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Two kayakers paddle atop a large ship wreck at the bottom of the bay in Door County, WI.

Sunken Treasure A Guide to Door County's Shipwrecks


By Daniel Rose

Door County is one of Wisconsin’s crown jewels, with more than enough activities to offer for a relaxing weekend away or weeks of outdoor adventure. Perhaps though, you are drawn instead to the dark undertones of the region’s past — to unexpected waves, rocky reefs, and a name that still strikes fear into the heart of those braving the waters of Lake Michigan and Green Bay: Death’s Door.

More than 270 confirmed and unconfirmed  litter the waters surrounding Door County. In fact, the waters that form the passageway between the peninsula and Washington Island were historically so treacherous that both native people like the Potawatomi and early French settlers of the region referred to the area as “The Door of Death.” Today, modern maritime technology has tamed much of the danger, but when a sudden storm blows in, you can still witness the conditions that led to such a dramatic name.

The extensive number of wrecks in the area over a unique opportunity to explore the history and drama firsthand. Accessible wrecks are on both sides of the Door Peninsula, offering a variety of opportunities to experience the area’s nautical history.

Captain for a Day

Looking to test your piloting skills at the helm of your own vessel? While you’re unlikely to find a three-masted schooner for rent, you can secure a pontoon boat for the day that will allow you to sight-sea (er, sightsee) on your own schedule. Sister Bay Boat Rental, Fish Creek Boat Rentals, and Egg Harbor Boat Rental offer pontoon boat rentals. Once you’ve secured your ship, consider charting a course using the Wisconsin Historical Society’s interactive shipwreck map. Just be sure to check the weather and keep your wits about you. After all, you’re sailing in Death’s Door.

Bringing History to Life

Whether you’re looking to supplement your in-water shipwreck exploration or would prefer to stay dry and enjoy this piece of Wisconsin history on land, Door County’s maritime museums are well worth a visit.

In Sturgeon Bay, you’ll find the Door County Maritime Museum — the tallest point along the western waterfront. This unique museum tells the story of the region’s maritime history through an 11-story maritime lighthouse tower, ship replicas, and stories from lighthouse keepers. Explore the WWI tugboat on display; another exhibit allows you to steer a schooner or navigate a freighter and experience the frightening rush as your ship sinks.

Perhaps the biggest draw of Death’s Door Maritime Museum in Gills Rock is the 45-foot 1930s fishing tugboat Hope, which visitors are able to climb aboard and explore. The museum also offers a complete history of Door County’s namesake and the ships that were lost trying to travel through the treacherous Death’s Door passage. Be sure to check out the artifacts recovered from the region’s wrecks while you take in the riveting tales of fishermen who’ve battled the tempestuous waters.

Shipwrecks by Air

If the thought of experiencing Door County’s incredible number of shipwrecks from the water has you feeling a little squeamish, turn your eyes to the sky instead. Grizzly Scenic Air Tours offers one of the few options to view the region’s shipwrecks from the air. You’ll meet your guide, Dave Burke, aka Grizz, at the Cherryland Airport in Sturgeon Bay. From there, you’ll soar over the region’s major shipwrecks and majestic coastline. This tour is especially popular in the fall, as it allows not only for aerial shipwreck views but also the magical vista of leaves changing color.

High Speed Raft Tours

If you’re looking to get your adrenaline pumping while exploring Door County’s maritime history, then zoom away with Door County Adventure Rafting. After departing from the Ellison Bay Boat Ramp, you’ll have close-up views of the Fleetwing wreck before heading into Death’s Door Passage. Here you’ll enjoy scenic views of the lighthouse and Coast Guard station on Plum Island, marvel at the Grapeshot shipwreck, and cruise around Pilot Island for more incredible lighthouse views.

Kayak Tours

One way to experience shipwrecks is aboard a kayak. Lakeshore Adventures leads an incredible guided shipwreck tour in Baileys Harbor that allows you to see the wrecks of several 1800s-era schooners. Perhaps the best feature of this tour is the unique, clear-bottom kayaks which, when combined with the relatively shallow waters near the wrecks, allow for intimate views. 

.In Ellison Bay, Door County Kayak Tours offers a half-day guided kayak tour that starts out by exploring the wreck of the schooner Fleetwing. This three-masted ship lies on the lake’s floor in three separate but accessible sections, all of which are in water from only five to 25 feet deep. After exploring this famous wreck, the tour also provides picturesque views of the cliffs along Door Bluff Headlands County Park.

Scuba Diving

Looking to chart your own course, brave the surrounding waters, and experience the historic shipwrecks up close and personal? Then consider a self-guided scuba tour of Door County. First, if you don’t have gear, you’ll need to coordinate a rental before arriving here. The closest locations to rent are Aqua Center and Green Bay Scuba in Green Bay. Both locations are also great places to get tips from experienced divers and recommendations for itineraries. Once you’ve got your gear, you’ll be set to dive into many of the available wrecks, such as the Mueller and the Hurd, both near the shoreline. While you’re in the area, consider also diving at Cave Point, a unique location with sea caves.

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