Known as the “crown jewel” in the Wisconsin State Park system, the state parks of Door County are one of the many reasons Wisconsin’s eastern peninsula is such a popular tourist destination. And, no wonder. These state parks allow visitors to explore historic lighthouses, examine the unique geology that made Door County possible, camp on remote islands, relax on the beach, hike gorgeous trails, contemplate the vastness of space – well, the list could go on and on.
Visiting a Door County state park is one of the most popular things to do in Door County, and this post will tell you everything you need to know about them. Here is what we’ll cover:
- General information including the number of state parks, admission fees, camping, and dog policy.
- Summaries of each of Door County’s state parks.
Number of State Parks
With five parks from Potawatomi in the south to Rock Island in the north, Door County has the highest concentration of state parks in Wisconsin.
Like most Wisconsin state parks, the ones in Door County charge vehicle admission fees. Check the state Department of Natural Resources website for the most up-to-date information about the fees.
However, there are ways to visit a Wisconsin state park for free.
Rock Island State Park does not charge admission fees, but getting there will cost most people money as they must purchase ferry passage.
Camping is available at Potawatomi State Park, Peninsula State Park, Newport State Park, and Rock Island state park. The camping situation is very different for each park, so check out our full post on Door County camping to learn more.
In general, Door County state parks are dog-friendly, including at the campgrounds and on the trails. Dogs are required to be on a leash no more than eight feet long and remain under the control of their owners at all times. Check the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources website for the most up-to-date and comprehensive information on pets in state parks.
One special treat for your four-legged friends is the dog beach at Whitefish Dunes State Park.
Door County’s Five State Parks
Peninsula State Park
Peninsula State Park is the most popular state park not just in Door County but in all of Wisconsin. And, for a good reason. Peninsula State Park has something for everyone: camping, an observation tower, an outdoor theater, a sand beach, bike trails, 20 miles of hiking trails, an 18-hole golf course, and a lighthouse.
Here are a few highlights of Peninsula State Park:
One can’t-miss experience at Peninsula State Park is the Eagle Tower. Located on a bluff, the tower’s sixty-foot ascent puts visitors 253 feet above Green Bay. The Eagle Tower is fully accessible and has an 850-foot-long ramp with resting platforms. This is a great place to catch a sunset and to take Instagram-worthy photos.
Peninsula State Park’s five campgrounds offer 468 family campsites. Winter and group camping are also available. For more information about camping at Peninsual State Park, check out our comprehensive post about camping in Door County.
Peninsula State Park has 20 miles of hiking trails. Perhaps the most interesting and scenic trail in the park is the Eagle Trail which leads hikers past 150-foot cliffs, a dramatic portion of the Niagara Escarpment which forms Door County.
Nicolet Beach in Peninsula State Park is one of Door County’s most popular beaches. In general, the water will be warmer here than many other beaches in Door County, and the beach has amenities like equipment rental, a snack bar, and more.
Peninsula State Park boasts an 18-hole golf course with some of the most spectacular scenery in Wisconsin. The course also has a clubhouse and offers golf lessons.
Northern Sky Theater
Watch a performance under the stars at Peninsula State Park’s Northern Sky Theater. Northern Sky is a professional theater company producing shows with a focus on telling uniquely American stories.
Potawatomi State Park
The highlight of Potawatomi State Park is its access to the bay of Sturgeon Bay, an arm of the bay of Green Bay, and a fishing and boating hotspot. Potawatomi has a boat launch in the Sawyer Harbor of Sturgeon Bay. Waters here are usually calm enough for novice kayakers and canoers.
Potawatomi’s Daisy campground has 123 sites including 40 with electricity. The park also offers the “Cabin by the Bay,” a facility designed to help persons with disabilities enjoy a Door County camping experience. Winter camping is available.
For more information about camping at Potawatomi State Park, check out our full article on Door County camping.
Boating and Fishing
Potawatomi State Park has a boat launch and offers rentals of kayaks, canoes, and paddle boats. The boat launch gives access to Sawyer Harbor, a protected inlet of Sturgeon Bay. Fishing is excellent here, and the waters are usually gentle enough for even novice paddlers and motorboaters to navigate.
