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Planning a visit to Door County? Then don’t miss Washington Island! Here are the best things to do on Washington Island in Wisconsin…
I absolutely LOVED Washington Island and my two days there was a definite highlight of my time in Door County. I mean, have you even really experienced Door County if you haven’t been to Washington Island? I don’t think so.
This island has a special vibe all of its own, and there are lots of fun things to do on Washington Island whether you visit on a day trip or for longer.
Washington Island is a small island on Lake Michigan in Wisconsin with around 700 year-round residents. It is located off the tip of Door County and it’s home to a pristine coastline, peaceful beaches, a lavender farm, fun local restaurants and businesses, a very unique and beautiful church, quirky local museums, beautiful lakes, and it is the only place you can access the remote Rock Island from.
So if you are planning a Door County vacation, don’t miss Washington Island – because you will regret it. Here are the best things to do on Washington Island.
10 Best Things To Do on Washington Island
Check out my interactive map of the best things to do on Washington Island.
1) Enjoy the Ferry Ride to Washington Island
The 30-minute ferry ride itself from the Door County peninsula to Washington Island is one of the best things to do on Washington Island as you pass several small islands and get to experience the beautiful Door County shoreline from the water.
Make sure to exit your vehicle once parking and sit on the top deck to enjoy the scenic views and clean air.
2) Swim at Pebbled Schoolhouse Beach
Visiting Schoolhouse Beach is one of the must-do things to do on Washington Island, and this beautiful beach is the perfect place to spend a few hours on a sunny day, swimming and sunbathing.
What makes this beach unique is that the beach is made of smooth limestone rocks rather than sand. The rocks here were smoothed and deposited by glaciers millions of years ago, and this special sandless beach is one of only five similar beaches in the world. It is illegal to take any of the rocks here so just admire them at the beach.
The water is super clear and the beach is surrounded by forest. Take a picnic and make a day of it.
3) Explore the Dunes at Sand Dunes Park
If you prefer sandy beaches, make sure you check out Sand Dunes Park in the south of Washington Island. When I visited in August 2021, we didn’t see another soul at this peaceful beach park and we enjoyed exploring the dunes and paddling in the clear waters of Lake Michigan.
This is definitely a place you could while away a few hours soaking in the beauty and peace.
4) Tour the Fragrant Isle Lavender Farm
Is there anywhere more picture-perfect than a blooming lavender farm on a sunny day? I don’t think so. Washington Island is home to Fragrant Isle Lavender Farm and I highly recommend a visit there.
Make sure to frolic among their 20,000 lavender plants, visit the lavender distillery where they make lavender oil, eat a lavender scone or drink a lavender latte from the cafe, and buy everything from their gorgeous gift shop which has tons of lavender items as well as other gifts.
5) Grab a Burger and Curds From Iconic Albatross Drive-In
You can’t visit Washington Island without dropping into the iconic Albatross Drive-In which has been serving up burgers, cheese curds, fries, and more to the community and visitors to the island for more than 40 years.
I loved sitting at a picnic table in the sun to enjoy their bleu cheese burger and fried cheese curds. If you love ice cream, make sure you save room for dessert because they also offer delicious ice cream cones, sundaes, and shakes.
6) Marvel at the Beautiful Stavkirke Norwegian Church
This striking church nestled in the forest is like no church I have ever seen before. The unique wooden design of the Stavkirke is based on drawings of a Norwegian church built in 1150 and it looks like it is straight out of a fairytale.
Walk the forested paths around the church and enjoy the colorful flowers planted around it. The Stavkirke definitely feels more connected to the surrounding natural environment than your average church and it is very much worth a visit whether you are religious or not.
7) Have a Shot of Bitters at Nelsen’s Hall Bitters Pub
One of Washington Island’s weird claims to fame is that there is a pub here that is the largest purveyor of Angostura Bitters in the world! The reason for this is because of the bitters challenge at Nelsen’s Hall Bitters Pub, a popular pub with locals and tourists alike.
When you do a shot of bitters here, you are then initiated into the Bitters Club and are then considered a full-fledged islander. Read more about how this unusual challenge originated here.
I wasn’t up for the challenge but Toby did it. He said the bitters tasted terrible but it is a fun and quirky experience to have on Washington Island. Grab a beer to wash down the bitter taste and sit at the bar, the perfect place to chat with the friendly bartenders and to meet some locals.
8) Learn About the Island’s History at the Jacobsen Museum
If you, like me, love visiting small community museums when you travel, then you should definitely visit the quirky Jacobsen Museum.
Housed in a small wooden cabin, this free museum is home to an eclectic mix of natural and historical artifacts from around the island, as well as items salvaged from local shipwrecks that are scattered outside.
Walk the boardwalk to the lovely Little Lake while you are there too.
9) Spend a Day Exploring Rock Island
Rock Island is a separate island just off Washington Island but it can only be reached by ferry from here so I had to add to my list of the best things to do on Washington Island.
This remote island is home to peaceful hiking trails through forest and along the coast, one of the most beautiful beaches in Door County with crystal clear water, and the historic Pottawatomie Lighthouse where you can do a tour.
Don’t miss visiting the grand boathouse of Icelandic-American Inventor Chester Thordarson – you will see this imposing structure once you dock on the island. Thordarson owned the island until his death in 1945 and then his heirs sold it to the state in 1965.
10) Stargazing on Washington Island
One of the best things to do on Washington Island requires you to stay the night, but believe me, it’s worth it. Washington Island is known for having dark skies at night with little light pollution, making it the perfect place for star gazing. You may even see the Aurora Borealis and the Milky Way here too if you are really lucky.
Planning Your Washington Island Vacation
Getting to Washington Island
You really need a car to get around in Door County and Washington Island as there is no public transport. If you are traveling from out of state you can fly into Green Bay (1 hour 45 min drive to Gills Rock) or Milwaukee (3.5 hour drive to Gills Rock) and rent a car. It is also a 5.5 hour drive from Chicago.
Once driving to Gills Rock at the tip of the Door County peninsula, you will need to take a ferry across to Washington Island. You can take your vehicle on the ferry and the crossing is 30 minutes.
Ferries operate daily year-round, with more regular ferries in the summer months. They don’t take reservations so turn up at least 15 minutes before the scheduled departure to buy your ticket.
Where To Stay on Washington Island and Door County
If you are traveling to Washington Island on a budget, your best bet for budget accommodation is camping. There is one camping ground on the island, Washington Island Campground, and they offer tent sites, RV sites, and cabins.
Stay at Steffen’s Cedar Lodge if you are looking for more comfort. This waterfront property has a number of self-contained cabins for rent. Gibsons West Harbor Resort is another great choice.
If you are traveling as a family or as a group, these top-rated vacation rentals are a great choice:
- Two-Bedroom Waterfront Beach Cottage
- Beautiful Custom-Built Two-Bedroom Log Cabin
- Detroit Harbor Waterfront Cottage With Private Beach
- Shorefront Three-Bedroom Cottage on the West Side of the Island
The Best Time To Visit Washington Island
The best time to visit Washington Island and Door County is in summer and fall. To escape the crowds, visit in the shoulder season – spring and fall.
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