Imagine a land where friendly people don smiles, alluring scenery surrounds you, and you can eat all the rich, creamy cheese curds and tart cherry pie you want. Door County, Wisconsin, offers all this and more. You can take a quick ferry ride from this dreamland to Washington Island, where you will discover more treasures. It may be Door County’s best-kept secret. We will cover everything you need to know about Washington Island and help you find an adventure that best suits your family.
Disclosure: Destination Door County hosted me for this trip. All opinions are my own.
Where is Door County?
Before discussing Washington Island adventures, we must help you find Door County. It is a secret as well.
If you are still getting familiar with Door County, it rests on a 70-mile long and 18-mile wide peninsula with Green Bay to the west and Lake Michigan to the east. It abounds with beautiful scenery and lovely parks for a relatively small parcel of land. Beyond many local and county parks, Door County has five state parks.
The area houses soaring limestone cliffs against tranquil woods and water, begging you to explore. Those waters surrounding Door County comprise thirty-four named islands. A few are readily accessible.
Where is Washington Island?
Door County’s largest island and only year-round island community is Washington Island. It rests just beyond the tip of Door Peninsula. The island is primarily undisturbed, yielding colorful wildflowers and lush forests behind its rocky beaches.
It reminds me of Bowen Island near the coast of Vancouver, BC. Both require planning to reach but harbor rugged yet pristine natural beauty, making the journey worthwhile.
Washington Island spans 35 square miles and has over 700 residents. It contains over 100 miles of roads.
Getting to Washington Island
To reach the island, you must take the Washington Island Ferry. The ride is roughly 5 miles and takes half an hour. Sit back and savor the ride’s scenic views of water and island coasts.
The ferry runs year-round and carries passengers, bicycles, and cars. While the ferry has ample deck space with open-air seating, you can also take shelter from the cold or bad weather in the heated cabin.
The ferry departs from Northport Pier at the tip of the Door Peninsula, 215 Highway 42, Ellison Bay, WI 54210. You can drive aboard the ferry or walk on. Parking is available in lots near the pier for those who plan to walk.
The fleet includes five ferries. Each can accommodate 149 passengers and 18 to 22 standard vehicles.
Washington Island Ferry Line sells tickets on a first-come, first-served basis. The 2023 round-trip rate is $15 for adults and $8 for children ages 6 through 11. If you drive, your auto will cost an additional $28. Bicycles are $6, while motorcycles are $18.
Since the ferry schedule varies seasonally, we suggest you visit the Washington Island Ferry Line site to verify the schedule and rates.
Can You Bring a Dog on the Ferry?
You can bring leashed pets on the ferry’s main decks.
Do You Need a Car on the Island?
Driving a vehicle is the best way to explore all the island offers. Upon arrival, you will find bicycle, moped, and utility terrain vehicle (UTV) rentals at the island dock.
You will ride the ferry through Portes de Morts or “Death’s Door.” The turbulent waters in the 6-mile wide channel between Green Bay and Lake Michigan have claimed over 275 shipwrecks. Legend says the name first came from Native Americans who had difficulty paddling the passage in their birch bark canoes.
Please do not let the name scare you. The ferry ride through Death’s Door is part of the grand adventure.
I thoroughly enjoyed the ferry ride. The passage is beautiful, and you will discover lighthouses in the distance. Rocky beaches and verdant forests greet you as you approach the island. I smiled the entire way.
Things To Do on Washington Island
Although you do not have a choice but to take the ferry and pass through Death’s Door, that part of the Washington Island experience is exciting. When you arrive, what can you do?
Washington Island offers natural beauty, unique attractions, and fantastic local fare and traditions. Whatever you decide to do, relish the leisurely pace while you are on “island time.” It is an escape where you will build lasting memories.
Let’s explore the top Washington Island adventures.
If you close your eyes and think about beaches, most picture soft, white sand and turquoise water. Schoolhouse Beach may not be the place you see in your mind, but it is unique.
Many sources state that Schoolhouse Beach is one of only five like it worldwide. So, what makes it unique?
