Hiking Rock Island State Park

Rock Island is a Wisconsin State Park that is set off to the north of Washington Island in Lake Michigan, and both Islands are just north of the tip of Door County. They are part of a chain of islands known as the Grand Traverse Islands between Michigan's Garden Peninsula and Wisconsin's Door Peninsula. Rock Island can be reached via a car ferry to Washington Island from Northport followed by a passenger ferry from Jackson Harbor.

There's much to do on Rock Island including camping, hiking, swimming, exploring historic architecture, boating, fishing, and snowmobiling. Of these, the best way to see all that the island offers is to hike the 5.75-mile Thordarson Loop around the perimeter of the island. This route takes hikers past the Viking Boathouse, campgrounds, beach, backpacking sites, water tower, and Pottawatomie Lighthouse. The Thordarson Loop is an easy two-track footpath that gains elevation gently. It is named in honor of Chester Thordarson, an inventor who owned the island before it became a state park in1965.

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The Viking Boathouse - Rock Island State Park WI
The Viking Boathouse - Rock Island State Park WI


There's a secret state park in Wisconsin. It doesn't appear on any of today's state park maps. Most DNR officials are unaware of its existence. Like a ghost, it has vanished below the blanket of fog shrouding Death's Door channel. There's no road to it, no bridge, no ferry boat or landing. But, there it is in plain view, seen by thousands of summer tourists who glide past it into Detroit Harbor on the Washington Island Ferry.

It is Grand Traverse Island State Park on Detroit Island, five plots of land holding the shore of Pedersen's Bay. It is an official Wisconsin State Park, established in 1978, part of an ambitious project to connect the islands between Door Peninsula in Wisconsin and the Garden Peninsula in Michigan, laying the groundwork for the proposed Grand Traverse Islands National Park. Today, if you can reach Detroit Island, you can visit the state park to hunt or trap its 24 acres.

A grand traverse (la grande traverse) is a long journey along a chain of islands between peninsulas in the Great Lakes. There's a grand traverse in Lake Superior, one in Michigan by Traverse City, and the Grand Traverse between Upper Michigan and the Door Peninsula. In the days when French explorers were first penetrating into the mysterious American continent, the passages between each of these islands were exceptionally dangerous to navigate. Even today, the journey is perilous. Death's Door holds more shipwrecks beneath its waters than any other place in the United States.

At the end of Labor Day weekend in 2019, I decided to make my own grand traverse, to a more well known Wisconsin park, Rock Island State Park. To reach it I drove to the tip of the Door Peninsula, onto a car ferry to Washington Island, then across the island to a passenger ferry. The journey, a series of progressive steps with each one taking me further away from civilization, until finally, I arrived on the concrete dock of an island of curious riddles, mysteries, and lonesomeness as though I had crossed over, delivered to an underworld.

The passenger ferry left the dock, and as I watched it disappear below the crests of six-foot waves I knew I was trapped there, at least for the next 24 hours. No cars, no cell service, no street lights or streets to light; just the ever-present dashing of waves against the rock escarpments of this Rock Island.

The loneliness of this retreat was jolting as I had just celebrated the summer holiday weekend in rambunctious style with 36 of my relatives camped at Peninsula State Park. I am not particularly fond of traveling alone. I refuse to backpack alone. I would be bored to tears in camp, and surely would be kept awake through the night by every scratching of a field mouse foraging in the leaf litter.

But, I am glad that my first exploration of Rock Island was alone. With nearly every distraction stripped away from me, I was able to connect in a personal way, to feel the presence of this remarkable place.


The island breathes, and it is alive in the way that The Overlook was alive in Steven King's Shinning. As I arrived on its shore I felt compelled to whisper my thoughts in my own mind, lest the island steal them from me.

