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Door County Wisconsin

It’s late September and I’m cruising through still green cornfields along Highway 67 an hour north of Milwaukee Wisconsin.  With the barest hint of approaching winter in the air, I’m delightfully processing the smells of the autumn harvest, silage, and the occasional carcass of the Mephitis mephitis, (common striped skunk) as they filter in through the closed full face shield on my Aria helmet.  


For a country boy raised in the South, this feels like home, except for the green corn in September.  Our corn has long been harvested and its stalks plowed under or turned into piles of decaying silage that will feed the livestock that eventually winds up on dinner tables and restaurants around the globe.


But, I’m not here for an agricultural tour.  I’m here on a Harley-Davidson Tri-Glide, headed straight to Death’s Door and even though I’m well aware of my destination, I’m actually looking forward to it.  


This adventure began 32 hours earlier as I boarded an overbooked flight in Savannah Georgia, changing planes in Atlanta and onto Milwaukee, where I was met by Rob Klepper with Geiger PR firm.  For the next 3 days, Rob would be the personal servant of myself and 3 other moto-journalists as we toured the best motorcycle roads and sampled the best of the local cuisine on the Wisconsin peninsula.


As far as personal servants go, Rob could benefit from a year at Butler Academy, because I wound up carrying my bags far too often, but I give him high marks for being punctual and knowing the menu at the best restaurants.  


Our first stop was at The House of Harley in Milwaukee.  It was here we would pick up our steeds for the tour.  I had originally reserved an Electra Glide for the trip, but  I changed my mind and opted for the three-wheel Tri-Glide.  


The marketing manager gave us a tour of the facility.  I’ve visited countless dealerships in this job, from small mom-and-pop operations to mega-stores like House of Harley.  With 75 employees, (more during the years when corporate Harley-Davidson throws a big anniversary party) HOH is a well-oiled and efficient marketing machine.  As the closest dealership to Harley headquarters and the Museum, HOH has found a way to service the growing demand from domestic and international riders for all-inclusive tour packages.  They will provide the bike and plan everything from hotels and meal stops and pickup and drop you off at the airport, completely turnkey.  www.houseofharley.com 


Once the bikes were secured, we loaded up for the short ride to the Iron Horse Hotel.  To say the Iron Horse is unique is like calling actress/supermodel Kate Upton a pretty girl.  However, I seriously doubt Ms. Upton will be as beautiful to look at when she passes 100 years old as is the Iron Horse hotel.  

The 100-year-old structure has seen use as a warehouse, cold storage, and bedding manufacturing facility.  In 2008, it was transformed into a boutique hotel unlike any in the country.  Exposed hemlock and heart pine beams, brick walls, fire doors, and support columns combine to create an industrial and rustic exposed loft atmosphere.   The guest rooms are spacious, with a sitting area, and a large bath with a walk-in shower.  The pillowtop beds come straight from the Sandman’s own factory and rate in my top 1% most comfortable beds ever.  Throw in free wi-fi and a house bar and restaurant, and I would’ve stayed a week if possible.   Even if it were not located in historic downtown Milwaukee, the Iron Horse would be a destination all to itself, and well worth the $200 average room night rate.  


Leaving our bikes in the specially constructed motorcycle-only covered parking area outside, we loaded up in Rob’s SUV and headed over to the Harley-Davidson Museum for a “behind the ropes” tour by Jim Fricke, the man who is in charge of all the exhibits at the iconic museum.  

Interestingly, Fricke doesn’t have a background in motorcycles and admits he wasn’t much of an enthusiast when he was hired by HD.  His background is in museum curation and his skill is evident in the masterful way he tells the story of the motorcycle culture and his use of ingenious displays to visually represent the historical legacy of this world-famous brand. 


It’s impossible to grasp the immense scope of the history of a 112-year-old company like Harley-Davidson.  As we toured the facility and were granted access into areas off-limits for all but employees and media wags, we saw state of the art restoration techniques, high tech storage solutions to maximize precious warehouse space, and priceless pieces of Motor Company history, such as the surprisingly well preserved  1901 bicycle schematic drawing by William Harley that was drawn on fine linen which accounts for its longevity.  


Had our schedule permitted, I would have gladly spent the rest of the night with Jim, blissfully unaware of time as we wandered through the past century of motorcycling.  But, Rob, our ever-present cat herder, shooed us along to our next stop, which was supper at the Motor Bar and Restaurant, adjacent to the museum.  


Our visit coincided with the last official Thursday night bike night at the Museum, and with upwards of 1000 in attendance, the restaurant was packed.   If you’ve never experienced bike night at the Harley-Davidson museum, you should stop and write it on your bucket list this minute.  I’ve been to plenty of weekend motorcycle rallies that didn’t draw this many people.  We were told this would probably be a small crowd since it was the last one, and the nighttime temps were starting to dip into the 40s.  Some weeks, they get upwards of 3,000 riders coming in from all over Wisconsin.   Judging by what I saw, I wouldn’t doubt it a bit.


