9 Reasons to Vacation on Washington Island [Slideshow]

Washington Island Coast

Is there anything more magical than a summer vacation? The sun, the beach, sightseeing, shopping, cocktails, the way time goes way too fast and suddenly you’re back at work again — it’s all part of relaxing and getting away for awhile.

But do you ever find yourself going to the same place and doing the same things year after year? Maybe you love going to Door County on vacation. You stay at the same cottage, eat at Al Johnson’s a couple of times, and grab a few drinks at Husby’s.

But maybe in the past year or so, you’ve noticed that Door County is suddenly a very busy place. It takes longer and longer to get a table at your favorite restaurant. You have every hole at the Red Putter memorized. You’re ready for a change.

If that’s the case, then WhooNEW has a solution for you. You can mix up your vacation while still getting that authentic Door County experience. All you have to do is head over to Washington Island.

Washington Island is Door County’s best kept secret. Everybody knows about it, but few people talk about it. A good portion of the locals have never even been there. I lived in Door County for a few summers while I was in college, but I didn’t make it to Washington Island until this year.

That’s a shame, because Washington Island has what plenty of us look for in our summer vacation. Do you want beautiful views of the water? How about trails and parks? Good food? A local watering hole? Privacy? Washington Island can offer you all of that, and even more.

We want to shed some light on this gem, so WhooNEW has compiled a list of nine reasons to take your next vacation on Washington Island.

A ferry making its way to Washington Island.

A ferry making its way to Washington Island.

1. The Ferry Ride

Your Washington Island vacation will begin with a relaxing trip across the water. There are a couple ways you can cross the seven miles from Gill’s Rock to the island. You can take the Washington Island Ferry, which runs about every half hour during the summer. Or you can take the Island Clipper. The rates for the two are similar for passengers, but the ferry gives you the opportunity to take your car (for an extra charge). Since Washington Island is five miles wide and six miles long, I’d definitely suggest either taking your vehicle or renting a bike or moped. It’s a little too large for a walking trip.

If you do opt for the ferry, you’re in for a smooth, half hour ride to the island. They have bathrooms on board, and even an indoor seating area if you find being on the water a little windy (like me).

You’ll cross Portes des Morts, also known as Death’s Door, where more than one hundred ships have sunk. Just imagine all of the treasure!

A peaceful scene at Schoolhouse Beach.

A peaceful scene at Schoolhouse Beach.

2. Schoolhouse Beach

Once you reach your destination and check in at a lovely place like the “Above & Beyond” cottage at Wisconsin Cottage Rentals, it’s time for some sightseeing! A great place to start is Schoolhouse Beach.

My husband and I reached Schoolhouse Beach right around lunchtime on our vacation, so we grabbed a picnic table and ate our lunch there. The view was beautiful, and there were only a few other families around. There were also designated swimming areas, but I’m too chicken to get in that cold Lake Michigan water! A few kids were braving it, though.

Pocketing one of these rocks will cost you $250. The snobby seagull, on the other hand, is free.

Pocketing one of these rocks will cost you $250. The seagull, on the other hand, is free.

But Schoolhouse Beach isn’t your regular old run-of-the-mill beach. It’s actually quite unique. See those smooth stones? There are only four other beaches in the world with stones like that.

And although the rocks are beautiful, don’t attempt to take any home with you. Apparently, there’s a $250 fine for removing them. That would make my vacation a little more pricey!

You can immerse yourself in nature at the Jackson Harbor Ridges.

You can immerse yourself in nature at the Jackson Harbor Ridges.

3. Jackson Harbor Ridges

One of my favorite things to do on vacation is hike. I love getting outdoors and experiencing nature — for better or for worse. I’ve trudged through a whole foot of mud, been eaten alive by mosquitoes, and teetered on the edge of a cliff or two. I wouldn’t trade any of those adventures (well, maybe the mosquitoes), but sometimes, I just want to walk outside on a beautiful day without seeing anyone.

On days like that, the Jackson Harbor Ridges is a perfect destination. You can follow the trail along the dunes to the tip of a small peninsula. You’ll find yourself isolated, joined only by the seagulls. You’ll pass a small island, just big enough to put a kids’ playhouse on.

Roxy Bruss having way too much fun on Washington Island.

Roxy Bruss having way too much fun on Washington Island.

You’ll feel so isolated, in fact, that you can act a little crazy.

And then, on your way back from your hike, you’ll pass a little fisherman’s cottage that’s part of the Jackson Harbor Maritime Museum.

Don't you want to just move in to this cozy cottage?

Don’t you want to just move in to this cozy cottage?

The completely restored cottage is one of my favorite Washington Island sites. It shows how a fishing family lived around the turn of the century. Simpler times, it looks like.