Arrivals to Rock Island are met with the imposing fortress called the Viking Boathouse. It is not a boathouse. It is a castle. A castle with intricate stone escarpments. It rises from the lake like a towering pipe organ, at once both majestic and ghastly, playing a long vibrato baseline with discordant overtones. It doesn't belong this far separated from populations that might fill it with festivity. But, it belongs nowhere else. It waits. It sleeps and waits for the joyous masquerade it was built for but was never staged. In its architecture and details, you can see the dream of its creator, you can nearly hear the waltzes of a triumphal ball that were never danced.

The Viking Boathouse - Rock Island State Park WI
The Viking Boathouse - Rock Island State Park WI

The curious boathouse sets the tone for your stay on the island. Inquisitive features, the manifestations of a creative genius, are implanted in the terrain where they would seem a natural fit ... if this island were a literary fantasy.

These are the pieces of a dream by Chester Thordarson, a previous owner of the island who made his wealth inventing Victorian era electrical gadgets. After inspecting a few of his creations it is not difficult to imagine what kind of man he was, gloriously optimistic and haunted by mythology. Perhaps he shared a trait in common with our current generations, nostalgia for the glory of a past that never truly existed. Yet, like the other great men of his time, he willed this idea into existence and succeeded in articulating its peculiar essence.

I made my way towards my campsite, down what are ironically called avenues and roads. They are footpaths. You can borrow a cart from the boathouse to cart coolers and lawn chairs to your campsite. But, unfortunately, you cannot borrow a donkey to pull your cart.

I had some trouble interpreting the road signs. Before I found my site, I had inadvertently started hiking out towards the backpacking sites. After turning around I found a small cemetery bounded by a white fence. Chester Thordarson's final resting place is here tucked behind a sand dune.

I reached my site, number 13, and was initially disappointed. The entirety of the site was covered in soft sand, and it would be a challenge to pitch my tent which requires staking to take form. But, to the side, among some bushes was a small area where my guy lines could reach enough solid soil to get it partially staked. Most of the campsites were available this Tuesday afternoon, and after seeing some of them I regretted reserving this beach site. But, my appreciation for #13 grew later in the day.


After pitching camp, I set out on the 6-mile Thordarson loop which circumnavigates the island. It is an easy trail on a wide two-track road with subtle elevation change. The trail first took me to the beach which is an outstanding sand dune that slopes down into the water. This beach is ideal and the sun was high, yet not a soul had staked a claim on it. Hardly a footprint littered its pristine scenery.

Next, I found a pair of backpacking sites beneath a dense stand of red pine and cedar. These sites are enormous and can handle a large troop of campers. A long path to them is bordered with bleached stones brought up from the shore. The pair of white lines curving through the pine needles made the trail seem more like a magical garden path than a wilderness side trail.

The Thordarson Loop continues around to the north side of the island, keeping a distance from the shoreline. But, no matter how far from the shore it meanders, you are never beyond the sound of the crashing waves. Like the ticking of the second hand on an old clock, the waves keep time on this island, but at a slower tempo.

A stone tower rose above the green forest at a bend in the trail. This is another of the island's immense architectural wonders. I learned later that it was intended to be a water tower, but it is positioned clear across the island from the other structures. It is constructed with the finest stonework, arches, and a hearth. Though it may be called a water tower, I could see that it was intended otherwise. It is like the Sphinx, an architectural monument evoking mythology. Now, I understand it. It is a fairy tale. A story from the Brothers Grimm. Standing below it I called out, "Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair, that I might climb thy golden stair". Sadly, a rope of blond hair did not swing down from the tower window. Hmm, its magic must be asleep.

Water Tower at Rock Island State Park WI
Water Tower at Rock Island State Park WI

As I continued the loop I was offered several side trails to the interior of the island. I avoided them, as by this time I was beginning to imagine myself encountering a circle of witches dancing around a cauldron in the deeper woods. I had no desire to be cauldron-born that day.

