Water has a magnetizing quality that always seems to draw me closer. The way the waves of a lake lap against the shore, tugging at rocks and sand and my feet. How the gurgling sound of a river immediately relaxes me. Admittedly, I'm not a good swimmer, I cringe thinking that fish might brush up against my leg, and I'd prefer to keep my hair dry and tangle-free...but, something about this life force keeps me coming back again and again, even if it's just to gaze at the beauty or dip my toes in the water.
It started with exploring the ditches that meandered through the marsh and hay fields on the farmland where I grew up. Then it was the Rock River that flowed through Riverside Park, just a short walk from where my grandparents lived. Each summer we would take a trip to our family's cabin in St. Germain, where we'd choose our own adventure on canoe or row boat rides on the waterways that spawned from Fawn Lake. Occasionally we'd drive further north to visit my aunt and uncle along Lake Superior (close to where my partner Drew and I exchanged vows in 2014). I attended college in the Fox Valley because I loved how the river hugged the beautiful campus, and I eventually called the Madison area home (the Four Lakes Region known as Teejop by the Ho-Chunk Nation). Ever since Drew started competing in triathlons, we've been spending more time near the water -- most recently last weekend in Door County.
After finding rocks and looking for birds near our hotel, we decided to venture further north into the peninsula later that weekend. The greater Door Peninsula and Green Bay basin are recognized as the land of the Menominee and Potawatomi, Odawa (Ottawa), Sauk, Ojibwe, Petun, and Huron peoples.
It's been months since our daughter has been to a beach, but her instinct to rush into the water at Murphy Park in Egg Harbor was stronger than my will to stop her -- even though she wasn't wearing a swim diaper or bathing suit. When I took off her shoes and socks, she squatted to pick up two handfuls of sand, took a moment to steady herself on the new terrain, stopped briefly to study a rock, and then shuffled quickly toward the water with a huge smile on her face. I scooped her up and waded into the lake, planning to only let her splash her feet. When a big wave surprised us, her giggles were contagious, and soon I didn't care that my clothes were soaked, too. It's a moment that I didn't capture on camera but I know I'll always remember.
We had an eventful day watching Drew and his teammates compete in the sprint triathlon on Saturday, and the next day he was unexpectedly asked to fill in for someone on the bike portion of the half Ironman distance relay. Z and I were tri'd out, so we decided to spend Sunday morning exploring the peninsula together instead of spectating. We were awake and hungry by 6 a.m., so I checked Google for nearby coffee shops and restaurants that were open early. That's what led us to Julie's Park Cafe, which opens at precisely 6:59 a.m. and is located at the southern entrance of Peninsula State Park. Our plans slowly revealed themselves to us, and we went with the flow.
We enjoyed our experience at the cafe so much that we returned with friends the next day. Cherry crepes, scrambled eggs, quiche, and fresh fruit were a yummy start to our morning. After picking out a free toy, Z found the fairy door and other treasures inside Julie's Park Cafe.
Our delicious breakfast was served before Z even finished coloring her kids' menu. I'm not a coffee drinker, but you can enjoy a bottomless mug of Julie's locally-roasted house blend, or, my preference of a piña colada smoothie. Oldies played over the sound system, sunshine warmed the brick interior, and we eased into the day with a lovely meal in this friendly microcosm -- ready to take on our next adventure just up the road.
I had visited Peninsula State Park a few years ago via bike, but it was a surprisingly relaxed and beautiful drive from one end to the other. And we certainly took our time, especially when a doe and her two fawns made an appearance foraging close to the road. This family of deer seemed to have the same mentality as we did: slowly fuel up before embarking on our day.
A deer and her two fawns emerge from the woods before 8 a.m. at Peninsula State Park. According to one of the park signs, "Since the 1950s, the eating habits of deer have changed the number and type of plants that grow in Wisconsin forests by at least 40 percent. Deer gobble up tree seedlings, nibble on shrubs, and especially relish flowers of the lily family, like trilliums. They eat 5-10 pounds of plants per day."
On our drive, we stopped at several parking areas overlooking the water and then pulled into the lot for the White Cedar Nature Center. It wasn't expected to open until 10 a.m., so Z and I got out the stroller and met another young family who were just packing up from a morning walk. They told us that the trail that runs behind the nature center is crushed gravel, and that they had spotted some deer, too.
