What makes Door County so special? This “thumb” of Wisconsin, surrounded by water, farmland, and forests, is unique in its own way. As one local put it- Door County is moving art. In the spring, the flowers grow and bloom, and new life appears in the little sleepy winter towns. In the summer, every sunset is different off of the bays, and every sunrise is different over Lake Michigan. Each fall, the leaves dazzle, much like the views up in the Adirondacks and elsewhere in upstate New York.
But, what about the winter? I was able to catch a glimpse of the moving art of Door County as a snowstorm dropped eight inches of snow on the chilly town of Ephraim, WI. While this was the perfect day to curl up with a good book in front of the fire, there was much more to do. After all, Door County is a tourism center, full of local wineries, delicious restaurants, small boutiques, and amazing state parks.
This is the best place to enjoy your favorite winter pastime. So, here is your ultimate guide to winter in Door County.
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Best Places to Stay in Wisconsin’s Door County
There are plenty of hotels, cottages, and condos throughout Door County, but it’s important to research which of these are open in the winter before planning your trip. This bustling summer peninsula collectively retreats inside for the winter, with many shops, stores, and hotels completely closing during these months.
Hillside Waterfront Hotel is open throughout the winter, through only Friday through Sunday. This perfect, lakeside cottage boutique hotel was once a simple four-room log cabin, built around 1863. In 1884, the venue began to host guests, who would arrive on steamers from Chicago to catch Door County’s “cool breezes” in the summer months. Much like the Catskills of New York, Door County quickly became a destination, and Hillside developed into a sprawling cottage. It would eventually have eleven rooms.
Hillside was renovated in 2003, into what it is today; a beautiful bed and breakfast with five rooms and two separate cottages. There is a lovely common room area, with a real fireplace heating the library and entryway.
Rooms are decorated in a calming, gold and cream palette, with luxurious linens and other amenities, making it a great spot for romantic getaways. The Forget-Me-Not Suite has a king bed, Keurig for coffee or hot chocolate (which is provided), delightful desk, and large, relaxing shower. The room even provides a lap desk with a reading light, wine glasses, and a cutting board for a charcuterie. Every room features its own fireplace for the best, cozy winter vibe.
Prior to arrival, the Hillside manager will give you a call with check-in instructions. When you do arrive, you will enter the common area. Chocolates, your room keys, and the smell of fresh pine will greet you. All rooms are on the second floor, and most have views that overlook the bay (and that sunset).
You can fill out a breakfast card in the evening, and have it delivered to your room on a silver platter in the morning. Breakfast options include warm, locally made pastries, Scottish oatmeal, fresh fruit, local cherry-almond granola, and fresh coffee.
The ambiance of Hillside aligns with the owner’s goals- to create a place for people to come, relax, and let the hustle and bustle of the big city wash away. This is seen in every detail of the hotel, from historical paintings of the bay, to pre-stamped postcards to send home to your loved ones. So, enjoy your winter in Door County from the cozy rooms of Hillside Waterfront Hotel.
Weather During Winter in Door County
It’s no secret that Wisconsin in the winter is COLD. And, Door County is along the more northern side of the state, which makes the colder months dark and quiet. Also, because Door County is on a peninsula, it’s often the recipient of “lake effect” snowfall. This snow comes from the water that surrounds it, and since there is so much water, more snow falls than locations further inland. So, if you are planning to visit during a Door County winter, make sure to plan accordingly and keep an eye on the weather.
Door County Winter Sunrise & Sunset Times to Plan Your Day
Sunrises and sunsets are especially wonderful over Door County in the winter. Because Door County’s peninsula is so thin, a short drive can take you from one side to the other. Thus, you are able to see both the sunrise and sunset over the water each day. This is easiest in the winter months when the days are short.
On the eastern side of Door County, catch the sun rising over Lake Michigan at these times:
- December: 7:00 a.m.-7:27 a.m.
- January: 7:10 a.m.- 7:27 a.m.
- February: 6:28 a.m.- 7:09 a.m.