Schoolhouse Beach comprises smooth limestone pebbles. The beautiful white rocks between a lush green forest and blue waters are stunning. A sense of serenity washes over you as you soak in the beauty of this rare treasure.
The peaceful setting is perfect for a picnic or swimming and sunbathing. It is worth your time, even if you only stop to admire the view.
Because smooth limestone rock beaches are rare, taking a souvenir rock with you carries a $250 fine. Plus, the local legend says it will bring you bad luck.
Washington Island offers nine lovely town parks. Please note Schoolhouse Beach is one of those parks. It is worthy of separate recognition.
However, the other eight offer scenic views or excellent recreational opportunities. Here is a summary of what to expect at the town parks.
Red Barn Park & Gislason Public Beach
The alcohol-free park offers a beach complete with benches. You can access a playground, grills, picnic area, volleyball, and trails. The Red Barn has live music entertainment or theatrical events on Friday evenings at 7:30 in the summer.
A lovely path lined with wood chips leads you through wildflower-filled meadows and birch forests. It is an excellent place for peaceful walks and birding.
Jill J.J. Jorgenson Memorial Park
On the island’s north side, you will discover a steep trail that leads to a secluded, wooded area overlooking Washington Harbor. The park is a fantastic spot for a picnic or watching sunrise or sunset.
Jackson Harbor Ridges
Resting on the island’s northeast side, Jackson Harbor Ridges comprises 9 acres of beach, dune, shore meadow, and boreal ecosystems. The State Natural Area contains many uncommon and rare plants, attracting many birds.
The island’s northwest side houses its only inland lake, Little Lake. The 33-acre landlocked lake gets fed by underwater springs and surface runoff. You can spot painted turtles basking on logs from the pier.
Mountain Park and Lookout Tower
The island’s northeast side has a 186-step lookout tower with stunning woods and water views. After climbing back down, you can enjoy a relaxing meal or snack at one of the park’s picnic tables.
The island’s northwest side has a tiny park atop a high bluff with spectacular views of Green Bay. It has a few picnic tables, a fire pit, and a grill. If you enjoy sunsets, it is a perfect spot.
Sand Dunes Park
You will find Sand Dunes Park nestled on the island’s southwest shoreline. With white sand and rolling dunes, the beach is perfect for sunbathing, building sand castles, and picnicking.
Door County Parks on Washington Island
The island houses one Door County Park. Percy Johnson County Park is a fantastic area for swimming and picnicking. As a bonus, the park delivers incredible views of nearby Hog Island.
Fragrant Isle Lavender Farm & Shop
If you want a unique experience, visit Fragrant Isle Lavender Farm & Shop. The lavender farm invites you to enjoy island time and indulge all five senses.
When you arrive, you will instantly notice the large red barn, which houses a lavender shop and counter service for food and coffee drinks. A white fence skirts around the property’s perimeter, enclosing perfectly manicured gardens.
You will enter a zen-like state strolling through the enchanting lavender gardens. Fields of purple paint the lawn, a lavender fragrance drifts on the breeze, and you can hear the faint buzzing of bees going about their business here and there.
Food & Drinks
You can sample lavender-infused fare and drinks between the indoor shop and their outdoor café. The cafe serves food, beer, and wine.
Admittedly, I was skeptical about tasting lavender. I feared the flavor would be overpowering. To my shock, it was blissful. Fragrant Isle expertly infuses subtle lavender flavors, making the tasting experience delightful.
I sampled several food items: cookies with lavender icing, vanilla lavender ice cream, macarons combining lavender with cherry or lemon, and a bonbon with chocolate and lavender. All were delicious.
Then, I ventured into new territory by tasting lavender drinks. I was even more skeptical but tried a lavender lemonade, a lavender latte, and a lavender rosé slushie. Once again, the subtle lavender flavor danced across the tongue.
Although every item was divine, my favorite food was the lavender sugar fairytale cookie, and the best drink was the lavender rosé slushie. You can spend an afternoon sitting on the outdoor patio, savoring the lavender-infused fares and soaking in the scenery.
