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As if Door County isn’t unique enough, the county also includes two islands residing north of the peninsula. Washington and Rock Island are bucket-list travel spots you must fit in to one of your next Door County vacations. My family and I have made it a tradition to visit them annually for great hiking and a small escape.
Packed with interesting history, wildlife, and adventure, the islands offer distinctly unique opportunities for a great day trip or an extended stay. Accessible by ferry, a trip across the waters from Gills Rock will take you to Washington Island, and then leaving vehicle or bicycle behind, you can board a second ferry to explore Rock Island. Camping is available on both islands, and Washington island features many indoor accommodations as well. Discounted tickets are available for round trips to both islands purchased together, so there’s no reason not to explore both!
Check out what it looks like in their port live-cam!
Washington Island is home to 700 people on its 35-square mile plot and full of its own amenities including a school, hospital, businesses, and even an airport! It’s a perfect place to try new restaurants or activities.
A must-see is a stop at Schoolhouse Beach. Coined a “geological marvel” the beach is formed out of hundreds of perfectly smooth, rounded limestone rocks. Swimmer-friendly, the beach is great for a midday picnic and dip in the bay.
If you’ve ever heard the term ‘death’s door’ thrown around in Door County, this area is where it comes from. Known for it’s treacherous waters around this island throughout history. A slew of shipwrecks lie underneath the waters that give credibility to the name. But don’t worry, the ferry doesn’t run when the weather turns ugly! For further exploration into the maritime history of the islands, the Jackson Harbor Maritime Museum will give you more stories and tales of the Lake Michigan voyages.
Our trips to Washington Island always included a stop at one of the islands many bars and restaurants. Two things in particular you should keep in mind when searching for a local flavor: wheat and lavender. The island is known for its wheat and lavender agriculture, there's even an end of the summer festival to celebrate the lavender harvest. Some of the wheat on the island is famously brewed to create excellent 'Island Wheat' beers. If you're into something a bit more stiff, you can also try a shot of Angostura Bitters. Washington Island is the top consumer of the liquor and probably the only place people won't think you're crazy for ordering it straight! Any of the two brews you'll find in a local tavern, and the lavender you'll find sprinkled throughout many dishes and beverages. All great summer treats, and rewards after a hike around Rock Island.
This island speaks to the adventurous visitors. Hop on a morning ferry and find yourself dropped off onto a 900 acre freckle of nature in Lake Michigan. No wheels allowed, but pet-friendly!
When my sister and I got older, it became part of our family’s traditional vacation to hike Rock Island. We’d take both ferries up to it, spending the late morning and early afternoon hiking the 5-mile loop around the perimeter of the island. The hike is unique. It’s very peaceful to be in a location surrounded solely by wildlife, there isn’t a low hum of cars or construction off in the distance that makes the hike very serene. Due to the additional travel needed to get there, you also won’t encounter as many fellow hikers on your trek – great for those who’d like to have a bit of solitude while exploring the outdoors.
Rock Island also hosts campers with 37 hike-in campsites. Pack your food, tent, and marshmallows on your back to spend the weekend truly ‘roughing it’. Sites are located on the southern tip of the island, many ideally situated along the rock-laden shoreline. There are also five sites tucked in to the Southeastern corner of the island that require a longer hike and are more remote. A perfect rugged escape from reality – while still being in Wisconsin!
They’re celebrating 75 Years of operation of the ferries! Have you had memorable experiences on the island? Check out the ferry website to submit your story and read others’ experiences!
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