Several years ago Jarrett and I read an article about a place nicknamed the “Cape Cod of the Midwest.” To locals it’s just called Door County, Wis., a 70-mile long peninsula along Lake Michigan that is dotted with resort communities and pastoral farm land. But every year, more than 2 million visitors flock to the region, which boasts five state parks, 11 historic lighthouses, and more than 50 beaches and parks.
Intrigued by what we read and the pictures we saw, we had tucked the travel idea away for the future. Then finally our grand tour of Michigan this past summer provided the perfect opportunity to explore this slice of Wisconsin a bit, which we did from the comfort of Wagon Trail Campground in Ellison Bay.
The Door County region is replete with a variety of touring opportunities. In many ways it reminded us of the diverse experiences we encountered while visiting the Outer Banks. From the food (fish boils are the thing to do) and the art scene, to the historical and outdoor recreational fun, there is something for everyone to do here.
Because Door County is composed of small resort communities, the first thing we noticed about the peninsula is that everything was pricey. (It is nicknamed the “Cape Cod of the Midwest” after all. 🙂 ) The good news is that even if you are on a budget (like us!) there are plenty of ways to enjoy the rich historical, cultural, and natural world of Door County. Here’s our round up of family-friendly activities that won’t deplete your wallet.
For a quick overview of the region, here’s a video of all the fun we had while exploring Door County, Wis.
This spot was once dubbed the “best small museum in the Midwest” and we found it completely charming. It offers a variety of hands-on areas for the kiddos and beautifully designed displays, including a wildlife diorama and an old-fashioned Door County street scene. The museum is free to explore, but they welcome donations.
We visited several of Door County’s lighthouses, including Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal North Pierhead Light, where you can walk past the Coast Guard Station and out onto the lighthouse pier for no charge. (Just be sure you stay within the painted lines–and don’t cross over onto Coast Guard property!)
For a completely different experience, we sloshed through a causeway to reach Cana Island Lighthouse and then paid to climb 97 steps to the top to take in the view. This lighthouse visit was a bit pricey for a family, so if you are tight on cash, skip this stop and visit the Ridges Sanctuary instead (details below) where you can visit the historic range lights.
A rain storm provided the perfect excuse to seek shelter and a sweet treat. 🙂 So while it poured outside, we savored some ice cream and took the free, self-guided milking parlor tour. Then once the rain had passed, the kids enjoyed the outdoor play yard and seeing the pens of baby farm animals.
Door County is one of the top cherry producing regions in the country, and cherry trees were just coming into season during the time of our visit. So when we passed Seaquist Orchards we stopped on a whim. While I sampled cherry jellies, Jarrett and the kids had a blast tackling the giant rope maze and play yard.
This beautiful spot includes an engaging nature center and the opportunity to hike through the site’s distinctive topography, which features a series of 30 ridges and swales formed by the movement of Lake Michigan over hundreds of years. It’s also home to 25 native orchids and the endangered Hine’s Emerald Dragonfly.
We went on a guided hike, which included a visit to one of the Baileys Harbor Range Lights. Then later we explored the (free!) Family Discovery Trail, which is designed to engage kids with nature in fun and imaginative ways. From stations where kids can build shelters and bridges, or spots where bug nets and discovery backpacks are ready and waiting, it’s just an amazing opportunity for children to explore the natural world.
The visitor’s center and Family Discovery Trail are free to explore. To hike the ridges, admission is $5 for adults (or $8 for guided hikes), and children are free.
This county park is adjacent to one of the state parks, but whereas the state parks charge an entrance fee, the county park is free. Visitors are drawn to Cave Point’s underwater caves and wave-worn limestone cliffs, where some brave souls plunge off and into the water.
Note: The coast line of this park consists of sharp drop offs and slippery rocks. Exploring this location is best suited for older children.
And for another fun experience, we took the kids to Renard’s Cheese where you can enjoy free samples of a Door County specialty: cheese curds that squeak in your teeth.
Few places can claim authentic Swedish cuisine, with goats who graze on the sod roof, but you can experience just that when you visit Door County. Al Johnson’s family-owned restaurant has become a bit of a legend in the area, and even if you don’t get a chance to eat there, you can still drive by to see the goats on the roof–which kids think is a hoot!
This beach was a bit challenging to find, but we were glad we persisted because it was a fun spot for the kids to try skipping perfectly smooth rocks into the lake. To get to Pebble Beach from South Bay Shore Drive, turn onto Little Sister Hill Road, make a sharp left onto Pebble Beach Road, continue past the Little Sister Cemetery, to the bottom of the road. We parked along the side of the road (being careful not to block any driveways), and at the bottom of the hill was the access point. There is only a small slice of the beach area that is not marked private property (like maybe 20-25 feet wide; it’s really not a lot). Signs and driftwood markers indicate where the private property begins. Additionally, it is illegal to take any of the smooth pebbles with you. (But pictures are free! :))
Another similar pebble beach (that is open to the public) is located on Washington Island, but we skipped that stop this time since the ferry ride over was pretty hefty for our whole family.
So that’s a round up of places to visit in Door County that won’t break the bank. If you have any more frugal family fun tips for Door County, leave us a comment below!