Story and photos by Chuck Graham
Standing at an overlook in Peninsula State Park, on Door County Peninsula in Wisconsin, it was difficult to imagine the surrounding waters of Green Bay, an arm of Lake Michigan, being anything other than tame.
Fall is a magical time in Door County, and for the few days I spent there, the density and diversity of fall colors were at their peak and thoroughly intoxicating. Many locals were saying fall arrived late. Typically, by late October, leaf-peeping is on the downturn. I was grateful for its tardiness.
“We nailed it,” said Jon Jarosh, of Destination Door County. “Fall colors are peaking right now.”
Brilliant limestone headlands where massive groves of birch, cedar and maple trees stood tall were cloaked in vibrant shades of red, orange, yellow, and lime green.
“I love the cedars,” continued Jarosh. “They can grow out of nothing.”
Whatever trail I chose to ramble across, I was literally swallowed up by the intense hues. There are 20 miles of hiking trails in Peninsula State Park, but there are also 20 miles of biking trails. At 4,000 acres, it’s Wisconsin’s third largest state park, a beautiful region of Door County amongst its 280 peninsular coastal miles.
Cloud cover was incessant, but the moody weather only enhanced the contrast as diffused light thwarted any shadows from creeping in on the stunning saturation.
Peninsula State Park is well-equipped for accommodating visitors that want to soak in the stunning color. You can drive on your own to convenient overlooks fortified in craggy limestone, or you can enjoy a fun trolley ride with Door County Trolley.
I was fortunate to be driven by guide John Berns, a long-time, well-known mainstay of Door County. His knowledge of the 70-mile-long peninsula, coupled by his clever wit, made for a memorable experience in Peninsula State Park. When I jumped onto the trolley, I grabbed the seat right behind him. I didn’t want to miss a thing.
“The coffee at Blue Horse is my favorite,” said Berns, sipping on his brew. “It’s my starter fluid in the morning.”
It seemed like his coffee worked, as he turned on the local charm, telling anyone listening all we needed to know about Door County. Once we entered the state park, he made sure everyone had their cameras handy as we slowly approached each scenic lookout.
“Get those cameras ready,” said Berns, as he crept the fire engine-red trolley from one epic lakescape overlook to the next. “Now, is this beautiful or what?”
I wasn’t about to argue with Berns. Virtually everywhere I turned in the state park was gorgeous, but that was literally the case throughout Door County.
After the trolley, I headed back to the state park, spending some time on the Sentinel Trail, beneath the canopy of fall color. The park also has a recently constructed tower with roughly 100 steps leading to its apex. There’s a long ramp for the physically challenged that leads to its top. The entire project cost $9 million, but according to Jarosh, the state has already received its bang for the buck.
“I think within the first year of completion,” recalled Jarosh, “they got their moneys’ worth from it.”
It was an impressive work of architecture that melded into the Great Lakes landscape. Taking the stairs delivered me to the overlook on the west side of the peninsula, fall colors galore hovering above light blue waters. However, the ramp that gradually ascended every level of the forest was the way to go. It allowed me to stroll up into the canopy with unobstructed views while surrounded in a potpourri of vivid luminosity.
THE RIDGES SANCTUARY
After leaving the crisp and cool lakeshore, I drove on winding roads, leaving fall colors behind, but just for the morning. Several hundred feet above Lake Michigan, I found myself at The Ridges Sanctuary, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving Door County’s serene boreal forests. In fact, this is the furthest south in the U.S. where a boreal forest exists. The preserve was founded in 1937 and is Wisconsin’s first land trust.
Led by a knowledgeable naturalist, a group of us followed her on a sturdy boardwalk built above flowing creeks and crystal-clear swales. Home to river otters, chipmunks, owls, fishers, minks, and an absurd number of delicate orchids, 29 in all. The tranquil preserve educates the public about the ecological balance of these sensitive habitats.
All along the well-maintained paths, interpretive signs explained the role of the much more humid boreal forest, its natural water seeps, and its secretive inhabitants like the endangered Hine’s emerald dragonfly, busy crayfish and pitcher plants, and what their roles are in the boreal habitat.
LIGHTING THE WAY
Continuing along the boardwalk led us to an open area where the path was long, maybe a couple 100 yards east and west. On either end of the path was a pair of lights, the Baileys Harbor Range Lights.
Built in 1869, the upper and lower range lights are the only lighthouses of this design. The upper light was constructed 39 feet above the lake. The lower light was built 22 feet above the waterline. Back in the day, to aid ships in navigating unpredictable shoals, sailors vertically aligned the white light of the upper range light with the red beacon of the lower range light. Today, it’s still a functioning navigational tool. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989.
In all, there are 11 lighthouses surrounding Door County Peninsula. Built between 1836 and 1899, 10 of those lighthouses are still active. During that “lake-faring” era, the peninsula was originally known as “Death’s Door,” due to 250 shipwrecks scattered on the lake floor surrounding the picturesque peninsula.
“The tallest buildings in Door County are lighthouses,” explained Jarosh. “Cana Lighthouse is very ‘lighthousy’ because it’s tall. All other lighthouses are built on limestone bluffs.”
We were permitted to enter the lighthouse keeper’s living quarters and take a step back in time to a simpler life, but also a harsh one. From here we heard the surf crashing on deserted beaches. Yes, there are real waves on the Great Lakes. I saw standup paddlers and surfers alike riding wind-driven swells that capped across ever-shifting shoals stretching for miles in open water. It’s those same shoals that wreaked havoc on many a ship with only lighthouses brightening the vessels’ path.
WHITEFISH DUNES STATE PARK
Along with empty, breathtaking beaches and uneven surf, there were also sand dunes to explore within the seasonal splendor.
Volunteer naturalist Michael Madden, a retired educator, revealed his vast knowledge of the unique lakeside sand dune biome at Whitefish Sand Dunes State Park. A 1.5-mile loop took us through several different habitats as a cacophony of chipmunks chirped and white-breasted nuthatches “yank, yanked” along the first half of our hike.
“You can hike with me through all the different colors up to the high point in the park,” said Madden, who’s been a volunteer at Whitefish since 1994. “We’ll get a little elevation at the turnaround.”
Madden was referring to “Old Baldy,” the highest sand dune in all of Wisconsin at 93 feet above the lakeshore. A wooded path led to its dubious summit overlooking Lake Clark, beech tree forests draped in fall colors, and Lake Michigan.
On the return, I opted for the beach, needing a different perspective. Tiny ankle-high waves lapped just offshore. Two surfers ran past me to catch what waves they could. Not surprisingly, they had it all to themselves, but their stoke was where they found it.
The day before I left Door County, the temperature dropped into the low 30s. A wintry, chilly wind was sweeping east to west across Lake Michigan. As colorful leaves rapidly dropped from the trees, the sodden leaf litter was piling up. Dark clouds rolled in, and the pitter-patter of rain pelted the forest. One season was ending, with winter knocking on the door.
Peninsula State Park
Door County, WI
The Ridges Sanctuary
Baileys Harbor, WI
Whitefish Dunes State Park