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There’s no place quite like the “top o’ the thumb” in Door County. Unlike the rest of the towns and villages on the peninsula, Gills Rock is truly the end of the road. Or, at least, the start of the ferry line depending how you look at it. As the launching point to Washington Island, you may be tempted to drive straight (or, curvy) onto the ferry, but you would be missing out on all the charm this community has to offer.
Gills Rock is home to the southern shores of Porte des Mortes, or “Death’s Door,” and all the fishing and boating history that comes with it. The treacherous strait between the peninsula and Washington island is ripe with legend and fascinating history. Stop in to the Death’s Door Maritime Museum to take a tour of a 45 foot wooden fishing boat from 1930’s and explore a shipwreck and scuba diving exhibit featuring artifacts found within the dangerous boating passageway. New this summer is a large bronze sculpture by Mary Ott Davidson that pays tribute to the rich fishing culture that is still present today.
Located at the tip top of the peninsula, visitors of the area’s parks truly must go the extra mile to enjoy them. It’s well worth the effort though, as you’ll find serene overlooks, quiet forests and lots of pristine water access. Newport State Park boasts access to the northernmost inland lake, Europe Lake, as well as long stretches of Lake Michigan shoreline featuring sandy beaches and rock formations.
Not too far from Newport is Isle View Park. It is small in size but big on views. Located on a quiet stretch of road on the northeastern side of the thumb, the park looks out over the lake towards Washington Island. Enjoy the view through the cedars or walk down to dip your toes in the water and enjoy the sounds of the lake. From the beach you can spot the ferries going to and from Washington Island.
Door Bluff Park is on the northwestern section of the thumb, and features some stunning bluffs and exposed rock. The rugged trails require some care when hiking with steep areas and cliffy drop offs, but if you can carefully descend, you’ll find a western facing rocking shore that provides beautiful views of Lake Michigan. Visit in fall for an amazing array of changing leaves and evergreens.
If you want to explore via kayak, motor boat or canoe, Europe Lake is accessible via the boat launch on its southern shore. The lake is a uniquely quiet place to explore thanks to a large amount of its shoreline being state park. The clear water only goes to the depth of 10 feet and features a soft sandy bottom in most areas, making it a great lake to take a swim.
Get to the bigger Lake Michigan via Garrett Bay Boat Ramp. Garrett Bay Park is located south on the western shore down Garrett Bay Rd. Enjoy a quiet picnic in the woods or sit at the water before launching for a paddle This is also the site of one of the sunken ships on the Great Lakes, The Fleetwing, lost in the late 1800’s.
Once you’ve worked up an appetite on the water and trails, there are a few spots to grab a bite or a meal. The first is a purveyor of some of the tastiest whitefish around. Charlie’s Smokehouse has been in Gills Rock since 1932 and is a true Door County treasure. Pick up a smoked fish snack or spread or stock your cooler for snacks at home. Salmon, whitefish or trout are all available year round.
For a filling meal or happy hour, find a table on the outdoor patio or inside with a sunset view at the Shoreline Restaurant, another of Gills Rock’s treasured businesses. Grab a classic cocktail at the bar and walk along the western shoreline before sitting down to a tasty meal. Featuring classic Door County dishes plus a bakery and deli, it isn’t easy to narrow down your order.
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