Crisp fresh air. A fabulous array of colors. Cooler temps. The heat of sunshine. Nevermind the beaches and bike rides of summer. This is Fall in Door County and most notably one of the best times to visit. Here are the SIX best drives to take to see all the gorgeous Door County fall colors.
Northern Door Routes
The first 4 drives below are all north of Sister Bay. Make an afternoon or morning of it and find each road along HWY 42. The drives are no more than 10 minutes long, and every road has short side stops along the way to enjoy — whether it be a slice of freshly baked 4-berry pie, a glass of apple cider or a stunning scenic overlook. Start at the tip of the Door County peninsula on the Gills Rock winding road and make your way down. You can easily make this an afternoon road trip by conquering the first three of these drives, taking a break at Island Orchard Cider for a crisp, refreshing glass of hard cider, then finishing up with a trip to the Ellison Bluff scenic overlook. This is how we experience Door County fall colors!
The Winding Road, Gills Rock
Sometimes called Jens Jensen Road, this winding 1-mile stretch of highway is an iconic Door County drive and must not be missed. It was inspired by landscape architect Jens Jenson (he also designed The Clearing below) who purposely put twists and curves in roads to slow drivers down so nature could be the focal point. And it works!
Wait until you see the Door County fall colors along this road!
While you’re on your Sunday drive, stop by Bea’s Pies for some of the very best pies in Door County (I’m so not kidding) You can even take a few frozen pies to bake at home (your guests at Thanksgiving will be very grateful).
The other feature you may want to check out along this drive is a beautiful staircase down the bluff at Portes des Morts Park on Kenosha Drive, close to the end of the winding road. The stairs were opened to the public in late July 2018 so visitors could safely make their way down the bluff and scuba divers could explore the shipwrecks nearby. Here’s a map in case you don’t want to miss this.
Once you reach the end of this road at the North Point Pier, don’t forget to stop and take in the view of our great Lake Michigan. You’ll be able to see Washington Island in all its glory.
Cottage Road, Gills Rock
After checking out the infamous winding road also in Gills Rock, head back to Ellison Bay via Cottage Road. This small road will meander past tiny cottages that date back to the 1930’s. You’ll also see beautiful lake homes and even a few wooded lots for sale to inspire your dreams of building that cabin in the woods.
You can follow this road which turns into Garret Bay Road and will end appropriately in front of Island Orchard Cider in Ellison Bay. I highly recommend a flight of cider once all your driving is completed (Door County Mom says drink responsibly please…).
Note: Before you complete this tour, you will pass The Clearing Folk School where I cannot stress enough you may want to drive through as well. Scroll down the page for more details, but know the turn for this is near Ellison Bay; you don’t have to get out of your car, you can just drive through this amazing gravel road in the forest.
The Clearing Folk School, Ellison Bay
As I mentioned above, The Clearing is on Garret Bay Road, and it’s really a hidden gem in the northern community of the Door County Peninsula. The Clearing, as its name implies, is a setting to “clear” your mind with 125 acres of forestry inspiring you to do so. It was once the summer home of landscape architect Jens Jensen, a prominent Chicago designer. In his retirement, The Clearing became his formal home and after his death, became The Clearing Folk School. The Clearing applies Jensen’s “delayed view” approach whereby visitors are lead through dense woodland and bends in the drive obscuring any long view. It’s like a roller coaster for nature lovers.
The grounds of The Clearing are only open to the public from 1 to 4 pm on Saturday and Sunday. At other times the campus is only available to students. If it’s the weekend and you have time, you can park in one of the lots and walk the grounds. The grounds are enchanted forest with guest houses (used today for artists taking weekly classes in the summer and fall) and pretty slate stone walkways. If you’re lucky enough to locate it, you’ll be able to wander through the labyrinth to quell your mind further.
Kids will enjoy this stop as well.
Ellison Bluff State Natural Area, Ellison Bay
Follow the sign Scenic Overlook 2 miles on State Hwy 42 just before you enter Ellison Bay heading north. If you’re heading south and leaving Ellison Bay, the sign will be on your right.
Not only will you get to see a beautiful overlook, but the short drive through the forest will be delightful. This is one of Door County’s hidden gems. There is a hiking trail at this county park as well. It is an easy hike and loops you through the forest making this drive a trifecta — a beautiful drive through the forest, an amazing scenic overlook and a hike to boot!
By the way, once you’ve completed your Door County fall colors tour, stop at Seaquist Orchards for a little more fall fun! Adults will love shopping and sampling the baked goods and jams, while kids will clamor to find their way through the indoor hay maze! And all kids, young and old will enjoy the outdoor rope maze — I double-dog dare you to find the middle. My guess is you won’t! Update: as of 10/28/2018 Seaquist is closed for the season. You can still enjoy the outdoor rope maze, however!
Skyline Drive, Peninsula State Park, Fish Creek
No trip to Door County is complete without a stop at Peninsula State Park. It’s Door County’s most popular state park and a meander through Skyline Drive will show you why. There are several vistas with parking to stop and enjoy the spectacular view some of the likes you won’t see anywhere else in Door County. Turn off the devices, drive slowly and stop as often as you can. Bring your camera. Kids will love being on top of the world.
The park requires a State Park sticker or you can purchase a daily pass.
Cave Point Drive, Cave Point
Closer to Sturgeon Bay is Cave Point County Park and Whitefish Dunes State Park and both are worth a visit. Plan to spend time in each area, and don’t see one without spending time in the other as they each offer something quite different.
Cave Point is known for its embankments and cliffs where water pounds upon the shoreline, often times putting on a spectacular show. Whitefish Dunes requires a Wisconsin State Park sticker or you can pay a daily entrance fee. Head over to see the 2 miles of pristine dune shoreline, then if time permits, hike up to Old Baldy for a truly spectacular show. There are several trails in this park, but Old Baldy is a family favorite. And bring your fur children! Dogs on leash are welcome.
For the sake of this article, however, I want to highlight the drive towards both destinations on a road called Cave Point Drive. As you can see from the map below, if you are arriving from the south on HWY 57, head east on Clark Lake Road also called County Road WD (look for the WD sign!). This road forms a U which will take you right back out of the park and back onto Hwy 57. If heading in from the north, head east Cave Point Drive. These are very short drives, which is why I recommend getting out of the car to see more. Cave Point is truly spectacular. Grab your camera. Bring a coat, you might just get wet.
That about closes it up for today’s post. If you tried any of these drives, please let me know. If you have a fabulous suggestion for me to add, I’d love to hear about it! Happy road-tripping to see Door County fall colors!