Make Door County Lighthouses a vacation destination



Cana Island Lighthouse (J J photo)
Cana Island Lighthouse
(J Jacobs photo)

They are historic, they have saved lives. “They“ are the 11 sort-of tower-like, mid to late 19th century structures that are celebrated in Door County Wisconsin’s twice-a year Lighthouse Festivals.

If you saw Think lighthouses for next vacation  you know some are seen by water and others can be visited or viewed on land and that some are definitely off the proverbial beaten path.

But during the Lighthouse Festivals: Spring June 9-11 and Fall Sept. 29-Oct. 1, 2023, visitors can take boat and land tours that bring them up to and often, inside, many of these historic structures.

Or go to The Door, as it is popularly called, now through early October when four lighthouses are generally open to visitors and even more can be seen and photographed.

Your mission, if you accept it, is to see as many of The Door’s lighthouses as can be fit into a vacation. But remember this is a vacation so enjoy the Peninsula and divide the lighthouse sights into day destinations.

Doing the middle of the Peninsula from Lake side to Bay side

Two of the lighthouses, Cana Island off Highway Q near Baileys Harbor on Lake Michigan and Eagle Bluff in Peninsula State Park on Green Bay, are easy to visit spring through fall. They sit approximately opposite each other on the Peninsula so can fit into one day by taking County Road F across. 

Stop in their keeper’s rooms to see the furnishings and how they lived at the lighthouses. 

Eagle Bluff LTH in Peninsula State Park (JJ Jacobs photo)

Eagle Bluff LTH in Peninsula State Park (J Jacobs photo)

Both lighthouses are definitely worth a visit but save extra time for Cana Island whose tower is the most photographed in Door County. It has one of the last 3rd order Fresnel Lens of two still operating on the Great Lakes.  The lens, installed in 1869, can be viewed at the top of the tower. You’ll get your exercise in for the day or week because Cana has 97 steps up but the rewards are terrific views.

If the lake cooperates, the lighthouse and island are reached by walking across a sometimes wet, always stony, causeway or by taking a bumpy tractor-pulled, hay-wagon ride.

Operated by the Lighthouse Preservation Society and the Door County Maritime Museum which has three sites, Cana Island has a fine, new building on the lighthouse side of the causeway where visitors now pay to be on the island and visit the lighthouse. Stay for a short, good video, see a couple of exhibits and pick up information on lighthouses and the Maritime Museum.

Cana is a bit of a twisty drive from the town of Bailey’s Harbor. After seeing how Cana Island LTH is placed, visitors can better understand that lighthouses are on islands or a rocky tip of land.

While in the area, visit the Range Lights on Ridges Road. The big news is that visitors can, as of late May 2023, go inside the Upper Range Light which has been updated for volunteer lighthouse keepers to stay during the summer.

Visitors can park at The Ridges Sanctuary building, the Cook-Fuller Albert Nature Center that is downtown Bailey’s Harbor. Take its boardwalk to the Upper Range Lighthouse or park in the tiny lot across from the red-roofed Lower Range Light on Ridges Road and walk up the path. The two lights are still operating. When a boat has them lined up the lights are used to safely guide it. 

Lower Range Light at Baileys Harbor (JJ Jacobs photo)
Lower Range Light at Baileys Harbor (J Jacobs photo)

Another lighthouse is near there but it’s privately\ owned. Built in 1852 and called the Bird Cage because of its style of lantern room, it’s on a Baileys Harbor island. Deactivated in 1869 when the range lights were built, it can be seen on the lighthouse festival’s boat tour that leaves from Baileys Harbor Marina.

Go North

For a full day’s adventure head to Gill’s Rock where there is small gem of the Maritime Museum. Then take the Washington Island (Car) Ferry from neighboring Northport to Detroit Harbor on Washington Island. Tip: check the ferry schedule on-line ahead of time. It gets busy in the summer.

The ferry captain usually points out the lighthouses. Travelers can see the Pilot Island LTH and Plum Island Range Light’s tower. Plum Island is also open to visitors this summer.

