The first slice of this three-day tour began in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where five intrepid motojournalists landed on a Thursday afternoon at the city’s General Mitchell International Airport. We’d be cruisin’ through the Land of WI, a state known for the Green Bay Packers, as the corporate home of Harley-Davidson and, of course, for its famous cheese.
We came at the invitation of the Door County Visitor Bureau, which wants to lay down the welcome mat to motorcyclists seeking to explore this neck of the beautiful Wisconsin woods. In this case it involved motoring around a goodly part of the 300 meandering miles of Door Peninsula coastline interlacing the 66-mile length of the Door County Coastal Byway. The tour menu offered a smorgasbord of country lanes, scenic forests, three state parks, cozy waterfront towns and great stopovers for food and tidbits of local history.
To get things rolling, we suited up at Milwaukee’s House of Harley, a dealership that also specializes in equipping group tours aboard its fleet of rental bikes. In this case our crew was fitted with the latest Harley editions of the Road King, Street Glide, Heritage Softail and even a Tri-Glide Ultra trike. Since I hadn’t been on a Sportster for awhile, I opted for a relatively light and nimble Iron 883, in this case one equipped with a clear quick-release windscreen and dressed in an “Amber Whiskey” paint job, which was a pretty close match to the “fall frondescence” colors flashed by Door County, one of the country’s top foliage destinations.
After figuring out the turn-signal switches on the Sportster, I joined our tour guide Jeff Larson, also on his personal Harley, and rode over to the upscale comfort of The Iron Horse Hotel, a revamped 100-year-old warehouse named for the nearby rail yards. Within a few minutes we were back on our bikes and heading for the Harley-Davidson Museum less than a mile from the hotel. Along the way we crossed over the Menomonee River, named for one of many Native American tribes that had occupied the area as far back as 10,000 years.
After a guided tour of the Museum we chowed down at the adjacent Motor Bar & Restaurant already packed with fans of the weekly Thursday Bike Night. Back at the hotel, we caught some Zs before an early Friday morning launch onto a series of Interstates and highways that got us clear of Milwaukee before splitting off onto Highway 45 north, which brought us into the area known as the Kettle Moraine State Forest. About 45 minutes north of Milwaukee, glaciers that once scoured the landscape helped shape these 30,000 acres of rolling hills, lakes, forests and grassland.
Heading east on County Road H was followed by a transition northeast on Highway 28 through the farming towns of Batavia and Cascade, stopping for a photo op in front of a classic red barn. Transitioning onto County E North, we enjoyed floating over some pretty good-sized rolling hills, the roadways almost totally unencumbered by non-motorcycle traffic.
Moving along Highway 67 north through Plymouth, we encountered the famed Road America raceway at Elkhart Lake, the track hosting events since the early 1950s and now both the NASCAR and AMA Superbike series. Back in the saddle we rode through Kiel, taking County XX eastward. Despite the names the roads are mostly single-lane cruisers in good to excellent condition, and perfect weather in the 70s blessed the whole day.
Highway 42 north took us through Manitowoc, with a stop for lunch at the Lighthouse Inn’s Water’s Edge Restaurant in Two Rivers, about halfway to our Door County goal. Our bikes shared the parking area with dozens of ’Vettes driven in by members of the Wisconsin Corvette Club, with whom we shared the 400-seat dining room with its expansive view of Lake Michigan, the water calm as a bathtub as far as you could see.
Well-fed, we soon found ourselves feeling the temperature drop from the earlier 78 to 69 degrees as we rode along Lake Michigan, brisk but certainly still very comfortable in fairly light riding gear. From our saddles we took in the seemingly unending expanse of Lake Michigan and passed many other bikes going in both directions.
Continuing on Highway 42 north, we rode through Kewaunee and Algoma, merged with Highway 57, and traversed a vintage white metal bridge into Sturgeon Bay, so named because of the huge primeval fish that once numbered in the millions in Lake Michigan but have now dwindled to 2,000.
Turning onto rural, single-lane Mathey Road took us to the Motorcycle Memorial maintained by the Northeastern Wisconsin Bikers Association, a park-like setting featuring heartfelt memorials as well as some more lighthearted artworks, including picnic tables you can “ride.”