This is a popular place to fish for perch, pike, and smallmouth bass.
Fishing equipment is available to borrow for free at the park office through Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ Tackle Loaner Program.
Given its proximity to the city of Sturgeon Bay, Peninsula State Park is a popular destination for both on-road and off-road bikers alike. The park maintains about eight miles of off-road biking trails.
Potawatomi State Park has many opportunities for winter recreation, including winter camping, ice fishing, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing. Check their website for up-to-date information on winter activities.
About ten miles of hiking trails are available at Potawatomi State Park, including almost three miles of Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail, a 1,000-mile National Scenic Trail following the edge of North America’s last continental glacier. The eastern terminus of the Ice Age Trail is in Potawatomi State Park.
Whitefish Dunes State Park
Whitefish Dunes State Park protects a unique and fragile topography and ecosystem in Door County. This is a favorite place to swim on hot days, and dog lovers will enjoy this park as it has a designated pet swimming area. The beach is not what it used to be in recent years given historically high water levels, but as of 2022, the beach has been coming back. At the northern end of the beach, listen to the sound that your feet make in the sand. The beach at Whitefish Dunes State Park has “squeaky” or “singing” sand, a rare phenomenon found on only a few beaches in the world.
Whitefish Dune State Park is a day-use-only park. No camping is available.
While visiting Whitefish Dunes State Park, make sure to make a side trek over to Cave Point County Park, which is nearby.
For even more information about this park, check out our comprehensive post on Whitefish Dunes State Park.
Several trails are available for off-road biking.
Swimming is permitted on the beach at Whitefish Dunes State Park. A couple tips about swimming at Whitefish Dunes:
First, you will probably only want to swim here from mid-July through mid-August, when the air temperatures are high and the water has warmed up as well. Before this time, you will probably want to swim on the Green Bay side of Door County. However, when it gets hot, this is a wonderful place to cool down.
Second, Whitefish Bay is susceptible to strong rip currents in certain wind conditions. Keep a close eye on conditions, and pay special attention to children and weak swimmers.
Whitefish Dunes State Park has a designated pet swimming area. However, you should know that the dog beach is about a mile hike from the parking lot and requires navigating a long staircase down to the shore. Dogless dog lovers will enjoy hiking the trail to the dog beach, as on hot days it will give you the chance to meet lots of friendly dogs and their owners.
Whitefish Dunes does not have a boat launch, but paddlers with small boats are able to carry them to the shore and launch. However, given the challenges of paddling on Lake Michigan, it is advised that only well-outfitted and experienced paddlers attempt this.
Fishing is available at Clark Lake via the Clark Lake spur trail. Whitefish Dunes State Park also has fishing equipment to borrow for free.
Whitefish Dunes State Park has about 14.5 miles of hiking trails available. Hello Door County’s favorite trail is the yellow/green trail just on the other side of the dunes from the Lake, between the Dunes and Clark Lake Road. This is a unique and beautiful topography with a peaceful ambiance.
Newport State Park
Newport State Park is Hello Door County’s favorite of the Wisconsin State Parks in Door County. Near Ellison Bay, in the far reaches of the Door Peninsula, Newport offers more of a wilderness experience than the other state parks. People will not crowd you here, but the stars crowd the night sky. Gorgeous hikes, stunning shoreline, and pack-in camping round out the experience at Newport State Park.
Most of us don’t know what a truly starry sky looks like. Light pollution from streetlights and industry sadly often obscures all but the brightest stars and leaves the skies looking much more empty than they are. Newport State Park is a rare place, far from human light sources, where the heavenly bodies can dazzle you with all their glory. Designated a Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association, this park is one of only 18 such parks in the Lower-48.
Newport State Park offers year-round pack-in camping. This is a great place to camp if you have the equipment and want to get away from the crowds. Check out our comprehensive post on Door County camping to learn more about camping in Newport State Park.
Newport State Park has over thirty miles of hiking trails, including some of the most scenic and unique trails in Door county. These trails will lead you along shoreline, through boreal forest, and amidst . . . poetry.