The plus is that Washington Island is an interesting, multicultural place to visit. 

 In addition, another ferry continues north to Rock Island where the Pottawatomie LTH sits in Rock Island State Park and can be visited in the summer. First constructed in 1836, it is considered the earliest lighthouse in Door County. 

Rock Island LTH (Photo by Dan Eggert, courtesy of Destination Door County))

BTW, if you do venture across to Washington Island you are crossing waters the French called Port des Morts. With more than 275 shipwrecks, the waterway between Door County Peninsula and Washington Island became known as “Death’s Door.”

Well, not so much lately with well-built ships, but sometimes when the weather is really bad the Washington Island Ferry does not cross. Visit Traveling Death’s Door | Destination Door County   for more info.

However, given that people live on Washington Island, shop there and stay there, the ferry has regular summer and winter hours. 

Go South

A third day should include the impressive structures at the southern end of the Peninsula’s tourist region: the county seat of Sturgeon Bay.

Sturgeon Bay is divided by the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal that has the Sherwood Point Lighthouse on the southwestern edge of the canal and the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Light on the northeastern edge of the canal where there is a bridge and narrow walkway to the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal North Pierhead Light out in Lake Michigan. They are worth seeing in person and by water.

Sherwood Point LTH (Photo by Mike Tittel courtesy of Destination Door County)

Sherwood Point LTH is used by the military as a respite to be rented for active members. It is not on view except during the Lighthouse Walk, the second weekend of June which coincides with the end of the Spring Lighthouse Festival. Opened in 1883, it became the last of the Great Lakes lighthouses to be manned when automated in 1983.

The Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Light Tower on the northern edge of the canal opened in 1899 and became automated in 1972. Park near the station’s gate and walk on a driveway up to the seawall.

Then, in the “can’t-miss it” category is an impressive red structure that is the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal North Pierhead Light. The lower-level walkway out to the pierhead light is open to the public up to a painted line.

Whether the Sturgeon Bay lighthouses are at the starting or ending point of your lighthouse destination vacation, there is another must see structure in Sturgeon Bay. It looks like a lighthouse but it really is the newly compeleted Kress Tower of the Door County Maritime Museum.

Surrounded, as Door County is on three sides by water (not counting its ship canal), the many tales of the Peninsula’s watery life and boundaries are in three maritime museums – Sturgeon Bay, Gills Rock and Cana Island. 

Kress Maritime Museum Lighthouse Tower (Photo by Dan Eggert, courtesy of Destination Door County)

 The main one at Sturgeon Bay recently grew to 10 stories high as the Kress Maritime Museum Lighthouse Tower to tell all its tales. “It’s not really an official lighthouse,” said Executive Director Kevin Osgood. “But it is used by boats,” he added.

Osgood recommends starting in the Maritime Theatre and an interpretive center on the first floor for a video, then taking an elevator up to the Baumgartner Observation Deck on Floor 10 and walk down.

“You get an idea of the vastness of the area from the Observation Deck and the scale of the Tower,” he said. “Visitors can take the elevator but when you walk down to each floor you learn about the area’s history,” said Osgood. 

As an example, he pointed out that in the stairwell to “People of the Water” on Floor 8 that features Native Americans and early settlers, “You hear them speak their languages.” (Visit Native American Historical Sites for more information and Door County locations.)

All the floors are interesting, from geological formations (The Door has part of the Niagara Escarpment) to the Door’s ship building industry, but if you ferried over to Washington Island you might want to know more about what’s on Floor 2: Shipwrecks. Many of the shipwrecks are sitting in less than 60 feet of water. 

Figure at least an hour to do Kress Tower. But now that you’ve visited at least a few lighthouses and at least part of the Door County Maritime Museum (You had to be in one at Cana Island) you know that doing Door County lighthouses takes planning. Driving the Door takes time. Speed limits are strictly enforced and The Door is larger than first-time visitors expect.