- March: 6:26 a.m.- 6:31 a.m.
On the western side, you can see the sunset over Green Bay. Here are the approximate times:
- December: 4:10 p.m.- 5:37 p.m.
- January: 4:19 p.m. – 4:56 p.m.
- February: 4:57 p.m. – 5:36 p.m.
- March: 5:38 p.m.- 7:17 p.m.
As you can see, sunrises and sunsets at this time of year are at very appropriate hours of the day, and you won’t need to get up too early or stay up too late to catch one.
However, these short days do have another effect. Door County is such a relaxed place, it is easy to head back to your hotel early in the evening since it is so dark. (In fact, Door County is one of the darkest places in Wisconsin). But, if you are lucky enough to stay at Hillside Waterfront Hotel, you’ll look forward to your early night in.
The 32+ Top Door County Winter Activities
I’ve mentioned that a lot of activities shut down in the winter months. However, I’ve found that just the right amount of things are open in the winter. It’s a trade-off; in the summer, you have a million options of things to do, but have to deal with crowded small towns full of tourists. In the winter, everything is slower and settled- you have less options, but you will be away from the crowds.
Here are the best Door County winter activities divided by food/drink, outdoors, indoors, arts and culture, holiday events.
For Winter Eating & Drinking in Door County
1. Visit Door County Wineries
Door County is famous for its wineries. One of its most famous wineries is Door Peninsula Winery. This winery has many popular fruit-based products, that include grape blends with mango, blackberry, pears, and more. Its tasting room shares a space with Door County Distillery, making this venue just nine miles north of Sturgeon Bay the perfect destination for a person of any taste. The Distillery has its own varieties of vodka, gin, whiskey, brandy, and bitters.
2. Stop into Some Breweries in Door County
But, Door County isn’t all about the wineries. There are several great breweries in Door County, too. Bridge Up Brewing Company, located in Sturgeon Bay, is a great stop. They share a location with Sonny’s Italian Kitchen and Pizzeria. Together, they form an extremely cool space, nestled into a park that bustles in the summer months next to a busy pier. In the winter, however, the brewery is much more chill and serves up cozy drinks like apple beer rimmed with cinnamon sugar.
Another brewery in Baileys Harbor, Door County Brewing Co. Taproom, DCBC Eats & Music Hall, has a cozy winter space too and has live music on their dedicated stage each week.
3. Try the Local Faire – Cheese Curds
It wouldn’t be a trip to Wisconsin without including some cheese curds. One of the best ways to try out this Wisconsin classic is to take a Cheese Curd Tour in Sister Bay. This tour takes you to a variety of restaurants for their curds, both deep-fried and otherwise. Be sure to book this tour much in advance, as it may be booked, or may take some weeks off in the wintertime.
4. Cooking Class + Local Cuisine Tasting
Consider a cozy cooking class by a local Chef Lawrence. He brings you into his restaurant kitchen to learn 3 dishes. The best part? You get to take home the leftovers. Click here to book the experience.
There are some restaurants in Door County that remain open in winter, like Alexander’s of Door County. A classic Wisconsin supper club, Alexander’s serves one of the best whiskey Old Fashioneds I’ve ever had. In addition, their baked artichoke gorgonzola takes the spinach and artichoke appetizer to another level. And, their broiled Door County whitefish is amazing. This fish was caught locally, and literally never left Door County before it came to my plate.
Broiled fish is a little different from fish boils, which are a historical event that has happened in Door County since the late 1800s. If you want to experience this Scandinavian tradition, clear your schedule on Friday night. In the winter, the White Gull Inn hosts a fish boil at 7:00 p.m. for $22.60 a person.
5. Eat at This Hidden Gem
Lastly, I need to mention the Whistling Swan Inn and Restaurant, only because everything here is delicious. Another restaurant hidden in a historical locale, you can stay in a cozy room above the restaurant, and head downstairs for a crisp glass of Hinterland Packerland Pilsner or Grand Cru, which is made with Wisconsin cherries in Green Bay. This is the perfect setup for a winter stay, as you won’t have to leave your hotel for meals during a snowstorm.
