Visiting Gills Rock and Northport in Door County

Across the water from Northport a lighthouse is visible on Plum Island.

The Plum Island Rear Range Lighthouse is visible just across the water from Northport. Photo © Richie Diesterheft, licensed Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike.

Map of Wisconsin's Door County

Door County

North of Ellison Bay, Highway 42 cuts east and then bends 90 degrees north again into the tightly packed fishing village of Gills Rock (pop. about 75). High atop 150-foot Table Bluff overlooking Hedgehog Harbor and across from Deathdoor Bluff, pleasant Gills Rock is as far as the road goes on the Door. Sleepy and quaint and known as the tip or top of the thumb, Gills Rock has the feel of an old tourist camp from the 1930s. Farther east on Highway 42 a couple of miles is truly the end of the line, Northport. The highway leading to the ferry at Northport offers splendid scenery in fall.

Sights and Activities

Door County’s other maritime museum, an offshoot of Sturgeon Bay’s, is on a dusty little side road in Gills Rock—the Door County Maritime Museum (12724 W. Wisconsin Bay Rd., 920/854-1844, 10am-5pm daily May- Oct., $5 adults). This museum features gill nets and plenty of other old equipment related to the commercial fishing industry. The highlight is an old fishing tug. Admission generally includes a chatty guided tour.

The Mariner (920/421-1578) is the go-to boat in Gills Rock for a fishing charter ($90 pp). Chinook salmon and German brown trout are the specialties, and the rates are reasonable; you fish virtually the entire time. You’ll find the best views of the bay and solitude at the largest park in the county, Door Bluff Headlands, comprising almost 200 acres of wild trails and woodland. From Highway 42, take Cottage Road to Garrett Bay Road.

Scuba divers come to Gills Rock for underwater archaeology. Beneath the surface of local waters lie more than 200 wrecks, and the State Historical Society has ongoing “digs” on its Wisconsin Maritime Trails project. If you don’t want to dive, the local visitors centers have maps of land-based information markers pointing out wreck sites from shore; visit the Wisconsin Historical Society for more information. The Shoreline Resort (920/854-2606) has dive charters, but you must have your own gear and already be certified. The resort also offers daily narrated scenic boat tours ($40) of Death’s Door.

Map of Washington Island and Rock Island, Wisconsin

Washington Island and Rock Island

Ferries and Cruises to Washington Island

The most luxurious way to Washington Island is a narrated cruise aboard the Island Clipper (920/854-2972), a 65-foot cruiser specifically designed by a Sturgeon Bay boatbuilder for the Death’s Door crossing. A basic crossing ($13 adults) is possible, as well as a crossing plus a Viking Train island tour ($25). In peak summer season there are up to 10 departures 10am-5pm daily.

Northport exists solely to accommodate the ferry line to Washington Island. The pier was built to escape the fierce prevailing winds on the Gills Rock side, and Northport has in fact eclipsed Gills Rock as a ferry departure point to Washington Island; it is almost always free of ice and saves precious crossing time.

Northport is the ferry to use to take a car to Washington Island. The Washington Island Ferry (920/847-2546 or 800/223-2094) takes autos and passengers, and it connects with the Cherry Train tour of the island if you take the 9:45am or earlier crossing from Northport (11am from Gills Rock). The ferry runs frequently; in high season (July-late Aug.), 24 daily round-trips depart to and from the island beginning at 7am from the island, 7:45am from Northport (no early trip on Sun.). Fewer trips depart in other seasons. In December-January there are only four trips per day; in February-March only one or two per day, and vehicle reservations are mandatory. In the off-season, call to check departure times. A car costs $26 (passengers not included), adults are $13, bicycles are $4, and motorcycles are $15; all prices are round-trip.

Accommodations

Prominent in Gills Rock, the Shoreline Resort (12747 Hwy. 42, 920/854-2606, $119) offers waterfront guest rooms with patios and a popular rooftop sun deck; the views are grand. Charter fishing tours and assorted sightseeing cruises (the sunset cruise is perennially popular) also leave the on-site marina. Shoreline also rents out bicycles.

Unheard-of On the Rocks Cliffside Lodge (849 Wisconsin Bay Rd., 920/854-4907, Apr.-Nov., from $350) is possibly the most private Door County experience; you have to see it to believe it. This jewel is a massive 3,500-square-foot A-frame lodge with a fieldstone fireplace atop a 60-foot cliff. It was overwhelming enough for National Geographic to feature it. Rates start at $350 for two people, but it can accommodate up to 18 people ($775).

Food

The best food in Gills Rock is the grand smoked Lake Michigan fish at Charlie’s Smokehouse (12731 Hwy. 42, 920/854-2972, 9am-6pm daily May-Oct., 9am-4pm Sat. and 12:30pm-4pm Sun. Nov.-Apr.), which has been doing it since 1932. The Shoreline Resort (12747 Hwy. 42, 920/854-2606, lunch and dinner daily May-Oct., $7-22) is the other dining option, with good whitefish and basic hearty fare.


Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Wisconsin’s Door County.

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