When an opportunity to explore Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula presented itself this past December, I looked at the weather forecast for that period of time: highs in the mid to low thirties—that is, before any wind chill. Tucked between Green Bay and Lake Michigan, the region is also subject to lake effect snow, which can translate to 2 to 3 inches of snow per hour or more.

In contrast, my current home in East Tennessee boasted temps in the mid-seventies for the same period of time. While that weather did feel divine, a little part of me felt disoriented by it. I couldn’t place myself in time without a familiar seasonal chill. Before moving to Tennessee, I lived for two winters in South Dakota. Born in the summer on the coast of northern California, South Dakota’s winter intensity level was jarring for me. Yet, surviving the first one left me able to relish the second. And now here I am missing it somewhat.

Small towns blanketed by true, deep winters foster a strong sense of community. That’s when locals gather to tell their stories. It’s when your neighbor comes out to help you shovel your car out of the snow. It’s bone-chilling. It can feel lonely. But it also holds within it a warmth and light worth holding close.

Those Midwest, snowy winters also helped me learn how to slow down and look for new ways to experience the outdoors. It’s true that—with the right gear—even in several feet of snow we can backpack into the mountains or find still-flowing rivers to paddle. And I’ve had my fair share of “why am I even out here,” thrilling winter adventures. However, it’s just as valid to accept that our winter outdoor activities can look differently.

Longing for that knowing winter cold, I decided to embrace being a reverse snowbird and accept the invitation to see how communities in the Door Peninsula thrive in the quieter months. If you’re looking for some outdoor winter joy, here are five ways I found it in Door County, Wisconsin.

1. Take an eBike ride to Cave Point County Park.

I’ve been highly skeptical of eBikes for a while now, but decided to give one a try on a tour with Door County Kayak Tours. Within the first ten minutes, I was a believer. It felt like a romantic moped experience for the naturally cautious. It was thrilling!

We zipped through the cold, feeling alive with the fresh air filling our lungs. A few miles later, we arrived at Cave Point County Park, a sweet little nature area on the shores of Lake Michigan. The water was beautiful and, given it was the off-season, not speckled with crowds of kayakers. I appreciated the serenity of the place before we zipped over to the nearby Whitefish Dunes State Park to catch a little more beachy shoreline.

While the scenery was lovely, what made the experience even better was our local tour guide. Born and raised in the area, he could offer unique perspectives on how the landscape had changed over time. He told us about the invasive species they’re battling along the shores and ways climate change is impacting the environment. It felt like one of those intimate moments best served in winter—where locals not only help you enjoy the outdoors but educate you on how you can help preserve the place, too.

2. Explore the many trails of Peninsula State Park.

With over 460 campsites, a summer theater, an 18-hole golf course, a sand beach, bike trails, a lighthouse, and eight miles of shoreline, Peninsula State Park is a bustling place for outdoor recreation during the summer months. But during the winter months, it’s a quiet outdoor oasis where you can take a peaceful walkabout, linking trails anywhere from 1 to 20 miles depending on your time and ambition.

I appreciated the woodsy getaway, which also offered plenty of interpretive signs to learn about the Niagara Escarpment and local flora and fauna. As a bonus, the park offers an ADA-accessible, canopy walkway up to the 850-foot Eagle Tower, which offers panoramic views of Green Bay and the surrounding landscape.

3. Hike a section of the Ice Age Trail.

Ok, so, I didn’t actually get to do this one on this trip, but it was on my mind, and the next time I return to Door County, I hope to check it off my Door County bucket list. The Ice Age Trail is a National Scenic Trail that takes hikers through around 1,000 miles of Wisconsin. Its western terminus is in Interstate State Park in St. Croix Falls, Polk County and its eastern terminus is in Potawatomi State Park in Sturgeon Bay, Door County.

A friend of mine is section hiking the entire trail and I 100% plan to hitch myself to her section through the Door Peninsula. To be determined whether I convince her to do this in winter.

4. Attend a traditional fish boil.

Remember how I said outdoor experiences can look different in the winter? While far from gallivanting around a state park, a Door County fish boil totally counts as an outdoor adventure.

Fish boils began over 100 years ago in the area by Scandinavian settlers. It was a cheap way to serve large groups of hungry lumberjacks and fishermen. The event involves a large pot filled with potatoes on the bottom and then loads of freshly caught Lake Michigan whitefish. It’s boiled outside over an open fire. 

As the fish cooks, oils rise to the top of the pot. To assist in draining the pot to serve the food quickly, the evening’s cook throws kerosene onto the bonfire toward the end of the cooking time. The intense flames and heat cause the pot to boil over and drain off any impurities.

It is… an experience. And very tasty.

While you can find fish boils at many locations across the peninsula, I went to one at White Gull Inn, a quaint little spot established in 1896. Following the fish boil, they serve homemade cherry pie with locally picked tart cherries. A little slice of heaven.

5. Enjoy a snowy stroll for coffee in Ephraim.

Ephraim is a little village on the Door Peninsula located along the shores of Eagle Harbor. It’s packed with over 30 historical sites, including the quirky, colorful, graffiti-covered Anderson Warehouse, which is home to the Hardy Art Gallery. It also has a lovely walking path along the water.One of my favorite “outdoorsy” winter moments in Door County was on my final day there when a big snowstorm came. I bundled up and headed out in search of coffee and breakfast. Big, wet snowflakes slapped me in the face as I walked and, more than once, the top of my boot sank below the snow. The absurdity of choosing to take a stroll in that weather made me laugh. 

Eventually, I came upon Chef’s Hat Cafe, which was the only open restaurant around. As soon as I stepped into the warmth and began the process of delayering, I felt at home. I sat at the breakfast bar as one of the waitresses made me her famous honey oat milk latte, and I watched as the employees worked together on crossword puzzles and word searches. 

“We don’t get to do this in the summertime,” my barista confessed to me, reflecting on the busy tourist season. 

And it was getting to experience that little moment that reminded me of why being a reverse snowbird can be so wonderful. In embracing the chill, I got to enjoy an authentic interaction with the people who call Door County home.

Head North to Embrace the Joy of Winter in Door County

Whether Door County or somewhere else, I highly encourage finding time in the winter to be in a place that has a real winter season. The trails are quieter, the people have more time to connect with you, and you get to take an expansive view of what makes something an “outdoor adventure.”

January 06, 2022 — Korrin Bishop