I pressed on towards the lighthouse. Before arriving at the light I stumbled on another cemetery with a low white painted wood fence. I stopped there and took a seat on the fence, enjoyed a snack and a drink of water. The first lightkeeper, who would have been the first lightkeeper in the State of Wisconsin is buried at this small cemetery. For a moment I imagined what the scene at this cemetery was 100 years ago when a funeral march led out to this place for a burial. But, I couldn't consider grief at the time. My view from the cemetery fence looked down a long hill to a cliff falling to the vast blue channel of Lake Michigan beyond. It was too sunny and too peaceful a scene to concern myself deeply with what may have happened here in the past. But, what a fantastic final resting place!

The Pottawatomie Lighthouse, as alluded to, is the first lighthouse built in Wisconsin. This is yet another finely crafted construction on this island which is now abandoned. It once had the important purpose of being a fire by the night, a welcoming beacon at the entrance to Green Bay and the abundant Wisconsin territory beyond. In our modern world of GPS guided navigation, lighthouses often remain shining, if for no other reason, than to stand as a reminder that we are rarely navigating this oftentimes dark world alone.

Before the trail finds its way back to the Viking Boathouse, there is one last mystery, one last riddle that won't unwind. I came upon what Thordarson called the Gate to the North, an odd construction that doesn't match the other solid stone structures of Rock Island. This gate was made of a large cedar log that appears like a weather vane or an oversized divining rod that is buttressed by a pair of arched limbs. Suspended from the center of the gate is a carriage, or perhaps a cradle? Was this a favorite tree which fell and was reconfigured into a weird picture frame? If it is a gateway, then to what or where? Is it a portal to another dimension? I do not know as the area below it is fenced off and I didn't bother to jump it for the sake of passing through the gate. Somehow, I feel that I may have missed a key intended experience as I strolled down the lush hill to return at the Viking Boathouse.

Gate of the North - Rock Island State Park WI


I had returned to my campsite, where I had my shoes off and was enjoying the cool soft sand between my toes as I set up for cooking dinner. The sun was just starting to fall away in the evening hours, but it still beamed and glistened off the lake waves. I decided to get a small fire going to warm up by after returning from a short swim. After the flames took hold, I bounded off a few steps to the beach and strolled into the ice cold water. The entire bay is shallow, and I had to wade out a far distance before I get enough depth to swim some laps.

Getting the fire started ahead of the swim was a great idea. Campers have assembled stacked stone wind shields around the fire pits, and they act like a reflector fire, focusing the warmth out towards where I had dug myself a recliner in the sand. Now I was feeling very relaxed, warm, and at ease.

After drying off, I took a barefoot walk down the beach to fetch driftwood for the fire. I came to the end of the beach where a small stone cliff rose up. I was inspecting the campsite on top of the cliff and made a note to myself to reserve that one next time I returned. Before I turned back, something caught my eye. Was it a face?

Oh yes, it was two faces at least. Faces and figures were carved into the stone in deep relief. The figures were clearly meant to represent native people, but as I studied them I realized that this wasn't the type of carving or drawing style that is typical of American Indians. These were European interpretations of ancient petroglyphs. Oh, that Chester Thordarson! Is there any place on this island that he has not hidden one of his fairy tale riddles?

Stone Carving of a man with a tomahawk at the beach by campsite #13
Stone Carving of a man with a tomahawk at the beach by campsite #13

I returned to my campsite with armfuls of sun-bleached driftwood, dehydrated a backpacker's meal, and then got comfy with a bottle of Cabernet which I drank directly from the bottle as I parked myself in front of the fire with a clear view of the Lake Michigan horizon. Now, I was completely relaxed.

The peaceful scene had me remembering back to the hundreds of times I had drunk bottles of wine next to beach fires and the many friends who joined me. I had grown up near Lake Michigan, and my friends and I had a private and secret place where we held weekly bonfires on the beach. That place we used to haunt has since been turned into Lion's Den County Park near Port Washington. That is where I started my tradition of sharing a bottle of wine beside an evening fire and then collecting in the used bottle a sample of sand and water.

