Door County, Wisconsin, covers the tip of a narrow peninsula, with Lake Michigan lapping at its eastern beaches and Green Bay gracing its western shores.
A popular summer destination, its shoulder-to-shoulder vacationers and bumper-to-bumper traffic in peak season are not necessarily a motorcyclist’s dream. But there is a way for riders to enjoy Door County Coastal Byway, also known as the Michigan Loop.
During a rainy spring, we found a three-day weather window and saddled-up our Honda ST1300. This sport-touring model is a roomy, powerful bike for two. It was early June, before the high season rates kick in and swarms of tourists take over Door County, the best time to go.
Highway 1 north of Iowa City led us to U.S. Route 151, which took us much of the way to Door County. We usually ride backroads and had forgotten the beauty of this four-lane divided highway. Following low hills around broad curves, we swept by Anamosa, Iowa, home of the National Motorcycle Museum, where we had recently attended Vintage Motorcycle Days.
Crossing the rain-swollen Mississippi River at Dubuque, we entered southwestern Wisconsin. Farmers in both states had turned over the rich soil, where small, intensely green corn and soybean plants revived the barren landscape of winter. Divided U.S. 151 continued smooth and fast, as hills rose and trees became more plentiful.
We failed to carefully study the map for the bypass around Madison and a missed turn dropped us into the city’s downtown. Madison is a pretty city, but not one we planned to visit on this day. We remembered a slow ride through Fond du Lac and to avoid it we headed east on State Route 49, crossing the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, a very flat, marshy area, before scampering up U.S. Route 41 to rejoin 151. At a scenic overlook, we turned off to read a marker honoring Edward S. Bragg, a Civil War hero and prominent politician from Fond du Lac, but the “scenic” quality of the overlook escaped us. At Manitowoc, U.S. 151 ends, so we hopped on State Route 42 and cruised the few miles to Two Rivers, Wisconsin, reaching it in the late afternoon.
The Lighthouse Inn where we stayed is older and situated smack dab on Lake Michigan. A restaurant with good, moderately priced food is attached. We walked the deserted beach before dark accompanied by screeching gulls, the rumble of a few speedboats and the fishy smell of the lake.
Returning to Route 42, temperatures seesawed between 52 and 76 degrees as we wandered in and out of woods, catching cool air from Lake Michigan. Every town was sprucing up for the summer season. Locals assured us that soon the loop would be clogged with traffic. For now, we headed north without delays, past apple orchards and cornfields before joining State Route 57, the eastern part of the scenic loop.
After a stop for breakfast in Sturgeon Bay, we didn’t go far before we both saw a green highway sign announcing the Wisconsin Motorcycle Memorial 1.5 miles to the west. Mike took a quick left to this immaculately kept area in the middle of nowhere. The walkway is composed of individual bricks, some with epitaphs to loved ones who have ridden into the great beyond. An engraved monolith in memory of all riders stands at the back, and artwork constructed from motorcycle parts completes the park.
Back onto Route 57, we soon diverted to Whitefish Dunes State Park, where we stopped only briefly to gaze upon the white sand beach, as it looked like exploring the park would require walking. Backtracking north once more, we noticed numerous east-west two-lane county roads that we later discovered connect the two halves of the loop.
Reprising our last visit 25 years ago, we stopped in Sister Bay. The marina was full of bobbing boats and a fresh, light breeze swept across sidewalks sparsely dotted with travelers. Shops offer art, jewelry, clothing and antiques, and restaurants line the streets in this quintessential Door County town. Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant has a grass roof where goats graze all summer. Al’s was “green” long before it was popular, and has been in business for 65 years, still run by family members.
We headed south on Route 42, the western half of the scenic loop, and cruised through Baileys Harbor and Egg Harbor, both welcoming some tourists. Then it was back onto flat farmland, the contrasting side of Door County.
A revised forecast was warning of unusually severe storms for our upcoming third day of riding. We agreed we should get closer to home than originally planned. From Door County, there is no other way to pile on miles than by rejoining Route 57 at Sturgeon Bay and merging with U.S. Route 41 at Green Bay. We hadn’t experienced a single bad highway surface, but now roadwork led us on and off shoulders, with traffic always following too closely. From Green Bay to Fond du Lac, a crush of vehicles pushed us along an endless business/industrial corridor.
At Fond du Lac, we returned to U.S. 151 just in time for heavy rush hour traffic, which carried us to Madison. This time we found the bypass, but there were many stoplights. As the temperature topped 86 degrees, we crawled past the city, with added heat radiating from the road and the ST’s engine. Beyond Madison, traffic thinned out and we reentered Wisconsin’s pastoral beauty, able to relax again.
After a night at a clean, nondescript motel in Dodgeville, we arose to a humid morning with threatening skies. We donned our rain gear hoping to appease the rain gods. Once again, U.S. 151 offered vast panoramas of green and a speedy, smooth ride. Still in Wisconsin and miles from the Mississippi River, towering dolomite outcroppings line the highway, adding to its uniqueness.
Taking only one rest stop, we retraced our route and arrived in Iowa City mid-morning with barely a sprinkle spotting our rainsuits. Later that week, storms rolled across the Midwest, unleashing tornadoes, dropping large hail and causing flash flooding. Luckily, Mother Nature smiled on us and we were able to rediscover U.S. 151 and enjoy Door County in the off-season.
(This Favorite Ride article Beaches, Boats and Byways was published in the September 2014 issue of Rider magazine.)