The Door peninsula and surrounding islands’ unique location and topography make it an ideal region for exploring by foot. Door County is famous for its biodiversity and varying environmental conditions, which means there’s natural beauty to be found around any and every corner. So, it’s no wonder hikers flock to the county’s state parks to take on new trails and take in the unusually varied sights.
From quick walks along the lake in Peninsula State Park to rustic backcountry treks through true wilderness in Newport State Park, Door County’s state-designated wild areas offer a wide variety of hikes and environments to choose from.
If you’re headed up here for the first time or it’s been a few years since you’ve broken out the hiking boots, consider checking out these five top trails. Each trail offers insight into what makes the local parks special, but, together, they offer a full tour of the county’s wonderfully diverse and varied microclimates.
Whitefish Dunes State Park - Red Trail
On the “lake side” of the Door peninsula you’ll find Whitefish Dunes State Park and its Red Trail. This approximately 2.4-mile out-and-back trail takes 1-3 hours to complete, depending on one’s pace and stops or breaks.
Some hikers extend the trip by connecting up with the Yellow Trail for a longer walk through pine forest or the Black Trail, which leads to the dramatic limestone cliffs of Cave Point County Park.
Along the way, you can walk aside vegetation-covered sand dunes, take in some lake views (both Lake Michigan and the inland Clark Lake), access quiet beaches and boardwalks, and stand atop the 93-foot Old Baldy sand dune, the state’s tallest. Visitors may also spot wildlife, such as snakes and birds as well as late-blooming foliage, thanks to the park’s proximity to the climate-cooling lake.
The trail is rated as easy because it is relatively flat, but the rock- and root-covered paths—as well as the stairs to the top of Old Baldy—may require some extra effort.
Rock Island State Park - Thordarson Loop
The premier hiking trail on Rock Island is the 5.2-mile Thordarson Loop that circumvents the entire island. From imposing limestone walls and ice age-old beaches to forested trails a thousand shades of green and sweeping, panoramic views of Lake Michigan, this trail offers the best of the county in one half-day hike (plus car and ferry travel time!).
Start near the Thordarson Boathouse on the southwest side of the island and head north into the woods, where you’ll get flashes of the lake through the trees. Along the way, there are stone buildings and wood structures to marvel at. The trail is not terribly difficult, but it does have some moderate inclines.
In an hour or so, you’ll come across the Pottawatomie Lighthouse. Take a breather, fill your water bottle at the pump, and take a quick tour of the century-old structure (courtesy of the Friends of Rock Island State Park) if you have time. At the top, you can view the lighthouse’s lamp and lantern up close and take in an incredible view of Lake Michigan ensconced by trees and other foliage.
From there, continue circumnavigating the island via the trail. Eventually, you’ll end up on the south side of the island near the ranger station and boathouse again. For a slightly shorter version of the Thordarson hike, you can cut across the island via the Fernwood Trail or Havamal Trail.
Peninsula State Park - Eagle Trail
In just two miles, Eagle Trail packs quite the punch, with loads of fantastic scenery and terrain, including towering cliff walls, sections of the Niagara Escarpment, short rock scrambles and staircases, beautiful exposed roots, and expansive views of the Green Bay and its several wooded isles.
All this makes for a one- or two-hour showcase of some of the best scenery in the region, but it also means this trail is on the trickier side of hikes, especially for Door County terrain. Eagle Trail not an overly long or difficult hike, but you will be dealing with rocks, roots, and precarious footing most of the way. Bring your hiking boots or grippiest athletic shoes, and watch your footing at all times, even if you’re a more experienced hiker.
If you want to explore the park beyond Eagle Trail’s two miles, add on Skyline Trail (3 miles) to climb to Sven’s Bluff, which offers an expansive and humbling view of the Bay.
Newport State Park - Europe Bay Trail
Located in Newport State Park—Wisconsin’s only officially designated wilderness area—Europe Bay Trail is a flat, unpaved path that offers a 7-mile hike through dense forest and untouched wilderness.
Thanks to Newport State Park’s location at the very top of the Door peninsula, on some of the state’s northernmost mainland, you’ll get great views of the water, including Lake Michigan’s Europe Bay and Newport Bay as well as the inland Europe Lake.
This hidden, lesser-known trail has unusually low traffic, especially in the offseason, which means if you’re seeking peace and solitude, there’s an excellent chance you’ll find them here.
Potawatomi State Park - Tower Trail
If you’re going for novelty or prestige, there’s no surpassing the Ice Age Trail, which has its eastern terminus on the north end of Potawatomi State Park. Knowing you’re walking the first few miles of a National Scenic Trail that’s actually more than 1,000 miles is an unbeatable feeling, as is standing on cliffs, moraines, and woods where unfathomably large icebergs once stood.
But, clocking in at only 2.8 miles, Potawatomi’s segment of the Ice Age Trail is on the shorter side, so if you want to take on something more substantial, hit up the Tower Trail (also known as the Potawatomi Trail).
Tower Trail is a slightly longer 3.6-mile hike that takes you atop the park’s highest bluff and along the Green Bay shoreline, offering terrific water views throughout. It’s a relatively flat path but has a few spots with some inclines, and there’s a good number of exposed rock and roots that make the terrain uneven in many places.
On either trail, you may find lakeside cliffs, water views, deer, small mammals, a wide variety of songbirds, eagles, and, for trees, sugar maple, pine, red pine, and birch. Due to the park’s proximity to Sturgeon Bay, the peninsula’s largest city and a popular tourist destination, the trail can get pretty busy during peak season, so going early, late, or in the off season is your best bet.
These five trails are just a small taste of what all Door County’s state parks have to offer.
The parks, collectively, offer hundreds of miles of hiking trails (not to mention biking trails), and, if you’re willing to do some extra research, dozens more footpaths and natural areas for getting acquainted with this ever-changing, one-of-a-kind ecosystem.
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