Over the years I had collected bottles of water from across the United States, and even abroad. I had water from the Atlantic, Pacific, Baltic Sea, Gulf of Mexico, Mississippi River, each of the Great Lakes, and a dozen more inland lakes and streams. One day when I was moving I was carrying a cardboard box with all of the bottles inside and the bottom broke open. The bottles crashed down onto a concrete porch stair, and my collection of waters of the world exploded in a foul-smelling splash.

I would not bother to collect the sand and water of Rock Island beach on this occasion. But, like those beach fires of my younger years, I made frequent moonlit walks up and down the beach to search for driftwood. There is always a bounty of driftwood on the Lake Michigan shores, and this driftwood burns in the most sacred way - immediately producing a tall smokeless flame. On my walks, I took time to stand in awe beneath the stars which are so bright over Rock Island that I could read a book by their light. The cloudy band of the Milky Way showed brighter and, well, milkier than I have ever seen it before, without a cloud in the sky obscuring it.

Without anyone to talk to, I retired early and drunk from wine. The battery in my phone ran down, and I was now left without any way to tell time, let alone connect to the world. This would make it difficult to arrive at the dock in time to meet the ferry for my return trip in the morning. Disappointed with myself for not bringing a spare battery pack I crawled into my tiny backpacker's tent and promptly fell to sleep.


I am not sure what time it was when I woke. But an unusual sound had invaded my drunken dreams. Then suddenly my eyes flashed open and I hurtled out of my tent. Through the day and evening, I had grown accustomed to the slow pace of the lake waves. Now they had changed into a fierce bellowing blow.

I ran out onto the beach, and the beach was nearly gone, with the waves now thundering to shore and lapping at the wooded edge of the forest which was only a few feet from my tent. The stars still shown on the peripheries of the sky, but a massive dark cloud maneuvered above like a dreadnought coming to battle. The cloud pulsed with hidden lightning bolts from within it. The wind ripped towards shore in a way that I have rarely experienced, not in gusts, but in one long uninterrupted blow that gradually picked up speed and power.

I huffed at the idea that I would have to endure the whole night of a storm in a tent, but then crawled back in and attempted to come to grips with it. I think, on account of the wine, I even fell back asleep as the rain began to pelt the campsite. But, it wasn't long before the lightning and thunder became truly overpowering.

A person is 20,000 times more likely to be struck by lightning than be attacked by a bear. As the lighting and thunder tore open the sky around me and my tent flexed under the strain of the wind I asked myself, 'If I saw a pack of bears 20,000 strong bearing down on me, would I run and seek shelter?' Why, yes, yes I would.

I wasn't getting any sleep at this point anyway, so I donned my rain gear and headlamp and went in search of some open building to hole up in. These types of ferocious storms move quickly, and I'd probably only have to wait for an hour before it died down to rain. I headed toward the collection of buildings by the dock. I didn't need my headlamp, the lightning was so frequent that I had no trouble finding my way along the trails.

The Viking Boathouse rose into view, its blackened silhouette an ominous and haunting presence set against the flickering storm clouds. Its doors were locked, as were the doors of another building. There was a large old picnic shelter pagoda, but it was fenced off to an extent that I couldn't jump it easily. I took a few minutes to hang out in the restroom building. But, I didn't care to sit there on the concrete floor. So, I resigned myself to returning to my tent. My late-night adventure had only served to bring water into my tent. I hid under my sleeping bag, and eventually, sleep came.

When I woke, it was to the heat of the sun baking my tent. As I scrambled out to the beach to see the sun, I was presented with the most magical scene. Heavy blue clouds in the distant sky hovered over the glistening waves that ripped to shore. Flocks of gulls and smaller birds flew patterns in the sky. The sun was already three-quarters high. I quickly checked the adjacent campsites where other campers had spent the night and they were cleaned up and abandoned. I had probably missed my ferry boat.