We then wound our way on Highway 57 north, passing through Jacksonport and Baileys Harbor before hooking up again with Highway 42 north to make our way to Sister Bay. While two-wheeling through the area, you troll around many small bays dotted by sailing and fishing boats, reminiscent of Maine and Cape Cod to which the area is often compared.
Nearing day’s end, after several hours of riding we arrived at the area’s famous Rowleys Bay Restaurant in Ellison Bay to enjoy an all-you-can-eat, traditional Scandinavian fish-boil dinner. Amidst forests of spruce trees, the 100-acre family restaurant/bakery/pub/hotel is nestled on a 700-foot waterfront facing the confluence of the Mink River estuary and Rowleys Bay. In addition to the dramatic pyrotechnics involved in the open-air preparation of the fish boil, the history of the area was brought to life for us by Rowleys’ official storyteller “Peter Rowley,” a talented actor assuming the namesake. At night the dark skies put on an amazing star show often accompanied by the magic of the Northern Lights.
As night fell, with the fish-boil flames licking at the sky, we climbed back into the saddle and headed for our night’s lodging, taking County Road ZZ to Highway 42, then a jog on G through Egg Harbor and lastly sidestepping up Hillside Road to the Landmark Resort, a 40-acre, year-round vacation spot named Best of Door County in several categories in 2013.
It was a few cracks after a September Saturday’s dawn, the sun a golden egg-yoke low in the east but bright enough to set aglow the thin blanket of cottony fog hovering low over the northern Wisconsin farm fields. A half-dozen Harleys were packing north on Highway 42, posting smoothly with the gentle rollers. Just ahead a stiletto-shaped church spire caught the rays of the sun as if guiding the way to the morning’s destination, 36 square miles of motorcycling paradise called Washington Island found at the tip of the Door County Peninsula, but not before cruising through such picturesque shore-side villages as Egg Harbor, Fish Creek, Ephraim, Sister Bay and Ellison Bay, each with its often quirky history. For example, Egg Harbor earned its name from an altercation between competing explorers who—after finding nests of wild birds on the shore well stocked with eggs—promptly began tossing them at each other. Yes, one of history’s mysteries.
After a morning’s pleasant putt, we were knocking on the “Crown Jewel” of Door County, Washington Island and its 128 miles of ideal motorcycle touring. To get there we took a 30-minute ferry ride across the scary sounding strait known as Porte des Morts (Death’s Door). The body of water earned its moniker due to the tumultuous convergence of Lake Michigan and Green Bay that has wreaked havoc on ships in the past. But for us it was smooth as silk sailing aboard the 1,000-horsepower Robert Noble, the ship landing us at the best “bike tour within a bike tour” you could imagine…cruising along the island’s sun-dappled, tree-canopied lanes with stops at local attractions like the Farm Museum, the Jackson Harbor Maritime Museum, and the cedar hewn Stavkirke chapel, its Old Norse design influenced by Viking ships.
While I was ready to drop anchor and remain indefinitely on the island, eventually it was time for us to reboard the ferry back to Door Peninsula and then retrace the miles back on Highway 42 south, now fairly congested with weekend visitors enjoying the great weather. We stepped out of traffic in Ephraim for lunch at the famous Wilson’s Restaurant & Ice Cream Parlor (est. 1906); ask for the Cherry Berry Delight and a frosted mug of home-brewed root beer. All fueled-up again, the rest of the day was left to our choice of destinations, some riders opting to visit the local lighthouses and viewing towers, others like me riding over to the pumpkin festival.
As the leisurely 125-mile riding day reached its conclusion, we returned to the Landmark, where our merry band was treated to a fine dinner and reviving refreshments at the Carrington Pub & Grill. After a great day of riding and exploring, its terrace provided a spectacular sunset view through the scarlet and gold forest vistas. Then after another restful night, we geared up for the morning run some 180 miles back to Milwaukee and said our good-byes to our gracious hosts and fellow riders.
Summing up the experience, this 500-mile meandering loop from Milwaukee to the tip of the Door County Peninsula and beyond, then back to Milwaukee, showed us both the history and topography of the area and gave us a taste for more. Wisconsinites are courteous and helpful, and there’s a great abundance of motorcycles sharing the roadways so you always feel “at home” in the Land of WI.
(This article Land of WI was published in the June 2015 issue of Rider magazine.)