Of course, Door County isn’t all about food and drink. There are plenty of Door County winter activities that will burn off all of those calories, too.
For Outdoor Door County Winter Activities
When staying in Door County in the winter, plan to spend ample amounts of time in the fresh Northwoods air doing one of these outdoor activities.
6. Cross-Country Skiing
One way to do this is cross-country skiing. Different from downhill skiing, cross-country skiing follows specifically marked trails. You are able to ski within many state parks, on groomed trails marked for hikers during other times of the year. In fact, Newport State Park has over 26 miles of trails within its boundaries.
When skiing, it’s important to follow trail rules, like not stepping on the ski path with anything but skis on. Also, pay attention to markers, and choose trails that have difficulties attune to your level. Some hills, even though technically not a part of downhill skiing, are technically black diamonds. If you didn’t bring your own cross-country skis, rent some from a local outfitter.
Likewise, snowshoeing is another great outdoor activity in many Door County state parks. Similar to cross-country skiing, miles of trails will be designated for snowshoe hikes. Make sure to grab a park map at the entrance to any state park before embarking on your adventure. Also, if you don’t travel with your own equipment, you can purchase or rent snowshoes at many rental places throughout the peninsula.
Snowmobiling is a popular outdoor activity throughout the state of Wisconsin. Three longer trails extend throughout Door County, including the 50-mile Ahnapee State trail, the Potawatomi State Park trail system, and a trail from the town of Baileys Harbor to Sister Bay. Some people even snowmobile to Door County as a part of a much longer, statewide trip. However, snowmobiling is definitely something you should practice before attempting a long ride, so be sure to take a shorter adventure with a knowledgeable friend.
9. Sledding in Door County
Sledding is another great way to spend a bright and snowy Wisconsin afternoon. Peninsula State Park, in Fish Creek, is one excellent place to do this. The town of Sister Bay also has its own sledding hill, which opens each year as soon as the snow is high enough. The last place to try is the aptly named Big Hill Park, which has something called the “Incinerator Hill.” This hill is very steep and has two drop-offs.
10. Ice Fishing in Door County
Another classic Wisconsin winter pastime, take an afternoon out of your trip to ice fish. There are a few fishing charters that will handle the preparation for you, and guide you through the process. It’s also very important to ice fish with someone who knows the ice and the waters, so you do not accidentally enter a dangerous area. Fish Anytime Charters is one such place, as well as Hooked up Sportfishing.
11. Ice Skating
Make sure to get some ice skating in during your winter getaway. There are many places to do this, as soon as the weather is cold enough. Try the Teresa K. Hilander Ice Rink in Sister Bay, or the Sturgeon Bay Ice Rink that offers skates at no extra charge. Ellison Bay’s Fitzgerald Park also has an ice skating rink.
Want to see the beauty of a Door county winter from the skies? Bundle up and head to Door County Adventure Center for a zipline adventure. You’ll have to book this experience in advance in the wintertime, so be sure to call ahead.
13. Walk the Ridges Sanctuary
Door County is made up of very unique and rare ecosystems, and one of the most interesting is at the Ridges Sanctuary near Bailey’s Harbor. At this nature preserve, each one of the “ridges” has its own unique characteristics. Bring the kids into the Ridge’s Nature Center for some winter crafts, and learn about the area. Then, walk the nicely groomed paths. There is a $5 trail fee here.
14. Take the Ferry to Washington Island
Washington Island is a small island at the very tip of the thumb. To get there, you will have to take the Washington Island car ferry. There is a fee for the ferry, per car and per person; two people and a car is around $50 round trip. If you are prone to seasickness, be sure to watch the weather. A wintery, windy day will cause the ferry to rock significantly, as it enters the passage known as “Death’s Door”.
Once on the island, you can head to Schoolhouse Beach, and walk the shoreline covered in smooth, rounded rocks. This is one of the only places on earth that creates rocks in this way. It’s such a protected area that there are boxes on the sides of the roadway out of the park to return any rocks you may have considered bringing home.
