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Ode to the Washington Island Ferries


The Washington Island Ferry and the Island Clipper are many things: places of community connections, access points to adventure, efficient ways to travel between the Door Peninsula and Washington Island, and experiences in and of themselves.

The WIF leaves the mainland from the Northport Pier, located at the very northern tip of the peninsula, and the Island Clipper leaves from Hedgehog Harbor in Gills Rock. The drive up to both departure points goes along the Door County Coastal Byway and is full of scenic beauty no matter the time of year. 

Expect to encounter lakeside communities, peaceful green farms, tree-lined backroads, and plenty of lake views as you traverse the curves and bends of the famously curvy road near the end of the highway.

What to Know for 2021

  • First Come, First Served: This year, the WIF is not taking reservations or offering tickets online for ferry rides. Plan ahead, expect to wait in line, and check the schedule (or Karfi Ferry schedule) before you go.

  • But Order Your Island Clipper Tickets in Advance. Although the Island Clipper is allowing reservations this year, keep in mind it has smaller capacities and makes fewer trips, so you'll want to book your trip in advance if possible.

  • Bring Your Car or Bike: Exploring the island by foot is not really possible, and you’ll need to get around safely and efficiently. The WIF will transport your car, bike, or motorcycle with you. And while you can rent bikes and more on the island, demand is sure to be high.

  • Or Take a Tram: If you'd rather leave your car on the mainland, you can take the Island Clipper Viking Train or the Washington Island Cherry Train to get around the island as well. Both will drive you around Washington Island, stop at favorite points of interest, offer history and fun facts, and get you back to the harbor safely.

  • Watch that Clock: Ferries move between the mainland and Washington Island at least a dozen times a day, but seats fill up quickly, and the last ferries leave the island at varying times throughout the week. Always check the schedule the day of your trip and have a few backup times so you’re not left behind. Be extra cautious about timing if you’re traveling to Rock Island via the Karfi Ferry.


The Experience

From the ferry decks, riders can look out into the vastness of Lake Michigan, several dozen feet above the waterline, and witness a pageant of forested isles, secluded cottages, fishing and recreational boats, seagulls and waterfowl, rocky outcroppings, natural beaches, and the occasional big-water kayaker. Plum, Pilot, and Detroit Island will rush by in a wave of color.

The Michigan coast, although dozens of nautical miles away, feels like it’s just beyond the horizon. The lake breeze cools and soothes. The Washington Island shoreline beckons.

A group looks out at the vastness of Lake Michigan from the ferry deck

A one-way journey lasts for about 30 minutes, just long enough to feel like you’re truly getting away from it all but short enough that you can visit Washington Island or Rock Island for a day trip and easily return by evening.

In addition to passengers, the WIF also transports pets (on leashes), cars, motorcycles, trucks and oversized vehicles, bicycles, and kayaks for a small fee. (The Island Clipper only transports people.) Ferry workers help guide your car onto the ferry and into a parking space. Drivers can enjoy the ride from the privacy of their car or head up to the passenger deck and take in the stellar views.

Believe it or not, the massive steel ferries are fully operational in the freezing wintertime months too. WIF has special ferries for winter with called “ice breakers.” These boats with reinforced hulls and pointed bows help break up the frozen-solid lake ice and move more efficiently.

Washington Island History

While aboard a ferry, passengers are crossing Death’s Door—that famously boisterous patch of water between the mainland and southern Washington Island. According to the WIF, passengers will cross “the same passage as the Native Americans who paddled their canoes from island to island and French explorers who came to the area and schooners that traveled this passage a century ago.” 

Taking a leisurely ride on the ferry also means traversing the very same route and waterways that so many early Door County residents traveled in search of sustenance, commerce, and a better life and many modern residents use a means of daily transportation.

Check out the video below to get a better sense of how these early residents influenced the county's contemporary culture.

Extend Your Trip: The Karfi Ferry

For those looking to venture even further than Washington Island, consider taking the much-smaller Karfi Ferry to Rock Island State Park, a wooded 912-acre adventure island.

Rock Island offers hike-in and backpacking campsites as well as plenty of secluded hiking trails, beaches, hidden coves and sandy causeways, birding and wildlife viewing, an Icelandic-style boathouse, and more.

After being closed for more than a year, the park re-opened on May 28, 2021. The Karfi Ferry service has since resumed service, allowing travelers to explore this remote island getaway once again. Note that vehicles, including bicycles, are not allowed on the island and must be left in the parking lot at Jackson Harbor, the departure location for the Karfi.

More on Washington Island

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