Out of Ellison Bay , WI 42 cuts east and then changes its mind and bends 90 degrees north again into the tightly packed fishing village of Gills Rock (pop. maybe 75) and the first of the ends of the road. Parked high atop 150-foot Table Bluff overlooking Hedgehog Harbor across from Deathdoor Bluff, pleasant Gills Rock is as far as the tourist road goes on Door County —that is, until you hop islands.
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. Up WI 42 a couple of miles is truly the end of the line, Northport. (Incidentally, the sine wave turns of the highway leading to the ferry offer some splendid autumnal scenery!)
Door County ’s “other” maritime museum (this is an offshoot of Door County ’s) is parked on a little dusty side road in Gills Rock—the Door County Maritime Museum (12724 W. Wisconsin Bay Rd., 920/854-1844, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. daily May–Oct., $4.50 adults). This one features gill nets and more gill nets—or rather, the commercial fishing industry. The highlight is an old fishing tug, and there is plenty of other old equipment. Admission includes a chatty guided tour.
Capt. Mariner’s (920/421-1578) is ubiquitous in Gills Rock for wetting a line. Chinook salmon and German brown trout are the specialties, and the rates of $80 per person aren’t bad at all. You fish virtually the entire time and with this set-up, solo travelers and novices can take advantage of Great Lake sportfishing, a service difficult to find on other charters.
You’ll find the best views of the bay and solitude at the largest park in the county, Door Bluff Headlands, almost 200 acres of wild trails and woodland. From WI 42, take Cottage Road to Garrett Bay Road.
Scuba divers come to Gills Rock for underwater archaeology. No joke—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 can’t suit up, the local visitors centers have maps of land-based information markers pointing out wreck sites from shore; link up at www.maritimetrails.org .) The Shoreline Resort (920/854-2606, www.theshorelineresort.com ) has dive charters, though you must have your own gear and already be certified. The resort also offers daily narrated scenic boat tours.
Prominent in Gills Rock, the Shoreline Resort (12747 WI 42, 920/854-2606, www.theshorelineresort.com , $119) offers waterfront 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. It also rents bikes.
Unheard-of On the Rocks Cliffside Lodge (849 Wisconsin Bay Rd., 920/854-4907, www.cliffsidelodge.com , Apr.–Nov., $350 and up) is possibly the most private Door County  experience; you simply have to eyeball it for yourself. This jewel is a massive 3,500-square-foot A-frame lodge with fieldstone fireplace atop a 60-foot cliff. It was overwhelming enough for National Geographic to feature it. Rates start at $350 a night for two people, but this sucker holds up to 18 (for $775)!
The best food you’re going to get in Gills Rock is some of that grand smoked Lake Michigan fish at Charlie’s Smokehouse (12731 WI 42, 920/854-2972), whose proprietor or family have been doing it since 1932. The Shoreline Resort (12747 WI 42, 920/854-2606, www.theshorelineresort.com , lunch and dinner daily May–Oct.) is the other dining option, with good whitefish and basic hearty fare.