Another great stop in Washington Island is Stavkirke, a church modeled after the Borgund Stavkirke, built in 1150. This church remains with its doors wide open no matter how cold it is. It’s a very peaceful, quiet place to relax and meditate.
15. Explore Cave Point County Park
Back on the mainland, Cave Point County Park is the perfect place to go for a free hike in a unique place. The waters of Lake Michigan have created a very distinct area of slick rocks, limestone cliffs, and secret caves. Though you can’t swim or kayak here in the winter, you can walk the trails and peer down into the caves. The trails, which run above the caves, have holes that peer yards down to the clear blue waters below. Cave Point is hidden within the greater Whitefish Dunes State Park, so you will be able to find quite a lot to do here.
16. Hike the Ice Age Trail
While Wisconsin will never be able to compete with long trails like the Pacific Crest Trail or Appalachian Trail, the Ice Age Trail is its own adventure. This 1,200-mile trail runs from a Western Terminus (located in Interstate State Park in Western Wisconsin’s St. Croix Falls) to its Eastern Terminus (located in Door County). Many miles of the trail runs from beautiful forests to towns like Sturgeon Bay, all marked by the iconic yellow rectangle.
For Indoor Door County Winter Activities
Tired of the cold? Warm up with these indoor Door County activities.
17. Get a Massage at the Spa
Even though Door County is an outdoor recreation wonderland, it’s also the perfect place to get pampered. The Spa at Sacred Grounds is in Ephraim, just a short drive away from Hillside Waterfront Hotel. The Spa offers Yoga classes, as well as spa treatments, so you can service your mind and body while visiting. It is pictured above.
Spa Verde Green Salon & Spa in Egg Harbor is another great choice, where all services are organic and chemical-free.
18. Shop Artisan Goods
There are many quaint little towns in Door County, so it follows that there are also adorable local boutiques too. Island Lavender Co. in Ephraim sells everything with locally grown lavender, from soap to salsa. Madison Avenue Market Wine and Olive Oil in Sturgeon Bay sells everything from olive oil to locally made wine and creates the cutest holiday window displays.
For Wisconsin Arts & Culture in Door County
Door County is also a great place to experience the arts. Littered with galleries, you will be able to find many unique cultural stops.
19. Visit Door County Maritime Museum
Door County wouldn’t be what it is today without the rich history of the Great Lakes. Door County Maritime Museum celebrates that, with a host of important exhibits. This museum, located in Sturgeon Bay (across from Sonny’s Pizza and Bridge Up Brewing) has exhibits on World War II ships that came through Sturgeon Bay, a real tugboat from the 1960s, and a gallery celebrating the art of shipbuilding.
20. Get a Taste for Local Art at the Miller Art Museum
Also in Sturgeon Bay. stop into the Miller Art Museum. This museum exists to support local artists, even providing a 6-week residency within Whitefish Dunes State Park. When you visit, you’ll see these artists’ works, as well as the art of the museum’s namesake, Gerhard CF Miller.
21. Create Your Own Art
Want to get your creative mind working? Head to Fish Creek and Hands-on Art Studio (pictured above), open all year. Here, you can take classes by appointment, or just show up and choose a project. You can choose from ceramics, glass, jewelry, mosaics, paintings, metalwork, and more. The average project costs just $10-$40, and all of your materials will be provided.
You can also check out Stone Silo Studios, though they only offer private DIY workshops. Otherwise, you can come in and purchase, take and make project kits, align with everything else you need to create whatever idea you may have.
22. Feel Inspired with Write On, Door County
It’s easy to find art galleries that support visual artists, but less typical to find organizations that support local writers. Write On, Door County holds classes, programs, and events all year for writers of any level. Classes focus on fiction and nonfiction writing, as well as poetry and memoirs. Events include children’s literature conferences, young writers’ conferences, and more.