If you crossed from Bailys Harbor to Peninsula State Park you saw that Door Peninsula is a large, agriculture-oriented finger separating Green Bay from Lake Michigan. The entire mass is about 80 miles long and 25 miles across and includes part of Brown and Kewaunee Counties. In addition, there are two more lighthouses on the Lake Michigan side: The Algoma and Kewaunee Pierhead LTHS at the very southern end of the larger peninsula land mass.

Whew! Visiting even a few of Door County’s lighthouse towers, range lights and pierheads becomes a different way to spend a vacation. However, the Door is also a destination known for its inns, boutiques, bistros, cherry orchards, wines and cheese. So go for it.

If you go:

Before you go  Visit Find Places to Stay in Door County | Destination Door County

When you first get thereAs you approach the tourist and lighthouse part of the Peninsula before you cross the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal, stop in at the visitors center called Destination Door County at 1015 Green Bay Rd., Sturgeon Bay to pick up a map of the county and a guidebook.








A Wisconsin fall getaway


Fall in Ephraim, (Photo by John Nienhuis and Door County)
Fall in Ephraim, (Photo by John Nienhuis and Door County)

Picture a small town where goats on a restaurant roof can cause a traffic jam in a county where visitors to its scenic towns often gather around huge outdoor pots to watch traditional fish boils.

It is Door County, a peninsula that separates the calm waters of Green Bay from turbulent waves of Lake Michigan and where the must-take-home items are chocolate covered cherries or cherry pies and the must-visit time of year is fall.

An easy drive from Green Bay’s airport, the route on the way to the Sturgeon Bay, the first vacation town on the peninsula, is dotted with the crimsons, golds and pinksm of changing leaves. And, as TV ads say, “But wait.” The colors keep intensifying, driving northwest along curving roads through picturesque villages.

Continue reading “A Wisconsin fall getaway”

Four Midwestern fall getaways within four hours


You don’t have to drive across country to find gorgeous tangerine and magenta vistas. Four easy-to-get-to Midwestern areas, Galena, IL, Geneva and Door County, WI and Bloomington/Brown County, IN, put on a color show that attract leaf-peepers as September merges into October. Sure there is good color throughout the region but these areas also have fun shops and good accommodation choices. You do need to make your reservation now, however, because they are not a secret. Best plan is to go during the week to avoid the crowds.

Biking around Eagle Ridge on the outskirts of Galena. (Eagle Ridge photo)
Biking around Eagle Ridge on the outskirts of Galena. (Eagle Ridge photo)


Galena, IL

Tucked into the northwest corner of Illinois at the Mississippi River, the town of Galena ripples down hilly streets and scenic roads. About a three hour drive northwest of Chicago, its hilly terrain is vastly different from Illinois’ Lake Michigan and prairie landscape. Leave time to  explore the Galena Territory where every road turn and over every hill there is another photo op and color-filled vista.

Shopping the town’s main street is delicious because there are wine-tasting places and yummy ice cream and candy shops. Check with your accommodations host for restaurants that have your favorite cuisine.

There are lots of good B&Bs in town and even a historic hotel. Or if looking for expansive color vistas consider Eagle Ridge Resort and Spa. Only 6 minutes from the village’s downtown in the Galena Territory, it has lots of room choices so is perfect for a family or girls getaway. Eagle Ridge also has horseback riding, hiking and biking trails and balloon tours.

Nearby, are a stage coach trail, fort and the scenic vistas of Galena’s Jo Davies County. There is usually a balloon, wine or other festival taking place in the area so with all the outdoor recreation and activities around you probably won’t need a book to fill slack time.


Play golf or just enjoy fall color at the Grand Geneva Resort on the outskirts of Lake Geneva, WI. (Grand Geneva photo)
Play golf or just enjoy fall color at the Grand Geneva Resort on the outskirts of Lake Geneva, WI. (Grand Geneva photo)


Lake Geneva WI

Do like Chicago’s upper crust used to do. Drive up to Lake Geneva across the Illinois border into Wisconsin. The town is still filled with estates but also has B&Bs and resorts. About 1 ½ hours north of Chicago, Lake Geneva has been a vacation destination since the 1800s.

