Toft Point (Photo by Susan Lampert Smith)
Toft Point (Photo by Susan Lampert Smith)

Look behind the “Hidden Door” along the Door Peninsula’s Lake Michigan side to find your perfect paradise.

The jammed highways along the Green Bay side of the Door Peninsula may make you feel that you’re back in the city. To escape the crowds but still have plenty of things to do in Door County, head east and north or to the quiet interior roads. Door County is home to almost 30 state natural areas, and all of them are worth a visit.

Toft’s Point Is a Vision of Door County a Century Ago

This one-mile wide peninsula juts into Lake Michigan between Bailey’s Harbor and Moonlight Bay. It was once a limestone quarry, and the trail will take you from a deep boreal forest of hemlocks and spruce, along a marsh, past a historic lime kiln, and out to the wave-carved limestone shelves and cliffs along Lake Michigan. 

You’ll learn about the family of Kersten Toft, a limestone miner, and see the log cabins where his family ran a resort in the early 20th century. The site is owned by UW-Green Bay, which does research there, and the Nature Conservancy. The adjacent Ridges Sanctuary offers guided hikes and an interpretive nature center.

County and Town Parks Are Hidden Gems

Don’t overlook the county and town parks when visiting Door County. Sand Bay Town Park is just  south of Rowley’s Bay on Lake Michigan, with a shaded picnic area, sand beach, and handicapped accessible boardwalk that leads to a viewing pier. 

On the Green Bay side, Ellison Bay County Park has an easily accessible viewing platform that gives cliffside views to Chambers Island and even all the way to Michigan. Up the Peninsula a bit more, the Door Bluff Headlands park offers the chance to scrabble over thick cedar roots that help the ancient trees cling to the bluff top. 

The reward is a sweeping view over the bay. Don’t go if you have vertigo or small children, as there is no fence at the cliffedge.

Ellison Bluff County Park (Photo via Door County)

Newport State Park Offers Pristine Beaches and Dark Skies

While Peninsula State Park is Wisconsin’s most popular park, Newport State Park, its 2,400-acre counterpart on Door County’s tip, may be one of the most rarely visited. 

Newport is a wilderness park, where campers must hike into their campsites carrying their gear. The reward is that you will probably have one of the two splendid sand bays—Europe Bay and Newport Bay—entirely to yourself. 

Newport is Wisconsin’s only internationally designated dark sky park, making it the perfect spot to watch the Perseid meteor showers in the summer or the Leonid showers in the fall. 

Newport State Park has a dark sky viewing area. (Photo by Susan Lampert Smith)

Kangaroo Lake, a Getaway in the Middle of the Peninsula

Kangaroo Lake was once part of Lake Michigan, but when the glaciers melted and the land rose, this former bay became an inland lake. (Nearby Clark Lake evolved the same way.)

Highway E divides Kangaroo Lake into a larger southern section with cottages and a boat landing and the northern part, a wetland that is home to a rare species of dragonfly. The Coyote Roadhouse on the northern shore makes an excellent spot to play yard games like cornhole as you wait for a table for lunch or dinner.

Cross Death’s Door to Find Paradise on Washington Island

The treacherous waterway between the mainland and Washington Island was named for a legendary turn in weather that is said to have capsized numerous canoes during a battle between two Native tribes. But don’t fear, the Washington Island Ferry Line has never lost a car over the bow, and once you arrive, Washington Island offers plenty to explore. 

If you like your beaches sandy, head to dunes beach on the southern shore. Schoolhouse Beach, on the north, has a white beach made of nature-polished limestone rocks, which make the water Caribbean blue. 

It’s not Caribbean warm, however, so only the brave will venture out to the diving raft. Nearby, at the Little Lake natural area, you can float on a raft, in a lake, on an island, in a lake. 

For drier pursuits, you can visit the lavender farm or play golf or visit one of the island’s restaurants. Do a shot of bitters at Nelsen’s Hall and stop by the Fiddler’s Green to see if the local fishermen are having a sea shanty sing-a-long.

Rock Island: So Far Away Your Phone Thinks it’s in Michigan

Rock Island State Park is the farthest east you can venture and still be in the state of Wisconsin. 

The entire island is a state park and has hiking trails, historic beach rock buildings and the state’s oldest lighthouse. It takes two ferry rides to get here: the car ferry from the mainland to Washington Island, then the Karfi passenger ferry to Rock Island. 

The Karfi operates on the hour between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. most days during summer and fall, so you can make a day trip to check out the island. Campers have to carry in all their gear, so it’s a uniquely rustic state park experience.