Rock Island is one of the more unique destinations one could choose for a paddling-camping adventure in Wisconsin. It takes some extra effort to get there – it is a travel commitment – which is why it’s one of Wisconsin’s least-visited State Parks but if you have the time to invest, it’s well worth the trip.
Wisconsin’s most remote park requires one, if not two, ferry trips to get you and your boat to the island. After driving to the tip of the Door peninsula, you’ll take the Washington Island Ferry to Washington Island (you can shuttle your car and/or boat for a fee). Washington Island is much bigger than Rock – it’s quite expansive actually, and you’ll need to drive (or find transportation) to the northeast side of the island to The Karfi/Rock Island Ferry, which is a passenger ferry docked in Jackson Harbor. For a fee, the Karfi will shuttle you and your boat to your final destination, but that’s dictated by capacity and safety by the captain so it’s best to call ahead. Only experienced paddlers with proper training, equipment and the right weather conditions should consider paddling from Washington Island to Rock Island.
There are two significant landmarks on the island. One, is the historic and stunning stone boathouse you’ll be ferried to and dock at which was built by (and later named for) Chester Thordarson, an inventor who established an estate there and was key in preserving Rock Island’s natural beauty until being sold to the State of Wisconsin in 1965 by his heirs. It’s a stunning piece of work, all built by materials on the island (except for the roof), and it contains many historic artifacts. The other is the Pottawatomie Lighthouse located at the northern tip of Rock Island. It is Wisconsin’s oldest lighthouse and predates Wisconsin becoming a state.
Paddling Style: Great Lakes Paddling
Best Suited For: Sea Kayaks
Camping Location: Lakeside
Availability: Reservable Designated Campground Sites
Paddle-in: Yes | Walk-in: Yes
Camping Fee: Yes | Camping Permit: No
Rock Island State Park has 40 primitive walk-in tent sites and there are two group sites. By walk-in, I do mean walk in. All gear has to be carried to your site since there are no vehicles allowed on the island. Thankfully, they do have carts available but be prepared to haul your stuff in case they’re in use. Even with the carts, it can be brutal since the trails are rather rustic and while some of the sites are close to the dock, others require up to a half-mile hike. Each site has a picnic table and fire ring. Drinking water and firewood are also available near the dock and boathouse. Aside from the camping fee, a State Park sticker is also required.
Those looking to paddle-camp (which is why you’re reading this) will want to choose lakeside sites located in the main campground area on southwest shore instead of the remote campsites located on the Eastern bluffs. There, you’ll be able to launch your boat from your site at your convenience. You could also moor your boat at the historic Chester Thordarson Boathouse but this is usually used for bigger boats, and of course, requires hiking back to the boathouse. We recommend bringing wheels for your boat and use that as your own handcart to haul your gear (two birds, one stone).
Paddling Rock Island State Park:
As mentioned, you could choose to paddle from Washington Island to Rock Island which is about a mile, but we don’t recommend doing so unless the weather is right and you know what you’re doing. Lake Michigan is unpredictable and can be dangerous to paddle unless it’s calm. If you choose to do so, check weather conditions prior and make sure you’re prepared with the right gear. The same goes for paddling around the island. Conditions can change quickly.
When the conditions are right, (you want the water to be flat and calm) paddling around the circumference of the island is an amazing experience. The shoreline changes dramatically from the western side to the eastern of the island. The eastern shore is much more rugged and tall where there are numerous limestone outcrops, sea caves and even a sea stack. The southern shore tapers and the tree-lined shore becomes more level with rocky shoals that soon give way to sandy beaches, then to rock and sand, and finally to cobblestone which seemingly goes on forever along the western shore past the boathouse. Most of your launch points from the campsites are located in the southwest rocky and cobblestone terrain. The trip around the island is a total of six miles and takes about two hours.
At times of extremely low water, a rocky land bridge connects Washington Island to Rock Island, allowing folks to walk between the two. It’s been years since the water was low enough for it to appear but in those rare times, it can impair paddling around the island without a very short bit of portaging.