Last summer, my family went on a rather expensive family vacation in the southeast United States. As is our family tradition, we try hard to balance out expensive summer vacations with much less expensive ones, so this year we planned out a much less expensive vacation.
The centerpiece of our vacation saw us camping for several days in Door County, Wisconsin. We made a few stops before and after that in surrounding states, mostly due to the fact that we live in Iowa and those destinations were essentially on our route for the most part, but the central part of our trip was in Door County.
For those unfamiliar, Door County is a peninsula in eastern Wisconsin that extends into Lake Michigan, meaning that three sides of the county are bordered by the waters of the lake. The county features a number of worthwhile things to do, but in addition to that, Green Bay is at the southern end of the county, just across the county line, giving you even more things to do.
We spent five days in the Door County and Green Bay areas and spent less in those five days than we did in an average day on our trip last summer. Here are some of the things we did. I strongly encourage you to take these ideas and use them to plan your own family vacation in the area.
Housing is often the most expensive part of a vacation. A decent hotel room in many areas can clock in at $100 a night or more, for starters. Other options – hostels, staying with relatives or friends, camping – are less expensive, but are more restrictive in some ways.
Camping was clearly the smart choice for our family, for a number of reasons.
For starters, camping is inexpensive. The most expensive campgrounds usually have a lower per-night rate than the least expensive (read: scary) hotels. If you’re staying for several nights, this adds up to a small mint.
Second, it enables inexpensive food options. As I’ll discuss in a bit more detail below, camping makes it very easy to prepare your own food. The challenge with food in a hotel room is that it’s very cramped and there’s often not a heat source for preparing a full meal. At a campground, you have lots of space, you don’t have to haul stuff from the car, and you have a great heat source – campfires.
Third, our family enjoys the outdoors. You’re essentially going to be outdoors all the time when you’re camping, getting tons of fresh air and exposure to nature. Camping makes all of this easy.
Yes, the biggest drawback to camping is that you do have to have some gear – a tent, a sleeping bag, and so on. However, those are one-time purchases that you can use for years and years.
Door County offers a bunch of camping options, both public and private. I had the chance to see a few options along the way.
The one that looked the most beautiful in terms of scenery and seemed to have the best facilities was Wagon Trail Campground, which was incredibly well maintained and seemed to have great facilities. Their rates are a bit high, but I would consider this the “high end” of options in Door County from the perspective of an adult at least. While I didn’t see it, another person I met on vacation was staying at Tranquil Timbers and described it on similar glowing terms. The Door County website offers a long list of camping options.
Another option is to camp in state parks. State park camping usually offers fewer amenities with a lower price, but better access to things like hiking trails and beautiful scenery. Peninsula State Park offers a wide variety of camping options at a very good price, with great access to the natural offerings of the park (which I’ll mention below).
We ended up choosing Camp Jellystone because of the children-friendly offerings. The price was very reasonable, the campground was secluded and heavily wooded (which offered a great sense of privacy at the actual campground), and they have a daily schedule of family-friendly activities right on the campground. We ended up spending a full day just at Jellystone just because of those activities. The kids went swimming in the three pools on the campsite, played some games, did some exploring of the park, played in a basketball shooting tournament, and ended the day by watching an outdoor movie. All of that stuff was free with our camping cost.
If I were going just with Sarah or with other adults, I would either choose Wagon Trail Campground or Peninsula State Park, depending on what the people I was with were into. If they were more into driving around and exploring more of Door County most of the time, I’d probably choose Wagon Trail. If they were more into hiking, outdoorsy stuff, and trail exploration, I’d probably choose Peninsula State Park.
On the other hand, if you have children under the age of 10 – especially multiple children – Jellystone is a great choice. All of them are far cheaper compared to hotels, especially over multiple nights.
On the second day and part of the third day in Door County, we visited the county’s state parks. For $10, we bought a day pass for a vehicle with out-of-state plates for all state parks, which gave us access to all of the area’s parks for that low price. You can read the details here. The next day, we bought a one-hour pass for an additional visit.
