A visit to Rock Island State Park
BY RICH PALZEWIC
The Rock. No, I’m not talking about the small island prison long-ago abandoned in the middle of San Francisco Bay, but Rock Island State Park off the northeastern coast of Washington Island in Wisconsin’s Door County.
With 25,000 annual visitors, the 912-acre state park isn’t easy to get to, but believe me … it’s worth the trip to get there. Located at the very northern tip of Door County, you’ll need to take two ferries and pay a few bucks to get there. No bicycles are allowed on Rock – just humans, tents and pull-behind carts are permitted. It’s important to realize that the park is open year round from 6:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., but the ferry service only runs Memorial Day Weekend until Columbus Day.
The 20-minute ferry ride over to Washington Island (most people take their cars on the ferry) is scenic and fun in itself … on a nice day! Nicknamed “Death’s Door” for how many shipwrecks are in the area, the strip of water between the mainland and Washington is a perfect tunnel for high winds and nasty currents. One time many years ago when my wife and I went over for a night, the next day was very windy, with probably 30 to 40-mph winds. We noticed the cars coming to Washington were all wet. It wasn’t until we got on the ferry heading back to the mainland did we know why! With eight-foot swells and hammering winds, we felt like we were in the Bering Sea on a crab-fishing boat! My wife and I were being thrown around like rag dolls. I’d guess the other 10 people dumb enough to be on the boat experienced the same thing! I kid you not … I thought that boat was going over, but of course the captain knows how to maneuver such a vessel in windy conditions and wouldn’t have been running the ferry if it wasn’t safe. Still, I was never so happy to get off a boat in my life. I’m not trying to scare you, but my point is this: It’s probably a good idea to check the weather ahead of time and avoid really windy days!
I’ve been to Rock several times, most recently when my sister Kathy raced around Washington in an outrigger boat and the other with my family last summer. On both occasions I hiked around the perimeter – a total distance of about 6 miles. It’s not easy, with lots of ups-and-downs, narrow paths and trails filled with exposed tree roots to navigate around. All of that is worth it for the views and history you’ll witness.
Camping is allowed on Rock, but I haven’t yet done that … some day! There are quite a few remote sites to hike to or ones right along the water. You’ll want to make a reservation well in advance because the sites are booked months ahead of time. Drinking water is available, but there are no food services on the island. You’ll have to bring everything over that you need. Firewood is for sale.
The first thing you’ll notice when you get to the island after a 10-minute ferry ride from Washington is the beautiful boat house, which was completed in 1929 for Chicago inventor and millionaire Chester Thordarson. It was meant to be one of the showpieces on the island he purchased in 1910. The boathouse is deemed one of the most historically significant buildings in the state and is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. All the stone – in fact, almost all the building materials except the red tile roof that weighs 50 tons – came from the island. The boathouse is open every day during the park season and other times by arrangement with the ranger, when people arrive by private boat.
You can hike either way around the island, but both times I’ve gone I’ve chosen to go in a clockwise direction. After a few miles of walking on a narrow, wooded trail, you’ll come upon the oldest lighthouse in Wisconsin. You can go up into it and get some breathtaking views of Lake Michigan and the small islands that dot it.
Upon leaving the lighthouse, there is a set of wooden steps that will lead you down to a beach area – there is 2,000 feet of beach on the island – that is a must do.
The back side of the island is where you will find the more challenging terrain with the exposed roots. By this time you’re getting a little tired, so that adds to the “fun.”
There are other buildings and sites to see on Rock as well. If the hike around the island is not for you, on a nice day you’ll also see hordes of people just sitting on blankets having a picnic lunch and enjoying the sun. There’s something about being on a remote island far away from most civilization and enjoying life. Take your camera, but leave your cell phone behind, as service is sketchy at best.
When running, the ferry boat is in operation from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., so my advice is to take the first ferry over in the morning so you can take your time, stop when you want to and still have plenty of time to get back for the return trip to Washington.
Even before you get to Rock, Washington – with a population of 700 year-round residents – has quite a few things to do. It has a campground, a few hotels, a store, sites to see and nice, quiet roads to bike. I would highly suggest at least a weekend trip to the pair in the near future! You won’t regret it.