Rock Island State Park
Take the ferry to this
primitive Lake Michigan island park that LaSalle and Hennepin
visited in the Griffon in 1679. The stone buildings were built by a
wealthy inventor between 1910 and 1930. C/o Washington Island 54246.
Directions: Take Wisconsin Highway 42 to its end at Northport, the tip of the Door County peninsula. Take the Washington Island Ferry (photo) to Washington Island. The ferry carries people, vehicles, bicycles, and freight. Take County Highway W to the opposite end of Washington Island. Leave your vehicle or bike there and take the passengers-only Rock Island Ferry to Rock Island. There are fees for both ferries.
Visitors may take their boats to Rock Island, but caution is urged since Lake Michigan and Green Bay can be hazardous due to reefs and storms. (Photo: the Karfi waits at the Rock Island Ferry Dock).
Features: Take the ferry (Memorial Day weekend through Columbus Day) to this primitive island off the tip of the Door County peninsula in Lake Michigan. Stone buildings, built by a wealthy inventor who owned the island between 1910 and 1945, house exhibits.
Cars and even bikes are not allowed on the 912-acre island, making for an experience unlike any other Wisconsin state park. There are 10 miles of hiking trails, including a one-mile interpretive trail, a naturalist program, and 5,000 feet of beach. Rock Island has 40 campsites, all of which are reservable.
Campground: (recommended sites in red) The park has 35 primitive family campsites, 5 backpack campsites, and 2 group campsites. The sites in the family campground are located about a half-mile from the ferry landing near the Boathouse, and all gear and supplies, including water, must be walked in. Many of the sites are on a bluff overlooking the water with very scenic views, but something to keep in mind is that the winds can get pretty strong on the island, and sometimes storms buffet the shoreline. Most of the shoreline sites are not protected from the wind, so be sure you're prepared for windy conditions and bad weather, especially if you're camping at one of the waterside sites.
Bearing in mind potential wind and storm problems, the sites recommended here are mostly those protected by sand dunes or trees. Sites 1-3 are small half-shady sites protected by a large sand dune, with a nearby path across the dune (photo) to the beach. Site 1 is L-shaped and larger than the other two, site 2 is small and visible from site 1, and site 3 (photo) is small and exposed to the path to the beach, so expect occasional passers-by at this site. These sites are all protected from the wind by the dune. Sites 4-8 are small- to medium-sized near the cemetery and shaded by trees. Site 5 (photo) is typical of these sites, which are located further back from the beach and are more protected from winds by the trees and dunes. Site 8 (photo) is medium-sized and more open, getting a fair amount of sunlight, and is similar to sites 12, and 14. Site 10 is medium-sized and shaded by tall trees. Sites 9, 11, and 13 are three more sites protected by dunes and trees. Site 9 (photo) is a small sunny, grassy site in a curved alcove, protected by a sand dune. Site 11 (photo) is an excellent medium-sized, partially sunny site screened by trees from the shore and the trail, offering good privacy. In the photo you can see that it has its own path down to the beach (photo of beach behind site 11). Site 13 (photo) is a superb beach-side site with a lake view and sandy floor. It is screened from the trail with shrubs and has small trees that give it some protection from shoreline winds. It also has a small alcove (photo) to the right of the entrance path for extra privacy and protection from winds. Site 15 (photo) is located on the cliff-side of the bluff in a pine stand overlooking the lake. It's large and shady with a nice view through the trees, but the wind can be a problem here. Site 16 (photo) is a similar site, large and shady, located closer to the edge of the cliff in the pine grove, with a fantastic view and potential wind problems, like its neighbor, site 17 (photo), with its beautiful view of the Door County shoreline from the picnic table. Site 18 (photo), and its neighbor site 19, are right at the edge of the bluff under pines, with a wonderful view, but batten down the hatches if the winds gust. Site 20 is medium-sized and located a little farther from the shore but can still have wind problems, rather open under small trees at the edge of a woods, similar to site 22, with exposed roots that are easy to trip over. Site 21 is medium-sized and located near the shore under pines. Sites 23-25 are medium-sized, half-sunny sites under pines on the western shoreline along a rocky beach with great views (and open to the wind) (photo: view from shoreline). Site 26 (photo), 27 and 28, are grassy, medium-sized, shady sites with a screen of pines along the shore and excellent water-views. Site 29 is the campground host. From here a trail leads inland to wooded campsites 30-35. These sites are spaced far apart along the path, with sites 30-33 medium-sized, shady, and close to the access path. Site 32 (photo) is shaded by large trees, and like the other sites in this section, has good protection from bad weather. A stone shelter with a fireplace is located near the campground for periods of stormy weather. Site 34 is medium-sized, partially sunny and close to the men's toilet. Site 35 is medium-sized, grassy and shady with its own path from the access trail, offering good privacy. These last six sites are often the last taken on summer weekends, but when the weather gets bad, storm-bound visitors are glad to have chosen them. The views are great from the shoreline, but getting your tent blown over is not much fun. Sometimes it's better not to put a wood chip on your shoulder and dare Mother Nature to knock it off!
