Rock Island is one of the best-hidden secrets of the Door County Peninsula for the outdoor-minded. Over two million people visit Door County annually and less than 2% (only 30,000!) make it to Rock Island each year. It is a beautiful and mostly untouched island with hiking trails, a lighthouse, and the historic Thordarson Rock Island Boathouse which is a must see.
Getting to Rock Island takes some intention and planning. It requires two ferry rides so coordinating their schedules can eat into your time to explore the island. That is why I highly recommend you consider bringing a tent and camping overnight, but it’s not for the faint of heart. There are no stores or restaurants among the 40 primitive, walk-in tent sites on the uninhabited island, so you will need to be comfortable with sleeping overnight, disconnected from the rest of society. You can find a serene joy in that isolation, however, as living off the grid provides a type of rest we don’t often get to experience. You will need to bring in all supplies and equipment for your stay, except for firewood which is often available sold via lockbox on the island.
Although it is a great multi day location, it’s possible to enjoy it in a day. Our family’s last visit to Rock Island was part of a day trip to Washington Island. We made sure to catch an early Washington Island Ferry from Northport. The Washington Island Ferry is a first come first onboard ferry so get there 20-30 minutes prior to departure. After an early arrival to Washington Island, we then beelined our way to Jackson Harbor to catch the Karfi ferry. The Karfi is a 45-passenger ferry that operates from late May to early October and will take you and any gear you have over to Rock Island.
Once we arrived at Rock Island we set out to explore the island’s trails and the magnificent Thordarson Rock Island Boathouse. The boat house is named after Chester Thodarson who purchased the island in 1910 and constructed the boathouse. The Friends of Rock Island have a great write-up on his life and history of the island.
The blue limestone boathouse is magnificent. I was told that the lack of cars and other pollutants have helped preserve the brightness of the stone. The boathouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The grand hall inside is nearly as stunning as the outside with a giant white oak chandelier that must be nearly 10 feet tall and six feet wide that has horns from buffalo adorning it. There is also a walk-in fireplace that our entire family was able to stand within. Etched on the mantel are the words: “Fire is one of the best things for the sons of men and so is the sign of the sun if a man manages to keep health and live virtuously.” The lower level of the boathouse could house two 50-foot yachts.
The island has over 10 miles of trails to explore and three geocaches to find. We decided to hike for a bit and knock out a geocache during our visit. We enjoyed seeing some deer and a variety of birds. On the northern shore of the island, you will find the Pottawatomie (Rock Island) lighthouse which was built and opened in 1937 and aided sea passage between Rock Island (WI) and St. Martin Island (MI). You can tour the lighthouse from Memorial Day through Columbus Day from 10am to 4pm.
For our family, this trip lived up to the saying that “getting there is half the fun”. Our kids enjoyed riding both the car and Karfi ferries. After spending the better part of a day exploring Rock Island we took the Karfi back to Washington Island and stumbled into Jackson Harbor Soup and were blown away by their selection of soups, sandwiches and pies. I highly recommend stopping in there on your way to or from Rock Island!