On a quick overnight trip to Detroit last month, we had just a few hours free to explore. We decided to visit Belle Isle Park, a Detroit icon and one of Michigan’s most unique state parks.
Detroit has a reputation as a gritty, industrial city. No one’s denying it. It think its blue-collar pedigree is part of the Motor City’s charm. It is true its economy took a hard hit over the last few decades. Talk to folks there today, and they’ll tell you Motown is working hard to make a comeback. Belle Isle, in the middle of the Detroit River, is one part of the city that’s well on its way.
Heading to Belle Isle, you exit the freeway and drive through the typical mix of businesses and older homes you find in a city’s downtown. There’s a lot of pavement, a lot of traffic, and a lot of noise. Then you turn onto the MacArthur Bridge, drive less than half a mile across the Detroit river, and find yourself on a serene island that looks and feels like it was conjured out of a George Seurat painting.
Our first stop was Sunset Point. It was 11 o’clock in the morning, so the sun was nowhere near making its decent. But it’s still a great place for an amazing view of the Detroit skyline. This swan apparently wanted his picture taken that day. He posed for us for several minutes.
The border between the U.S. and Canada lies in the river just south of the island. Yes, Canada is south of Detroit. Ponder that for a few moments. From Sunset Point you can also see the Ambassador Bridge that takes travelers from Detroit into Windsor, Ontario.
We continued our drive around the park and were lucky to see a freighter making its way down the river.
The Detroit River is part of the waterway that connects the Great Lakes to the Atlantic ocean. Freighters are a common sight near the city. Those of us from the other side of the state don’t see them much, so we were thrilled to view this one up close.
There aren’t any restaurants on the island, so we packed a picnic lunch. There are several picnic areas with a beautiful view of the river. In the summer, there are a few food trucks and vendors in the park, but we were there before Memorial Day, so everything wasn’t open yet.
The James Scott Memorial Fountain was one of the attractions not yet open.
You can see how gorgeous it is in this photo. They were doing some work on the 1925 fountain when we were there, and it was surrounded by scaffolding.
The other attraction that wasn’t open for the season, much to my youngest child’s disappointment, was the Giant Slide.
In season, the slide is open Wednesday through Sunday. Rides down cost one dollar each.
After lunch, we continued down the road to the Dossin Great Lakes Museum. The museum showcases the Great Lakes maritime history, in particular Detroit’s role. Anyone interested in boating will enjoy this museum. Visitors begin by learning about the area’s early history.
Then you move along into the modern era of big ships with a visit to the former wheelhouse of an actual boat.
Our next stop after the museum was the island’s Aquarium. Housed in a historic 1904 building designed by the famous architect Albert Kahn, the Belle Isle Aquarium is a true testament to Detroit’s current revitalization process.
In 2005, the nation’s oldest aquarium closed its doors due to lack of funding. It reopened in 2012 after being taken over by the newly formed Belle Isle Conservancy. Since then the number of visitors to the aquarium has tripled, and the building is undergoing a long-term restoration and preservation process. Fish from the Great Lakes and around the world are on display. Offerings at the aquarium continue to increase as improvements are made.
Our final stop on the island was the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory. Also Designed by Kahn and opened in 1904, it’s the longest continuously operating conservatory in the country. It features a display of exotic and rare plants from around the world.
Rain cut our visit short, and we didn’t make it to the Belle Isle Nature Center. It just gives us an excuse to visit again! At the nature center you’ll find several regional, small animals on display like turtles and toads. They also have fallow deer visitors can feed and interact with. The deer, not native to Belle Isle, have been on the island since they were introduced in the 1800s. The animals are managed by the Detroit Zoo. There are nature trails to enjoy as well.
There’s also a playground and a swimming beach on Belle Isle. It’s a wonderful place to spend time outdoors when you’re in Detroit.
We enjoyed Belle Isle very much. It’s such a neat experience to be close to the city, yet feel so faraway on this river island. The architecture and scenery are beautiful and the history fascinating.
I especially appreciate how Belle Isle has been revitalized. In danger of falling into serious disrepair because of lack of funding, the Belle Isle Conservancy was formed in 2012 to ensure it would be around for generations to come. In 2014, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources was brought on board, making the island a state park, bringing with it additional funding and resource management capabilities. As a Michigander, I’m proud of how this historic island has made a comeback. It’s a beacon of hope for the city of Detroit as it writes its own new chapter.
Detroit isn’t the same city is was a few years ago. There are new businesses, new cultural attractions and newly revitalized historical locations. It’s an exciting time to visit the Motor City. When you come, be sure to make Belle Isle one of your stops.
What to Know Before You Go to Belle Isle
To enter the island in a vehicle, you need a Recreation Passport. The one-time purchase of a Recreation Passport gives you admission to all state parks, marinas and campgrounds in Michigan and is good for a year. Michiganders can purchase a Passport for $11 when they renew their license plate. If you didn’t get a Passport with you license plate, you can purchase one at Belle Isle or any other state park site for $16. Out-of-state visitors can purchase a year-long Passport for $32 or a day pass for $9. If you walk, bike or take public transportation to Belle Isle, you do not need the Passport.
All the attractions on the island are free with the exception of the Giant Slide which costs $1 for each use.
Park hours are 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, all year.
Have you been to Belle Isle? What did you think? Tell us in the comments.