Visitors can hear about the estates that border Geneva Lake. The lake here is called Geneva Lake but the town reverses that by calling itself Lake Geneva. Take a boat ride that also delivers the mail pier-side or an evening sunset cruise to hear about the estates or celebrate fall with a glass of wine.  The boat excursions are a good way to see some of the grand houses and resorts around the lake away from Lake Geneva. Motor boat rentals are also available.

To get away from the crowd after cruising shops and the lake and to see even more good color vistas, check the Grand Geneva for dinner or accommodations. It is just outside of town and the spa is a destination by itself.

A back road drive in Door County.
A back road drive in Door County.

Door County, WI

About four hours north of Chicago, the fun and scenic vacation destination of Door County is on a peninsula that pokes like a finger into the waters east of  the City of Green Bay. One side of The Door edges the watery way called Green Bay. The other side is lapped by the waves of Lake Michigan.

Bring a bike or rent one. Even though there are no traffic lights once past Sturgeon Bay where a canal allows boat traffic to cross, the car and pedestrian traffic of fall-color aficionados make moving from cute town to quaint town and good shops and restaurants to harbors and forest roads a bit slow on the Green Bay side. Driving the forests on the Lake Michigan side or crossing the peninsula between farms and fields is easier and just as colorful.

Bike or hike Peninsula State Park on Green Bay between Fish Creek and Ephraim. Go camera or smart phone ready to snap a ton of photos to download to Facebook or Instagram. To  try whitefish done the Door County way reserve a spot at a restaurant’s fish boil. Tip: check for the annual fall color festival then try to go the week before or after it for better chance at accommodations and restaurant reservations.

Hoosier National Forest in bloomington, IN puts on a fall color show. (Visit Bloomington photo
Hoosier National Forest in bloomington, IN puts on a fall color show. (Visit Bloomington photo

Bloomington/Brown County, IN

About three hours south of Chicago, Brown County’s boutique and arts-filled Nashville (no not TN) and Brown County State Park have arguably been a prime peeper destination long before other regional areas publicized their fall colors.

Possibly, it was because in neighboring Bloomington, which adds golds and oranges to its usual red and white colors, Indiana University students and their parents knew about Brown County’s fall transformation. But you don’t have to go to a football game here or take a class to become immersed in the area’s amazing fall kaleidoscope of color.

A good selection of accommodations can be found in Bloomington and Nashville. Tip: Look up IU’s football schedule so you don’t go that weekend. Better yet, go during the week anyway.



Jodie Jacobs





The Door: A heavenly vacation spot belies its death passage name

Hike, bike or take the Door County Trolley through Peninsula State Park for great views of Green Bay. Jodie Jacobs photos
Hike, bike or take the Door County Trolley through Peninsula State Park for great views of Green Bay. Jodie Jacobs photos

The best part of vacationing in Door County, WI is the way its delightful harbors make you feel you left work and daily stress miles back at the last stoplight.

The county actually begins back a ways on a thumb shaped peninsula that separates Lake Michigan from Green Bay (the body of water, not the city). There are a smattering of stoplights at its southern end.

But once you cross a drawbridge over Sturgeon Bay, a shipping waterway cut across the peninsula to  connect Lake Michigan to Green Bay, you enter a world where a curve in the road reveals yet another scenic view and where villages have a few scattered stop signs, not stop lights.

However, to experience the dangerous waters where Lake Michigan waves bump against those from Green Bay that give the peninsula its name, you should drive north about 40 miles from Sturgeon Bay to Gills Rock and then a short distance to Northport. There you would take a ferry across to Washington Island.

Among the stories floating between the peninsula and the island is a tale of how when one native tribe lured another tribe to cross from Washington Island to the peninsula, those who attempted the crossing died in the stormy waters, thus giving the crossing the name Death’s Door.

Safe? Yes, though sometimes the trip can be rocky. But the Washington Island Ferry is so popular the best plan is to check the season’s schedule and get to its departure ramp at Northport ahead of time so there is room for your car.

While exploring look for Island Stavkirke, a recreated 12th century Norwegian church and the Jacobsen Museum of island artifacts.