The shop sells any lavender-based goods you can imagine, including therapeutic-grade products. While the lavender fragrance soothes the soul, its oil contains the healing properties defined by the three As:
Fragrant Isle is typically open from May through October, with limited hours in November and December. Their virtual store is open year-round. Although full bloom can differ yearly depending on weather patterns, it usually occurs in late June or early July.
Traveling through Door County, you will notice influences from many cultures, including Scandinavian. Washington Island contains a striking wooden chapel designed to resemble a church built in Borgund, Norway, in 1150.
The structure includes twelve 18-foot stavs or masts and a six-tiered roof comprising over 9,600 four-inch-wide shingles. It sits in a small grove of trees, where a prayer path leads you to the church.
Although an essential part of the ministry for Trinity Lutheran, Stavkirke is open to the public year-round. The attraction is worth visiting due to its peaceful setting, architecture, and Scandinavian culture.
Kayaking & Paddle Boarding
A kayak tour is an excellent way to admire the open blue waters and beautiful island coasts. Island Adventure Company offers various excursions. They also rent kayaks and stand-up paddle boards if you prefer a self-guided experience. The address is 164 Green Bay Road, Unit A, Washington Island, WI 54246.
Popular kayaking areas include Schoolhouse Beach, Rock Island, and the 1913 shipwreck of the Louisiana. Paddling near Washington Island is a rewarding experience where you can view the area’s natural beauty from a different vantage point.
Washington Island has three primary museums for history lovers.
Nestled along Little Lake’s south shore, a vertical log building holds a vast collection of the region’s historical artifacts. Craftsman Jens Jacobsen built the museum in 1931. It is typically open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. from Memorial Day weekend through Columbus Day.
Jackson Harbor Maritime Museum
Near the Karfi Ferry to Rock Island, you will find an old fishing village converted into a maritime museum. It has local artifacts, photographs, and videos from the Coast Guard, Ferryline, and shipwrecks.
The museum is a fascinating stop for anyone interested in the region’s maritime history. It is usually open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. from Memorial Day weekend through Columbus Day.
Washington Island Farm Museum
In the island’s northwest region, you can learn about the region’s agricultural history and explore old farm buildings, a furnished log cabin, farming tools, and a blacksmith shop.
If you visit in July, the museum offers Family Craft Days on Wednesdays from 1 to 3 p.m. The event typically includes weaving demonstrations, family crafts, and wagon rides.
Washington Island Farm Museum usually is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. from mid-May through Columbus Day.
Washington Island is an excellent birdwatching destination, sitting on a standard migration route and housing various ecosystems. Accordingly, the island harbors summer birds and year-round residents. Birders have spotted over 200 species, some expected, others rare.
Visitors regularly spot waterfowl by the ferry dock. You can find various woodland birds along the Heritage Trail. Grassland-nesting birds can be spotted in the island meadows from spring through July.
Herons often hang out at Little Lake. Climb the Mountain Park Lookout Tower to view birds on the treetops. Guests regularly see bluebirds, swallows, and hummingbirds at the Farm Museum.
Bring your binoculars and enjoy a peaceful day in nature with many birds. Along the journey, you will explore a lot of the island.
For something different, visit the Butterfly House at 1349 Main Road, Washington Island, WI 54246. You can walk in a butterfly garden, learn about the monarch butterfly life cycle, explore interactive exhibits, and watch caterpillars grow in the Larvae Room. The Butterfly House is regularly open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Art & Nature Center
The Washington Island Art & Nature Center sits in an old schoolhouse on the island’s northwest side. You can view the works of local artists in the gallery and visit the nature center and shop.
The nature center regularly has hands-on activities, live exhibits, and weekly art and nature programs, making it an excellent place for families. It is typically open from mid-June to late September.
Island hopping is one of the most enjoyable adventures on Washington Island. You can catch the Karfi Ferry from the island’s northeast side at Jackson Harbor and take a relaxing ride to Rock Island.
The Karfi Ferry only hauls passengers. Do not fret. The island is much smaller than Washington Island and is walkable.
When you arrive at the ferry dock, you are greeted by a gorgeous boathouse, a pebbled shoreline, and sparkling blue waters. Guests regularly spot waterfowl here.
