Door County sign photo by Nighthawk

Dude’s Trip #1: Camping in Door County By Nighthawk

Sep 27, 2022

You, the reader, are getting a quick explanation of this new column. I like to travel, and often go by myself. While I do enjoy trips with other people, most of the time it’s easier to just go alone. No lining up schedules, deciding where to go, what to do, et cetera. I also like to write, so this is the first edition of this column series. Each time, it will be about somewhere different. And for anyone who doesn’t read this introduction, they’ll have no idea that they figured out what they were reading about without knowing it. But you’re not one of those people, so who cares about them? Not you. I also think I should explain the title, if it wasn’t self-explanatory enough for you already. I’m a dude. There. I’m like a punk rock Rick Steves. If you don’t know who that is, it’s shameful.

While I have been to Green Bay, Wis. many times—especially during my stay in Chicago—I had never stepped one foot in Door County. You’ve probably heard of it; I definitely had for a long time. It’s located on the Door Peninsula of Wisconsin, which is surrounded by Lake Michigan. Not the Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan, which is basically Wisconsin. We won’t go over that here, but ask around. Just look at a map already. When you do, you’ll see that Green Bay is at the western edge of the peninsula. But the city that is home to Rev. Nørb, and also the Packers, is located in Brown County, which is a couple counties over. Point being, it’s damn close. Less than a half hour drive to the county line, it’s always been sort of an idea to go there whenever I go to Green Bay. It’s an outdoors type of destination place, and I’m an outdoors guy.

So, I was driving to Green Bay the last weekend of June for the Boris The Sprinkler thirtieth anniversary show, by way of a show the night before in Chicago. Why wouldn’t I use a few vacation days so I could camp and explore in Door County finally?! Both shows were great and I saw a lot of friends, but that’s irrelevant here.

A little bit past noon that Sunday, I crossed into Door County. My first stop was Walmart in Sturgeon Bay. I’m one of the first people to say “Fuck Walmart,” but it really is a great store when you’re camping. That’s pretty much the only time I patronize those fucks. So I bought supplies and rolled on. It was at this point I eventually determined that my phone wasn’t getting service. Big deal, right? I’m camping. Well, it factored in later.

Soup bar of old, the now-defunct Czarnuszka Soup Bar | photo by Nighthawk

Anyways, it was a beautiful day and I really enjoyed the scenic drive. My plan was to get to the tip of the peninsula, drive my car onto a ferry, and proceed to Washington Island. You can drive from one end of the county to the other in about ninety minutes, so ya know. En route to the ferry, I stopped in Ephraim to check out the site of the now-defunct Czarnuszka Soup Bar. You might also know it as the Rhythm Chicken’s former establishment, where Holy Shit! played once a year, if memory serves. After a quick picture of the small structure, I’d be sitting in my car on the ferry in no time. For forty-two buck round trip (I believe), I was soon cruising around on the island. The ferry was a lot of fun, and I was the last one on! I stayed in my car because I didn’t see anyone else roaming around. I’m not sure if I’d ever been on one before.

The area the ferry travels through is called Death’s Door, which is where the county got its name.

The area the ferry travels through is called Death’s Door, which is where the county got its name. Through the strait of cold, choppy waters are several small islands and a lot of the coastline is rocky. That adds up to shipwrecks and people dying. So there ya go. Oh, and the canal at Sturgeon Bay was cut in 1881 to avoid the passage. On the other side of Washington Island, there’s another ferry (no vehicles or bikes) which takes you to Rock Island. That’s the end of the line as far as Door County goes.

Nelsen's Hall Bitters Pub | photo by Nighthawk

I intended on going there just to hoof around for a bit, but I arrived at that ferry just in time for the last one of the day. It was late afternoon. Seeing how I hadn’t planned on camping on Rock Island, which you can do, I got back in my car and proceeded to the Albatross Drive-In for an Alby Burger and cheese curds. It was some pretty good local fare. My last stop on the island was Nelsen’s Hall Bitters Pub. I received a number of recommendations of stuff to see, and this was one. Established in 1899, it’s a bar and restaurant that’s the oldest continuously operating tavern in the state. I ordered some sort of an old fashioned and wandered around. The place is obviously big on bitters, and was apparently really big in the early years. It was legally sold there during Prohibition, because the tavern served as a pharmacy and dentist office. It was also a dance hall and movie theater. I unfortunately didn’t join the Bitters Club (you get a certificate), but sucked back my drink and got in the car.