The backpack camping sites are located along the southeast shore off the Thordarson Trail. These shoreline sites are beautiful and isolated but have the same potential storm and wind problems as the other shoreline sites. Backpack Site A (photo), like site B, is located on a small cliff overlooking the water, shady and large, with a path down to the shoreline beach (photo). The paths to these isolated sites are outlined with white rocks, so the paths' outlines can be seen in the dark.
Map of Rock Island State Park and Campground
Hiking Trails: The park has ten miles of scenic trails.
Thordarson Loop Trail is a 6.5-mile trail that circles the island, featuring blufftop views, wooded strolls, a lighthouse, sand dunes and beaches.
Fernwood Trail is a 1.5-mile trail which passes through the wooded middle of the island connecting the east and west sides of the Thordarson Trail.
The Havamal Trail is another 1.5 mile wooded trail which connects the picnic area near the Boathouse on the east side of the island to the Thordarson Trail on the west side near the Stone Water Tower.
Algonquin Nature Trail is an easy 1-mile loop near the campground area that details the plant life and history of the island.
Sights on the Island: Above the well-known Boathouse is the Viking Hall which contains many informative exhibits about Rock Island's history, including Native American artifacts dating back to 1678, along with one of Thordarson's famous inventions and his original Icelandic carved oak furniture. Along the rocky shoreline near the sand dunes you can explore impressive rock outcroppings , some of which have old native carvings etched into the stone. The Potawatomi Lighthouse built in 1836 is a popular destination, and tours are offered on specific dates. The unique wooden gate was originally built by Thordarson to keep the deer away from his orchards, but it only worked long enough for the deer to figure out how to jump over it. Like the Boathouse and Viking Hall, most structures on the island are built out of stone to withstand the icy winds that sweep over the island in the winter. Several stone houses can be found on the island, along with the old Stone Water Tower, which once served a fishing village that used to be located on the southeast corner of the island (stone foundations can still be viewed there). There are several cemeteries, including one in the campground area. The campground itself is located in the area of an old Potawatomi Indian Village and some buildings constructed by the explorer LaSalle (photo). A portion of an old Ottawa and Huron stockade is also located in the campground area.
Beach: A sandy beach area is located south of the main camping area. Changing stalls are located nearby.
There are many other small sand and rock beaches located all around the island shoreline.
Pottawatomie Lighthouse History:
Rock Island is located in a strategic position at the mouth of Green Bay. Rock Island
being on the passage from all eastern waters into Green Bay prompted some merchant and ship owners to petition Congress to build a lighthouse on Pottawatomie Point. The federal government set aside 133.7 acres on Rock Island for this purpose. When built in 1836, Rock Island's Pottawatomie Light became the first federal light in Wisconsin on Lake Michigan.
The original 1836 Rock Island Lighthouse, a 34 x 20 foot residence, had a separate grey conical 30-foot high tower. The 11-foot diameter round conical-shaped lantern held a Winslow Patent designed lens with 11 oil lamps and 11 14-inch reflectors. The light itself was 159 feet or 48 meters above the water.
The present lighthouse on Pottawatomie Point replaced the original in 1858. It's mortar caused the original building and tower to be damaged. The new 33' x 31' dwelling built of quarried dolomite enclosed a 8' x 8' tower which held a nine-sided lantern with lamp using a 4th order Fresnel lens. The lamp produced a steady white light visible for 14 nautical miles.
Washington Island, located 6 miles off the tip of the Door County Peninsula, is a favorite destination for tourists. Its public beaches- School House Beach, Percy Johnson Park (photo), Sand Dunes Park Beach (photo)- and the Islandís rural areas are a treat for visitors. Other Island attractions include the Mountain Tower, Jacobsenís Museum, the Washington Island Farm Museum, and historic Jackson Harbor.
View from the Rock Island Boathouse of the Karfi Ferry departing for Washington Island
("Karfi" means "seaworthy boat" in Icelandic)