The next morning, packed up and ready to ride our group left Milwaukee and headed north, towards our eventual destination, Door County Wisconsin.  


Traveling with a group of journalists is unlike riding with any other group of motorcyclists.  Some scribes are content to follow the leader, stopping whenever the leader stops and getting photos of whatever scenery is to be found during these infrequent pauses.  Then there are those cantankerous souls who pull over for every painted barn, two-headed cow, and scenic overlook, completely destroying any fantasy of remaining on a schedule.   I like to think I fall somewhere in the middle.  Only stopping for the truly breathtaking photo opportunity, or when nature’s call is too urgent to ignore.


On this trip, it seemed I was destined to be “that guy.”  The one who wrecks the schedule because he can’t pass up the two-headed cow.   Thankfully we pulled into Waters Edge Restaurant, at the Lighthouse Inn,  in Two Rivers WI by 1:30, only 45 minutes behind schedule.  


We were seated in the dining room overlooking Lake Michigan.  It’s been my experience that when you have a view like this you’re already starting out miles ahead of most dining experiences, so the food is almost guaranteed to taste good.  This was my first experience with fried cheese curds and it wasn’t half bad.  An hour later, stuffed with carbs and fried fish, we waddled out to the bikes to continue north towards our eventual destination on the peninsula between Lake Michigan and the Bay of Green Bay.  


As far as twisty motorcycle roads go, this area of Wisconsin isn’t anything to boast about.  There isn’t much in the way of elevation changes or gnarly knee dragging opportunities.  But, from a purely scenic perspective, this area is a cruiser rider's dream.  Late in the season, but before the leaves have turned, the traffic is minimal.  The roads are well maintained and the cage drivers respectful and courteous.  There was only one instance during the whole three-day tour when an idiot decided he needed to pass all 6 bikes on an approaching blind hill, at night, ramping our pucker factor up to 10.  Thankfully he or she made it around without incident.


As the crow flies we made about 150 more miles but it took us about 5 hours, winding up at Rawley’s Bay Resort, just in time to join the small crowd listening to 84-year-old Don Makuen narrate the history of the area and the resort while seated around a fire pit during the thrice-weekly “fish boil.”   Don has been entertaining tourists and the occasional local for the past 10 years with his enthusiastic and well-versed historical monologue of Rawley’s Bay and the Mink River area.  We discovered later he is playing the part of Peter Rawley, the solitude-seeking curmudgeon who settled here briefly in the early 1800s for whom the area gets its name.  


(Sidebar)  a Fish Boil-  A large iron pot, large enough to hold 30 gallons of water is suspended over a wood fire. Inside the cauldron is another container full of fresh lake Michigan whitefish, or farmed whitefish depending on the local supply, onions and red-skinned potatoes.  While the historical tale is told, the temperature in the iron kettle slowly climbs until it gets just below boiling.  A man known as a “fish boiler” tends the fire and once the moment is right, and the tourists moved a safe distance away, the “boiler” carefully adds kerosene to the wood fire causing it to flame up dramatically, which increases the temperature in the iron pot just enough for it to boil over, all artfully designed to be visually entertaining but technically unnecessary to the cooking process, as by this time the contents are sufficiently cooked.  The inside aluminum container is then removed, displayed to the onlookers, and taken inside to the “all you can eat buffet” where hungry tourists and journalists slather on copious amounts of melted butter along with corn, beans, and something that looked suspiciously like Veg-All casserole.   (end sidebar) 


True to the solitude nature of Peter Rowley, the resort that bears his name is off the beaten path, with a more rustic “fish camp” ambiance and decor, down to the vintage style graphics on the menu and paintings in the hallway of the restaurant.  If you’re looking for a destination with accommodations and activities that hearken to a time when life was slower and summers were spent barefoot, then Rowley’s Bay is for you.  Open from Memorial Day to Halloween.  http://www.rowleysbayresort.com/  


With the sun firmly settled and the dew heavy on our seats, we leathered up for our chilly ride to the Landmark Resort in Egg Harbor, where we would be staying for the next two nights.  

My accommodations were what is called the “lofted suite” and featured a small patio with a view of the Bay of Green Bay.  Tired and travel-weary, I couldn’t figure out how to operate the thermostat, so I just opened the patio door, trusting the screen to keep out critters, and opened the bedroom window and fell exhausted on the bed.  I soon fell asleep, blissfully enveloped in comfortable blankets breathing the crisp Wisconsin autumn night air.  


Our early morning schedule had us up and out way too early for a breakfast rendezvous with Door County Tourism director at a restaurant the Village Cafe. As it turns out, the proprietor and his wife are lifelong bikers and welcomed us as if we were family, which, as any motorcycle traveler will tell you is not uncommon treatment from fellow motorcyclists.   After our plates were empty and our bellies full, the owner came out to introduce himself to our merry band of moto-journalists. He told a little bit about his travels and how he reckoned he hadn’t seen as much of the country as us “professionals” at the table.  His manner, however, bespoke of someone who had interesting tales of his own he could tell, giving a less public setting and perhaps lubricated with a few adult beverages.  