Needless to say, the state parks in Door County, Wis., are a treasure. Here are the highlights.
Whitefish Dunes State Park
We spent most of a day at Whitefish Dunes State Park, enjoying some beach time facing Lake Michigan as well as a three-mile hiking loop and a nice climb to the top of “Old Baldy,” a large dune with a great view from the top. The trails were well-maintained and easy enough for our family to navigate (though our five year old was pretty tired of things by the end of the three-mile loop).
The beach is perfect for some family beach time without intense heat, and it was long enough on a summer weekday to find spots where you could barely see anyone else in either direction, which is nice if you’re seeking privacy.
Peninsula State Park
This was a park that we intended to visit as we planned our trip, but when we got close to our trip, we learned that the semi-famous observation tower in the park was actually closed to the public, so we instead chose to go to Potawatomi State Park (see below) as a replacement. If you’d like to know more about the highlights of Peninsula State Park, including the abundance of hiking trails, this video covers it well. We were pretty eager to see some of the rock formations in the park along the trails.
Newport State Park
If you want lots and lots of hiking, this is probably your choice among the state parks. It offers an abundance of hiking trails as well as lots of off-trail hiking opportunities. The trails mix shoreline areas with wooded areas, with perhaps the most shoreline of any park. While we didn’t actually make it up to this park (it’s near the tip), another camper raved about it and said that the Europe Bay hiking loop was an amazing day-long walk. (See, tips like these are why I carry around a pocket notebook.)
Potawatomi State Park
The highlight of Potawatomi State Park – for us – was a 75-foot-tall observation tower that you could climb, built out of tree trunks back in the 1930s. From the top of this tower, one could get an amazing view of the lake and of surrounding areas. We actually considered having a picnic at the top of the tower, so there’s plenty of space for many people up there. There were many trails in the park as well, which we only explored a bit of.
Other Features of Door County
Here are some additional things to see and do in Door County that are free or extremely low-cost. We were able to see a few of these things, but we honestly had more things written down than we could realistically fit into a couple of days with a family.
Cave Point County Park
This park features a number of “sea caves” formed in the shoreline rocks by thousands and thousands of years of wave action from Lake Michigan. It would make for a perfect hourlong stop as part of a full day.
Door County features a number of lighthouses, many of which you can visit (externally) for free. Others require a small fee, and at least one (Cana Island) allows you to go up to the top for a small fee during the day. Almost all of them are photo-worthy.
At one point, we stumbled across a free concert that was really, really good – I believe it was the weekly Monday concert in Eprahim. Later, we discovered that there is a Door County events calendar that lists a bunch of these kinds of community events. It’s well worth checking out if you’re in the area.
In short, we could have easily spent a full week just on the Door County things, but we took advantage of the fact that Green Bay was just south of the county and spent a long day there.
Green Bay is perhaps best known as the home of the Green Bay Packers NFL team, and Lambeau Field, where they play, is certainly worth a drive past (though the tours can be pricy). Instead, we spent our day in Green Bay seeking out some of the undiscovered treasures of the town.
Bay Beach Amusement Park is an amusement park run by the city – and it’s a great deal. There is no general admission – it’s free to go there! Instead, you simply buy individual tickets from a kiosk for 25 cents apiece. Those tickets are good for the rides, with most rides only requiring a ticket or two and even the biggest ride – the roller coaster depicted above – requiring only four tickets. We went with our three children, spent almost three hours there, and used only $8 worth of tickets total with our whole family.
The Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary is right next to the amusement park – in fact, the two are connected by a short walking trail. In a nutshell, Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary is a free zoo that’s better than some paid zoos I’ve been to. It’s hard to believe that the place manages to stay open solely on the back of grants and donations.
Between the amusement park and the wildlife sanctuary, we actually spent almost an entire day, and a thoroughly enjoyable day, I might add.
