Rock Island State Park
Updated: Jun 3, 2022
Getting out to Rock Island State Park is, in my opinion, a logistical nightmare. For this reason, Lucky and I decided to tackle this park first during our Door County week. My normal logistics expert, my friend Angela, wasn’t along on this trip, so it was up to Lucky and me to figure everything out on our own.
First, we had to drive from Peninsula State Park up to Northport to catch the ferry out to Washington Island. This is an uncomplicated drive on highway 42, but I always feel uncertain driving someplace new for the first time even when the directions and road are relatively straight forward.1 After all, Lucky isn’t much of a co-pilot; his navigation skills are for shit. We timed it out so that we’d arrive at Northport in time to catch the 10 am ferry to Washington Island, and then I thought we’d take the 11 am boat out to Rock Island. I had poured over the maps, directions, and time tables, and I thought my plan was perfect.
It was not. The attendant put my hubris in check when she issued me a round-trip ticket departing on the 10 am Washington Island Ferry and a round-trip ticket catching the noon Karfi Ferry to Rock Island. Noon?! Apparently, I misread the time table or had forgotten what month it was. Whatever the case, now we were going to have an hour to kill on Washington Island. And while killing time on Washington Island isn’t a hardship, given the complicated logistics and expensive ferry rides, I wanted Lucky and I to have as much time as possible to explore Rock Island.
According to the DNR, Rock Island offers around 10 miles of hiking, and I was determined to get in as many miles as possible before the final boat left the island at 4:15 pm. So on the ferry ride from Northport, around Plum Island and across Death’s Door, I tried to revise my imperfect plan. First, I selected which points of interest we’d try to visit on Washington Island in the one hour we had to kill. Then, I tried to determine, based on our average hiking pace and the ferry schedule, how many miles Lucky and I should realistically try to hike once we got to Rock Island. I knew that if my planning failed again, we could get stuck on one of these islands overnight, and neither Lucky nor I were interested in being marooned. While I crunched the numbers and plotted the course, Lucky soaked up some sun in the passenger seat.
We debarked on Washington Island twenty minutes or so later, and I used the Visitor Center map to navigate us to the first point of interest—the lavender farm. I recently got really into lavender. After attending a hot yoga class where the instructor put a cold washcloth with a hint of lavender across our foreheads while we lay in shavasana, the scent no longer reminded me of DIY sachets in elderly people’s underwear drawers. Now I associate the scent with extreme relaxation, and I was excited to get some Washington Island lavender essential oil to help me unwind later that evening. I also picked up a special treat for Lucky: some dog biscuits made with edible lavender essential oil.
Once I’d secured our goodies from the lavender farm and taken some photos, we departed for our second point of interest, the famous Schoolhouse Beach. This beach is one of five similar sandless beaches in the world; the limestone rocks have been polished to smooth perfection courtesy of some glaciers. Now, removing the stones from the beach is a crime. The rocks were REALLY smooth. I took some photos and admired the panoramic view of Washington Harbor while balancing on the rocky beach and then headed back to the car. At this point, I decided to head for the Karfi Ferry dock, which is on the opposite side of the island as the Washington Island ferry terminal and spend whatever time we had left eating lunch.2
At the Karfi Ferry dock, I stopped into the park office to pick up some maps and ask the attendant for trail recommendations and dog-related park information. While Lucky and I waited for the Karfi, we watched some young park employees navigate the trash boat to the dock for unloading. I hadn’t thought about trash because most state parks have a “pack it in, pack it out” policy these days. But not this one. There are trash and recycling receptacles on the island. I suppose they continue to collect and haul out trash as a necessity? Would the alternative be an island literally littered with litter? Would visitors to the park be so disrespectful? So irresponsible? (Probably, sadly, yes.)
I couldn’t help but feel for these young park employees as they tried to fish a piece of wayward trash out of the water. It reminded me of my days picking up trash in the parking lots at the Milwaukee County Zoo. So many poop-filled diapers . . . . Finally, the Karfi pulled into the harbor and we joined a group of students and chaperones from the local school, a couple gentlemen heading out to camp for the week, and a few other couples on board. I was curious to see how Lucky would do on this smaller boat, but he was too preoccupied drooling over one of the couple’s lunches to even notice he was on a boat. Another passenger tried to call Lucky over so he could pet him, but Lucky was mesmerized by a submarine sandwich. I reassured the one who beckoned that it wasn’t personal; it never is when there’s food involved. So, while Lucky stared at a sandwich, I occupied myself with the view. It was serene and a bit somber—a feeling that only intensified as we disembarked on Rock Island and the other passengers quickly disappeared into the forest.
HIKING ROCK ISLAND
My revised plan took into account the park attendant’s recommendation to check out the lighthouse3 and our adjusted timetable. I decided to hike the Thordarson Loop Trail clockwise from the boathouse, since this would take us first to the lighthouse and then around the entire circumference of the island.4 At about 5 miles, I was certain Lucky and I could hike this trail and make it back with plenty of time to spare before the final boat to Washington Island, but I still found myself pushing the pace and being reluctant to linger along the trail. My haste was a combination of precaution and trepidation, as the further from the boathouse we got, the more palpable our isolation became.
