Foot ferry to Rock Island

Rock Island State Park

This is the account of our first visit to a state park during our week-long stay in Door County, June 4 through June 9, 2023.

Getting to Rock Island State Park takes a little more effort and planning than what is needed for other Wisconsin state parks.

As the park is an island (and the entire island is the park), you have to cross the waters of what is probably technically Lake Michigan. (Though you might be crossing the Bay of Green Bay – an arm of Lake Michigan…so I dunno for sure.) And that water is between Washington Island and the park.

As you should expect, you have to first cross Lake Michigan / Green Bay to get from the mainland of Door County to Washington Island.

There is a car ferry that runs every 45 or 60 minutes (depending on the season) between the mainland and Washington Island. There is a foot ferry (i.e., no cars, as none are allowed on Rock Island) that runs periodically between Washington and Rock islands.

Unless you plan to camp on Rock Island, you probably should plan your day trip as we did. We took an early ferry to Washington Island so we could get to Rock Island early in the day, hike there, and make it back before the last ferry left for the mainland.

You can buy all four tickets needed in one shot in Northport before getting on the first boat. Just make sure to hold on to the tickets all day. If you accidentally let them blow into the water, they will issue you replacements without an additional fee. (Just sayin’.)

As you leave Northport passing through two breakwaters, you can see Plum Island in the distance. Plum Island lies between Washington and Rock, and until fairly recently, the general public wasn’t allowed to go there. Technically you can now, but there are no ferries that travel there. You’d have to make your own private arrangements.

Leaving Northport

Besides the expected seagulls, there are quite a few of these black cormorants. There are also unexpected (to me) pelicans, which I’ll show you elsewhere.

Cormorant at Northport, Washington Island

Cars are packed in tightly on the ship, but the crew makes sure you can get out of your car if you want to. We did go to the upper deck on the outbound trip. We were one of the first to drive onto the boat.

Car on ferry

The foot ferry to Rock Island is, as you may have guessed, a much smaller boat. You also take a much shorter voyage aboard this boat than on the first one.

Foot ferry to Rock Island

Landing on Rock Island

One of the main buildings on Rock Island is the boathouse. It’s really the first thing you see as you make your approach.

Boathouse
Boathouse closeup

The sheltered watery area underneath isn’t used as it once was.

Boathouse underneath

The main entrance is on the north side of the building.

Boathouse entrance

Inside is a treasure trove of information and antiques. Unfortunately, in my humble opinion, much of it is nearly hidden from view. The whole interior could use the expertise of an interior decorator or maybe someone familiar with feng shui.

There is this awesome fireplace with Scandinavian runes carved into it.

Boathouse fireplace

Above the fireplace is a balcony from which you get this view of the main floor.

Furniture from boathouse balcony

I’m not sure if this chandelier is as old as some of the other artifacts, but it’s still pretty cool.

Chandelier

Nearly hidden in a side room, I found this 1930 envelope that was of special interest to me as a stamp collector.

Envelope from 1930

Protected behind rope barricades was this ancient furniture. The chair shows Odin and his brothers.

Odin chair

That chair is at the far end of this table.

Odin table

There were several other similar pieces, including another table, chairs, and a large desk. Sadly, it was difficult to get a good look at most of the items because of the way they were arranged behind the ropes. Again, calling all interior decorators!

Just outside the building on a stone balcony was this interesting sign. I hope this never was a serious problem. The water below wasn’t very deep.

No Jumping sign

Near the boathouse is this plaque about shipwrecks. Note the good condition of this display. Most others on the island are in need of repair or replacement, as you’ll see.

Shipwreck plaque

From the Boathouse to the Lighthouse

The other main building to visit on Rock Island is the lighthouse about 1.25 miles north of the boathouse.

Lighthouse Trail sign

On the way is this large urn. Why is it there? No idea. Besides some of the plaques being in sad shape, there are other features like this one that have no explanation at all.

Large urn

Another example is this pagoda-style building has a large, but empty, display at one end.

Pagoda

I think this is the building called the Ranger Residence on the map. It may be, but it doesn’t look inhabited.

Ranger Residence?

