October trip to Door County, Wisconsin for fall colors

About a dozen of us were standing or sitting on benches in a semicircle around a boiling black kettle, flames licking its side from the stacked cordwood fires surrounding its base. The steaming cauldron seemed well suited to the cold mid-October evening. Many were in calm and principled conversations, many were holding cameras and we all seemed to have a proactive demeanor.

“Ready your camera?” asked a loud voice in the darkness.”

The boil master, Jeremy, stepped forward with a coffee can in his hand, bent at the waist, and dumped the contents of the can into the base of the fire. With a powerful sound, the cauldron was surrounded by an explosive fireball that reached into the sky. A wave of hot air rushed outward briefly, pushing away the brisk autumn night as cries of awe escaped everyone.

Jeremy and his assistant quickly, using a pole, lifted the basket and its contents from the boiler. They walked to the back door of the Old Post Office Restaurant in the picturesque village of Ephraim and announced: “Dinner is served.”

Boil fish in Door County; With a powerful sound, the cauldron was surrounded by an explosive fireball that reached into the sky
Boil fish in Door County; With a powerful sound, the cauldron was surrounded by an explosive fireball that reached into the sky. Photography by Frank Hosek

Boiling fish is a Door County culinary tradition

The Door County Fish Boil is an offer with dinner. This fire tradition dates back to Scandinavian immigrants who settled on the eastern Wisconsin peninsula. Searching for a way to economically feed dozens of loggers or field workers, creative chefs turn to the surrounding waters and their abundant white fish. Add some potatoes and onions and you have a quick and delicious meal.

Today, tourists are mesmerized by the large fire under a kettle of salted water. When the water boils, add the onions and red potatoes. Finally, the fish fillets are dropped. When the water returns to a boil, the fish oils rise to the top of the kettle and slide over the water. At that point, with a dramatic flourish, the boiling master throws kerosene onto the flame, resulting in a dramatic “boiling.” Pour fish oils on the side and extinguish the flames. Add some sweet bread and a slice of cherry pie, another Door County staple, and enjoy dinner.

The famous fish boil is just the opening of stunning perpetual fall color in one of Wisconsin’s most popular destinations. We’ve been making the trek north for over a decade. Fall is the time when Door County comes into its own. Guides take in the stunning foliage as the trees begin their magnificent transformation. With warm days and cool nights, this is a great time to get out and experience Door County.

Sturgeon Bay

Sturgeon Bay is the county seat and gateway to a rural peninsula with small-town appeal. As we crossed one of the three drawbridges over the Sturgeon Bay Channel, we could see the rust-stained hulls of a pair of Great Lake “boats” moored in the channel. Long a shipbuilding center on Lake Michigan, the city of about 10,000 still serves the maritime needs of the Great Lakes.

Door County is surrounded by two dramatic coastlines with Green Bay on one side and Lake Michigan on the other. It is connected by a canal. On the day of our arrival, the blustery October weather decided to give everyone an early taste of the coming winter. Winds of 30 mph provided a wind chill of 20 degrees. Whitecaps raced across the lake before crashing onto the shores surrounded by vibrant forests.

The vibrant colors of Door County’s woods were the main reason we ventured north on this raw October day. We continued on to our final destination, the Country House Resort perched on a bluff overlooking Sister Bay. Set on 27 wooded acres, landscaping is everything here. Our second-floor room with a balcony gave us a perfect view of the grounds and waters of Sister Bay. A short but steep path takes you to the water’s edge and a nature trail will eventually lead you to the village itself.

There are over 800 acres of apple orchards in Door County
There are over 800 acres of apple orchards in Door County. Photography by Frank Hosek

Apples, cakes, and back roads

In the morning, we stopped at the Seaquist Orchards Farm Market, located at the north end of the village. Seaquist is one of many orchards with more than 800 acres of apple orchards throughout the county. Their market offers a variety of jams, sauces, and spreads along with a variety of apples and fresh baked goods.

If you’re going to have a windy day of leaf peeping, it’s wise to have something to conserve your energy. A bag of Honeycrisp apples and a dozen apple cider donuts seemed like a good start as we set off.