The day was cool and cloudy, typical of early October in Wisconsin, and a strong wind was ganging up on the island with the waters of Lake Michigan. Together, they were a pair of formidable bullies. Even when out of view, we couldn’t escape their fury. The clash of water on rock was almost deafening and continuously demanding of our attention. I started to search my memories, trying to figure out why this sense of isolation and intimidation felt so familiar. I was finally able to attribute my déjà vu not to a physical experience, but to the fictional world of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.
As soon as the connection was made, it was as if Rock Island was Indian Island, and I might as well have been one of U.N.’s unsuspecting guests. I contemplated the island, pastoral and wild—beautiful yet scary. For the remainder of the time, I found myself considering one morose scenario after another. Standing along the edge of the cliff on the island’s northeast side, it struck me that someone could easily fall to their death and completely disappear, the waves consuming both their cry for help and their ragdoll body. Obsessively checking my watch against our progress, I mused on the Karfi captain’s casual comment that once the last boat of the day departs, there’s no way back to Washington Island until the next day. But the captain didn’t take a head count. There is no process for verifying everyone who came over on the Karfi returned, either that day or some subsequent day. And the whole time, the lake is taunting me, reminding me how small I am compared to the water, which might as well be an ocean. So Lucky and I walked faster.
Don’t get me wrong, our visit to Rock Island wasn’t all melancholy. Maybe we just started on the wrong side of the island. The stretch of trail between the water tower and the campground elevated my mood significantly with its towering pines and sandy beaches. But with only Lucky to talk to, it’s easy for me to get swept up in my imagination and find ways to entertain myself. In this case, those ways just happen to involve a murder mystery novel. But, I think there is value in contemplating our lack of power and control in nature—to recalibrate the WILD in wilderness. At times, I’ve found myself naively assuming I’m safe because I’m in a state park in Wisconsin. After all, it’s not like I’m in the backcountry of Alaska, on the side of a mountain at 14,000 ft. Then there are times, like this visit to Rock Island, when I’m reminded that just because I’m in Wisconsin, that doesn’t mean there is no danger. Just because I’m in a state park, that doesn’t mean nothing can go wrong.
Our quickened pace got us back to the boathouse with plenty of time to spare—more than an hour actually. We sat down by the water and ate a snack. I used the flush toilet near the dock, which I would highly recommend. Recently built, it has an industrial meets country style to it, very posh as far as state park toilets go. We looked at the exteriors of the old stone buildings, and I dipped into the boathouse for a moment to escape the still persisting wind. But, I couldn’t leave Lucky outside unattended for long. I ended up passing the rest of the time laying on one of the benches that overlooks the water, huddled against the wind and eating gummy bears. As the boat’s departure got closer, other visitors began appearing out of the woods, finally assuaging our solitude.
The 4:15 pm Karfi left on time with some of the same people that came over to the island with us earlier. What about the others? Had they gone back on an earlier boat? Were they still on the island intentionally? Had they missed the boat? With no sandwiches to drool over, Lucky tried to get comfortable laying under the boat’s benches, and I watched as the island grew smaller and smaller as we bounced through the water.
They’ve timed it perfectly so if you take the final Karfi, you have just enough time to drive across Washington Island to make the last ferry back to Northport. I’m not kidding about perfectly. We went straight from the Karfi to the car, drove directly to the ferry terminal, and were there just in time to drive right on to the ferry. The wind and water were still on their tirade; waves smashed into the ferry and doused our windshield unrelentingly on the way back to Northport. Lucky did not like this at all.
Finally, back on the mainland, we headed back to the comfort of our pop-up camper. We skipped the campfire that night; I was too tired to fight with reluctant wood that would only be more reluctant in the windy conditions. Instead, I made a quick dinner on the gas burner, and then we climbed up on the comfy mattress, dabbed on a drop of lavender essential oil and drifted off to sleep.
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The entire time I was running around at the lavender farm and on the Schoolhouse beach, Lucky had to wait patiently in the car because dogs aren’t allowed in the lavender fields or on the beach. ☹ Needless to say, I enjoyed Washington Island more than Lucky did.
There were lots of obnoxious biting flies near the lighthouse. Spoke with some Rock Island regulars who informed me that the flies are frequently a problem by the lighthouse. They also said if the wind is blowing the wrong way, it blows all of the flies out of the woods and onto the beach! OH NO! The flies were really horrible. It would have been cruel to leave Lucky leashed to a picnic table while I went into the lighthouse, so I skipped the tour.
You are going to shell out more than $50 to get to Rock Island, so you better get as much in as you can and maximize your time there. Do the whole loop if you want the exercise and have time. If you don’t really care about lighthouses, skip it. Nothing exciting going on there in my opinion. If you fail at logistics and only have a limited amount of time, walk the Sandy Shore Line from the campground to the A/B hike in sites (and if no one is camping there at the moment, go and check the sites out!)