OK, you’re here, meaning at the Door County room, condo, guest house or cottage or other lodging you booked ahead of time, and you are already gazing out at the quiet blue expanse of Green Bay or the ever changing colors of Lake Michigan.

Ah, but an hour later comes the stomach rumble, so next is investigate food options. Do ask your accommodation manager because Door County is loaded with good restaurants and diners so choosing one is a matter of what kind of food you’re in the mood for and how far you want to go. Continue reading “The Door: A heavenly vacation spot belies its death passage name”

Last gasp of summer vacations within four hours of Chicago


Before becoming engulfed in everything fall from cool nights to school schedules, take a few days for one last summer break. Within four hours of Chicago there are restaurants and resorts with lake-side views, good spas and shopping, plus scenic boating and biking choices.

Gaze out from Peninsula State Park after hiking, biking or taking a trolley ride there. Photos by Jodie Jacobs
Gaze out from Peninsula State Park after hiking, biking or taking a trolley ride there. Photos by Jodie Jacobs


Door County, WI

About 3.5 hours north of Chicago is a finger-like peninsula that sticks so far out into Green Bay on one side and Lake Michigan on the other that there are almost too many scenic views for one trip.

The Door, as visitors and residents call it, begins halfway up in the fleshier part of the finger but the vacation destination begins at the Sturgeon Bay knuckle and continues  up the finger to Gills Rock. Some folks even cross the choppy waters north by ferry to Washington Island, an interesting day trip when time allows.

To make the most of your vacation, first nail down where to stay. The sailing, hiking, biking and the Door’s specialties of art gallery hopping and lighthouse touring can wait. But accommodations fill quickly.

Before deciding, you should know that the Lake Michigan side is known as the “quiet side” because the small towns are nestled further apart among the forests. The Green Bay side is dotted with small bustling villages, restaurants, shops and inns.

But it doesn’t take long to cross The Door’s farmland in between so neither side is a bad choice. Both sides have state parks.

To stay amid the action, look at places on the Bay side from Fish Creek to Ephraim to Sister Bay. For quiet side accommodations, look at Baileys Harbor.

The best way to find lodging is to go to Door County, click Availability or Stay. If still not sure call the bureau at 800-527-3529 because they are very helpful.

“One of our primary things to do is help people find a place to stay,” said Communications Director Jon Jarosh.

The web site lists lots of activities but if you want a map and brochures stop at the Visitors Bureau after where WI Highways 57 and 42 connect at 1015 Green Bay Rd. on the south end of Sturgeon Bay.


Galena, IL

Downtown Galena is a historic and yummy place to be.
Downtown Galena is a historic and yummy place to be.


Tucked into the northwest corner of Illinois about three hours from Chicago are the scenic rolling hills of the Galena Territory and the historic town of Galena, home to Ulysses S. Grant with tie-ins to Abraham Lincoln.

Indeed more than 80 percent of Galena has historic district designations.

But a trip here isn’t just about going back in time. Situated on the Galena River and near the Mississippi, it’s a picturesque river-town edged with steep, photo-op streets.

Shopping its main street is delicious because there are wine-tasting places and yummy ice cream and candy shops.

Nearby, are the stage coach trail, fort and scenic vistas of Galena’s Jo Davies County. There is usually balloon or Wine or other festival taking place in the area.

Accommodations here range from charming B&Bs and inns to resorts.

If interested in combining golf, spa treatment or hiking, a good place to stay is the Eagle Ridge Resort on the outskirts of town at  444 Eagle Ridge Drive, Galena and at (800) 892-2269.

If interested in a Labor Day Weekend stay check out its special events and guest rate package.

To learn more about the area and find other lodging choices visit Galena.


Lake Geneva, WI  

Boats pull up at piers around Geneva Lake.
Boats pull up at piers around Geneva Lake.


Closer to Chicago is the town and lake where some of the city’s elite used to vacation and where some urbanites still have homes and cottages. It’s Lake Geneva on Geneva Lake and the small towns nearby.