Other Inexpensive Highlights of Green Bay
There are actually a lot of interesting inexpensive and free things to do in the Green Bay area.
Lambeau Field, as I mentioned, has a fairly expensive tour (it would have totaled around $40 for myself, my wife, and our three children) and a similarly-priced hall of fame, but you can visit the outside of the stadium and the surrounding areas for free as an enjoyable walking tour. That would be about perfect for my family, who aren’t really big football fans but appreciate it from a cultural perspective.
The Farmers Market on Broadway takes place on Wednesdays and is free (aside from the vendors, of course). It offers two open-air live music performance areas and is so lively that it takes on the feeling of a block party. The evening we went, the weather was perfect and the Packers weren’t practicing that day, so it was almost overcrowded, but with about 25% fewer people, it would have been a great free experience. With all of the available food offerings, the prices are actually really low, too, so it’s a fairly good place to eat at a competitive price.
The Fox River State Recreational Trail is stunningly gorgeous and can provide a great place to take a leisurely stroll along Lake Michigan and stop for a picnic dinner along the way.
One of the major challenges of vacation is always food. Since you’re away from the familiar resources of home, travel often means that your food expenses are going to go up – and sometimes they go way up.
The advantage of camping is that you can essentially plan meals in a way that’s very similar to what you do at home. It’s easy to make a wide variety of homemade meals over a campfire or with the use of a small propane stove. You can make soups and stews and sandwiches of all kinds using just those kinds of things.
Not only that, camping practically begs for picnic meals. There’s nothing better than a day spent exploring a beautiful scenic state or national park and having a picnic lunch along with you that you can eat together while resting a bit in the middle of the day.
Drive-in camping makes this easy, as you usually have your vehicle nearby which provides great storage space, with your trunk serving as a “pantry.” You often have access to a table of some kind for food preparation, and you can purchase all of your food from a local grocery store, as things for making sandwiches and so on are usually pretty inexpensive. You can keep food cool in a cooler quite easily, too.
For example, one day on vacation, we had oatmeal with fruit for breakfast (using water heated in a kettle and reusable bowls and spoons), a picnic for lunch (with sandwiches, fresh vegetables and fruits, and some chips), and a campfire meal for dinner (basically, a medley of vegetables and meats wrapped in aluminum foil and cooked directly over a campfire). All delicious, all easy, and all without the expense of eating out.
(Note, please, that I’m not talking about backpack camping, which is a great activity in its own right but requires a different type of preparation. I’m referring instead to family tent (or camper) camping.)
Was our trip “cheap”? Many people, when they read articles like this, assume that we chose the “cheapest” options available to us and thus must have avoided the “fun” stuff.
In truth, when we plan vacations like this, we just make giant lists of all of the stuff that we would want to do, then filter them with cost as one of the factors. In this area, though, we found so much worthwhile free and low-cost stuff to do, we could not see a justification for some of the more expensive and “tourist-y” things we could have done in the county. We honestly could have filled four more days in the county without skipping a beat.
If you’re looking for a low-cost vacation next summer, I highly encourage camping in Door County. You can spend several days exploring a great location on a surprisingly small budget.
One of the big advantages of a “cheap” vacation is that you can “upgrade” as you please when serendipity strikes you. Since the trip itself isn’t expensive, it’s not a financial challenge to add a thing or two to the trip that’s a little more pricy and you have the freedom to be selective about what you do because you already have this big list full of worthwhile free activities to do.
So, if you find an interesting restaurant, you can go there in the evenings. If you see an interesting shop, you can stop in and buy a thing or two. Because the baseline of your vacation is inexpensive, those kinds of splurges don’t push you out of a reasonable budget.
That’s why our family really likes “cheap” vacations. We have an abundance of things to do that are already going to be enjoyable without any real expense, plus, since we aren’t spending much money up to that point, we can add on a more expensive event or two without any real problem.
Door County and Green Bay are great places to have a vacation like this. There’s an abundance of great things to do for free or for just a few dollars which can form the backbone of a wonderful vacation.