Chasing Fall Colors Along Wisconsin’s Thumb

Last Updated on August 25, 2018 by Janet Frost

The changing leaves of fall are at peak in the upper Midwest.  Fall colors in Wisconsin produce an annual avalanche of “Leaf Peepers” across the state. The state offers a number of fall colors destinations, but one of the most popular is Door County Peninsula.

The Mittens

Fall colors
The Great Lakes Mittens

The Upper Midwest is defined by the Great Lakes. These massive powerful lakes and their receding glaciers created the land formations that we now recognize as Wisconsin and Michigan. These two states compete over identification as “The Mitten” geographically.  As you look at the map you see that each state boasts a protruding thumb-like land mass pointing to the Northeast.  I will admit that Michigan looks more like a thumb and Wisconsin more like a pinky finger.  But for the sake of peace and neighborliness let’s call them both a thumb.

Deep in the Palm-Milwaukee

Starting in the palm of that imaginary mitten lies Milwaukee. Milwaukee is the major metropolitan region of Wisconsin with a population over 1,570,00 not including extended suburbs. This city is a beautiful region to visit and explore fall colors along the Lake Michigan shore.

The bustling city delivers excitement year round with museums, festivals, fine dining and trendy craft breweries. Outdoor activities abound with several rivers feeding into the beautiful Lake, and beaches and bluffs overlooking the scene.  Check out the Milwaukee article I wrote for Dose of Discovery 

The Base of the Thumb-Manitowoc

Eighty miles north of Milwaukee, the town of Manitowoc sits on the outer base of Wisconsin’s thumb.  Manitowoc is a little harbor town full of interesting history and stunning Lake Michigan shoreline. The town has a deep and rich history of Great Lakes shipbuilding. In the mid-nineteenth century, Henry Burger immigrated from Germany and settled in Manitowoc.  There he started his shipbuilding business which would shape the development of the city. The Burger Boat Company still exists in Manitowoc where spectacular luxury yachts are built today. Later in the 20th century, the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Co would be responsible for building 28 submarines used extensively in World War II.

Along the Manitowoc River, sits the Wisconsin Maritime Museum with the USS Cobia nestled up against its side.  The museum is a wonderful collection of historic shipbuilding facts and artifacts.  



A visit includes a full tour of the Cobia, one of the 28 subs built on the site.  The stop at this museum was designed to entertain my husband, but I found the tour of the submarine absolutely fascinating.  They even offer an overnight experience on the sub for the truly seaworthy.








Beyond the musuem, Manitowoc was bursting with fall color. The Mariners Trail is 6 miles of multi-use trail curving around the Lake Michigan coast.



Further Along the Thumb-Kewaunee and Algoma

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A quaint boat house nestled in the Kewaunee harbor


Kewaunee and Algoma are two small harbor towns (under 3000 pop) about 12 miles apart. Although we are chasing fall colors, lighthouses are a bonus along this route.


Wisconsin lighthouses
Kewaunee Lighthouse photo taken by Tom Frost with the DJI drone


Wisconsin Lighthouse
Kewaunee Lighthouse from above photo by Tom Frost with DJI drone


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Algoma Pierhead Lighthouse


Wisconsin Lighthouse
Algoma Pierhead Lighthouse from above Photo by Tom Frost with DJI drone


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Church steeple framed by fall colors in Algoma, WI
Ahnapee State Trail
Ahnapee State Trail in Algoma






















These two towns each sit on rivers flowing into Lake Michigan. Fall colors abound in these cute towns. There is a beautiful multi-use trail, Ahnapee State Trail,  that winds for 48 miles along the Kewaunee and Ahnapee Rivers all the way north to Sturgeon Bay.



Nightlife in Algoma

You wouldn’t expect this little town to have much for nightlife, but we found a few hopping places. After chasing lighthouses, fall colors and a short hike we were ready for some refreshments.  Ahnapee Brewery in a snug two car garage came highly recommended.


More Fall Colors and Lighthouses Up the Peninsula (Thumb Tip)

The peninsula that protrudes east into Lake Michigan is the Door Peninsula more commonly referred to as Door County.  Door County runs from Sturgeon Bay, midway along the southwest shore of Green Bay, up to the very tip of land at Gills Rock. This peninsula is a hugely popular destination year round.  Of course the weekends of October are peak for fall colors and the  small region literally bulges at the seams with visitors.  Highway 42 leads up the western side, the Bay side, of the peninsula and Highway 57 meanders up the eastern side, facing the Lake.  Traditionally the eastern side is less crowded because the water on the Lake side is much rougher than on the Bay side.  West side towns like Ephraim, Fish Creek and Sister Bay are packed with tourist shops, restaurants and B&Bs.