Rock Island offers hiking trails, birding, and picnicking. I thoroughly enjoyed exploring Rock Island. It is peaceful and, like Washington Island, feels like an escape from life’s daily stresses.
Seeing Wisconsin’s oldest lighthouse was the highlight for me. You can tour Pottawatomie Lighthouse after a short hike through open fields and shady forests. Climbing to the tower’s lantern room yields an excellent view over the water. As a bonus, I spotted sandhill cranes along the trail.
Please note that the Karfi Ferry runs from Memorial Day weekend to Columbus Day.
Enjoy the Local Fare
As part of Door County, Washington Island is known for delicious cheese and tart cherries. Both deliver a blissful state. However, the region also has other popular cuisines and drinks we suggest you try.
Jackson Harbor Soup
You know a place is good when it bustles with locals and tourists. Jackson Harbor Soup offers indoor and outdoor seating overlooking beautiful Jackson Harbor.
The restaurant serves fresh sandwiches and hot soups. With tasty food and a spectacular view, you may not want to leave.
It is conveniently located adjacent to the Karfi Ferry. If you plan to visit Rock Island, it is the perfect place to savor a meal before the ferry trip.
Nelsen’s Hall Bitters Pub & Restaurant
Nestled in the island’s downtown area, Nelsen’s Hall Bitters Pub & Restaurant is a historic island landmark. The restaurant serves local grilled whitefish, burgers, steaks, pizza, wraps, prime rib, chicken, and pasta dishes. Being a pub, they serve beer, wine, and spirits.
You can be part of a fun Washington Island tradition by joining the Bitters Club. If you have ever tasted bitters, you know that even a few drops pack a punch.
When you drink a full shot of Angostura bitters, you earn membership into the Bitters Club and become a full-fledged islander. The pub sells over 10,000 shots of Angostura bitters annually.
If you prefer to sip a cocktail, try a Door County cherry old fashioned. It is outstanding.
Red Cup Coffee House
In the island’s southwest corner by Detroit Harbor, you will find Red Cup Coffee House. The little shop serves delicious organic coffee and espresso drinks. You can pair your cup of java with a pastry, egg sandwich, or bagel. Their front porch is the perfect place to relax while you savor your coffee and prepare to start your island adventures.
Island Popcorn Barn
I had never been a popcorn fan until I tasted the gourmet popcorn at the Island Popcorn Barn. Their popcorn is handcrafted in small batches using fresh ingredients.
The barn creates many flavors, including salty, sweet, spicy, and savory options. You can choose from basics like Lenny’s Kettle Korn and Movie Theater Style to unique flavors like Door County Cherry, Oreo Delight, Birthday Cake, and Blazing Saddles.
The Island Popcorn Barn sits in the island’s southwest corner. Stop by for a snack between your adventures.
The historic Hotel Washington was established in 1904. Its eight restored rooms overlook Detroit Harbor and offer a charming ambiance.
You can eat in the historic dining room or relax on the front porch or lawn. The lawn comprises tables, seats, and a few Adirondack chairs under mature shade trees and string lights. It beckons you to sip a glass of wine or beer as the day fades into a pleasant evening.
The cuisine features island-sourced veggies, fish, and meat utilizing farm-fresh cooking. Chef Ian Milosek and his team prepare creative, tasty concoctions you will not find elsewhere.
Do yourself a favor and make dinner reservations for an evening at Hotel Washington. It sits on the east side of Detroit Harbor near Red Barn Park & Gislason Public Beach.
Your Escape Awaits on Washington Island
Door County, Wisconsin, offers natural beauty, delicious food, and friendly faces. A ferry ride to Washington Island further enhances these features, making the trip a true getaway from life’s daily stresses. Discover Door County’s best-kept secret and plan your heavenly escape to Washington Island!
Featured image credit: Destination Door County / Dan Eggert
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About the author
We are Scott and Julie at Miles with McConkey. After nearly 30 years, we took a leap of faith out of the corporate world to enjoy a life of travel and adventure. We hope to inspire you to find ways to travel more and enjoy life now.