Autumn’s Glory: Fall Camping in Door County

Naturalist and preservationist John Muir once noted, “The clearest way to the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” The Universe he’s referring to is not necessarily the cosmological universe, but rather the deep, mystical sense of knowing that comes from understanding the interconnectedness of the natural world and its beings. Muir, along with a great many other thinkers, writers, and naturalists felt that the best way to know one’s self and fellow humans was to immerse themselves in nature, namely to reduce living to the barest necessity and be boldly faced by the self without distractions.

Here in Door County, we are blessed not only with the comforts of modern luxuries, which allow visitors to relax and watch their worries float away on a placid lake, but we also are surrounded in natural beauty. Perhaps the original inhabitants and earliest visitors to Door County over 150 years ago had the correct sentiment when they lit their campfires, pitched tents, and counted stars. Camping in Door County is a timeless tradition, and there is no more beautiful and peaceful season to attempt it than in the visual splendor that is autumn in the Door.

Choosing to go camping in the fall as opposed to any other season has some serious benefits and advantages. Veteran camper and local Bryon “Fuzzy” Smith loves the “shoulder seasons” of spring and fall to camp in Door County for a variety of reasons. “In the fall, the season quiets down, the crowds are leaving, you can have your pick of campsites, the temperatures are cooling off, it’s more or less bug free…all of that comes with fall camping,” Smith says. These advantages to camping in the fall are all eclipsed by the most eminent incentive:  the breathtaking autumn colors.

Tom Blackwood, Superintendent of Peninsula State Park, believes that autumn is the greatest time to spend time in the park. “Living in the park during the fall is probably the best time of all – when you’ve got a good mix of good weather, wonderful color…you really feel like you’re privileged to be here,” he says.

Peninsula State Park in Fish Creek is just one of many options for those visitors looking for the camping experience in Door County. This, Wisconsin’s second most visited park, has 469 campsites, offering both individual and group sites. Peninsula also boasts some of the best activities; visitors can mountain bike, kayak, cycle, golf, picnic, swim, hike, and fish among other things. The park is very accessible for those campers wishing to have a relaxed trip without having to leave behind all modern conveniences. With 100 campsites wired electrically and all sites within walking distance to restrooms and shower facilities, it is no wonder that Peninsula State Park is the most popular camping destination in the county.

For those fall campers looking to get a little further off the beaten path, Rock Island and Newport State Parks in Northern Door offer campsites through the autumn months that invite a backcountry experience.

Fuzzy Smith loves kayaking and camping on Rock Island in the fall. “Visiting Rock in the spring or fall is always first on my list. During the fall, it feels like my very own island. The crowds have left, you can smell the fresh crisp air and see the changing of the season…it’s very secluded. I love it,” he explains.

Newport State Park, north of Ellison Bay and Rowleys Bay, is another beautiful place to pitch a tent come fall. Newport is Wisconsin’s only designated wilderness park. Michelle Hefty, Newport State Park’s park manager since 1989, explains that the designation means:  “In a wilderness park we use the wilderness philosophy of low to no development. In other words, we let Mother Nature take its course in the succession of the forest and the fields. We clear trees off the trails if there’s a hazard, and the only manipulation is the eradication of invasive species, like garlic mustard. We strive to keep it as it is, protecting the resource for the public.”

Sunset from Rock Island.

There are 16 backpack campsites that adventurers can hike to with all their gear, as opposed to simply driving into a site and pitching a tent. Camping in this style gives visitors a much more isolated feeling. Each backpacking campsite at Newport has a pit toilet, or “Minnesota can,” a fire ring, metal food storage box, and a bench. Additionally, all of the 13 reservable sites at the park have access to either Lake Michigan or Europe Lake. This kind of backcountry access gives campers a front row seat to the beautiful display of Mother Nature.

Along with Smith, Hefty enjoys camping in the spring and fall, since, as she points out, this is usually the only time locals can do it due to the busy summer season. “One of the things that is so enjoyable about [camping in] autumn are the crisp, cool nights, and to see the stars is just awesome. The air is so clear, there’s no humidity, and the night sky is brilliant. It makes camping so beautiful,” she says.

The appeal for backpack camping in places like Rock Island and Newport, especially in the autumn, is obvious. “If you’re strapping on a pack you know that you’re really going into the outdoor wilderness setting and leaving it all behind,” Smith says. Indeed, without cars, iPods, TVs, or even the ability to see the group in the campsite next to you, a camper feels a certain solitude and awareness for the beauty around them.

Camping in the fall does pose its challenges, though. With cooling temperatures and autumn storms come the opportunities for unhappy campers. It’s best to follow the old Boy Scout credo and “be prepared.”

Tom Blackwood points out that even with its potential drawbacks, camping in the fall is still completely worth it. “I think in the fall, you really have to be prepared. I can remember some of our rainiest periods occurring in September. The later into the season you are, you get the real fall weather. But generally speaking, it is definitely worth it to come. I just love September in the park,” Blackwood says.

Basic necessities for fall camping include a stove (or some fail-proof method for cooking over an open fire), pots and pans, a warm sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and a tent. There is a wide variety of equipment to choose from in any outdoor store, but a basic tent with rip-stop nylon and a rain fly, along with either a down or synthetic filled sleeping bag, should do the trick for surviving happily and warmly.

Smith vows that the key to happy camping in the fall is “warm socks, fleece, and a good sleeping bag.” Being prepared for all types of weather means packing well and having a variety of clothes to don as the weather changes. The best method for outdoor living in capricious weather is layering. Steer clear of cotton fabrics and opt for light, quick dry, synthetic materials. Most importantly, choose appropriate waterproof rainwear. Good gear ensures a good trip.

Yet another option for campers who are a bit weather shy is to choose a campground that has camper cabins and other accommodations  for those traveling without a tent. The Door County Campground Owner’s Association, an organization which proudly boasts 12 campground members from Southern Door to Washington Island, offers not only campgrounds with cabins, but also heated pools, mini golf courses, tennis and volleyball courts, and RV hookups.

The options for gaining access to the Door County outdoors during the autumn months are endless. It’s a time of year when the din of summer has dulled to a leisurely, happy rhythm and time starts to move a bit more slowly again.

“Camping in the fall gives you the true feeling of the county. You get to breathe the fresh clean air, and at night you can see zillions of stars and a Milky Way that’s so thick you can hardly see through it – you can’t see that in a city. It takes your breath away,” Smith says.

And perhaps feeling breathless in the face of something overwhelmingly beautiful is an experience we should all make more time for – to whittle possessions and moments into simplicity. There is truly something about the smell of an autumn campfire and the shadowy images of friends and family surrounding it, the taste of a meal cooked outdoors, and the moment when you first wake up, inside a cozy sleeping bag in your brightly lit tent to see the sun reflecting glorious autumn leaves all around you.

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