At 18 miles wide at its widest point, it’s impossible to get lost in Door County. The peninsula is surrounded by water. Drive in any direction and you’ll eventually find your way to one of the two highways that make up the area. Which makes for great in-the-moment exploration. Turn onto one of the many county highways and you never know what you might encounter.

Curvy Weaving Twisty Trail in Door County near Gill's Rock. Photography by Frank Hosek
Curvy Weaving Twisty Trail in Door County near Gill’s Rock. Photography by Frank Hosek

Explore Door County’s Parkside and winding roads

Parks large and small line both sides of Lake Michigan and Green Bay on the peninsula. A narrow two-lane road leads us down a tunnel of yellow and gold trees to a boardwalk that takes you to the edge of 100-foot limestone cliffs. It features a viewing platform protruding from the cliff, providing unforgettable views.

From there we searched the famous Curvy Weaving Twisty Road. This winding stretch of road on Highway 42 is located midway between Gills Rock and Northport. It is located at the northern tip of the peninsula where the road curves east from Gills Rock toward the Washington Island Car Ferry. About 1.5 miles from Gills Rock, the winding road appears out of nowhere for no apparent reason. You will need to get out of the car and stand in the middle of the road to enjoy its unique view.

Rippling waters at Cave Point Provincial Park
Rippling waters at Cave Point Provincial Park. Photography by Frank Hosek

Local brewery and winery

We ended the day’s adventures with a little treat from Sister Bay’s first microbrewery, Peach Barn Farmhouse and Brewery. Relaxing in the newly opened dining room near the cozy pellet stove with an array of their selections was a great way to unwind.

The next day, with warm sun and calmer breezes, we took a favorite hike to Cave Point Provincial Park. The park is located near Jacksonport, located on the Lake Michigan side of the county. It is 19 acres and hugs the edge of the rocky cliffs that jut precariously above the lake. Centuries-long Lake Michigan storms send crashing waves crashing into limestone cliffs, creating caverns and vents that can send torrents of water skyward like geysers.

From the park, we drove to the little crossroads in Carlsville. The distillery is the first in the region to produce vodka, gin, and fruit-infused vodka distilled with limestone-infused water from the Door Peninsula.

They source as much as they can from Wisconsin and make all 60 wines and ciders on-site. At this time of year, Mummy Moscato, Witches Brew, and Halloween seemed to be particularly popular.

The gleaming white tower of Cana Island rises high above the one-story yellow brick keeper's house.
The gleaming white tower of Cana Island rises high above the one-story yellow brick keeper’s house. Photography by Frank Hosek

The historical lighthouses From the Al-Bab District

As we crossed past harvested fields and a wide palette of colorful forests, we found ourselves at the Cana Island Light House in Baily’s Harbor on the east side of for a unique perspective of Lake Michigan, head to the peninsula. With its majestic 89-foot tower, this idyllic lighthouse looks the way most people think a lighthouse should look.

The gleaming white tower rises high above the one-story yellow brick keeper’s house and sometimes exceeds the treetops of the island. A bridge connects Qana Island to the mainland. Visitors can usually walk to the lighthouse. However, when high water levels make wading more than a cakewalk, a range of trailers and tractors are available for those who want to stay dry.

The lighthouse was recently reopened after a 13-year, four-phase restoration plan and project to preserve and protect the 153-year-old structure. We climbed 97 steps of a narrow, cast-iron spiral staircase to emerge to the outdoor observation deck at the top of the steel-clad brick tower overlooking Lake Michigan.

It was an extraordinary sight.

We had a beautiful, picturesque 3 days wandering the peninsula as we enjoyed the crops, history, and gorgeous bursts of crimson, russet, and gold October foliage in Door County.

Fall begins with stunning foliage as trees begin their magnificent transformation in Door County, Wisconsin
Fall begins with stunning foliage as trees begin their magnificent transformation in Door County, Wisconsin. Photography by Frank Hosek

If you go:

Door County, Wisconsin is located approximately 2 hours (154 miles) via I-43 N from Milwaukee.

Author Bio: Frank Hosek is a Human Resources Manager in Illinois and enjoys traveling with his wife, Cathy.

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