Keeping in mind our stroller walk pace included stretches of Z wandering about, picking up stones, leaves, and sticks, getting upset when a bug flew near her face (crying and yelling her second string of words together, "bee no," the first being, "no mommy"), watching deer, listening to woodpeckers and wrens, and finding stumps to sit on, we completed the 0.5 mile White Cedar and 1 mile Vita Course loops in about 1.5 hours. Older kids and adults may enjoy the exercise stations along the trail, too. What I appreciated most was the way we experienced the natural beauty around us: unrushed. When Z needed to stop mid-walk for a snack, it gave me an opportunity to pause and soak in the sight of a bird flitting from branch to branch, the smell of pine trees, and the sound of the wind rustling the leaves. In this Sit Spot, I breathed deeply and felt calm and at peace.
We also stumbled upon the Northern Sky Theater (which holds performances for night owls) and a Little Free Library along the trail. Peninsula Park -- the state's third largest at 3,776 acres -- has over 20 miles of hiking trails, so you'll have plenty of area to explore. The White Cedar Nature Center has lots of activities for kids. Beware the "stuffed" animals if taxidermy makes you uneasy.
After visiting the nature center, I could tell that nap time was creeping in earlier than usual. Generally Z eats lunch first, but we had such a hearty breakfast that I knew she'd probably fall asleep on the car ride back to the hotel. There was just one problem. As we drove toward the exit and her eyelids were getting heavy, I saw it: Eagle Tower. The last time I was here it was closed for construction, and now the project was completed. "Sorry kiddo, we have one more stop," I gently nudged. Seeing all of the other people gathering at the base of the tower and shouting hello to their friends on the top had us eager to check it out for ourselves. From the stroller, Z's legs bounced with excitement as I pushed her up the boardwalk that nearly touches the tops of the trees. The view from the observation deck is spectacular. And though we were 253 feet above the Bay of Green Bay, I felt incredibly connected to the water below, and even more so to my daughter beside me.
Z and I had so much fun exploring Eagle Tower at Peninsula State Park that we had to come back the next day to show Drew, too. We saw several people pushing strollers and wheelchairs up the 850-foot long accessible boardwalk, which has benches to rest and lookouts in the canopy with information to view along the way to the 60-foot high tower.
We explored several other places throughout Door County that weekend, but Julie's Park Cafe and Peninsula State Park in Fish Creek stood out among the rest -- not only for the memories we made, but also for the concept. The pairing of a coffee shop/restaurant so close to a natural area made the park that much more inviting, because I knew that good food, clean restrooms, and friendly faces were just down the road. Traveling with little ones can be daunting -- especially when you're not familiar with the location or you're out of cell tower range. Yes, it's important to be prepared and take along water, sunscreen, and (perhaps) diapers, but visiting a big park or new outdoor space doesn't have to be complicated.
I learned that we didn't need an itinerary or goal in mind to see this or do that prior to visiting. Rather, we could just show up, explore what felt right in the moment, and be open to the possibilities. I also realized that when I'm content, Z picks up on my energy and seems to enjoy herself more, too. Caregivers need opportunities to fill their own cups to be fully present with and responsive to their kids, and Playful Acorns hopes to make that easier for them to do. For some people, that looks like a literal cup of coffee to jumpstart their day. For others, like myself, that means finding a quiet moment in nature to feel centered and ready for whatever comes their way. What fills your cup? Share your ideas here, as we would love to incorporate them into upcoming offerings in Dane County.
Caregivers need opportunities to fill their own cups to be fully present with and responsive to their kids, and PlayfulAcorns hopes to make that easier for them to do.
Resources for Families
I may not be a travel guide, but I am a parent who's always searching for fun, family-friendly destinations to visit while on vacation. This is the second year in a row that our family of 3 has traveled to Door County, and I wanted to share this free guide highlighting some of our favorite spots to eat and play in the middle of the peninsula -- known for its cherries, sunrises and sunsets over the water, spectacular parks, and hospitality. A big thank you to my friends who grew up in this area for recommending a few of these places! Of course, this is not an exhaustive list. I'd love to learn about your favorites, too!