Wondering how you’ll spend time during your vacation to Washington Island in Door County, Wisconsin? Here are the best things to do in and around Washington Island!
These are just some of the amazing things to do in Door County. Make sure to check out all of Hello Door County’s posts on things to do in Door County. Also, if you find yourself on Washington Island, our post on the best Washington Island restaurants can help guide you to a great place to eat.
Ride the Washington Island Ferry Line
Just getting to Washington Island is an amazing experience in itself. The passage to Washington Island takes you across the infamous “Death’s Door,” one of the most treacherous water passages in the United States.
The Washington Island Ferry is a car ferry that allows passengers to take vehicles to the island. As the ferry slides past Plum Island, passengers can often get views of the Plum Island Range Lights, navigational beacons which help guide mariners through these challenging waters.
The ferry passage takes about 30 minutes.
The Washington Island Stavkirke (Norwegian for “stave church”) is a place where realms collide. Heaven and earth, God and man both meet at the Stavkirke.
The Stavkirke gives the impression that it has sprung up from the earth like some exotic tree or flower. Hewn from mighty trees, the timbers root it to the grounds, and its appearance has an organic appearance to it.
At the same time, the edifice is otherworldly as it reaches to the heavens, and its alien appearance is amplified by the dragon figures adorning the pinnacles.
Feel free to enter the Stavkirke. There you will see its lovely altar, and you should take some time when you enter to pray. Be respectful when you are inside. This is a functioning worship space. Services are offered on Wednesdays over the summer.
The Stavkirke is modeled after the Stave Church in Borgund, Norway, an edifice almost a thousand years old. Stave churches are so-called because they are constructed of large wooden pillars called staves. Some stave churches even functioned as pagan temples before being converted to Christian churches.
Rock Island Boathouse
If you have gotten as far as Washington Island, a trip to Rock Island is obligatory.
Rock Island is a small island north of Washington Island. About 1.6 miles long and 1.1 miles wide, Rock Island encompasses about 975 acres of mostly wooded land. Rock Island State Park covers all but a small parcel of the island. Check out our post on Door County state parks for comprehensive information about Rock Island State Park, including information on how to get to Rock Island.
The first wonder you will encounter on Rock Island is its beautifully imposing boathouse. Chester Thordarson, an early electric industry magnate, built the boat house in 1929 as the first building in what he planned to be a huge multi-building estate. He never accomplished building the other buildings, but the Rock Island boathouse is impressive enough by itself.
Make sure to go inside the boathouse as well, where you can marvel at the gorgeous architecture and even just rest a little bit after the open-air boat ride to Rock Island. The centerpiece of the boathouse’s interior is a stone fireplace with Norse runes carved into it.
Rock Island Lighthouse
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.
Getting to the Rock Island Lighthouse requires a moderate to strenuous one-mile hike uphill from the boathouse, but you will be handsomely rewarded for your efforts.
Hike Around Rock Island
The hike up to the Rock Island Lighthouse is the beginning of the Thordarson Loop Trail, a trail that follows the shoreline of Rock Island. Hiking around the island in a day is a doable feat for many hikers with an early enough start.
Rock Island Beach
After your hike make sure to take a dip at Rock Island Beach. This is known as one of the most beautiful beaches in all of Door County, even as it is one of the most elusive.
To learn more about Door County beaches, make sure to check out our post on this topic. It’s the most comprehensive post on Door County beaches on the internet!
A geological wonder, Schoolhouse Beach is one of only five beaches in the world comprised entirely of limestone pebbles. The stones are worn smooth, but you will probably want some sort of footwear to explore and swim. Public restrooms are available here as is a picnic area with grills.
Powerboating or Sailboating
Boating is a popular activity on Washington Island. Washington Island has several public and private boat docks and marinas.
If you prefer plying the waters under your own power, Washington Island is a great place to do this as well. Bring your own kayak or stand-up paddleboard or rent one. Many waterside resorts also lend paddling equipment for free.
Fishing is an extremely popular thing to do on Washington Island. The waters around Washington Island are especially renowned as a good place to fish for smallmouth bass.
Fragrant Isle Lavender Farm, Store, and Cafe
Fragrant Isle Lavender Farm is one of Washington Island’s most popular destinations, where you can take in the beautiful fields, smell the amazing natural aroma, and learn more about this unique crop.
Fragrant Isle’s Lavender Field Experience allows visitors to walk through the lovely lavender fields for $5 per person (children under 12 years old are free, but must be accompanied by an adult).
They serve lunch daily throughout the summer, 11:00 AM – 2:00 PM.
The Koyen Collection: K.K. Fiske Restaurant, Granary Saloon & Coop Hangout
“Fresh lawyers served daily.” You’ll see this motto in a window of K.K. Fiske Restaurant, a funky and eclectic establishment on Washington Island.
No, K.K. Fiske is not butchering people in the legal profession. “Lawyer” is a name given to a freshwater fish found in northern climes. It also goes by the name “burbot.”
They are some of the ugliest fish you will ever see in your life. We’re not sure if this is how they got their name, but despite their ugly appearance and unappetizing name, lawyer fish are renowned for making delicious eating.
K.K. Fiske specializes in fish caught straight from the waters of Lake Michigan. In addition to serving fish daily, they also offer occasional fish boils. Keep tabs on their Facebook page for updates about fish boils and other special events, or just give them a call.
Nelsen’s Hall Bitters Pub
This Washington Island restaurant is famous for its “Bitters Club,” which has its origin in the Prohibition Era. Legend has it that a loophole in Prohibition laws allowed alcoholic bitters to be consumed medicinally. This, and Washington Island’s remote locale, allowed this bar to give prescriptions for bitters which could then be fulfilled on-site and on-demand.
You can join this club for a year simply by taking a shot of bitters, and by this become an honorary resident of Washington Island.
At Nelsen’s Hall, you can expect a classic building with a cool, old bar back, lots of people, pub food, and fun. This fun atmosphere makes Nelsen’s Hall Bitters Pub one of the best restaurants on Washington Island and one of the more unique places to eat in Door County.
Jackson Harbor Dunes Park / Jackson Harbor Ridges State Natural Area
This park has been named a State Natural Area due to its ecologically significant geology and the plant and animal life it supports. This park is owned and operated by the Town of Washington, the municipality that governs Washington Island. As of 2022, the Town of Washington requires the purchasing of a pass to access the parks that it operates.
Address: 1902 Jackson Harbor Rd, Washington, WI 54246
Sand Dunes Park
On the southwest side of Washington Island, this park has a sand beach that is good for swimming and also a large dune begging to be climbed. This park is owned and operated by the Town of Washington, the municipality that governs Washington Island. As of 2022, the Town of Washington requires the purchasing of a pass to access the parks that it operates.
This quirky little museum has an astonishing array of artifacts from Washington Island, including salvaged items from shipwrecks.
Fair Isle Books and Gifts
Offering books and international fair trade gift items, Fair Isle Books is a popular place to shop on Washington Island
Annie’s Island Moped Rental supplies visitors with outsized fun on undersized vehicles to get around Washington Island.
Bring your golf clubs along to Washington Island! Deer Run Golf Course and Resort offers a rare opportunity: golfing on an island in Lake Michigan.
Trueblood Performing Arts Center
The Trueblood Performing Arts Center offers excellent cultural performances in a stunning, modern building.