With a ferry to catch, there was no time to linger and trade travel stories, so we suited up and headed north to what the early French settlers called The Porte des Mortes, or the Door of Death, a destination that sounds far more ominous than it is.  


We were scheduled to load our bikes on the ferry and sail across the strait to Washington Island.  The forecast was for calm waters, which was fortunate for us because local lore has it that the area got its name, “Deaths Door” (hence Door County) due to the unusually high incidents of shipwrecks in these particulars waters of Lake Michigan.  And, although my bike was a rental, and insured, I had no desire to go swimming this day.  Still, the whole trip over I couldn’t seem to banish the melody of Gordon Lightfoot’s Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald from looping in my brain, even though it was written about an altogether different Great Lake and a much larger vessel.  


Arriving on Washington Island dry and intact, we sped off, intent to see as much as we could in the 3 hours allotted for this part of the trip.


At first blush, you might think an island, only 6 miles long and 5 miles wide would offer much in the way of motorcycle adventure.  I have to admit my expectations were not very high.


It wasn’t long before we found ourselves twisting left and right on this two-lane road carved out of dense forests following wild game trails once used by the Potawatomi tribe of native American Indians, who first settled this island.


Traffic was almost non-existent on the island, as it’s home to fewer than 700 full-time residents, and while I’m sure there is a full-time police officer, they didn’t make their presence known to us while we were there.  


Our guide wanted us to visit Schoolhouse Beach, which holds the distinction of being only 1 of 5 polished limestone beaches in the world.  Oddly enough, there’s no prohibition against “skipping” the polished flat limestone rocks into the lake as your arm and shoulder can take but slipping just one small rock in your pocket as a souvenir will result in a hefty fine if apprehended.  Bummer.  I so wanted to bring a piece of the island back to Georgia, but knowing my luggage would be subject to inspection at the airport, I resisted the temptation to pilfer.


Other areas of the island are more open and pastoral and after photographs, we headed to view the Nordic style church built in the 1600s by the island’s Scandinavian settlers.  Today the island has the largest and oldest Icelandic population outside of Iceland itself.  Finally, we made a quick stop at Nelson’s Hall Bitters Pub and Restaurant.    Nelson’s claim to fame is the fact that is the oldest establishment continuously serving alcohol in the country if you can call “bitters” a cocktail, which is a stretch by any imagination.  During the dry years, Nelson’s successfully lobbied to have “bitters” classified as a medicine and as such was able to sell “shots” during the years when the rest of the nation had to drink bathtub gin.  After taking a shot of bitters and getting my official membership card, I’m not sure I wouldn’t rather drink bathtub gin.  I’m positive there’s no way I could drink enough ‘bitters” to get a buzz which is probably why Nelson’s Hall was never raided by Eliot Ness and the Untouchables.


With a hurried photo op in front of Nelson’s, we were herded off by Rob so as not to miss our appointment with the ferry for the 7-mile voyage back to the mainland.  Our lunch destination today would be Wilson’s Ice Cream Parlor in downtown Ephraim Wisconsin.   A local landmark since 19s 06 a trip to Wilson’s is like stepping into a living Norman Rockwell painting.

From the iconic red and white striped awnings and Coca Cola signs on the exterior, a façade by which all other ice cream parlors are judged, to the root beer floats and working 1950s wall box on every table, just waiting for a coin and a selection of favorite songs to be played. 


I selected the patty melt which was delivered piled high with hand-cut french fries and a thick all-beef patty on thick toasted bread.  The quality of the food was only surpassed by the knowledge that the booth you’re sitting in has seen tens of thousands of vacationing Wisconsin children grow from infants to teenagers and once grown, welcomed them back,  unchanged as they remember the happy days of their youth.  www.wilsonsicecream.com 


After lunch, the rest of our day was ours to do as we wished.  There were lighthouses we could visit, a nearby fall festival, and other off-the-beaten-path oddities.  The next few hours were spent wandering the backroads in Door County, occasionally stopping for a photo or two but otherwise enjoying the languid pace that riding a motorcycle with no place to go and no set time to be there provides.


The final meal as a group was supper at the Landmark Resort, and despite the cliché, our hosts saved the best meal for last.  My only regret was that I only had one night to sample as much as possible on the menu.  Fortunately, someone else was picking up the tab so I wasn’t bashful about trying as many different appetizers as possible.

Later, watching the sunset over the Bay of Green Bay, feeling the warmth spread through my bones as I sipped 50-year-old scotch on the veranda, I sorely missed the affection of my riding partner and wished she could experience this view as I was seeing it.  That’s when the idea of a return trip bubbled to the surface and fueled by scotch-induced euphoria, became a plan.  


If you’re looking for an epic trip of a lifetime that doesn’t involve a motorcycle rally, then I highly recommend Door County Wisconsin.  If you don’t want to ride the whole way, do it as we did and fly into Milwaukee, rent a bike and spend a lazy long weekend touring the sights, smells, and culinary delights of this historic and motorcycle-friendly region. 



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