The coolest snowmobile ever.

The coolest snowmobile ever.

We explored the rest of the Jackson Harbor Maritime Museum, and the highlight was definitely this Ford snowmobile. A conversion kit let people turn their automobiles into snowmobiles. I think I need one of those for my Prius!

This Stavkirke was patterned off a church in Norway.

This Stavkirke was patterned off a church in Norway.

4. Stavkirke

After enjoying Washington Island’s natural beauty, how about checking out some architecture? This Stavkirke (Stave Church) was patterned after a church in Borgund, Norway. It highlights the Scandinavian roots of many of the Washington Island settlers.

The architecture of the building is awe-inspiring. I love how each layer of the roof gets smaller and higher, so that the entire building is pointing upwards to the heavens.

The design is amazing, both inside and out.

The design is amazing, both inside and out.

The beautiful church is surrounded by gardens, and is open year-round for prayer and meditation. It’s a very peaceful place to rest and reflect.

A wooden bridge leads from the road to the church. Or, if you’d like to include spirituality in your vacation, you can follow a prayer path through the woods.

Lookout Tower will make you feel like the king or queen of the island.

Lookout Tower will make you feel like the king or queen of the island.

5. Mountain Park and Lookout Tower

Now it’s time for more hiking. One of the Washington Island landmarks you won’t want to miss is Mountain Park. This small park consists of a series of steps leading up the mountain to Lookout Tower. There, you can climb to the highest point on the island and see the northern and eastern shores. You’ll also be able to see Rock Island and St. Martin Island.

Roxy found the fun (and difficult, but mostly fun) way to go down the mountain.

Roxy found the fun (and difficult, but mostly fun) way to go down the mountain.

Once you’re ready to leave Lookout Tower, you can climb the stairs down, like most people do. Or you can take the very adventurous route we dubbed “Mountain Goat Trail.” It’s a tiny footpath that leads pretty much straight down. Way cooler than stairs.

Nelsen's Hall is a great place to catch a bite and a drink or two.

Nelsen’s Hall is a great place to catch a bite and a drink or two.

6. Nelsen’s Hall and the Bitters Club

After all of your hiking and exploring, you might need a stiff drink, so head over to Nelsen’s Hall. This bar and restaurant was built in 1899 by Tom Nelsen, who lived to be 90 years old. His secret to longevity? He drank Angostura bitters every day. In fact, Nelsen’s Hall was even able to remain open during Prohibition by advertising bitters as a stomach tonic rather than an adult beverage. Sneaky.

That's some good medicine.

That’s some good medicine.

Nelsen’s also makes it possible for you to join that rich bitters-drinking history. If you down a shot of bitters, you become a member of the Bitters Club. You get a membership card with your name on it, and your bartender will dip their thumb in the remains of your shot and validate your card with their thumbprint. Now that’s hardcore.

More than ten thousand people join the Bitters Club every year, so what are you waiting for? When I was there, a family was having their son try bitters for the first time. He downed a baby shot and then couldn’t help from making face after face. He then turned to his mom and said, “Did you say this is medicine? If it is, I’d rather have the flu shot, and you know how much I hate the flu shot!”

Don’t let that opinion deter you from trying bitters, though. There’s no other taste quite like it. It’s palate cleansing and leaves you with an aftertaste of spices.

Fried lawyers -- a Washington Island delicacy.

Fried lawyers — a Washington Island delicacy.

7. Fried Lawyers

While fried lawyers sound like a joke in the making, they’re serious business up on Washington Island. Restaurants like KK Fiske catch this tasty white fish, also known as a burbot, in Lake Michigan and serve it on a daily basis. According to KK Fiske’s website, the lawyer fish got its name because “the location of its guilty heart is in its Gluteus Max!” I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the Wisconsin Friday Fish Fry tradition. Plus, how many times in you life will you get to tell people you ate lawyers?

You'll look really small next to this monster of a coffee pot.

You’ll look really small next to this monster of a coffee pot.

8. The Giant Coffee Pot

If you’re looking for a good photo opp on your vacation, don’t miss this giant coffee pot. This very traditional looking Norwegian canister used to be an information booth, but now stands there just begging you to take a picture next to it. Just don’t try to drink any of that coffee — who knows how long it’s been sitting there?

Rock Island is only one ferry ride away from Washington Island.

Rock Island is only a ferry ride away from Washington Island.

9. Rock Island

This last reason isn’t actually on Washington Island, but if you’re like me and you don’t own a boat, the only way you can get to it is by ferry from the island. So if you have a day or two to spare after exploring Washington Island, consider taking yet another ferry trip over to Rock Island for an adventure.

