Door County and Its State Parks

Hi everyone,

The trivia question goes something like this: “Name the Wisconsin county with the most state parks.”

The answer is Door County with five.

This question is followed by: “Name them.”

The answer is Potawatomi, Peninsula, Whitefish Dunes, Newport, and Rock Island.

Rock Island is the only state park we didn’t visit on our recent trip to Door County. This 912 acre park is located on an island off the tip of Door County in Lake Michigan. It’s accessible by making two ferry rides (from Gills Rock to Washington Island, then from Washington Island to Rock Island, a distance of six miles). The only other method is by private watercraft. In other words, it’s hard to get to! No wheeled vehicles are allowed on Rock Island so the only way to get around on the island is by foot. This state park does have several primitive campsites with pit toilets. Bathing is in the cold water of Lake Michigan or via a “PTA.” If you don’t know what that is ask a nurse! We’ll make it over there sometime in the future even if it’s just to say that we’ve visited all five state parks in Door County.

In this post, I’ll take you on a brief tour of the four more accessible state parks in Door County. I’ll start with the state park I’m most familiar, Potawatomi. I’ve written about this park a number of times. We’ve served as campground hosts in this park, this year was our fourth. In July. The park was crazy busy with campers (125 sites), hikers, bikers, boaters, and sightseers. After our hosting duties ended, we stayed a few extra days to enjoy the park and other sites in Door County.

Potawatomi State Park is located in lower Door County near the largest town in the county, Sturgeon Bay. It sits on 1225 acres (~500 ha) bordering the Bay of Green Bay. The terrain is generally rolling with a few steep slopes and limestone cliffs. 

My Traveling Partner and I hiked a couple of miles of the Ice Age Trail that lie within the park. As we walked along the shoreline, we marveled at the quiet, broken only by the waves lapping against the shoreline. While the path was mostly level, we had to step carefully to avoid tripping on the many exposed tree roots and rocks. 

On our journey, we saw this structure along the shoreline. It’s a U. S. Coast Guard warning to boaters of the rocks and shallow water.

The berries were turning red, the birds where enjoying the fresh fruit! The sumac was showing its conical flower, soon the leaves will begin to turn color indicating that Fall is coming.

The woodpeckers really worked over this tree. Note the rectangular holes, an indicator that it was made by a pileated woodpecker.

We also walked another trail at Potawatomi, the Ancient Shorelines Nature Trail. This half mile trail with information stations along the path, tell the geological story of the rise and fall of Lake Michigan over thousands of years. This path is easy and educational for families with young children. For us more senior folks, there’s even a reference to a 60’s rock band that is still going strong!

The next park, ,Whitefish Dune State Park is located on the Lake Michigan side of the Door County peninsula. This park boasts a mile of shoreline with sandy beaches and the tallest sand dunes in Wisconsin. The park was quite busy on the day of our visit. After entering the park, there is ample parking with easy access to the rugged shoreline and the popular beach. Since it was warm, there were a lots of visitors heading to the beach to enjoy the cool Lake Michigan waters.

This park has several hiking trails including one that takes hikers to the very popular, adjacent Cave Point County Park. I should note, there isn’t any overnight camping in this park.

This year, we made our very first visit to Newport State Park near the tip of Door County. We’ve driven by this park a number of times but never stopped. We were motivated by a visit in early July by The Eldest and The Son-in-Law. They were wowed by the Monarch Waystation at the entrance. They reported seeing an estimated 150 monarchs stopping on their way to someplace further north. Our visit was a few weeks later, we only saw two monarchs but surveyed the Waystation for the plant material required. We are planning to install a Waystation in our yard, I just have get over my hangup of planting milkweed. We have most of the other plants required. If you are interested in learning more about the Monarch Waystation Program, click here.

Nearby was a pollinator garden. Again, we have most of the plant materials required to establish our own pollinator garden. 

Newport is the only wilderness designated state park in Wisconsin. It is also a Dark-sky preserve that restricts artificial light pollution so as to view the night sky.

We parked in lot 3 at the end of the road, then walked to the beach where the night viewing is reportedly superb. We vowed to make a night visit when we return to Door County in late September. Then the sunset and dark sky will be much earlier!

The beach was popular the day of our visit. There were a number of families enjoying the shallow, clear water.

Newport also offers many miles of hiking trails and hike-in backpack camping in addition the beach and picnic area.

The fourth Door County state park I’ll take you to today is Peninsula. It was one of the first state parks establish in Wisconsin. It’s also one of the most visited with over a million visitors per year and the third largest at nearly 4000 acres. Peninsula State Park lies along eight miles of the Bay of Green Bay shoreline. The park features a lighthouse (Eagle Bluff), a couple of nice (and popular) beaches, and miles of hiking and biking trails. The outdoor Northern Sky Theater is located within the park with evening performances from June through August. There are two golf courses, an eighteen hole and a six-hole short course, plus a pro-shop and a club house. The campground with 468 sites is popular with the camping crowd. A word to the wise, make reservations well ahead of time, especially for weekend camping.

The gateway to Peninsula State Park is in the village of Fish Creek. Nearly all the roads in Door County are of the two-lane variety. So on weekends and holidays, traffic around and in Peninsula is quite heavy. Needless to say there’s a lot of see and do in and around Peninsula State Park.

On this visit to Peninsula, our goal was to see and try the newly constructed Eagle Tower that opened in May of 2021. The previous tower was closed in 2015 due to structural and safety concerns. The cost of the new tower was $3.5 million! Now that’s a lot of money but it’s ADA compliant, complete with ramps that take visitors over sixty feet above the limestone bluffs. To me, it looks like quite a feat of engineering and worth every dollar spent. We, like most visitors, walk the 850 foot ramp to the top for a panoramic view of the bay.

The alternative to the ramp is the ninety-five stairs from the sidewalk to the viewing platform. More visitors take the stairs down than up, at least according to my brief observation!

We so enjoyed the walk up, we took it down after spending time gawking at the beautiful scenery. The ramp winds through the surrounding forest to give visitors a multi-level look at the habitat, a side benefit of the ramp.

Part of the cost of the Eagle Tower was raised by the Friends of Peninsula State Park ($750,000). Most state parks have a “Friends” group that does volunteer work and raise funds for park improvements. This supplements the money appropriated by the state legislature and the fees assessed on users use (entry and camping).

That’s a brief tour of four of the five state parks in Door County. If you find yourself in “The Door”, don’t forget the state parks! Up next week, the Door County Maritime Museum.

Until then, happy travels.


4 thoughts on “Door County and Its State Parks

  1. Hello Tom, I enjoyed your great photos, one of our favorite areas in Wisconsin, I’ve tried to ride the Rails to Trails in Wisconsin. These bicycle trails connect the small world communities in Wisconsin when the trains were king, and the fastest way to travel on a Saturday night.

    Stay safe, stay healthy, encourage the vaccine.



    1. Thanks for checking in Fred. Lots of bike trails in Door County, most bikers stay off the main highways due to heavy traffic.

  2. Thanks for this post, Tom. Although we only lived in Green Bay for 3 years, one of our favorite memories to this day was doing a lot of cross-country skiing on the golf course at Peninsula those winters. Then, of course, we rewarded ourselves at Al Johnson’s.

    1. Thanks for checking in Paul. Door County in the winter is fabulous, less traffic and pristine scenery. We overheard some of the locals talking about the traffic jams around Al Johnson’s. Over the past few years they’ve expanded with an open air bar that serves pub food. This year they limited hours for the restaurant, not enough staff.

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