Washington Island Ferry | photo by Nighthawk

There weren’t too many more trips off the island for the day. After a bit of a wait in line, I was back on a ferry. This time, I got out of my car and checked out the top deck. The views were really enjoyable from up there. As the boat was pulling into the dock, I went back down to my car. Having left the windows down a little, quite a bit of water had splashed in. You see, on the first ferry I was parked in the back. On this second one, I was in the front. This landlubber didn’t think that waves might crash overboard. A lady in the minivan next to me was laughing about whoever was in my car was “gonna have some wet butts” in a Door County accent. It wasn’t too bad though. I would go as far as saying that it was actually no laughing matter. Back on the peninsula, I drove by a couple things real quick that I saw on the map. I like doing that out in the country, especially around water.

A lady in the minivan next to me was laughing about whoever was in my car was “gonna have some wet butts” in a Door County accent.

By 8 PM or so, I was at Peninsula State Park. Here’s where the no phone service thing comes into play. I booked a night each at two different parks. I assumed I would have phone service because there are quite a few towns in the general area. Well, I was wrong. In addition, I didn’t have anything printed out or written down. You know, anything like a campsite number. When I pulled up to the office, no one was there. There are close to five hundred campsites there. I was pretty sure Peninsula was the first night because it’s farther north than the one I picked for the second night. That way, I’d have a little less mileage to knock down on Tuesday. Hey, it’s pretty far from St. Louis, for one person to drive in a day anyway.

So where was my site? I had sort of a memory of the campground map and remembered the general area of where I picked a site. On my way over to that area, rain started to fall and the park became very windy. Bad weather is just a bonus when you don’t know where your campsite is. A time like this is when I was glad I’m not bothering anyone else with this situation. On the other hand, someone else might know where the site is. The weather never got too bad, but I did notice sites didn’t have names on them. You know, on the post at the site. I was hoping for that. All that was indicated was the date(s) it’s reserved for.

At this point, a new plan was developing. I could just sleep at an open site and clear things up at the office in the morning. By 8:30 PM, most people are at least at their campsite. I could also see the lake, and it was sunset. Might as well take that in. Unfortunately, the sun was already out of view. Oh well. The park is a peninsula itself (go figure), on the Green Bay side. I checked for an internet connection once more (which I had been doing for six hours or so), and magically I could see my email! It had been open since way back at Walmart. For a few seconds, I was able to see my reservation! Site 345 was what I needed to look for, and I remember being fairly close by. Maybe being near an open sky helped. Who knows.

My neighbors were a young family. I gathered some wood after setting up my tent. Then, it was off to nearby Egg Harbor for dinner. I was told to check out Shipwrecked Brew Pub. I didn’t realize until later that I had mixed it up with a place in another town. I thought Shipwrecked was where your order rides to your table on a big model train. Upon entering Shipwrecked, I didn’t see a big model train. The recommendation there was for craft beer. PC Junction is the train place. Since I was already there, I sat down and ordered a local beer and some fried fish. I’m not a big fish guy, but when in Door County....

While I waited for my meal, I thumbed through a travel guide they had at the door. I came across a page that explained fishing in the county, complete with illustrations of the fish. Basically, get this one in this area at this time of year. I believe I ordered fried Whitefish. According to the guide, it’s available where I was from January-March. Other items on the menu were probably more seasonal than what I ate. It was alright though, as far as fish goes. Big night out!

Camping table | photo by Nighthawk

The park claimed to close at eleven. While that may have been an empty threat, I wasn’t about to find out. Back at my site, I realized I didn’t bring my camping chair, so I just drug the picnic table over to the fire ring. That’s how you improvise! After a few cold ones, I went for a walk along the bay. That’s one of my favorite things to do on a camping trip: take a couple beers and go for a late night walk. You can usually see the stars pretty well—unless it’s cloudy, obviously. The Eagle Bluff Lighthouse was my destination. It was pretty cool to see at night with no one around, except for a few deer (from what I noticed). The lighthouse began operating in 1868. Walking near the water while the waves were crashing ashore was really enjoyable.

