Marina or choose one of two ferry options to cross Death's Door passage to Washington Island. The Washington Island Ferry Line at the Northport Pier is the most popular transport. The fleet's five ferries, including one built to break the ice for year-round service, transport people, pets and automobiles daily. Open-air seating offers unobstructed views of Plum, Pilot and Detroit Islands, and a heated cabin provides comfort on colder rides. The ferry schedule varies by season and is posted online with the rates for people, autos, motorcycles and bikes. Oversized vehicles are welcome with one-way rates listed online, and leashed pets ride free. Tickets are sold on a first-come, first-served basis, and riders should be in line at least 15 minutes before departure.
An alternative to Washington Island Ferry is the Island Clipper. Leave your car behind for a trip on this passenger ferry departing Gills Rock. The seven-mile, 20-minute trip includes the narration of your voyage through Porte Des Morts (Death's Door) by Captain Charles Voight as it travels amid islands and historic shipwrecks. The journey takes you by two of Door County's famous lighthouses on Pilot Island and Plum Island on its way to Detroit Harbor on the south side of Washington Island. The Island Clipper schedule varies by season and is posted online along with rates.
Getting Around on the Island
Vehicles are welcome on the island, but you can help us reduce traffic and preserve, protect and care for the Island by arriving without an automobile and opting for other modes of transportation. Both the Washington Island Ferry and the Island Clipper offer narrated tours of the island, an excellent option for a day trip. The Cherry Train Tours by Washington Island Ferry is a two-hour open-air tram narrated tour of Washington Island's features and attractions and features up to four stops (not including the lavender farms). The Island Clipper's Viking Train is a ninety-minute guided tram tour of some of Washington Island's best-known attractions, including four main points of interest: Stavkirke, Schoolhouse Beach, Den Norske Grenda and Farm Museum — you can stay at any stop and board a later train, too.
If you want to be the captain of your journey, utility vehicle rentals allow you to leave your car behind yet still explore the island at your own pace. Island Adventure Company rents four- and six-person UTVs with roof racks, so you can also rent and transport kayaks and paddleboards. Renters must be 25 or older, and Wisconsin requires all ATV or UTV operators born on or after January 1, 1988, to possess a state-issued ATV/UTV safety certificate. Plus, all riders 18 and under are required by state law to wear a helmet, provided at no additional cost.
Reduce your footprint and tour the island the old-fashioned way by bringing your own or renting bicycles. Dor Cros Inn's Island Rides Bicycle Rentals offers quad bicycle Surreys suitable for two to three passengers and features a stripped fabric cover to protect riders from the sun. Traditional bicycles are also available, and new arrivals include seven-speed electric bicycles. You'll also find handy attachments for rent, such as baby and dog trailers. Electric bikes from Island Adventure Company offer e-bike rentals that can reach cruising speeds of up to 24 miles per hour.
If you're looking for a little more pep, those 21 and older can rent a moped from Annie's Island Mopeds (exceptions can be made for those 18 years and older who are accompanied by a parent). These single-rider mopeds can be rented for an hour, two hours, or all day, with locations conveniently located near the Island Clipper and Washington Island Ferry. Riders are tested to ensure safety and comfort before hitting the road.
Must-Try Dishes and Drinks on Washington Island
There are quite a few places to grab a bite to eat on Washington Island, but there are a few you must try while you're here. The jury is in on lawyer fish, and it's a hit. What is often referred to as the poor man's lobster because of its taste was made popular by Washington Island's last commercial fisherman, Ken Koyen. He catches and then serves burbot, affectionately known as lawyer fish due to its heart being near its rear end, at his restaurant, K.K. Fiske Restaurant & Granary.
For those looking for burgers and ice cream, the Albatross Drive-in and Tiki Bar is an Island landmark. A mile and a half from the ferry dock is the burger joint, where all the patties are made by hand, and you can choose from 60 flavors of custom-made shakes and malts.
Coffee connoisseurs will want to stop by Washington Island Coffee, the “always open before the first boat leaves” coffee shop and bakery. Jake and Miranda serve coffee, espresso and loose-leaf teas as well as homemade bakery, fudge, and gelato. The young and young at heart will also want to browse the Wall of Taffy and bulk candy selections.
As you make your way to the Rock Island Ferry, be sure to swing by Jackson Harbor Soup to fuel up with a a hot bowl of soup or a handmade sandwich and a cool beverage. Rock Island State Park is a walkable-only 912-acre island situated northeast of Washington Island in Lake Michigan. The seasonal restaurant welcomes ferry riders to a good meal with a
If you want to be a true islander, a stop at Nelson's Hall Bitter's Pub & Restaurant to join the Bitters Club is a must. This unique right of passage came about when prohibition blocked Tom Nelsen from serving drinks in his establishment in 1920. He discovered a loophole by getting a pharmaceutical license to sell bitters as a “stomach tonic for medicinal purposes.” He sold 90-proof Angostura bitters as a shot. The drink's success is responsible for the pub being the oldest continuously operated tavern in Wisconsin. Once you take the shot the bartender sticks their thumb in the sticky, bitter residue and thumbprints your official islander card granting the bearer full-fledged islander status for the year, entitled to mingle and dance with all the other islanders.
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