A shot of Rock Island hidden in fog. Doesn't it look like an adventure waiting to happen?

A shot of Rock Island hidden in fog, inviting you to come have an adventure.

This 912 acre state park doesn’t allow bikes or cars, so you’ll want to bring your hiking and/or camping gear. You’ll find the oldest lighthouse in Wisconsin there, as well as a stone replica of a Viking Boathouse. Miles of trails and 2000 feet of beach make this a must for nature lovers.

Snapping Turtle BONUS REASON: This Huge Snapping Turtle

Why did the snapping turtle cross the road? To get his picture taken by WhooNEW, of course!

Have you ever been to Washington Island? What else is on your must-do list?

Slideshow – A Tour of Washington Island

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  1. Mary Ellen Dahlke says

    Can’t wait to get here in august, escape the Texas heat and find my own self in solitude of the Island.

    • Roxy Bruss says

      Enjoy your vacation, Mary! Have you been to Washington Island before?

      • Mary Ellen Dahlke says

        Had a wonderful time. Stayed at your recommended Above and Beyond cottage, it was wonderful. I also found the lavender fields and store very interesting. Loved the prayer path thru woods, especially the benches to sit and reflect on life. The Stavkirke is beautiful. Loved the library, I always visit libraries no matter where I travel. Has wifi and at night you see folks in cars or at the picnic tables outside the library taking advantage of the after hours wifi you can get from outside the walls of the building. Great restaurants, lovely evening tours on all the backroads to see wild turkeys and a lot, I mean a lot of deer. How did they get to the island anyway? I will return. Folks in the GB and Fox Valley area were surprised when I told them of all the things there are to see and do. And the sunsets from Above and Beyond are wonderful, great way to end a day. A severe thunderstorm came thru one night, power went off and all of a sudden the sky was a brilliant red/orange glow. No one could tell me what would cause such an incredible, beautiful glow. I didn’t go out in the rain to take a picture and now I regret that.

  2. As a kid, I remember “body surfing” on the white cap waves at that beach! It was very thrilling!

  3. Great review and photo essay. You hit all the spots I’d include – and I wonder if they still offer that island “train” tour — not a train but a people hauler, really – it was a great way to get an island overview before you do your own exploring. Oh – and if you get to Fiske’s be sure to have an “Island Wheat” beer (made by Capital Brewery, Madison) using wheat grown right up the road. Goes great with a lawyer!

    • Zak Bruss says

      Oh great suggestions. The train tour is still running. Another good option to get around the island.

  4. 10. Visiting Kayla Johnson

  5. Jeannie Hutchins says

    10th reason! Jacobsen’s Museum at Little Lake. It’s wonderful!

    • Roxy Bruss says

      We didn’t make it there last trip, but will have to check it out next time! I’ve heard very good things.

  6. Enjoy Icelandic Pancakes and Limpa toast at Sunset Resort followed by perch fry at Findlay’s Holiday Inn.
    Watch the Sunset from People’s Park.

  7. Come and camp at our great Washington Island Campground with log cabins, horse sites, sand beach and swimming hole and lots of room for kids to run!

  8. Brilliant slideshow and great article. You captured the essence of “the island” perfectly. Heading back up there in August. Can’t wait.

  9. Roxy Bruss says

    Thanks, Jen! We really had a great time on the island, and can’t wait to go back as well.

  10. 11. Sailor’s Pub 12. People’s Park to watch the sunset 13. On your way to the ferry drive as fast as you can over the little hills 🙂

  11. David K. says

    I’ve been here a few times visiting a good friend of mine (he knows his way around the island). Both beaches are outstanding! Don’t forget there is one big campground on the island visitors can stay at overnight…and last time I was there it only cost $15 per night (may be more now). Also, have been there watching the Washington Islanders baseball team play on Sunday afternoons. A great time!

    The lookout tower is an amazing view!…as you can get a glimpse of the mainland side of Wisconsin and the UP Michigan. Also, it’s been tried and done that you can actually walk from Washington Island to Rock Island with the water barely going over your head…this feat can be done only when there are a couple seasons of dry weather where the water is really down in the lake. There is one restaurant there (can’t remember the name) that has fantastic breakfasts. Definitely will go back again!

  12. Mel Jensen says

    I grew up on the Island the old High School is next to Bethel Church and I believe is a museum but has a lot of memories when I visit enjoyed the pics as I now live in Arkansas

  13. I have a goof friend that lives in Washington, I have been wanting to go visit so when i do we will have to check in to some of these places, they look great, I’d like to get a picture with that giant Coffee Pot.

  14. I go up every year and stay in a family friend’s cabin. I must recommend the pastries at the danish mill, and of course the albatross (ice cream and burgers)!

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