Baileys Harbor

We decided to head up Hwy 57 towards the east town of Baileys Harbor and the Cana Island Lighthouse. Quiet little Baileys Harbor was a perfect spot for a decadent breakfast before chasing more fall colors and lighthouses.


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Baileys Harbor on the east side of Door Peninsula

Baileys Harbor breakfast


The Harbor Fish Market and Grill was idyllic!  Quaint wooden floors and tin ceilings frame walls of windows looking out to Lake Michigan. Breakfast was elegant and decadent with the ubiquitous Door Co cherries stealing the show.











I could have sat sipping coffee and enjoying this view all day!

Stuffed french toast dripping with sweet tart Door County cherries. A different form of fall colors these ruby treats are everywhere on the Peninsula.






Off to the Cana Island Lighthouse with our full bellies.  In years past a narrow, but walkable causeway gave access to Cana Island. Due to recent high water levels the causeway is now covered with about a foot of roiling water.  A few intrepid souls hoofed it across but we did not relish cold wet feet for the rest of the day.  A very jocular local now drives his tractor and wagon back and forth across the causeway for visitors.


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Local farmer with his transport wagon
Door County Lighthouses
Cana Island Lighthouse






















The lighthouse is open to the public daily from 10-5, which are also the hours of Mr. Wagondriver. Ninety- three steps will take you to the top with views of Moonlight Bay, Spike Horn Bay and vast Lake Michigan.




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Shadow of Cana Island Lighthouse






Looking North from Cana Island Lighthouse


Peninsula State Park

Across the Peninsula in Fish Creek, the spectacular Peninsula State Park is the ultimate spot for fall colors. This park is 3,776 acres of trails, campgrounds, boat launches and eight miles of Green Bay shoreline. It is the third largest park in Wisconsin and estimates 1 million visitors annually.  The campgrounds are hugely popular requiring reservations months in advance. All worth the effort for this beautiful venue.

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Fall colors in Peninsula State Park facing Green Bay




Peninsula State Park
Green Bay


















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Scenic drive through Peninsula State Park


Another Lighthouse

Actually, there are 11 nineteenth century lighthouses in Door County. Door County Lighthouse Experiences is a great website for a trek chasing lighthouses around the thumb of Wisconsin. Within the Peninsula State Park is the Eagle Bluffs Lighthouse. This lighthouse is open for tours from mid-May through mid-October.  The lighthouse is open during the season from 10:00 am – 3:30 pm.

Door County Lighthouses
Eagle Bluff Lighthouse in Peninsula State Park



Peninsula State Park

Sturgeon Bay

Finally, after a wonderful day of chasing fall colors through Door County we were famished and ready to head home.  Sturgeon Bay, the county seat, sits at the southern end of the county. It is equidistant from Green Bay, the city to the south and Gills Rock, the peninsula tip to the north. With the geography of a large canal cutting almost completely across the base of the peninsula, Sturgeon Bay is a dominant force in Great Lakes shipping and shipbuilding. Like the larger Green Bay to the south, Sturgeon Bay has a more industrial feel and starts to lose the charm of northern Door County.  It stills hosts a sample of fall colors and great access to the beautiful Green Bay.

Sturgeon Bay as a deep Great Lakes port


Door County
Sturgeon Bay shipyard


Door county
Looking across the Sturgeon Bay bridge towards the Door County Maritime Museum.


Sturgeon Bay Marina getting setup for a hopping Saturday night


Fall Colors along Wisconsin’s Thumb

As I see this post growing I realize that I have only scratched the surface on Door County and the eastern shoreline Wisconsin.  If you find the lighthouses and ship history fascinating there is a Wisconsin’s Maritime Trail that discovers lighthouses, shipwrecks, maritime museums and even dive sites. There are fabulous eateries and craft breweries throughout eastern Wisconsin. The region is covered with beaches, forests and state parks, trails and navigable waterways. Of course it is a wonderland of fall colors, but it is equally as scenic and fun winter, spring and summer.  Come visit our colorful state!




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