Potawatomi State Park – Wisconsin

View of Sawyer Harbor from the observation tower

Potawatomi State Park was the first stop on our 10 day camping trip in Northeastern Wisconsin.  Neither of us had been to Door County before and we had heard so many good things about it.  There are actually five state parks in Door County, four of which allow camping.  We decided on this one because it was recommended in our “Best in Tent Camping” book and it has a good central location on the peninsula.

A Brief History

There does not appear to be much written history of the state park itself, although I know this area of the state in general is very historic.  The explorer Jean Nicolet first established a trading post at Green Bay in 1634, making it the 13th oldest permanent settlement in America.  The park was founded in 1928 and was named after the Potawatomi tribe which inhabited this area for many years.

Activities

Trails – In the park there are two hiking trails, an off-road bike trail, a self guided nature trail, and the eastern starting point of the 1,000 mile Ice Age Trail.  The Ice Age Trail starts at the observation tower and goes along the shore with part of the other two trails in the park.  If you were to hike the entire trail, you would have to hike through 30 counties and eventually you would end up in Interstate State Park near the Minnesota boarder.  The Hemlock Trail is 2.6 miles and covers the southern part of the park while the Tower Trail, which is 3.6 miles, covers the northern part.  We hiked the Tower Trail while we were there.  The terrain is not bad, although some parts are rocky.  You get to see part of the Sturgeon Bay shoreline and the rest is mostly wooded.  The isn’t too much in the way of steep inclines.  We saw a lot of deer when we were on the trail.  If you start the trail at the campground, the observation tower makes a good half way point.  Overall it is a nice hike.  Be sure to wear good hiking shoes and bug spray.

Boating – The park is located on Sturgeon Bay so as you can imagine there are many good boating opportunities.  The park has a boat launch that goes into Sawyer Harbor which then connects to Sturgeon Bay and Green Bay.  The park store rents canoes and kayaks.  If you are paddling, it is recommended that you stay in Sawyer Harbor as the water in the bays gets quite deep and choppy.

Observation Tower – On the north end of the park near the boat launch is a 75 foot observation tower.  It is located on top of a 150 foot bluff, so as you can imagine the view from the top is gorgeous.  There is parking near the tower if you do not want to hike to it.  The view overlooks Sawyer Harbor, Sturgeon Bay and Green Bay.  According to the DNR, on a clear day, you can see 16 miles across Green Bay.

Nature Programs – During the summer there are programs offered on many different topics ranging from plants and animals to archeology and history.  Information can be obtained at the park office or on bulletin boards throughout the park.

Camping

Potawatomi offers 123 campsites on two loops in the park.  Upon arriving at the campground, our first instinct was to find a site on the northern loop because there are no electric sites on that loop.  After driving around several times, I will admit we were not very impressed.  The campsites are wooded, but not very well secluded.  The inner circle sites have been elevated with gravel to avoid the muddy area below.  From all of the north loop sites, we liked site 104 the best.  .  However, that site is non-reservable  it had already been taken.  The southern loop has more sites and more RVs, but it also has sites with better natural features.  In my opinion, the best sites were on the outer loop from 48 to 54.  They are further apart than most sites and the backdrop is a rocky bluff.  We ended up at site 58.  It did not have a rocky background, but it was a good size and well spaced from other sites.  It faces the water, but you cannot see it very well due to tree coverage.

The park has a store that carries snacks and some basic camping gear and supplies.  You can also purchase firewood there and rent kayaks and canoes.  We had a chance to speak with the lady that runs the store and she was very friendly.  She told us a funny story of some campers that let their dog out of the tent at night.  The dog ended up coming back to the wrong campsite.  It wanted to get back in the tent so it kept pushing its nose against the tent and pawing at it to get in.  Needless to say the campers inside that tent were freaked out that it was a bear.  All was resolved in the morning when they found the dog sleeping under the picnic table.  On that same token, she had mentioned that they had not seen a bear in this area for a very long time.

The Surrounding Area

If you are traveling to Door County in the Summer you already know there are a lot of activities you can do.  Here are a few to get you started:

Maritime Museum – The museum actually has three different locations.  The largest of which is at Sturgeon Bay.  We stopped in to look around the area, but we did not go through the museum.  If you like nautical history, this would definitely be a good stop for you.  There is an entry fee for the museum, but it is not very much.

Farm Markets – If you enjoy cherries and apples, this is the place for you!  There are a lot of local produce and products that are sold at these markets, especially cherry products.  We saw everything from cherry salsa to cherry mustard, and even cherry donuts.  We visited several markets as we drove around (mainly for the free samples) and our favorite was Wood Orchard Market.

Other Door County State Parks – As I mentioned before, there are four other state parks in the area.  Peninsula State Park is by far the most popular.  It is the 5th largest state park in Wisconsin and takes quite a while to drive through it.  It has a sand beach, lighthouse, summer theater, golf course and 468 campsites!  We drove through it, but stopped only to hike up Eagle Tower.  It has a wonderful overlook.  There is certainly plenty to do at this park.  Another popular park to visit is Whitefish Dunes State Park.  This park is home to some of the highest sand dunes in the state.  The park was established to preserve this unique area.  There are many hiking trails and a nice beach and swimming area.  Unfortunately, when we were at this park, the fog was so thick we could only see about 100 feet in front of us.  We would love to come back and explore it more on a clear day.

Washington Island – At the tip of Door County’s mainland, there is a ferry that will take you to Washington Island.  People live on this island and I have heard that it is worth at least a day trip to explore.  We ended up getting to the ferry late and would not have had much time to look around before the final ferry returned.  Also from Washington Island you can take a ferry to Rock Island State Park.  The park encompasses the entire island and there are no motorized vehicles allow on the island.  I have wanted to go camping up there for some time, but have not gotten around to it just yet.  Perhaps some time soon I will get the trip planned.

Overall, we really enjoyed our stay at Potawatomi State Park.  It was a good location to explore the peninsula.  There is so much to see in this area that it is worth a few trips.  As I said before, this was our first visit to Door County so most of our time was spent discovering all that the county had to offer.  Next time we will have a better idea of which parts we want to visit again and which ones we can pass up.  Because this is such a touristy area, there are many planning guides to help you find the activities that interest you most.  Make sure you plan well, because you will find that time goes pretty quick when you are visiting Door County.

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