Rock Island Trip Report & Photos

Rock Island State Park, Wisconsin

In mid-September my brother and I spent five days and four nights camped on Rock Island, at the extreme tip of Wisconsin’s Door County peninsula. First visited by LaSalle in the Griffon in 1679, and accessible only by boat, the entire island is now a state park, and offers hiking, historical interpretations, rustic camping, and boasts one of the first lighthouses on the Great Lakes.

We camped on Rock Island for four nights, spending one day paddling around the island and visiting the restored lighthouse, and making day trips to nearby Hog and Sand Islands.

The weather was fully cooperative, with warm and sunny days and cool nights. Winds were mild and only tossed us around a bit one day during the short two-mile crossing to Sand Island. Though normally quite placid, this part of Lake Michigan can get pretty violent in bad weather, due to its strong currents, fierce winds, and rocky shores. The matter is complicated by the numerous limestone cliffs and offshore shoals. This chain of islands is part of the Niagara Escarpment, an upthrust dolomite ridge stretching from the Midwest, up through Ontario, and over to Niagara. So there are often reefs in unexpected places, and the wind and currents can combine in strange ways. In fact, to reach nearby Washington Island from the mainland requires a ferry ride (or open water crossing, for the intrepid paddler) across Death’s Door, graveyard of hundreds of sailing ships.

Catch Lake Michigan in a fair mood though, and the 1.5-mile crossing from Washington Island to Rock is uneventful. The island offers pleasant paddling past sandstone cliffs, ten miles of hiking trails, and numerous historical exhibits. Be sure to join Paul the naturalist for any of his nature hikes or historical presentations.

Looks great place to paddle & explore
Thanks, Delphinus, for the great trip report and photos. Makes me want to visit that park sometime.

Thanks for the pics and report
Delphinus. I have been to Door County many times but have never been to Rock Island. Your pics made it seem like a wonderful place to paddle. Some of the shots, with the water eroding the rocks, looked a little bit like the Sea Caves in the Apostle Islands.

Thanks also for the other informative info you provided. I’ll have to put in on my list of places to paddle.

St. Martin Island
We went out to Rock Island, overnighted there and went over to St Martin Island and camped overnight there. we had intended on paddling to the UP, but the weather was to change not the next day, but the day after. We opted to head back to Rock Island and camped there. Nice place to visit. While going across the shipping lanes off Rock Island came close to a freighter which appeared out of the haze. Nice place to paddle!!

Nice pics

Glad to share.
Not exactly ‘wilderness’ but Rock Island is probably a great place for someone’s first overnight trip via canoe or kayak, assuming one is prepared to deal with potentially wild weather on big water. With no modern facilities, the island offers a quiet and restful escape, with lots of nice paddling in the area.

As with many of the Great Lakes, the shorelines in this area are of a very different geology from inland, with beautiful limestone and sandstone cliffs and bluffs.

johnhens, we were made to understand by the rangers on Rock that St. Martin’s island is privately owned, with a vigilant resident caretaker who will toss you off or notify the authorities. You didn’t have any problems with that? If not, that would indeed be a nice 3- or 4-day paddle trek, island-hopping from Rock all the way up to Upper Michigan’s Garden Peninsula.

Great report and photos
I’ve camped at Rock Island annually for the past 12 years, but just started kayaking the last 2. It is a fabulous day trip to circumnavigate, with the geology that you mention. I share the interest/intrigue with the concept of island hopping to St. Martin’s Island. I am also aware that it is privately owned, but wonder if one could camp there with permission. I’m glad you enjoyed Rock Island. I hope it remains the slightly-hidden jewel that it is today.

St Martin Island

We camped on the east side of the island. Did not realize it was private. We did not see anyone out there when we went, and as always, no one would have known anyone had been there when we left (LNT etc.)

I still would like to do the crossing, I guess we would have to camp On Little Summer or Summer Island. We talked to a commercial fisherman when we were kayaking/camping on the Garden Pennisula. He was quite helpful and informative about doing a crossing from UP to North Port or Washington Island.

Crossing the shipping lanes off Rock Island can be tricky if it gets hazy or foggy.