Between ferry rides and the camping reservation fee, Rock Island State Park may very well be one of the most expensive backpacking destinations in the Midwest (if not the most). But it offers history and beauty, with views like no other backpacking destination within six hours of Chicago. It’s four hours from Milwaukee, and 2.5 hours from Green Bay. It’s also great for day hikes, family camping, paddling, beginner backpacking trips, or any nature lover spending time in the Door County area!
The ferry ride from the tip of the Door County peninsula to Detroit Harbor on Washington Island left my minivan drenched, and many passengers queasy. The relentless 20+ mile per hour easterly winds and 45+ MPH gusts that had been blasting the area for the past several days had whipped the water in “Death’s Door” into a frenzy. As the ferry crashed into waves the mist would splash onto the automobile deck, and occasionally reach the passenger deck above where the rocking of the boat was presenting foot passengers with the great challenge of merely standing upright. The ferry took on a slower speed than usual as a result of the rough water, causing us to miss our second ferry that would take us from Washington Island to our backpacking destination of Rock Island. A minor setback, but this permitted us to enjoy stuffed hash browns and breakfast booze at a local restaurant while we waited for the next ferry that was scheduled to leave two hours later.
My companions were my wife, her brother, and his wife. This was the second backpacking experience for my wife and brother-in-law, but a first for his wife. The gents had Bloody Marys and the ladies enjoyed mimosas with the unplanned brunch. We weren’t going to let the weather get us down.
The ride across the Rock Island passage was another turbulent one. The foot passenger only Karfi was much smaller than the previous ferry, and thus more subject to rolling in the agitated water. The distance was shorter, however, and some stretches of water were protected by natural features which broke up the largest of the waves that rolled across the passage from the lake to the east. When we reached the calmer waters of the marina, we could see lake bottom clearly through more than fifteen feet of blue-green water. Having spent plenty of time around Lake Michigan in Illinois and Indiana, this clean look was a welcome surprise.
We docked near a large, white stone boat house. The land surrounding the boat house was neatly mowed, and dotted occasionally with picnic tables. Other white stone buildings and a stone gate could also be seen on what looked like an old compound.
A ranger and his assistant waited at the dock to welcome us to Rock Island, and handed us maps and brochures as we disembarked. The ranger guided us to a welcome stand where we verified our remote camping reservations that I had booked a month previously. He made sure that we had proper gear, gave us instructions on how to display our reservation card at the campsite, and offered some tips on getting around the island.
Since we were in the area, we decided to have a look around the state park facilities. The boathouse now serves as a museum, displaying photographs and artifacts related to the island’s various inhabitants throughout the centuries, but most predominantly the businessman who built the boat house as part of his plan to develop the southwest of the island into a personal resort in the 1920’s. The structure was a museum piece in its own right – a large banquet hall with a giant stone fireplace, a huge chandelier, and arched windows overlooking the water.
We left the developed area to hike north along the western shore of the island. We decided that we would circumnavigate the island clockwise on the Thordarson Loop Trail. Once the path left the landscaped area it rose quickly into a narrow dirt & rock trail. A wooden sculpture greeted us at the top of a hill. The sculpture, called “The Gate,” was fenced off due to vandalism, but the views from the top of the hill and the gate itself lent themselves as inspiration for a photo break.
The path beyond the gate appeared to be frequently used by foot traffic as well as the rangers’ ATVs. The trail was wide, flat, sparsely vegetated, and shaded well by the mature trees on either side. We were high above the bay on a bluff, but the view was obstructed by forest. After a little over a mile of light hiking we arrived at the Pottawatomie Lighthouse. Along the route to the lighthouse and upon arriving we encountered a large number of people – most appeared to be day hikers. We stopped at a picnic table for a snack and had a short conversation with docents who had volunteered to take up residence at the lighthouse for the week.*
From the lighthouse we decided to hike down a nearby bluff via stone staircase, and then down a second bluff via wooden staircase to a rocky beach. There we met another backpacking foursome who were stopping to filter water. We learned that they would be our neighbors later that evening, although we never ran into them again. They were the only other backpackers that we ran into on the trip, even though all five designated backpacker campsites had been reserved.
The climb back up to the lighthouse was the most strenuous part of the entire trip, and left us winded for a moment. We continued to follow the Thordarson Loop Trail to the east, which was when the views began to open up. Every few feet a new vista would present itself, showing off views of nearby islands and crystal clear water. Stepping close to the edge revealed translucent waves crashing into rocks at the base of the cliff dozens of yards below.
Also of interest along the Thordarson loop trail are three small cemeteries that can be found by following brief side trails. The short lifespans etched on several of the headstones reminded us of how hard life could be for Mid-westerners in the 1800’s.
The trail lost elevation as it turned south, and provided fun side-hikes down to the extremely rough, but crystal clear water of Lake Michigan. It was also on the east side of the island that the wind began to hit us full-force, facing its last obstacle on the western shores of Michigan more than 50 miles away.
