Summarizing the charms of the 982-acre Belle Isle State Park, nestled between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, in the Detroit River, is easy for Michele Hodges, president and CEO of the Belle Isle Conservancy.
“There’s really no better place in the metro region where you can walk, bike, or paddle through such a rich diversity of plant life, wildlife, architecture, and history in such close proximity,” she says. “There’s also the unique opportunity of viewing the skylines of two cities, and don’t forget about the more than 200 species of birds and the only public beach on the Detroit River. Visitors can quickly feel like they’re no longer in an urban area.”
This year brings even more opportunities to feel that way about the island, which became Michigan’s 102nd state park in 2014.
The Detroit River is accessible from the Dossin Great Lakes Museum for the first time, offering another place to soak up sun, or launch a kayak.
Roughly $2.4 million of the $4.9 million in planned museum improvements have been completed, according to Rebecca Salminen Witt of the Detroit Historical Society, which administers the facility.
In addition to the new beach/kayak launch, new pedestrian lighting, additional bike racks, a cycle service station, and a canine refresh station for pets have been added, and the first section of a new Riverwalk featuring a freighter-viewing telescope has been installed.
A sprawling, 2.6-acre garden created by famed designer Piet Oudolf opens this summer. The High Line in New York City and the Lurie Garden at Chicago’s Millennium Park are among his other creations. The Oudolf Garden, situated next to the Nancy Brown Peace Carillon, will feature 26,000 hearty perennials and grasses plus 47,000 bulbs and a rain garden.
Here are other great ways to immerse yourself in Belle Isle’s outdoor offerings:
More than five miles of trails traverse the island, including the 2.2-mile Blue Heron Lagoon Trail. It begins off Lakeshore Drive near the east end of the island.
The path loops around the lagoon, taking hikers to some of the park’s most scenic sections, and features the vivid greenery of one of the few wet-mesic forests — a wet-to-moist forested wetland — remaining in Michigan. Overhead is a canopy that includes hickory, maple, ash, and stately oak trees, some more than 300 years old.
After a half mile, hikers reach the William Livingstone Lighthouse, a 58-foot structure that’s North America’s only Georgia marble-sculpted lighthouse. This is also a perfect spot to watch freighters moving between the Detroit River and Lake St. Clair.
Wildlife that can be seen include raccoons, great horned owls, beavers, fox, deer, waterfowl, and bald eagles.
Jennifer Steelman, a member of the Michigan Hiking and Backpacking Facebook group, also recommends the Nashua Creek Trail, which begins off Vista Drive. “The trail along the stream is really pretty,” she says. “You can go along pretty far on either side, then cross over the footbridge and hike back to where you started from.”
Belle Isle contains miles of bike lanes, including those along the 6.5-mile road that loops around the island’s outer edge. Bicyclists can also venture into the park’s interior, and ride along portions of the canals and across bridges.
A bike and pedestrian lane has been added to Central Avenue, which cuts through the center of the park.
Bikes are also available to rent through Riverside Kayak Connection at Flynn Pavilion and Belle Isle Beach.
Wheelhouse Detroit Bike Shop leads Belle Isle tours from its off-island location on nearby Atwater Street.
“Belle Isle is wonderful for biking, especially in the late summer and fall,” says Wheelhouse owner Kelli Kava-
naugh. “The two-way cycle track installed on Central Avenue makes it a particularly nice ride through the wooded eastern end of the island. Around the island, views of Detroit and Windsor, along with the trees and birds, make for an unparalleled ride.”
Belle Isle attracts paddlers of all skill levels. Beginners can float down the island’s serene canals or venture into one of its three inland lakes. Lake Okonoka contains several small islands of its own.
More advanced kayakers revel in circling around Belle Isle, usually a three-hour trip that includes paddling against the Detroit River current, or paddling out to the island from the mainland.
“The interior waterways are good for beginners and there’s plenty to see, from the views of downtown Detroit and Canada to fish and wildlife,” says Tiffany VanDeHey of Riverside Kayak Connection in Wyandotte, which also offers rentals, tours, and lessons.
Detroit River Sports conducts a tour for more advanced paddlers that explores a portion of Belle Isle. The tour starts near Riverfront-Lakewood East Park.
“It’s challenging, including three miles against the Detroit River’s current, but very rewarding,” says DRS manager Marie Mastrangelo, who also is one of the many guides on staff. “It’s a unique experience paddling between two countries, and the freighters are sometimes so close it’s surreal.”
Belle Isle features four fishing piers, but fishing is permitted everywhere in the park. Some popular spots are the Shelter 9 area, Blue Heron Lagoon, and the western side of the beach.
“There’s almost no species you can’t catch from shore on Belle Isle — whether fishing off one of the piers or casting lines in inland lakes,” says Brad Smyth, owner of Detroit Outdoor Adventures, which offers charter fishing trips on the Detroit River. “The south pier, especially, provides an excellent platform to target walleye, perch, muskie, pike, smallmouth bass, catfish, and, sometimes, lake sturgeon.
“The inland lakes are spectacular for largemouth bass, bluegill, and sunfish,” he adds, whether you’re casting jigs or crank baits into the Detroit River, or floating a bobber with a worm in the inland lakes.”
Nearly 300 acres of old growth forest and wetlands on the eastern end of Belle Isle, along with the Detroit River shoreline and other bodies of water, make the island metro Detroit’s top bird-watching destination. The habitat creates an ideal stopover location for migrating birds. Species that can be seen include scarlet tanagers, great blue herons, ovenbirds, orioles, eastern meadowlarks, and owls and bald eagles.
“Belle Isle is situated where the Mississippi and Atlantic flyways come together, and offers a place (to stop) for birds traveling both north and south,” says Jim Bull, of the Detroit Audubon Society.
“More than 250,000 canvasback ducks winter here — about a quarter of North America’s population. Other interesting birds are osprey, saw-whet owl, Baltimore oriole, and the rose-breasted grosbeak, which spends part of the year in South America.”
Bull says more bald eagles are being seen all over the island, and they build nests in the wooded areas. “That’s where you can see them flying, perching, and nesting, and they raised three young last year,” he adds. “That shows Belle Isle is a good environment for them.”
In addition to the new beach at Dossin Museum, the main, larger beach is along Riverbank Drive and features a half mile of sandy shoreline.
The zero-depth entry, gradual depth increase, and usually tame waves make it ideal. No other Michigan beach features views of a major city’s skyline.
“When you see people coming together on the only public Detroit River beach in Michigan, you sense that everything is right with the world,” Hodges says. “It’s the quintessential summer experience in Detroit.”
Michigan Department of Natural Resources
michigan.gov/dnr/; search for Belle Isle Park
Vehicles entering the state park must have a Michigan Recreation Passport. Visitors may also walk, ride a bike, or take public transportation to the park.