Door County, Wisconsin Family Fun in Fall
Autumn colors, awesome parks and lighthouses, a zip line, trolley rides, tons of ice shops and 'fish boil' meals make this a cool trip for parents and kids
Michigan might look like a mitten, but the state of Wisconsin – just across Lake Michigan – has its own wannabe hand shape: a thumb of land called Door County. It stretches out into the water to form Green Bay on the west and tease Upper Peninsula travelers who can just make out traces of its shoreline to the south.
If you're looking for a new spot to see brilliant fall colors while spending time with your family, Door County has a mix of outdoor fun, kid-friendly restaurants and a plenty of activities.
See fall at its peak
Starting in mid-September, the trees that blanket Door County start to turn golden hues, beginning in the northern end at Washington Island. The prime fall viewing comes mid-October, but the colors are still vibrant through the end of the month.
To navigate your way around Door County, here's a little terminology from the locals: the 'bayside' is the western side of the County, and 'lakeside' touches – you guessed it – Lake Michigan to the west. Little towns dot both coastlines; there's 300 miles of shore!
Parks, golf and biking
Door County holds five state parks and 19 county parks within its 70-mile stretch from south to north. My favorite park lies on the western, bayside – you can reach Peninsula State Park from two towns; either Fish Creek or Ephraim. Within the park there's camping (468 spots), beaches and bike and hiking trails. I almost forgot – there's a public golf course, too: $35 for 18 holes.
I opted to ride on two wheels through the park. You can rent bicycles in Fish Creek. Nor Door Sport & Cyclery's rates start at $6 an hour, and the cost for additional time is prorated. Daily and multi-day packages are available, too (your helmet, travel bag and lock are included in the cost).
The 5.1-mile Sunset loop through the park took me almost two hours. But I made several stops along the way to check out the beaches, take a free tour of the lighthouse and to find spots to relax. I wish I'd packed a picnic, since there were several places that would have made good lunchtime spots.
A few of the state parks, like Peninsula, include lighthouse tours. Eagle Bluff Lighthouse's tour lasts around 30 minutes and includes a visit to the keeper's home and a partial trip up the winding staircase (the top is sealed to protect the fragile light).
At Cana Island Lighthouse on the lakeside you can walk all the way to the top – all 102 stairs – to the observation tower for a 360-degree view of the area (take your camera!). Children who are 42" and taller are allowed to go up as long as they can grab hold of the railings by themselves.
There are 11 lighthouses in the county!
By boat, kayak – or zip line?
For a view of the coast from the water, there are boat and kayak tours available. Keep in mind, though: The weather can be tricky in fall, and kayak rentals are dependent on the water and outside temperatures to ensure your safety.
To get a close-up view of the leaves, try a Gravity Trails zip line tour. The only one offered in the county started up in 2009. On the tour, you'll sail through the trees making stops at three platforms. Children need to be at least 50 pounds to participate, and discounts are available for those paying with cash, advanced reservations are recommended.
For those who are little more adventurous, there are now nighttime tours where you'll zip through, finding your way by starlight and a little help from a few glow sticks.
Great fall activities
In October, the temperature outside averages about 57 degrees (lows in the 40s), but you may have a windy or wet day during your visit. Still, you can stay busy with some indoor adventures – like creating your own masterpiece at the Hands on Art Studio, bowling at Sister Bay Bowl and arcade games at the Egg Harbor Fun Park.
Or grab a jacket and go hop on a trolley! Seven tours are available through Door County Trolley, including the Scenic Narrated Tour that's $14 for adults and $9 for children. And if your family is up for a scary ride, go for the Ghost Tour.
Restaurants, diners, bakeries and ice cream shops are trickled throughout the county. You could even make a day of visiting all 10 ice cream shops. One of the most popular is Wilson's Restaurant & Ice Cream Parlor in Ephraim that's been in business since 1906 and resembles a '50s diner. There are daily ice cream specials to choose from. My advice: split your sundae with someone else – they're big!
For a Door County original, go for a fish boil meal one night. In the tradition of their Scandinavian founders, fish boils start outside, where potatoes, onions and fresh-caught fish are lowered into a kettle of boiling water; then, the "boil master" aids the heat by adding kerosene, which creates a burst of bright blames. (Fish boils are available at various locations on the weekends through October.)
Lodging options are plentiful throughout the county and, since the tourist season is waning in October, you may be able to find deals on rooms. Expect to find reasonably priced, family resorts that tout their water views and on-site amenities. Remember, though, that camping spots are available too!