Now that we’re in the heart of October, Door County has come alive with bustling fall festivals, small towns filling the streets and storefronts with pumpkins and scarecrows, and, of course, the incredible spectrum of fall colors—rosy reds, warm oranges, bright yellows, and soft browns. While summer is probably the most popular time of the year to visit Door County, with the lake providing a welcome relief from the hot sun, fall is definitely the most beautiful time of the year to visit. With the peninsula hugged by the bay of Green Bay on one side and Lake Michigan on the other, the cool lake breezes sustain boreal forests that transform into a dazzling array of colors that simply can’t be found anywhere else in the country. Everywhere you look in Door County, you will see the true natural beauty of the peninsula as the fall season reveals the colors underneath. Where should you start on your leaf-peeping journey?
1. Potawatomi State Park
As you’re approaching Door County’s autumnal paradise, the first state park that you’ll see is Potawatomi State Park. Despite being early on in your fall trip, this is actually one of the best places to see fall colors in the county. Because of its orientation on the west side of the peninsula, embraced by the mainland and the large island that makes up the majority of the county, the trees retain warmth through the fall season, which means that the vibrant colors will persist long into even November. The trees that compose the park’s lush forests are known for their beautiful pops of color—sugar maple, basswood, and white birch boast deep reds, golden yellows, and brassy oranges, respectively.
While the observation tower in Potawatomi State Park is currently closed, the Old Ski Hill Overlook offers a view that is just as magnificent, surveying the forests that give way to grassy plains and then to bright blue water. This is an excellent spot for landscape or family photos, with a complimentary selfie station provided by Travel Wisconsin so everyone can smile together!
Hike or bike through the foliage on miles of trails located in the park, one of which is the Ice Age Trail. This trail is a 1,000-mile National Scenic Trail that winds along the edge of the last continental glacier in Wisconsin, and the eastern terminus is in Potawatomi State Park! The 2.8-mile segment within the park weaves through thick trees and along the shoreline, giving you a taste of the natural beauty that Door County is known for.
2. Door County Coastal Byway
After hiking along the National Scenic Trail, take one of the best scenic drives in Wisconsin on the Door County Coastal Byway! This is a 66-mile stretch of highway that packs all of Door County’s wonder and beauty into one quick and easy ride. The byway is one large loop that starts and ends in Sturgeon Bay, passing through charming small towns decorated with autumnal delights and traveling along Lake Michigan’s sparkling shoreline.
As you drive down the highway, you’ll come across several photo opportunities and landmarks worth stopping by. Shortly after beginning your trip, as you enter Carlsville, stop by Door County Coffee for a pumpkin cream cold brew or one of their seasonal fall flavor coffees. If you’re feeling hungry, check out Egg Harbor’s Carrington for dinner, an upscale casual restaurant and bar that overlooks the colorful trees and bay from atop the bluff. As you near the top of the peninsula, have a slice of warm cherry pie from Seaquist Orchards for dessert.
Slow down and enjoy the ride as you drive along Door County’s Coastal Byway. After all, it’s not about the destination, but about the journey!
3. Baileys Harbor
The small town of Baileys Harbor features some of the most incredible fall foliage in Door County. If you’re driving on the coastal byway, Baileys Harbor will be one of your last stops, so it’s the perfect opportunity to step out, stretch your legs, and see all that this town has to offer.
Since Baileys Harbor is home to more than 6,000 acres of public lands, this is the ideal place to explore nature and reconnect with its roots. The Ridges Sanctuary takes up about 1,600 acres of that land, and it’s designated as a Wisconsin State Natural Area. These sandy ridges run parallel to Baileys Harbor’s shoreline, and the cool breeze from Lake Michigan sustains the thick forest full of white spruce and balsam fir. Hiking trails weave around the swales—wet areas in the sanctuary—that alternate between the ridges. For adults over 18, there is a $5 admission fee to hike through the trails, but children under 18 hike free!
Similar to the Ridges Sanctuary, Kangaroo Lake Nature Preserve features almost 700 protected acres of land with a 1.5-mile hiking loop through the woods. The forests surrounding the lake include impressive hemlock and white cedar trees, both of which transform into beautiful bright colors during the fall season. Experience double the colors with the leaves on the trees and their rippling reflections in the lake!
4. Eagle Tower in Peninsula State Park
For an overhead view of all the fall colors you can imagine, there’s no better place to visit than the Eagle Tower in Peninsula State Park. The 850-foot accessible boardwalk winds through the trees from ground-level to above the treetops, connecting to the tower that overlooks the lake below. Maple, beech, ironwood, basswood, hemlock, and other evergreen trees populate Peninsula State Park, blazing with brilliantly bright reds, warm oranges, golden and sunshine yellows, and crisp browns. This is the best place to immerse yourself in Door County’s fall beauty, with a perfect 360-degree view of every shade of autumn.
Peninsula State Park is also considered to be Wisconsin’s most “complete” park, featuring over 400 campsites, an outdoor theater, an 18-hole golf course, miles of biking and hiking trails, a lighthouse, and eight miles of shoreline along craggy limestone bluffs. After visiting Eagle Tower, surround yourself with fall colors on a bike ride or hiking trail, play a round of golf with a scenic view, or visit the lighthouse for a snippet of Door County history.
5. Ellison Bay Bluff County Park & Newport State Park
Ellison Bay Bluff County Park is almost at the very top of the peninsula, but the views are definitely worth the drive. This 174-acre park features several hiking trails that wind through sugar maple, white ash, red oak, birch, and beech trees, all of which come to life with golden hues of yellow and orange. The observation deck in the park is similar to Peninsula State Park’s Eagle Tower—climb up the 100’ limestone bluff for a spectacular vantage point overlooking the water and expansive forest.
On the opposite side of Ellison Bay is Newport State Park, one of the most private and secluded state parks in Door County. As Wisconsin’s only designated wilderness park, its nature is pure and mostly undisturbed. With over 2,000 acres of forest stretching across eleven miles of Lake Michigan’s shoreline, hike on one of the 30 miles of trails and listen to the wind rustling the vibrant leaves. Newport State Park is also a Dark Sky Park, and late autumn is the best time for stargazing, with millions of stars illuminating the black backdrop of the sky.
6. The “Curvy Road” on Highway 42
You’ve made it this far, so you might as well complete the journey with the iconic “Curvy Road” on Highway 42 in Gills Rock! This truly is at the top of the peninsula, just outside the ferry port to Washington Island, but several Door County residents and guests visit this spot year after year for its picturesque kaleidoscope of colors. Jens Jensen, the famed architect behind this masterpiece, designed the “Ideal Highway” that curves through the trees and slows down traffic, so people can truly “enjoy the ride.” Easily the most beautiful fall drive in the state of Wisconsin, try not to get too lost in the array of colors and remember to keep your eyes on the road for other visitors or passing wildlife! There aren’t any official stops or lookout points on this part of the highway, so be careful if you decide to leave your vehicle for some photos. Otherwise, slow down and appreciate the scenic route through Door County, just as the creator intended.