Welcome to the Rock

Appears in the July 2022 issue.

Primitive or just plain perfect? Rock Island State Park in northern Wisconsin offers an adventure in old-school camping—and getting there is half the fun. 

The trip to this 912-acre island near the northern tip of the Door County peninsula requires a five-to-six-hour drive from Naperville followed by not one but two ferry rides—one on the vehicular ferry from Northport Pier in Door County to Washington Island and a second on the passenger-only Karfi ferry from Jackson Harbor on the northeast side of Washington Island to Rock Island. (You can leave your car by Jackson Harbor on Washington Island.) The Washington Island Ferry Line sells combo tickets covering both rides via Northport Pier (wisferry.com, $13.50—$25), with multiple trips scheduled per day on both crossings during the summer.  You can tote along your canoe, kayak, or standup paddleboard for an additional $10.

Once on Rock Island, campers are treated to a true back-to-nature experience—meaning fire rings, picnic tables, and vault toilets, but no flush facilities or vehicles—with many campsites situated just steps from gloriously uncrowded beaches. “Camping at Rock Island is serene and quiet,” says Tina Jacoby, president of the nonprofit Friends of Rock Island State Park. She has been volunteering and camping on the island for decades. “There are no cars, no bicycles, no traffic—just the sound of the waves hitting the rocky shores. And the night hiking and stargazing are second to none and only can be experienced in a few places in the Midwest. All in all, it’s a pretty remarkable island.”  

Places to explore include the massive stone boathouse constructed in 1929 by early settler Chester Thordarson, the historic Pottawatomie Lighthouse (Wisconsin’s oldest), and 10 miles of hiking trails, including the six-mile Thordarson Loop, which follows the island’s coastline and offers spectacular views. 

With only 40 campsites available, the summer and fall calendars on Rock Island book up quickly for weekends, so advance reservations through the Wisconsin State Park System Department of Natural Resources (wisconsin.goingtocamp.com) are encouraged. 

Pack wisely. Your campsite could be more than half a mile from the ferry dock, so whatever you bring has to be carried in or transported by small wagon. Also keep in mind that there is no camp store on the island, which means you’ll have to bring along almost everything you need, though firewood is available for sale onsite. You can find drinking water near the dock and boathouse. “Plan for everything,” Jacoby advises, “because it’s quite an ordeal—and an extra ferry ticket—to go back and get something you forgot in the car or to make a trip to the store.” 

Ferry Tips

Summer and fall are the height of tourist season in Door County, and Washington Island (en route to Rock Island) is a popular day trip for Door County crowds. With five boats running continuously, the ferry line does an admirable job of keeping up with the crush, but there may not always be room on the boat you planned to take, leaving your waiting for the next one, so pack some patience along with your bug spray.  

If you get hungry on Washington Island before your ferry trip to Rock Island or on the way home, hit up local favorite Jackson Harbor Soup for a hearty meal overlooking the water just steps from the dock.  

Photo courtesy of Friends of Rock Island State Park