Some logging was taking place on the island (maybe forest management or pest control), and as we approached our remote campsite we took note of some piles of logs that we might return to for firewood. Along the trail on the eastern side of the island we passed the remnants of a large stone water tower to our right, and then the ruins of an old fishing settlement to our left. Among the ruins we found an apple tree covered in mostly ripened apples. I climbed up and picked a nice red one. It was really tart, but I ate it anyway because it felt good to do some light foraging.
The side-trail to campsites C, D, & E is marked by a post upon which registered backpackers are instructed to clip their reservation card provided by the ranger. There’s also a surprisingly well-kept pit toilet at this junction.
Our campsite, remote site “D”, is on a small cliff overlooking the lake, which is perfect for sunrise views. The neighboring sites were distant and partially obscured from our view by foliage, so there is definitely some element of privacy and solitude. Each of the five remote sites has a fire ring and a picnic table, and each has a lake view.
Since a strong, cool wind was blowing from the east, our beautiful, open view also meant that there was nothing to block the wind. Any light or unsecured gear blew around, and we needed to wear all of our layers to keep warm despite the moderate autumn temperatures in the low to mid 50’s.
We placed our site’s picnic table on its side between the fire ring and the cliff to block some wind, and braced it with sticks that we jammed into the ground at a diagonal so that the wind wouldn’t blow it over into the fire. We added additional stones to the already existing rock wall that sheltered the eastern half of the fire ring. With both wind blocking measures taken, the air in the fire pit was just calm enough that we could get some embers glowing for a fire later that evening. It was late in the camping season, so the area surrounding our campsite was picked clean of decent firewood. We headed back north of the water tower to retrieve some heavy sycamore logs and birch bark from one of the cutting sites that we had passed earlier, and stockpiled them for our bonfire later on.
The tents were set up amidst a grove of cedars, which partially blocked the wind and put them at a safe distance from the embers that were sure to be kicked up from the fire pit. The smell of cedars on the breeze throughout the night was a pleasant side effect.
With the last of our daylight we explored the southeastern corner of the island. Remote sites A & B are slightly farther off the trail through a thick, dark, beautiful forest of mature coniferous trees. The sky was too cloudy to enjoy a sunset, so we only hiked as far as a nice, sandy beach that opened up to the left as the trail turned west. We explored the beach and some low dunes for a short while, took some pictures, and headed back to camp to get a fire started. We picked up some more hard wood logs along the way.
The wind caused everything to burn quickly, and extremely hot. The combination of the fire and the makeshift wind block kept us warm enough, for the most part. We enjoyed some food, whisky, and conversation, but were eventually chased into our shelters by the wind.
Fortunately the wind died down a bit by morning, although I’d guess that it was still blowing at a steady 15+ miles per hour with some stronger gusts occasionally. The temperature didn’t seem to have changed at all since the moment we arrived on the island the day before.
We cleaned up camp, putting the picnic table back where we found it, and leaving some firewood, kindling, and birch bark near the fire pit for the next visitor.**
We chose to take the remainder of the Thordarson Loop Trail along the south shore of the island, and explored the family campground, beach, and dunes at the west end of the south shore. All trails eventually lead back to the boat house, and we arrived there with plenty of time to explore the foundation and indoor docks at the water’s edge before the Karfi headed back to Washington Island.
The water seemed a bit calmer on the two ferry rides back to the mainland. Once on the mainland we made the obligatory stop at one of Door County’s famous tourist traps (for some Door County Cherry-themed goodies, of course).
What to expect: Other travelers, great views, history lessons, clear water, cliffs and beaches
Wildlife spotted: Birds, chipmunks, and deer
Cost: (As of fall 2015) The combined round-trip price for both ferries is $24.50 per adult, plus $26.00 to get your vehicle on the ferry to Washington Island. The reservation for the campsite came out to $34.70 with all fees included. Ferry and campsite totaled $158.70 for four adults.
Tips: Be at the ferry early, and make sure that you’re not relying on the last departure of the Karfi. Our ferry to Washington Island departed late and took longer than usual, so we missed our ferry to Rock Island, and had to wait two hours for the next one. Had it been the last voyage of the day we’d have been out of luck. The next day we arrived 12 minutes early for the first ferry going back to the mainland, but the vehicle in front of us was the last to fit on the ferry. So we had to wait for an overflow ferry to be dispatched. Also, reserve your remote sites early if you’re visiting on a weekend. I booked a month in advance for an October stay and most of the remote sites were already taken. I imagine that it’s even harder to get a site in the summer.
Cell reception: Certainly a Zero Bars Destination for the carrier that I use, and I doubt that anyone would get service on the eastern side of the island. Correct me in the comments if I’m wrong.
*Docents can apply to live at the lighthouse free of cost for a week in exchange for providing tours of the lighthouse between the hours of 10:00 AM and 4:00 PM daily. (I’m very tempted to do this one year!!)
** Courtesy among backpackers is wonderful, and here are a few tips that can make you a great part of the backpacking culture: 1. Leave interesting artifacts that you find while hiking at conspicuous places around backcountry campsites so future backpackers can enjoy them too (don’t take them home); 2. Leave some kindling and firewood for the next group; 3. Clean up all garbage around the campsite, even if it isn’t your garbage.
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