Back at my site, I turned in. In the morning, I drove around the park for a while and checked out some viewing areas. There’s even a beach! And a golf course! And an amphitheater! Established in 1909, Peninsula State Park is highly recommended from me. Be sure to do some hiking (which time didn’t really allow for)! Back on Wisconsin 42 (which goes through the length of the peninsula), I decided to head back north (which did contradict my two park booking theory, but whatever), and check out Newport State Park.

But first, it was time to fuel up. There aren’t many gas stations in Door County (that I saw), so don’t wait until you’re on E. That’s pretty much what I did. Again, maybe avoidable with a companion. But also, you don’t have to hear about it when you’re alone. I think I’ve run out of gas before in that car (it’s hard to remember after multiple situations in multiple cars over the years), and I was worried. I passed a nearby gas station the day before though, so I wasn’t too scared. Don’t ask about why I didn’t take care of it the day before. The important thing is I made it there that morning, and a coffee and a fried pie were purchased as well, so I came out on top. Of something. Fried pies are similar to turnovers and are fruit-filled. Hey, ya gotta have breakfast!

Newport is a smaller park on the eastern side of the tip of the mainland. Once the site of a logging village, there is forest, wetland, and meadow to enjoy. And on top of all of that, there’s a beach. I should note here that the water was pretty fucking cold. I put my feet in at another spot later in the day. That was basically the extent of my water activities, and I’m a big water activities guy. But, it’s a big lake, and I was pretty far north. You can camp at Newport, but must backpack into your site. I don’t think I’ve ever done that anywhere. I like to have all my shit nearby, and don’t wanna have to carry anything. Maybe someday. The park also was designated as Wisconsin’s first International Dark Sky Park in 2017. That means people go there to look at outer space. So that is neat. That was pretty much it for me, after I did my usual driving around and looking for a while. All of the state parks require a Wisconsin State Park sticker on your vehicle, which costs more for out-of-state license plates. But, it’s good for all of the parks, and you can get a one day, weekend, et cetera. So ya gotta do that.

After that, I drove down the eastern side of the peninsula to the Cana Island Lighthouse. It was first lit in 1870. There’s a causeway you can walk on from the parking area to the “island,” well I did anyway. The water was low enough. There was also an older guy on a tractor giving rides on a wagon for tip money. I left my wallet in the car, and I’m able-bodied. Once on the small island, you have to buy a wristband. The lady collecting believed my wallet story, but I left anyway. Lighthouse, island, whatever. I didn’t have all day. Not really.

I soon found myself at Kangaroo Lake, which was a recommendation. I got a couple good looks at it from the car, but that was about it. Around this time, I figured it was time for lunch. PC Junction was an idea, but ended up being impossible to locate, because it’s nowhere close to where I was looking around in Egg Harbor on the western side of the peninsula. It’s easy to get things confused when you’re in a new place by yourself. At least, that’s my excuse.

Taking it all in, I did drive through some of the interior of the peninsula during this time though, which was pretty boring. Since I was in Egg Harbor, I went to Callsen’s Main Street Market. The place had a full-page ad in a local periodical, claiming to be “Door County’s Super Market.” Good enough for me. I wanted to get some local snacks and alcohol to bring home. This is another thing I enjoy when I’m out of town, along with general souvenirs like shirts and stickers. I know it’s a new pastime. I bought my parents a bottle of Island Orchard Cider, a container of syrup, and a jar of cherries. All of it was local, of course. Cherries are a very popular item up there.

Cave Point County Park | photo by Nighthawk

Where was that map when I needed it? Hindsight is pretty much undefeated.

After that, I grabbed a sandwich from a place nearby and headed towards Cave Point County Park. You guessed it. I drove back across the peninsula to get there. A lot of crisscrossing was done that afternoon. But so what? It’s a fairly small area of land. Also, I’m realizing now that PC Junction is located at the Peninsula Center. It’s marked on the map that I’m currently looking at. Where was that map when I needed it? Hindsight is pretty much undefeated. Anyway, Cave Point is located within Whitefish Dunes State Park. That’s right, it’s the only county park located within a state park, I’m guessing, as far as Wisconsin goes. The two parks are basically next to each other. Cave Point reminded me a little bit of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in the UP. The water has a turquoise color to it, and the shoreline is made up of cliffs and rock formations. It’s very pretty. After taking some pictures and putting my feet in the water, I got back in the car and drove next door to Whitefish Dunes. That was basically a stroll on the beach. Then, I was ready for some cold local ones. I drank a couple varieties of One Barrel Brewing Company, among some others on my trip. They were enjoyable.

