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Rock Island State Park

Too small to get much attention and a pain in the neck to reach: The perfect Wisconsin escape.

On most maps Rock Island is little more than a discreet, nameless speck of green floating in northern Lake Michigan. On my detailed map of Wisconsin, however, the green speck is marked by the familiar triangular tent symbol (as big as the island itself), with Rock Island State Park written in tiny italics beside it. The island looks as though it dangles, remote and unprotected, out into the great lake, too small to get much attention from Wisconsin’s weekend warriors and surely a pain in the neck to reach. In other words, the perfect escape.

The trip to Rock Island requires two ferryboat rides ~ inconvenient, but a small price to pay for seclusion. In the middle of August (peak season), the only passengers on the tiny ferry headed for the boathouse that doubles as park museum and nature center were me, my partner, the captain, and the park naturalist.

The island became a state park in the early 1960s after years of debate and various development proposals, including bids from timber companies and luxury-home developers. The earliest Rock Island residents were Indians, including Chippewa and Iroquois. Cliff carvings on the southern shore testify to their days on the island. The last private owner of the island was an eccentric inventor named Chester Thordarson, who had a passion for botany and a deep appreciation for the natural beauty of this land.

After checking in with the ranger, we shouldered our packs, bought some firewood, and headed down the trail to our campsite. Picking a site on Rock Island is easy because you can’t go wrong. On the western shore, the waves crash over chunky white rocks, the breeze is constant, and the sunset views are breathtaking. The southern shore is a protected cove with a half-mile-long white-sand beach interrupted only by gentle waves.

Suckers for a good sunset, we chose the wilder west side as a vantage point. Hiking would have to wait, as we spent the remaining hours of daylight swimming and soaking in the cool, surprisingly clear waters of Lake Michigan. It’s hard to believe this was the same body of water that I wouldn’t let my dog near back in Chicago.

The next morning, we hiked the seven-mile trail that circles the island. Along the way, history and wild beauty merge to make this one of the best dayhikes around. We found two small cemeteries marking graves of early island residents. We passed an abandoned fishing village poised atop a spectacular 140-foot limestone cliff. We explored the grounds of Wisconsin’s oldest lighthouse. We wandered through a shadowy pine grove, where a thick blanket of brown needles crunched softly underfoot. During the hike, we passed only one family of four and two other couples.

Back at our campsite we swam, lounged in the sun on the lumpy rock beach, swam some more, and soaked in the quiet before journeying back to the mainland. Not a bad time for a place that hardly shows up on the map.

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