Rock Island State Park

The vehicle-free oasis of Rock Island State Park in Door County promises adventure, serenity, and a deep dive into natural beauty and historical intrigue. Join us as we explore the wonders and practical tips for making the most of your visit to this enchanting island.

Grid of images related to Rock Island State Park, including the boathouse, Pottawatomie Lighthouse, and a woman hiking. Superimposed text says: Rock Island State Park.

Things to Do in Rock Island State Park


campsite in Door County at night

Rock Island State Park offers a unique camping experience, with rustic, walk-in campsites that promise a true escape into nature. Accessible only by boat, these sites provide a serene setting under starlit skies, perfect for those seeking a bit of adventure and solitude.

Swimming at the Beach

Rock Island State Park Beach

The park’s sandy beaches are a haven for swimmers and sunbathers alike. The clear waters of Lake Michigan invite you to dive in and enjoy a refreshing swim, with gentle waves making it a delightful spot for families.


Picture showing a man handling a walleye and also the walleye teeth.

For angling enthusiasts, Rock Island is a prime spot for fishing, especially known for its smallmouth bass. Whether you’re casting from the shore or from a boat, the waters around Rock Island are teeming with fish, offering a rewarding experience for both novice and experienced anglers.

Visiting the Boathouse

Picture of the boathouse at Rock Island State Park Door County Wisconsin

The historic boathouse, built by Chester Thordarson in the early 20th century, is a must-visit. This architectural marvel, crafted with local stone, provides a picturesque backdrop for photos and a glimpse into the island’s rich history.

Visiting the Pottawatomie Lighthouse

Picture depicting the Pottawatomie Lighthouse on Rock Island in Door County, Wisconsin

The Pottawatomie Lighthouse, Wisconsin’s oldest, stands as a beacon of history and offers guided tours that tell tales of its past keepers and their lives on the island. Climbing up the lighthouse offers panoramic views of the surrounding waters and landscapes.


woman hiking in Door County

Rock Island’s trails wind through lush forests and open onto scenic vistas, making hiking here a truly enchanting experience. The trails are well-maintained, suitable for walkers of all skill levels, and are a perfect way to explore the island’s diverse flora and fauna.


Grid of images depicting a kayak tour at Death's Door Bluff County Park in Door County, Wisconsin.

Kayaking around Rock Island offers a splendid opportunity to see the shoreline from a different perspective. Paddle through tranquil waters, explore hidden coves, and even circle the entire island for a full day’s adventure on the lake.

History of Rock Island State Park

Rock Island State Park is steeped in history, from its early indigenous inhabitants to its transformation into a beloved state park. The island’s landmarks, like the Pottawatomie Lighthouse and Chester Thordarson’s boathouse, tell stories of a past era.

Pottawatomie Lighthouse

The Pottawatomie Lighthouse, also known as the Rock Island Light, is the oldest lighthouse in Wisconsin. It first shone its light in 1836 to guide ships safely through the perilous waters of Lake Michigan. The lighthouse was rebuilt in 1858 and served as a beacon for navigation until it was decommissioned in the 1950s. Today, it has been restored and is open for tours, offering visitors a glimpse into the life of a lighthouse keeper in the 19th century.

The Boathouse and Chester Thordarson

The boathouse on Rock Island is another iconic structure, built by Icelandic immigrant Chester Thordarson after he purchased a large portion of the island in the early 1900s. Thordarson was a successful inventor and entrepreneur, and his love for Rock Island drove him to create a private retreat complete with a magnificent boathouse. Constructed using locally sourced stone, the boathouse today stands as a testament to Thordarson’s vision and craftsmanship, featuring intricate woodwork and Norse-inspired carvings.

Becoming a State Park

Rock Island transitioned to a state park in 1965 when the Wisconsin State Park System purchased the island from Thordarson’s heirs. The acquisition was aimed at preserving the natural beauty and historical significance of the island, allowing the public to enjoy and learn from its rich heritage. Since then, Rock Island State Park has become a popular destination for those looking to explore its trails, camp under the stars, and delve into the fascinating history that the island has to offer.

Getting to Rock Island State Park

Reaching Rock Island State Park is part of the adventure, given its unique location and the journey required to get there. Whether you’re an experienced boater or planning to use the ferry services, each option offers its own experience of the surrounding beauty.

By Private Boat

For those with their own boats, it is possible to travel directly to Rock Island. However, this option is recommended only for well-outfitted and experienced boaters due to the potentially treacherous waters around the island. Navigating these waters requires skill and a good understanding of local conditions to ensure a safe passage.

By Ferry

Most visitors will find that taking the ferry is the most accessible and safest way to reach Rock Island. The journey begins with a ferry ride to Washington Island. Once you arrive on Washington Island, you’ll need to travel across the island, which can be done by car, bike, or on foot, to reach the second ferry terminal located at Jackson Harbor.

From Jackson Harbor, a second ferry takes you directly to Rock Island. This ferry, known as the Karfi, operates seasonally and provides a scenic ride to your final destination. It’s important to check the ferry schedules in advance as they can vary by season, and the Karfi does not operate outside the summer months.

