By air, water or land, seeing Door County in the fall doesn’t disappoint

Chicago Tribune

Autumn is a special time in Door County. The summer crowds thin as temperatures begin to drop. But the tourists don’t disappear altogether.

The peninsula’s countless vistas, from shorelines to back roads, are amplified by splashes of often vibrant color in October when expectant visitors arrive, hoping to catch the peak of leap-peeping season. That typically lasts an elusive few days, depending on the whims of Mother Nature.

She can be downright ornery at times, including last fall.

“I don’t know that there’s any good color anywhere this year,” guide Chuck Erickson told passengers as the tour boat Norra Dorr glided across the waters of Green Bay on a nonetheless sunny autumnal afternoon in 2017.


“Good,” however, is a subjective word. This far north, even during an off year, rich hues can be spotted amid a backdrop of green. Whether on land or water, or even from the air, visitors can go for the gold — and the orange and red, too.

“The best colors are normally around Ephraim,” said Grizzly Scenic Air Tours owner Dave Burke. “The maple trees, the deciduous trees, are better from Ephraim south to Maxwelton Braes (a golf resort in Baileys Harbor) and the Jacksonport area.”

Burke said fall is the best time to view Door County by plane. It’s no surprise that his flightseeing business — based at the Sturgeon Bay airport — is particularly busy during October. (Sturgeon Bay is a little over a four-hour drive from downtown Chicago.) He’s happy to customize tours to take in visitors’ favorite spots; the excursions almost always include flyovers of at least a couple of the county’s iconic lighthouses. A 60-minute flight costs about $260. The price is good for one to three passengers.

“I can show them the whole shoreline, up the bay side and down the lake side, and the colors, in an hour,” Burke said.


While an airplane offers an out-of-the-ordinary way to see fall foliage, even Burke agreed that the leaves are generally best viewed at eye-level. That means from the ground or the water.

Various boat companies offer daily trips on both Green Bay and Lake Michigan, as well as the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal that connects Sturgeon Bay on Green Bay with Lake Michigan across the Door Peninsula.

Sister Bay Scenic Boat Tours, for whom Erickson works, offers a two-hour sailing to Death’s Door, the strait at the northern tip of the peninsula. Even if the trees aren’t fully cooperating, the tour ($42 for adults, children 12 and under free) provides good views of lighthouses and some of the county’s more opulent houses, perched atop bluffs amid the trees.

As farmers make hay, so too does Door County Trolley, whose Wisconsin-made vehicles are full of camera-toting visitors each fall. While specialty tours focus on destinations such as wineries and lighthouses, the Narrated Scenic Tour ($18.95 for adults, $13.95 for children 5-16) is probably best for spotting nice color.

“The trees are pretty stressed this year,” driver Boyd Stewart said apologetically last October during a stop overlooking Nicolet Bay in Peninsula State Park. Only hints of yellow and orange could be seen.

“It’s been very dry the past 10 weeks,” he added.

Sticking mostly to the main roads, Stewart passed several orchards, their parking lots packed. Fall is when apples ripen and find their way into countless goodies sold at a multitude of stores.

The county’s largest grower, Wood Orchard Market near Egg Harbor, teems with customers shopping for everything apple.


“We’re really famous for our apple cider doughnuts,” owner Crista Kochanski said. On peak days, the frying begins at 5 a.m.

“We ran out of the ability to keep up (with demand) about an hour and a half ago,” her husband, Mark Kochanski, said at 1:30 on a Saturday afternoon.

Awash in pumpkins and gourds, the business, like many others, sits along busy Highway 42. But for further colorful surprises, it’s well worth venturing off the main north-south artery. Two-time visitor Catherine Burmester has captured some of her favorite memories along the myriad back roads of Door County.

“You kind of have to just drive and look — and try not to make UPS drivers mad like I did,” said Burmester, an amateur photographer.

For the third year in a row, Burmester — who lives on a farm near Red Bud, in southern Illinois — will be heading to Wisconsin this October to participate in a four-day photography workshop.

Burmester said she wanted to learn “how to get this doggone camera to do what I want it to do.” She turned to Cameron Gillie and Mike Murray, professional photographers from the Madison area, for guidance.

Murray said that while the annual class doesn’t hinge on eye-popping foliage, it can be “a good add-on … if we catch it.”

“There’s a certain mystique to this area,” he said. “It offers rocky lakeshores, wooded areas, hiking paths, lighthouses. You’ve got just about everything up here.”


The workshop ($550, instruction-only) is aimed at beginners and amateurs.

“It doesn’t matter what type of camera you have,” he said. “It’s more about technique and composition and color and light.”

“It’s a compact area,” Gillie said from their base at an Egg Harbor lodge. “Our longest drive is 30 minutes.”

Those short distances, however, can be long on opportunities. Burmester captured one of her favorite images — a bicycle resting against a tree — along rustic Horseshoe Bay Road.

“It was the way the sun was coming through, hitting that bicycle,” she said of the unplanned stop to grab a picture.

“My favorite thing to do is just drive,” she said. “You know, if you don’t go someplace, you’ll never know where it goes.”

Jay Jones is a freelance writer.

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