Exploring Door County in the winter months may require some extra research, preparation, and even ingenuity, but the benefits and rewards of vacationing in this winter wonderland are innumerable.
Yes, you’ll need to verify that any lodgings, restaurants, or attractions you want to visit are open in the winter. And sure, you’ll need to pack a few extra layers of clothing and a back-up pair of gloves. But the quieter streets and highways, the almost-empty trails, the ice-covered lake, the one-of-a-kind winter sights, and the epic winter landscapes make it all worth the effort.
Here are four ways (and four bonus ways!) to embrace winter in Door County and appreciate it in all its overwhelming beauty.
1. Layer Up & Hike Out
Snow or no snow, winter can be a magical time to explore the county’s many trails and footpaths.
The biggest difference between wintertime and summertime trails is that there will be far fewer people to share them with. In fact, there’s a decent chance you’ll have the entire trail to yourself. But you’ll also have the chance to see flowers, foliage, and wildlife you won’t see in the warmer months, plus the frozen (or semi-frozen) rivers and streams will take on entirely different looks.
And, thanks to the solitude you’re sure to find, the forests and fields will be extra quiet and peaceful, perfect for some photography or new-year introspection.
We compiled six of the best year-round trails in Door County, but winter is also a great time to check out the portions of the Ice Age Trail that run through the peninsula. The eastern terminus of the IAT is in Potawatomi State Park, and almost 20 subsequent miles lay in Door County, so it’s possible to hike many miles of this famous National Scenic Trail in a weekend.
Bonus Trail Experience: If you consider yourself to be a hearty soul, you might try your hand at winter camping.
Potawatomi State Park and Peninsula State Park both offer some year-round campsites, and Newport State Park offers a few hike-in backpacking sites in the winter months.
You may want to obtain a four-seasons tent and a very thick sleeping bag—as well as any necessary reservations or permits—but camping among the snowy ground, frozen pines, and mostly empty campgrounds is an experience like no other. Check out the DNR website for more information on winter camping in Wisconsin state parks.
2. Track the Winter Fleet
If Door County’s rich maritime history appeals to you, you’re interested in ships or transportation, or you’re simply a fan of unique experiences, catching a glimpse of the winter fleet rolling across a semi-frozen lake is a sight to behold.
Normally these ships can only be seen as tiny specs on the horizon as they carry goods and wares around the Great Lakes, so the fleet’s shoreline respite is an opportunity to see these enormous vessels at close range as they sail into port for repairs and preparations. (Read a detailed explanation of the importance of the winter fleet here.)
You can plan your visit around the fleet’s scheduled arrivals and try to see multiple ships during your stay, but be aware these dates/times can change due to weather and lake conditions.
Bonus Ship Viewing: If waiting outside in the cold and wind doesn’t sound appealing, you can also watch the ships roll in from the warmth of a local café using Sturgeon Bay’s webcam service. There’s no shame in hiding indoors and appreciating the beauty of winter from behind a cup of coffee or tea.
3. Photograph an Icy Icon
The county’s 11 lighthouses are some of the most iconic sights you can find up here. Not only are they beautiful, stately beacons that remind us of the region’s history and geography, but they make excellent subjects or backdrops for photoshoots.
The bright red Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal North Pierhead Light is probably the most recognizable, and the Eagle Bluff and Cana Island lighthouses are two of the most photographed in the area. All three are fairly easy to access, but do keep in mind that they’re not open for tours in the winter, so you’ll need to exercise caution and check weather conditions before venturing out.
A few of the surrounding islands house equally impressive lighthouses, but you’ll have to take the ferry or a private or chartered boat, so you’ll have to save them for the warmer months.
Bonus Icy Icon: Cave Point County Park
Cave Point is one of the most recognizable features of the entire county and is stunning beyond words in the winter, when the limestone walls and de-leaved trees are forged in ice. The park is perfect for capturing beautiful photographs or simply being present and observing the choppy waves of a wintery Lake Michigan—just remember the limestone and other surfaces get can quite slippery in the winter, so, again, exercise caution when visiting.
4. Admire Winter Scenes from the Lake
The ferry service that runs between the peninsula and Washington Island operates year-round, providing riders with an unusual opportunity to view the snow-covered peninsula and nearby islands from the water. Check the ferry’s winter schedule to plan your trip around its arrivals and departures.
Riding the ferry in any season is a visual treat, but in winter, the ferry takes a slightly different route (east of Plum Island rather than west) that gives riders views of Pilot Island and its abandoned lighthouse, the Plum Island Range Lights, and parts of Detroit Island as well as the snow, ice, and ice panels atop the deep, sapphire-blue lake.
The special winter ferry is an icebreaker, meaning it has a pointed bow and reinforced hull and other structural elements that can cut through the ice to help it navigate ice-filled waters. The trek to Northern Door to catch the ferry is well worth the journey—just don’t forget to dress for the windy and cold conditions you’re all but sure to encounter on the lake.
Bonus Lake View: Those seeking a more sustained view of the land from the lake can try ice fishing. Most ice fishermen and women in Door County have their own equipment and at least some experience, but there are a few fishing-charter companies that can get you set up on the frozen water. You’ll need to call ahead to organize the adventure, but if you can swing it, ice fishing in Door County is an incredible experience, and the views are simply spectacular.
You’ve probably heard some version of the adage “no bad weather, only bad clothes,” and its spirit holds true in Door County. The cold, wind, and snow don’t stop locals from living their best lives or connecting with nature to the fullest, and they don’t have to stop you either.
Be sure to bring clothing layers for various types of weather, including a non-cotton base layer, mid layer, and jacket or outer shell—and definitely do not forget your waterproof hiking shoes or winter boots. Being prepared for both extreme and unpredictable winter weather will help make your trip memorable for the right reasons.
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