The historic Eagle Bluff Lighthouse looms over Lake Michigan's Green Bay, a maritime sentinel that long guided ships to shore whenever the narrow Strawberry Channel's mercurial temperament shifted from tranquil to ominous.
From the double-deck tour boat Norra Dorr, passengers on a 90-minute tour grab photos of the red-domed tower. But in the fall, the natural beauty surrounding the 1868 lighthouse is as Insta-worthy as the beacon itself.
Here in Door County — Wisconsin's unofficial leaf-peeping capital — the narrated cruise sails round-trip from the village of Sister Bay and hits some of the most scenic spots. Vivid yet ephemeral autumn hues blaze against a cerulean sky. Jagged rock formations reveal gaping holes that are portals to mysterious sea caves. Leaves flutter from the trees like delicate gold and scarlet butterflies, alighting gracefully at the water's edge.
The 70-mile-long Door Peninsula is home to a series of fishing villages turned resort towns that attract droves of Midwesterners looking to escape big-city stress. And few things are more relaxing than being out on the water on a bright autumn day. Guide Chuck Erickson argues that the perspective from the water can be more rewarding than a land view.
"The [color] contrast is much more obvious. This time of year, the water is a dark blue. The cedar trees on the bluff stay a dark green," Erickson said. "The taller trees that make up the top crown are all deciduous, and therefore, all the brilliant colors."
The boat tour dives into the region's maritime history. According to folklore, the Potawatomi and Winnebago tribes gave Door County its name. They called the treacherous strait that links Green Bay to Lake Michigan "Death's Door" after an epic battle resulted in the drowning of hundreds of warriors.
Other stories claim it was French explorers who named the strait "Porte des Morts," Death's Door in English. The name was converted to Door County, a good thing since Death's Door doesn't exactly sound like an inviting vacation spot. Wherever the forbidding moniker came from, one thing is certain: More than 200 shipwrecks remain beneath these waves in an eerie maritime graveyard.
As the Norra Dorr approaches Anderson Dock in Ephraim, a graffiti-covered warehouse stands like a tattooed rebel among the hamlet's pristine historic structures, some dating back to the 1850s when Scandinavian Moravians settled here.
The warehouse, now home to the Hardy Gallery that exhibits regional artists, hasn't been vandalized. Sailors once wrote on its walls the name of their ship and the date they were in port to create a record. Over time, tourists started leaving their own marks, and now it's an Ephraim tradition.
Colors by land
Door County's fall colors can easily be enjoyed over a few days. For a bird's eye view, head to Peninsula State Park on the northwest side of the peninsula and climb the stairs to the top of the new 60-foot Eagle Tower, perched above the treetops. Or take the less taxing route to the top by strolling along the accessible 850-foot canopy walk. The new structure opened in 2021, replacing a 90-year-old tower dismantled in 2016.
Fall foliage forecast
If viewing the Eagle Bluff Lighthouse from the water piqued your curiosity, pop into the lighthouse museum for a tour that reveals what life was like for lighthouse keepers and their families who kept the light burning until 1926, when it was automated. On a sunny autumn day with calm waters, it may be hard to imagine being isolated on this limestone bluff during a storm as the wind howled and colossal waves crashed against the walls, but that was the reality for generations of keepers.
Those who climb to the top of the lighthouse tower are rewarded with a sweeping view of the infinite canopy of color that frames Green Bay.
Fall for apples
Later, join in Door County's delicious fall tradition of apple-picking at Lautenbach's Orchard Country Winery & Market.
A father places his toddler on his shoulders so she can reach a low-hanging red apple that glistens like a ruby in the sun. With a little help, she triumphantly captures her prize, holding it aloft for her family to admire.
Fall is the season to harvest nature's bounty, and folks come from far and wide to pick apples at this family-owned orchard in Fish Creek that's been a Door County landmark for decades. Those inclined to skip the you-pick option can purchase Macintosh, Gala and Honeycrisp apples at the market. Pick up some apple butter or a fresh apple pie.
Wine enthusiasts also come to Lautenbach's for a guided vine-to-bottle tour that passes through vineyards ready to yield plump fruit. A tasting will likely include the port-style dessert wine Blackberry Bliss and the seasonal favorite, Spiced Apple Sweet Wine.
You haven't really done Door County until you've been to a fish boil, the ultimate cookout that originated with Scandinavian settlers in the late 1800s. Many area restaurants offer fish boils, but Rowley's Bay Restaurant in Ellison Bay is especially popular because of its picturesque waterfront location known for brilliantly hued sunsets.
The boil master throws ingredients into a steaming black cauldron that could be a convincing Halloween prop, but there's no eye of newt or toe of frog here — just Lake Michigan whitefish, potatoes and onions.
The fish boil encourages a of sense of camaraderie among travelers, with strangers becoming friends around the fire. You'll likely have a chance to exchange Door County stories and get ideas for your next visit.
If you go
Getting there: Door County is a five- to six-hour drive straight east of the Twin Cities. One-hour flights to Green Bay International Airport are also available; it's another one-hour drive to Door County.
Sister Bay Scenic Boat Tours: 10707 N. Bay Shore Drive, Sister Bay, Wis.; 920-421-4444 or doorcountyboats.com.
Eagle Bluff Lighthouse Museum: 10249 Shore Road, Fish Creek, Wis.; 920-421-3636 or doorcountyhistoricalsociety.com.
Lautenbach's Orchard Country Winery & Market: 9197 Hwy. 42, Fish Creek, Wis.; 866-946-3263 or orchardcountry.com.
Where to eat: Rowley's Bay Restaurant — 1041 County Road ZZ, Ellison Bay; 920-854-2385 or rowleysbayresort.com.
Where to stay: Eagle Harbor Inn — Historic-styled rooms with an indoor pool and sauna. 9914 Water St., Ephraim; 920-854-2121 or eagleharbor.com.
More information: Destination Door County — 920-743-4456 or doorcounty.com.
Tracey Teo is an Indiana-based travel writer.