If you’ve visited Door County often enough, you might be familiar with the term friluftsliv (free-loofts-liv). This is a Norwegian term coined by the playwright Henrik Ibsen in the 1850s, which is, coincidentally, around the time that Door County was founded! Friluftsliv refers to the feeling of being in harmony with nature, spending time in remote and quiet locations for your spiritual and physical wellbeing. This is a term that locals often use to describe their time and experience in Door County, and there’s no better time to fall in love with the serenity and beauty of nature than in winter.
Wisconsin winters can be unpredictable, especially up in Door County. With the peninsula’s unique position between the bay and Lake Michigan, sometimes you’ll have a white winter with thick blankets of snow; other times, it feels like spring is coming early with warmer temperatures and a light breeze. Because of the season’s uncertainty, locals and long-time visitors of Door County have found several ways to stay warm and entertained throughout the winter, both indoors and outdoors. If this is your first time visiting Door County this winter, check out this insider’s guide to a fun and exciting winter getaway that will give you the best friluftsliv feeling!
When there’s snow on the ground, it’s difficult to resist the magical winter wonderland outside. With five state parks to explore on the peninsula, rent a pair of snowshoes or skis and traverse the trails. Explore some of the most beautiful and adventurous trails in Potawatomi and Peninsula State Parks, surrounded by still trees and stunning views of the water. Be careful to always stay on the trails! These will be clearly marked in each park, so you don’t accidentally step off or hike on a ski trail.
However, snow isn’t always guaranteed during Door County’s winters—but hiking is! If there’s no snow for snowshoeing or skiing, strap on your best hiking boots and hit the trails that way. There’s still beauty to behold on the hard-packed paths that will take you down the bluff to the magnificent ice shoves that often pile up on the shoreline. These shoves form from waves beating the sides of the cliff and freezing. Sometimes, if the winds are high enough, these ice shoves can be as tall as ten feet! Be sure to check out Cave Point County Park for the best views and hiking trails around the ice shoves, and don’t forget to bring your camera!
Speaking of ice, a favorite local pastime during the winter is to ice skate or play a game of hockey at the Sturgeon Bay Ice Rink. This is located on the parking lot of the Memorial Field Warming House, and you can check out ice skates for no extra charge! Later in the winter season, in February, you can attend the Door County Pond Hockey Tournament at the Sister Bay Sports Complex. Grab some delicious concessions and stay warm by the fire pit as amateur teams duke it out for the championship!
Another favorite local winter activity is ice fishing. Door County is one of the best fishing destinations in the country, and you’ll often find little ice huts and shanties dotting the frozen lake’s surface throughout the winter. Fish for whitefish, trophy walleye, northern, and trout under the icy blue water! If it’s your first time ice fishing, make sure to go with a friend or book a local fishing charter to teach you the ropes. These guides will give you bait, gear, shanties, and their years of expertise to help you make unforgettable memories on the ice. Always call ahead to see what their ice fishing hours are!
The fun doesn’t end when the sun goes down. In fact, if you’re lucky, you might be able to see the Northern Lights! Because of Door County’s commitment to sustainability, there’s a striking lack of light pollution that allows stars to glimmer and even the Northern Lights to become visible during the darkest nights. It’s important to keep in mind that Door County isn’t quite north enough for the Northern Lights that you may be familiar with, like the brilliant turquoise and purple hues that highlight the sky. The Northern Lights that you’ll be able to see with the naked eye will appear more like gray wisps, almost like smoke, hazing in the air. If you have the right camera on you, you can capture photos of the auroras that will display the colors more vibrantly! While this phenomenon can happen at any time of year, the best time to try to see the Northern Lights in Door County is between November and April, when activity and light pollution will be at their lowest.
If it’s too cold for you outside, there are still plenty of activities to do inside! While the most common suggestions are to dine at the finest restaurants or visit a local brewery or winery for a tasting, these tend to be crowded with more people. If you’re looking for something a little quieter, visit an artist’s gallery or the Miller Art Museum in Sturgeon Bay for some peace. These art galleries are the perfect place to meditate on the friluftsliv you’ve just experienced, with extraordinary artwork depicting the same serene nature that these local artists live and work in every day. You can also pick up some great gifts and souvenirs made by local artisans and crafters with after-holiday sales.
Of course, you’ll need a warm meal to cap off your winter getaway, and what better way to satisfy your hunger than a good old-fashioned fish boil at the White Gull Inn? This is the only restaurant that offers fish boils throughout the winter on Friday evenings, and the hot burst of fire from the boiling fish is sure to keep you warm and toasty! If you’ve been lucky enough to eat at a fish boil during the summertime, then you can’t go wrong with a traditional Wisconsin supper club for dinner. Sister Bay Bowl is a local and visitor favorite, serving fish fries, pizza, and other mouthwatering meals throughout the winter. After you’re done eating, check out their bowling alley downstairs for a bit of fun! You’ll have to keep your own score, so keep your math skills sharp!
Despite the unpredictability of Wisconsin’s winters, a Door County winter is a guaranteed good time for you and your family. Remember that there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing, so pack up your skis (or hiking boots) and warm clothes for a Door County adventure that you’ll never forget!