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.
Rock Island State Park
Washington Island, WI 54246
Rock Island State Park is located at the northernmost tip of the Door County peninsula in northeastern Wisconsin.
From Milwaukee, take I-43 north to Manitowoc. Continue north on SR 42 until the land ends and Lake Michigan begins at the Washington Island Ferry Line in Gills Rock. From Green Bay, take SR 57 north to Rt. 42. (If you arrive too late in the day to catch the ferry, camp at nearby Newport Beach State Park.)
Take the ferry to Washington Island, then make your way across Washington Island to the Rock Island ferry for the quick ride to Rock Island. Call (414) 847-2546 for schedules. Sea kayakers can paddle to Rock Island, provided they’re experienced enough to deal with strong currents.
Around Memorial Day, temperatures are seasonable at 50 to 60 degrees F. By mid-June, the temperature rise into the upper-60s and 70s. Spring and fall are the best times to visit to avoid the bugs and other people. Lake Michigan warms up considerably around Labor Day, making September a perfect time to visit.
Deer graze in sunny meadows, and you might also see red squirrels and foxes.
Contact park office for information.
Among the scattered pines are an abundant array of wildflowers.
There are 40 walk-in primitive campsites and two group sites, equipped with fire rings and picnic tables, nestled in the pines. Reservations (by mail or in person, no phone requests!) are highly recommended, especially in July and August.
Those with private boats can dock them and camp overnight for 40 cents per foot.
Beyond the beach, you’ll find five backpacking sites perched high on dolomite cliffs.
Bring your vehicle to Washington Island and park for free at the Rock Island ferry landing.
- No permits required.
- Primitive campsite fees for Wisconsin residents are $10 per night for Fridays and Saturdays in-season, and $8 for Sundays through Thursdays in-season and any day during off-season. For non-residents, all fees increase by $2.
- There are two ferries required to get to the island. The first year-round ferry travels a half-hour to Washington Island for $7 per person with a $16 fee for cars. (It’s worthwhile to bring your car to Washington Island, because the dock for the second ferry is 9 miles from the first drop-off point and there is limited land transportation.) The second ferry travels 10 minutes from Washington Island to Rock Island for $8 per person (no cars allowed). This ferry runs from the Friday of Memorial Day weekend through Columbus Day.
- Visitors may bring bikes to keep with them on Rock Island, but they cannot ride them. No vehicles are allowed on the island.
- Pets are allowed at half the campsites.
There is a shelter on the island in the event of any storms.
Leave No Trace:
Pack in, pack out.
All LNT guidelines apply.
Free maps of the island are available at the boathouse/park office.
Other Trip Options:
Within the county, there are many other ways to enjoy Lake Michigan. Call the park office for more information.