I quickly picked up camp and set out for the boathouse. No one was around to ask the time, and there were no clocks in the building. With a watchful eye on the dock, I explored the other buildings and found a shelter building that was set up like a boy scout camp cabin. It had two levels, benches, tables, a cast-iron stove, board games, books, and random items people had found along their hikes on the island. Had I found this place the night before I would have taken up residence.

A few people started to gather around the dock, and I took that as a sign that a ferry must be approaching, but it was at least another hour before it arrived. I stood beside the bunch of campers seeking to exit the island, and we watched the ferry's approach. It struggled mightily in the waves, often disappearing completely from view. When it had managed to dock, no one on shore approached, and the captain shouted out, "Well does anyone want to go back?" We were all frightened to get on board after seeing the heavy boat nearly toppled over by gale winds.

As promised, it was a harrowing ride back to Washington Island. and then there was one more ferry ride to the mainland. I kid you not, this actually happened. There is only one radio station that you can dial into on Washington Island, and it is a classic country station. As I drove onto the car ferry, the song The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald broadcast its somber chords over the radio.

I climbed to the top deck of the car ferry, out of view of my car so I wouldn't be able to watch when it was washed overboard. Even in the center of this massive boat, I had to cling to a stanchion to keep myself from being thrown about. As the ferry crashed through waves it sent splashes four stories high that splattered down to the third deck. The ferry took an unusual route, heading out into Lake Michigan till it reached Pilot Island and then returned on the far side of Plum Island.

It was only a few days after that I read a news report that a November-like gale had come early in September with winds at 29 knots and lake waves reaching 10-14 feet high. Hats off to the captains of the Washington Island Ferry for safely delivering us through Death's Door.

At that particular moment, I wasn't eager to return to any of the islands off Door County or even think about them. But, now that a few months have passed, I think back to this one eventful day I spent on that peculiar island in Lake Michigan, and I think I will long remember this one-day adventure at Rock Island.

A campsite on the edge of Rock Island
A campsite on the edge of Rock Island

Thordarson Loop at Rock Island State Park

580 AMSL
825 AMSL
891 FT
892 FT

Rock Island State Park Walk-In Campground; Backpacking sites

Directions and Trail Map

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Address for your GPS: 1924 Indian Point Rd, Washington Island, WI 54246
| coordinates: 45.400706, -86.857145 |

From Milwaukee 4.5 Hours
From Madison 5 Hours
From Green Bay 3 Hours
From Wausau 4 Hours
From Minneapolis 7 Hours
From Chicago 7 Hours


The Viking Boathouse - Rock Island State Park WI
The Viking Boathouse - Rock Island State Park WI

Along the Thordarson Loop at Rock Island State Park
Along the Thordarson Loop at Rock Island State Park
Rock Island State Park WI
Rock Island State Park WI

Karfi Ferry - Passenger Ferry from Washington Island to Rock Island
Karfi Ferry - Passenger Ferry from Washington Island to Rock Island

Karfi Ferry - Passenger Ferry from Washington Island to Rock Island
Karfi Ferry - Passenger Ferry from Washington Island to Rock Island

The Viking Boathouse - Rock Island State Park WI
The Viking Boathouse - Rock Island State Park WI

Cemetery where Chester Thordarson is laid to rest
Cemetery where Chester Thordarson is laid to rest

Main Beach Area at Rock Island State Park WI
Main Beach Area at Rock Island State Park WI

Along the Thordarson Loop at Rock Island State Park
Along the Thordarson Loop at Rock Island State Park

Trail to Backpacking Sites A&B
Trail to Backpacking Sites A&B

Along the Thordarson Loop at Rock Island State Park
Along the Thordarson Loop at Rock Island State Park

Along the Thordarson Loop at Rock Island State Park
Along the Thordarson Loop at Rock Island State Park

Along the Thordarson Loop at Rock Island State Park
Along the Thordarson Loop at Rock Island State Park

Pottawatomie Lighthouse - Rock Island State Park
Pottawatomie Lighthouse - Rock Island State Park


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