That’s right, poetry. Newport State Park has a one-mile “Poetry Trail” with rotating displays of poems from both local and Wisconsin poets.
Lynd Point Trail is another highlight, as it follows a rocky, rugged shoreline. This trail is only for the sure-footed, but those who hike it will be rewarded by experiencing unique geology and lovely views.
Newport has about eighteen miles of offroad biking trails.
No boat launch is available at Newport State Park, but paddlers with light vessels should be able to launch from the shore. However, only experienced, well-outfitted paddlers should brave the waters of Lake Michigan.
Newport State Park is an excellent place for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Twenty-six miles of trail are open for cross-country skiing, twelve of them groomed and tracked for classic skiing and two miles groomed for skate skiing. Five miles of trail are open to snowshoeing.
Winter camping is also available at Newport State Park.
Rock Island State Park
Rock Island State Park is one of the most unique parks not only in Wisconsin but also in the Lower-48 of the United States of America. Rock Island State Park is an island only accessible by taking two ferries. No vehicles are allowed on the island. And, it has a gorgeous boathouse, an architectural wonder nearly a century old, built by an eccentric industrial magnate. Make sure you go into the boathouse to view and check out the mantelpiece with Norse runes.
Finally, Rock Island boasts one of Door County’s most inaccessible but most striking lighthouses. The Pottawatomie Lighthouse on Rock Island is Wisconsin’s oldest lighthouse in a dramatic setting on a bluff high above Lake Michigan.
While worth it, getting to Rock Island requires some advance planning. Most visitors will need to take the Washington Island Ferry from Gills Rock on the Door Peninsula to Detroit Harbor on Washington Island. The Island Clipper also makes this passage, but it is not a good option for campers, as it is only permitted for day trips.
From Detroit Harbor on the south side of Washington Island, you will need to travel to Jackson Harbor on the north side. This is about an eight-mile trip. You can walk this distance, and some people do. But, you will probably want some sort of wheels, as you will be traveling on roads. Most people take their cars to Washington Island, but a less expensive option is to leave your car at Gills Rock and take a bicycle to Washington Island.
From Jackson Harbor on Washington Island, you will take Rock Island Ferry to Rock Island. The vessel that makes this passage is a small, passenger-only ferry.
You can take your own boat to Rock Island but exercise much caution. Only the most experienced and well-outfitted boaters should attempt to make this passage, as these waters are extremely treacherous; you will be crossing the infamous Death’s Door. While sea kayakers will be able to pull their vessels up on land, motor boaters will need to pay for mooring on Rock Island, and reservations are not available.
Rock Island State Park is one of the few Wisconsin State Parks for which a vehicle admission sticker is not required, because, well, you can’t drive to Rock Island.
Pack-in camping is available at Rock Island State Park. Check out our comprehensive post on Door County camping to learn more.
Rock Island State Park has ten miles of hiking trails, six of which are along the shoreline.
The waters around Rock Island offer productive smallmouth bass fishing. No bait or tackle is available on the island.
The Friends of Rock Island State Park offers tours of the historic Pottawatomie Lighthouse daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. from Memorial Day through Columbus Day. Pottawatomie sits high on a bluff above Lake Michigan, and visitors are allowed to climb to the lantern room. Striking views here.
Rock Island has a lovely sand beach, and swimming is permitted everywhere in the park. However, given the colder temperatures of Lake Michigan, most will not want to swim until late summer.
Rock Island State Park is generally inaccessible during the winter months.
Peninsula State Park, Potawatomie State Park, Newport State Park, and Rock Island State Park allow camping. However, only Peninsula State Park and Potawatomi State Park allow car camping. Newport State Park and Rock Island State Park have walk-in sites.
Peninsula State Park has a golf course.
Potawatomi State Park has a large, multi-lane boat launch. Smaller crafts can be launched from the other state parks in Door County.
Technically, Door County has six state parks, but only five of these parks are easily accessible and have facilities. The sixth state park is on remote Detroit Island.
The five accessible state parks in Door County are: Peninsula State Park, Potawatomi State Park, Whitefish Dunes State Park, Newport State Park, and Rock Island State Park.