In the same area is this too-shiny plaque entitled “The Garden”. Sorry, but I didn’t try to decipher the text which was too bright to read easily. (It didn’t used to be that way.)

The Garden plaque

And also in the same area was this flagpole that someone wanted placed here.

Flagpole

Near that, in the middle of an unmanicured area was this plaque. It felt misplaced.

Osland Retreat plaque

Further along the trail to the lighthouse, we came upon this structure. Was your first thought, “It’s a gallows,” too?

The Gate

It’s actually what’s left of a large gate that was the entrance to a Japanese garden that early (wealthy) resident, Chester Thordarson, once had on the island. (See the pagoda above.) Why is there no plaque describing what this is?

At the north end of this stretch of the Thordarson Trail Loop you find the lighthouse.

Lighthouse, Rock Island

We took the brief tour of the building. In one of the rooms I spotted this cool phonograph.

Phonograph in lighthouse

I went all the way to the top where the actual light is located. There wasn’t much to see. Here are the views to the north (left) and east (right).

North from lighthouse
East from lighthouse

This large spider (on the outside of the glass and one of several) was probably more interesting.

Spider outside lighthouse

Outside the building, I noticed this set of solar panels. There were others in the area too. Seems out of place somehow.

Solar panels near lighthouse

Along the trail was this beacon plaque. Again, note the condition.

Beacon on the Bluff plaque

Adjacent to the lighthouse property is a stairway down the cliff to the water’s edge below. It begins as a set of stone steps.

Stone stairs to the water

It ends with these wooden stairs at the bottom.

Wooden stairs down to the water
Wooden stairs up from the water

There’s not much to see down there either. (Some folks were swimming in the rather cool water.)

Stone beach to the west
To the west
Stone beach to the east
To the east

Someone had taken the time to create these stone towers on the rocky beach.

Stone towers

From Lighthouse Back to Boathouse

As we continued along the trail loop, we found this sign. I guess they just want to make sure you’ve got your bearings.

Thordarson Trail sign

We came across one of several cemeteries on the island. We could really only see this one headstone.

Cemetery sign
Headstone

We didn’t complete the full Thordarson Trail Loop. We took a shortcut, of sorts, along the well-named Fernwood Trail. (This sign was at the west end.)

Fernwood Trail sign

There were many of these ferns in the woods along the way.

Fernwood trail ferns

If the ferns below look to be adult-person height, it’s because they were.

Tall ferns

Other interesting flora along this trail included these orange flowers and orange fungus.

Orange flowers
Orange fungus

Several trees had some neat shelf fungus like this.

Shelf fungus

We didn’t know if we would be finding a bench along the way, so when it got to be lunch time, we used this log instead.

Lunch log

To the south and east of the boathouse is most of the camping area, which we didn’t explore. This large stone wall “guards” the entrance to that area. The path is called Michigan Avenue, for reasons unknown.

Michigan Avenue entrance

This stone with an Indian head carved into it lies near that entrance. No idea if this is supposed to be someone who actually lived in the past.

Carved Indian stone

From the south side of the boathouse, you can see this spit of land that juts southwest toward Washington Island.

Rock Island spit

Washington Island to the Mainland

I got to wondering, as we waited to board the car ferry on Washington Island to go back to the mainland, what would happen if too many people waited for the last ferry of the day – more than would fit on a single ship.

What happened to us sort of solves this problem.

We arrived in time for the second-to-last ferry of the day, but it was already full. Eventually enough other vehicles showed up that they loaded another unscheduled ferry to take us all back to Northport. I guess this is what they’d do at the end of the day, if needed.

So we had an enjoyable visit to Rock Island. I hope that someone has the time and funds to fix it up in the near future. It really could use an overhaul.

Location

Nearest City

Detroit Harbor, Washington Island, Wisconsin (7.5 miles, including ferry ride)

Nearest Emergency Facility

Detroit Harbor, Washington Island, Wisconsin (7.5 miles, including ferry ride)

Hours

6:00 AM to 11:00 PM, year-round

Cost

Vehicle admission sticker not required, but there are fees for 2 ferry rides

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