From Chicago’s northern suburbs, the drive is about 1.5 hours but don’t try to make it faster than the posted speed limit. Some of the small towns along the route add to their coffers with speeding tickets.

However, Lake Geneva is an easy, fun getaway for folks who like to hike, bike, golf or enjoy water sports.

A great way to hear about the estates around the lake is to take the mail boat which pauses, sort-of, at some piers for postal deliveries.

Because the Lake Geneva area has been a vacation destination since before the turn of the last century, there are lots of lodging choices from contemporary to vintage and from resorts and B&Bs to inns and condos. To fit in golf or a spa treatment, consider the Grand Geneva outside of town.

For accommodation availability visit Lake Geneva and enter your arrival and departure dates.


So, instead of looking at the calendar with dismay that summer is just about gone, fit in a getaway. You deserve it.




Become a fall color connoisseur

It is not too early to plan your fall color excursion.  Indeed, it might even be too late if you expected to snag a weekend B&B or hotel room in such popular “leaf peeper” destinations as Door County in Wisconsin, Brown County in Indiana and Bennington and Addison Counties in Vermont.

The Alto Pass overlook and Shawnee Forest south of Carbondale, IL is worth a fall trip
The Alto Pass overlook and Shawnee Forest south of Carbondale, IL is worth a fall trip

Those are great fall destinations, but they are not the only places to celebrate nature’s coat of many colors.

Here are some guidelines to fit color around your schedule:

Consider your timeline and be flexible.

  1. Expect color seekers to crowd the roads on weekends so try to schedule your trip for during the week to see more than the back bumper of the car ahead. Early in the week is also best to find a choice of accommodations and restaurants.
  2. Based on past years, towns typically hold their fall fests during a top color weekend but nature’s show usually starts a couple of weeks before and continues a couple of weeks after the festival so you might have better reservation luck just before or after the hoopla.
  3. Try a new destination that will best fit your schedule.  To help you, most states have a fall color chart that is updated weekly. Even if the chart does not yet show color the state site usually has suggested color routes and a guide to what shrubs and trees change and when.
  4. The second week of October tends to be prime time almost all across the country from Connecticut to Colorado so to avoid the color jams look north for an early trip or south for a later one.

    Door County, Wisconsin shows its true colors every fall
    Door County, Wisconsin shows its true colors every fall
  • For an early fall color trip check the color charts put out by cold-weather states such as Minnesota, Wisconsin and northern Michigan. Spectacular mid-September color comes to the North Shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota, the west end of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and the woods north of Michigan’s Traverse City.
  • Trees on the Leelanau and Mission Peninsulas next to Traverse typically pull out the paint tubes late September to early October due to the still warm waters of Lake Michigan and Traverse Bay. The same is true of Door County, a peninsula that sticks out like a thumb into Green Bay and Lake Michigan.
  • Don’t worry that you missed the show if you can’t get away until the end of October. Look at charts for the southern tips of a state. Leaves tend to change later in the southern parts of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Missouri where scenic cliff, rolling hills and meandering waterways add another component to the getaway. Drive from Brown County, Indiana and the Hocking Hills in Ohio south to the Ohio River for late fall color. Or drive through the national and state forests of Tennessee from east to west from October into November.

    Some of the best fall viewing is from the hills of the Leelanau and Mission Peninsulas
    Some of the best fall viewing is from the hills of the Leelanau and Mission Peninsulas

Do you really just want to see red?

Obvious as it may seem, the hot color spots are related to tree types. Vermont is popular because it is maple country – yeah, maple syrup.  However, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana and Illinois also have an abundance of maple trees.  But except for evergreens, you can find forest paths among shades of gold, copper and oranges to make your fall trip a photo odyssey.

Here is a sampling of fall color charts and sites. Please add your favorite fall foliage destination in comments.

Check Federal properties of the US Forest Service or call the US fall color hotline at 1-800-354-4595.

Also, look for the state and regional  suggested fall drives for places off the beaten track such as the Traverse City area, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Vermont.

Other fall color drives: Virginia

Coming up: Questions you ought to ask before you book your accommodations