23. Stroll Art Galleries
We’ve mentioned a few art galleries so far, but of course, there are many more. Stop into the Peninsula School of Art and Guenzel Gallery for the quintessential Door County art experience. Plum Bottom Gallery is also a great place to see over eighty national artists, and see a real pottery studio in action. This gallery has two locations, one in Egg Harbor’s downtown, and the other nestled into twenty beautiful Wisconsin acres.
24. See a Show
There are three great places to see live performances in Door County. One is the Birch Creek Music Performance Center, located in Egg Harbor. Winter concerts include Valentine’s at Birch Creek and others. Door Shakespeare, which holds its main season in the summer, also hosts winter events, like readings from David Sedaris’ Holidays on Ice.
Finally, Northern Sky Theater (pictured above) also has a winter indoor season. They are hosting a “Home for the Holidays” concert between December 27-31, 2021.
25. The Door County Trolley
If you want to be outside….without being outside in the cold, consider a trolley tour! The Door County Trolley offers scenic tours throughout the region from the comfort of your trolley seat. They offer 15 unique tours such as the Winter Wine Tour and Sleigh Ride, with a fireside lunch at English Inn. The Door County Trolley is also perfect for those who want to drink and be driven around through their holiday pub crawls, cocktail tours, and more.
Pictured above: Our friends Thrifty-With-a-Compass enjoying the Door County Trolley in the winter.
The Door County Winter Festivities & Holiday Events
Wisconsinites know how to party. Here are some of the best festivals held in Door County during the winter. Please remember to check each website to confirm dates + any possible changes due to the pandemic.
26. Merry-time Festival of Trees- Sturgeon Bay
The Merry-time Festival of Trees is held inside the Door County Maritime Museum in Sturgeon Bay. The museum is beautifully decorated from mid-November until the day after New Year’s. It’s a different way to experience the museum with a holiday feel.
27. Christkindlmarkt- Sister Bay
A new event to the Door in 2021, the Christkindlmarkt is modeled after traditional “Christ child” markets. Stoll booths selling goods from local weavers, glass artists, woodworkers, and candlemakers, and try traditional European food. The event is held at the Corner of the Past Museum, which is a recreation of a 19th-century pioneer farm.
28. New Year’s Eve Fireworks and Cherry Drop- Sister Bay
If you miss the Christkindlmarkt, don’t worry- instead, see the Cherry Drop in Sister Bay. Here, you’ll see the biggest fireworks display in Door County that night, as well as a large cherry drop, just like Times Square.
29. New Year’s Day Parade- Egg Harbor
After the fireworks, catch the New Year’s Day Parade in Egg Harbor. There’s no registration required, and so anyone can drive their car in this parade. So, bring your car, a motorcycle, or whatever you drive, and dress up for the fun of it.
30. Polar Bear Plunge- Jacksonport
Each year, the town of Jacksonport holds the Polar Bear Plunge. At this festival, you and 900 swimmers will take a dip in the lake on New Year’s Day, when the water is a frigid 32 degrees.
31. Fire and Ice Weekend- Sturgeon Bay
Fire and Ice Weekend is held in the cold and dark month of February. See ice sculptures being created, and make your own snowman at Martin Park.
32. Winter Fest- Fish Creek
If you’re going to make it to one winter festival in Door County, make it Winter Fest. This “Winter Games” tradition gets friends together for fun games like ice bowling. You will also enjoy amazing food and local wines.
33. Pond Hockey Tournament on Kangaroo Lake
If you want to play or watch some hockey, catch this tournament on Kangaroo Lake. Teams are guaranteed three games, making for a fun day on the ice. Don’t forget to bring some marshmallows to toast by the fire while watching the game!
Now that you know all that Door County has to offer, be sure to book a trip there no matter the season. You will love stopping into a local coffee shop, trying classic Door County cherries, and sipping wine next to the fireplace. If you love winter, Door County is the place to go.
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About the Author: Erin Stob
Erin grew up and currently lives in the woods of Wisconsin. She is passionate about holistic, outdoor living, and strives to share her experience through her writing.