Whitefish Dunes State Park | photo by Nighthawk

It was getting late in the afternoon by this point, and I wanted to avoid another campground situation like the night before. I decided it was best to get over to Potawatomi State Park, which is just outside of Sturgeon Bay. Plenty of sites had been seen for the day, and I wanted to go to one of the local supper clubs. Someone was still at the check-in area when I got there, and they told me which site I had reserved. It’s a much smaller park than Peninsula, but it still would have been tough to find my site. Next to the fire ring was a little bench, so I wasn’t dragging the picnic table over that night.

Camping chair | photo by Nighthawk

After getting things situated, I headed into town. Having taken note of which fish were in season for Sturgeon Bay, I was prepared for what I hoped was a good time at a supper club. Nightingale Supper Club sounded like the right spot for me. It was closed, although their hours listed in the official 2022 destination guide indicated they should have been open. The Mill Supper Club, up the street, was also closed. Their hours weren’t listed, but it is mentioned that they are open year-round. It was Monday night, about 7 PM, for Jiminy Cricket! So, I went to a gas station and bought some supplies (beer, ice, smokes) and regrouped.

Nothing says camping in Door County like eating pizza and drinking margaritas at the bar of a conference center. Nothing.

The downtown area looked alright when I drove through it earlier. This was my last night on the peninsula. I wasn’t gonna eat fucking McDonald’s! So I ended up at Stone Harbor Resort. It’s basically kind of a nice conference center that has a hotel. The dining room seemed a little fancy for me, being out of my element, so I sat at the bar. It was Margarita Monday, so guess what? I drank margaritas. They also had a special on pizza, so I ordered a pizza. That meal spells camping! Nothing says camping in Door County like eating pizza and drinking margaritas at the bar of a conference center. Nothing.

You’re probably wondering why it seems like I don’t cook anything when I go camping. Valid wondering. I’ll briefly explain. I used to always cook everything on a camping trip, until last year when I went to the Smokies. I got scared about the black bears and didn’t make anything on that trip. Definitely an overreaction, but the previous year I almost certainly had a close call with what I think was a bear and my trash that I stupidly left out overnight in the UP. I’ll cook on a camping trip again, but it is kinda nice to not deal with it. Anyway, that’s how I ended up eating pizza on a camping trip. It was an alright dinner spot though; I could almost see the water if I turned around from the bar.

Outdoor bedroom | photo by Nighthawk

Back at the park, I had a few beers but was pretty spent. I did attempt a walk, but didn’t really see anything. The next day, I realized I was actually pretty close to the bay, but oh well. I got my money’s worth driving around before I left and went back to town for breakfast. I did see a sign for the Ice Age Trail before I left. Check that out. The most important meal of that day was noshed at Scaturo’s Baking Co & Cafe. I had a pretty basic breakfast and some coffee. The place is sort of a restaurant and bakery under one roof. After I ate, I purchased an apple fritter and a cinnamon roll for the road. A lady working there gave me a hot tip to go to the Hallmark Shop for souvenirs. I bought myself a T-shirt, a sticker, and a magnet. I got a coaster for my dad and a magnet for my mom.

Then it was off to the shipyards to check that out for a minute. It was pretty neat to see some of those big vessels. On my way out of town, I did a quick cruise by the Door County Maritime Museum. A couple tugboats were docked out front. With WDOR tuned in (a station on which Paul #2 from Boris is the news guy), about fifteen minutes later I was at Wienke’s Market buying a container of Whitefish spread and a box of crackers. Paul must’ve been on assignment elsewhere. The store is located just inside the county line. Ya gotta be official! But I’ll be honest, the smoked dip was from Green Bay. It was damn tasty though.

I had a great time on this excursion, and look forward to going back. There’s plenty to do, but also plenty you won’t get to on one trip. Well, unless you stay for a week or something. And if you’re not a camper, there are quite a few little motels everywhere. I didn’t go to a fish boil (yes) or a fish fry, and I probably forgot to tell you about some stuff, but what does that matter?

Go somewhere!