Planning your trip to Rock Island State Park carefully will ensure that you enjoy not only the destination but also the unique journey that takes you there.

Cost to Visit Rock Island State Park

Visiting Rock Island State Park offers a unique opportunity to explore one of Wisconsin’s natural treasures without the usual state park vehicle sticker. This makes it an appealing destination for those looking to experience the beauty of a state park with minimal entrance fees.

No Vehicle Sticker Required

Unlike most other state parks in Wisconsin, Rock Island does not require a vehicle admission sticker. This is primarily because vehicles are not allowed on the island, ensuring that its natural landscapes remain pristine and undisturbed.

Ferry Costs

While you save on vehicle stickers, you will need to account for ferry costs to reach Rock Island. The journey involves two ferry rides: one to Washington Island and another from Washington Island to Rock Island. The cost of these ferries varies, so it’s advisable to check the current rates and schedules before planning your trip. Remember, these ferry fees are essential for getting to and from the park, as there are no bridges connecting the islands.

Planning your budget for a trip to Rock Island State Park should include these ferry costs, along with any other expenses such as food, camping fees, or special activities like guided tours. This will ensure a well-prepared and enjoyable visit to this unique island park.

Tips for Visiting Rock Island State Park

Exploring Rock Island State Park is an unforgettable adventure, but it requires a bit of planning and preparation. Here are some essential tips to help you make the most of your visit to this serene and historic island.

Pack Light and Right

Since Rock Island is only accessible by ferry and does not allow vehicles, it’s important to pack light. Bring only the essentials, including water, snacks, suitable clothing for changing weather, and a good map of the island. Lightweight, collapsible items are especially handy.

Plan Your Ferry Trips

Timing is crucial when visiting Rock Island. Make sure to check the ferry schedules for both legs of your journey (to Washington Island and then to Rock Island) well in advance. Remember, the Karfi ferry to Rock Island operates seasonally and has limited daily runs, so plan to arrive early to secure your spot.

Explore on Foot

Prepare to explore the island on foot. Comfortable walking shoes are a must as the island offers several trails ranging from easy walks to more challenging hikes. The trails offer stunning views and lead to historic sites like the Pottawatomie Lighthouse and the Thordarson Boathouse.

Respect the Environment

Rock Island is a pristine natural habitat. Help keep it that way by following Leave No Trace principles. Pack out everything you bring in, stay on marked trails to protect native plants, and use designated areas for camping and fires.

Stay Informed about Weather Conditions

Weather on Lake Michigan can change rapidly. Check the forecast regularly before and during your visit to avoid being caught in bad weather, especially if you plan to kayak or use a private boat.

Book Campsites Early

If you plan to camp on Rock Island, be aware that campsites can fill up quickly, especially during peak summer months. Reserve your site well in advance to ensure you have a spot in one of the beautiful, secluded campsites the island offers.

By following these tips, your visit to Rock Island State Park will be safe, enjoyable, and filled with the best experiences the island has to offer.

Other State Parks in Door County

Door County is home to several beautiful state parks, each offering its own unique natural features and recreational opportunities. Here’s a list of other state parks you can explore in the area:

Quick Facts


Phone: 1-920-847-2235

Directions: Two ferry rides are needed to reach Rock Island State Park. Take Wisconsin Highway 42 to its end at Northport, the tip of the Door County Peninsula. Take the Washington Island Ferry to Washington Island. The ferry carries people, vehicles, bicycles and freight. From the Washington Island ferry landing, travel across the island to the northeast side to the Rock Island ferry landing at Jackson Harbor. Leave your vehicle or bike there and take the passenger-only Rock Island Ferry to Rock Island. Visitors may take their boats to Rock Island, but caution is urged as Lake Michigan can be hazardous due to reefs and storms. There is a nightly fee for all boats mooring overnight at Rock Island.

The Rock Island Ferry runs Memorial Day Weekend through the second Monday in October.

Summary: Rock Island State Park

  • Rock Island State Park offers a tranquil escape with no vehicles allowed, providing a unique, serene environment for visitors looking to connect with nature.
  • Accessing the island requires a journey involving two ferry rides, with the final leg from Washington Island to Rock Island offering picturesque views of Lake Michigan.
  • The park is famed for its historical sites including the Pottawatomie Lighthouse and the Thordarson Boathouse, which highlight the island’s rich heritage and architectural beauty.
  • Visitors can engage in a variety of activities such as hiking, kayaking, fishing, and camping, each offering a way to fully immerse oneself in the island’s natural splendor.
  • Despite the absence of a vehicle admission fee, visitors should budget for ferry costs and plan their travel schedule carefully to match ferry timings, especially during peak season.
  • Tips for a successful visit include packing light, checking weather conditions regularly, respecting wildlife and natural habitats by adhering to Leave No Trace principles, and booking campsites in advance during busy months.
  • Door County also features other notable state parks like Peninsula State Park and Newport State Park, each offering distinct landscapes and activities, enriching the overall Door County experience.

About the author
Mark Stoneman
Hi! My name is Mark! I have been a resident of Door County for almost ten years now, and I'm glad to help you say "Hello" to Door County. I believe that travel helps to change lives, and because of that, I want to help you improve your life through travel.

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