Belle Isle Park is one of the more unique state parks in Michigan. The 982-acre island park is situated in the middle of the Detroit River between Michigan and Canada. A Detroit gem dating back to the 1880s, Belle Isle Park features a number of significant historic structures. These include an aquarium, conservatory, fountain, old police station, and stables. Newer attractions include a nature center and maritime museum.
Belle Isle is 2.5 miles long. More than half of the island is covered by three lakes, a lagoon and 230 acres of forested wetlands that are home to a variety of birds and small animals.
History of Belle Isle
The city of Detroit tasked Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York’s Central Park, to design a public gathering and recreational space while maintaining Belle Isle’s natural state. Due to budgetary constraints and differing opinions, Olmstead’s whole vision was unfortunately never realized. However, his canal system and pedestrian-oriented Central Avenue were completed.
Original visitors to the island were Detroit’s elite. They came for the Detroit Yacht Club and Detroit Boat Club or to enjoy the beach and Belle Isle Casino (not the gambling kind – it was designed for meetings, entertainment, and dancing.) Belle Isle also was the original home of the Detroit Zoo and the Bicycle Pavilion (both now defunct and sadly abandoned).
Today, the City of Detroit officially owns Belle Isle Park and leases it to the state of Michigan to operate as a state park. The DNR manages the daily operations while the Belle Isle Conservancy focuses on awareness, historical preservation, and fundraising efforts.
Let’s now take a look at all the places to visit and explore on Belle Isle
(NOTE: In 2021, due to COVID-19, please check the Belle Isle website for exact operating hours of each attraction before visiting.)
Belle Isle’s Aquarium has the honor of being America’s oldest aquarium. The aquarium was built in 1904 and designed after those in Europe. While it may seem relatively small now, it was a marvel in its time, featuring green opaline glass tiles on the ceiling to give the visitor the feeling of being underwater. It was the first aquarium to breed freshwater stingrays, which are still on display today.
Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory
Originally known as the Horticulture Building, the city renamed it after Anna Scripps Whitcomb who donated her 600-piece orchid collection in the 1950s. The Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory has five distinct rooms. Each room features different plant life: Cactus House, the Fernery, Tropical House, Palm House, and the Show House. Located outside the conservatories are lily ponds and perennial gardens. It has the distinction of being the oldest continually running conservatory in the United States.
Dossin Great Lakes Museum
The Dossin Great Lakes Museum features more than 300 years of maritime history. It showcases the story of the Great Lakes, with a special emphasis on Detroit’s role in industrial and maritime history. Exhibits include Built By the River, The Gothic Room, the Miss Pepsi Hydroplane, and the S.S William Clay Ford Pilot House. A special treat is the bow anchor from the infamous freighter Edmund Fitzgerald.
Ari trying to dock the freighter without crashing – harder than it looks!
Belle Isle Nature Center
The Detroit Zoological Society operates The Belle Isle Nature Center to promote educational environmental experiences. On display are many varieties of native Michigan wildlife such as reptiles, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates. Visitors can get an insider’s view of a working beehive and watch native and migratory birds through the observation window.
James Scott Memorial Fountain
One of the most famous landmarks on Belle Isle is the James Scott Memorial Fountain, completed in 1923. It features 109 white marble water outlets shaped like turtles, lions, and other artistic figures.
Other Belle Isle Activities
In addition to experiencing the historic structures and attractions, Belle Isle also is popular for family reunions, birthday parties, and graduation open houses. Many picnic areas with grills and pavilions are available to rent for these types of occasions.
During certain times of the year, a large playscape and giant slide also are fun for kids of all ages. Biking is a popular activity, as are the athletic fields for baseball games and other sports.
There are no restaurants on the island, but during the summer visitors can purchase concessions from local food trucks. Bring plenty of water and sunscreen if you visit in the summer.
We have plenty more adventures to come, so subscribe to this blog and our YouTube channel. We have a video about Belle Isle State Park here. You can follow us on Instagram, our Facebook page, and Twitter. Plus, you can see each of the parks we visited on this interactive Google Map. You also can keep track of our activities on social media with the hashtag #hikecampgo.