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Nomad's Notebook

Lighting the Way

Travel to Door County to trek through untouched islands and climb some of the country’s most storied lighthouses with breathtaking views.

It’s hard to imagine a place more nautical, rugged and beloved as Door County, Wis. The county, a peninsula that juts out into Lake Michigan, is home to 11 lighthouses, 34 named islands and dozens more memorable quirks – like the area’s affection for cheese curds, cherries, salted caramel desserts and fish boils.

Our journey took us to six of the 11 lighthouses in Door County– some a bit more isolated (and peaceful) than others. Most are still active lighthouses charged with guiding fishermen along the often treacherous (but beautiful) waterways. We even safely traversed through the infamous Death’s Door – a passage known for its ominous waters and changing winds that has claimed many floundering ships.

We chartered a boat to visit some of the hard to reach lighthouses off the mainland. The air was warm in early June but with the wind whipping off of the lake, where the water was reportedly still in the 30s, we bundled up in scarves and sweatshirts. We traveled to Rock Island State Park (only accessible by boat or ferry) to find a windy and sprawling island that was more enticing and tranquil the farther we walked.

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After a 1.25 mile hike, we emerged upon Pottawatomie Lighthouse completed in 1836 – the oldest of Door County’s lighthouses. The light tower, attached to the inn-keeper’s home (where docents take turns sleeping at and caring for the house) seems as if it’s part of a secret garden that transports you back a century in time.

We also ventured onto Plum Island, an untouched and nearly abandoned island that, thanks to a group of dedicated volunteers, is starting to breathe new life. The island, which should open to the public by the end of this year, originally served as a lifesaving station for boats. Now, as a protected home for endangered species, it’s the perfect place to spot a bald eagle swoop down and catch its prey.

Our journey also took us past the eerie and desolate Pilot Island – a sight best observed from afar. Birds flock to the island, covering every inch of the bare tree trunks that shoot like spears into the air. The lighthouse, which still operates today, is set in the middle of all that emptiness.

Still, some of my most memorable moments of Door County don’t include the lighthouses … like the slinky, accordion-style road that forces drivers to brake and swerve with care on Highway 42. Or the goats that happily graze upon Al Johnson’s grass roof in Sister Bay. And the addicting cheese curds (small balls of fried Wisconsin cheese) served at restaurants across the peninsula.

There’s certainly a lot more to Door County than a rocky coastline.

Plan your trip:

STAY AT the Village Green Lodge for savory, homemade breakfasts.

Eat at Wilson’s Restaurant & Ice Cream Parlor for cheese curds and a root beer frosty – Wilson’s twist on the root beer float.

Stop by Rowleys Bay Resort for a classic, Door County fish boil. Don’t leave without a loaf of Swedish cardamom coffee cake.

Go to Fred & Fuzzy’s Waterfront Bar & Grill for a cherry juice margarita made with Door County cherries.

Climb the 97 steps to the top of the popular Cana Island Lighthouse to view the rare, third order Fresnel lens.