Belle Isle sits in the Detroit River between Michigan and Canada, but it is purely a U.S. icon and a historical park unlike many found in America today.
The 982-acre blast from the past fell into extreme disrepair for many years, but now, with Michigan oversight, it’s making a comeback and establishing itself as a gem of the state, if not the country.
All photos by Rene Cizio
The park harkens back to the olden days — in fact, it’s a remnant of the late 19th century. There are many historical and cultural treasures that will take you back in time. Left virtually untouched for many years, it’s now getting a good dusting off.
Created in 1845, the island is about 2.5 miles long, so a loop around is 5 miles. It’s great for a Sunday drive on a summer day, a jog, bike ride, or if you’re ambitious, a nice long walk. Don’t do it in a thunderstorm, as I’ve somehow managed to do multiple times.
The park features an aquarium, a conservatory, playgrounds, picnic areas, a yacht club, a nature center, a golf course, a beach, a lighthouse, a rowing club, and some of the best views of the Downtown Detroit skyline you can get without a boat. Indeed the only way to access the island is by boat or across the MacArthur Bridge from Detroit.
And I haven’t even mentioned the history.
Fun fact: In French, Belle Isle means “beautiful island.” It also used to be called “pig island” when traders stored their livestock there before it was developed. As with all things Detroit, it’s a contradiction.
Famous Landscape Architect
The island, once owned by the city of Detroit but now a Michigan State Park has a familiar layout to another well-known U.S. park. The wide boulevards, diverse landscaping, and abundance of cultural and physical activities are reminiscent of Central Park in New York City. It’s not surprising since they were both created by the same man.
Frederick Law Olmsted
Known as the father of landscape architects, Frederick Law Olmsted, who created Central Park, also created Belle Isle. He also designed the main area for Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, parks surrounding Niagara Falls, the area around the U.S. Capitol Building and many others.
Sadly, Belle Isle fell into serious disrepair from neglect under Detroit’s administration. But, in 2014 it became a state park, and the restoration work has been phenomenal once again, making it a jewel for the city of Detroit and American history.
Below are a few of the highlights of the park, but nothing compares to a day spent there than exploring it for yourself. I have found something new to admire with each visit.
Belle Isle Aquarium
If you like architecture, design and history, you can’t miss this Beaux Art beauty designed by Albert Kahn. The Belle Isle Aquarium is the oldest, and at one time largest, aquarium in the United States.
Mismanagement saw the aquarium neglected, run-down, and eventually closed. But the Belle Isle Conservancy had it reopened after several years, and restoration is still in effect.
Aside from the tanks filled with exotic fish and amphibians, the design itself is a sight to behold. Ornate arches made of opalescent and green glass tiles line the vaulted ceiling forcing you to look up and marvel. You can support the conversancy by purchasing a t-shirt or other item from the small gift shop.
Address: 3 Inselruhe Ave, Detroit, MI 48207
Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory
The conservatory and botanical gardens sit adjacent to the aquarium. Designed by Albert Kahn in 1902, they house a lily pond filled with huge koi fish, moss-covered limestone, and a massive glass dome filled with flora and fauna from around the world.
The Conservatory has several rooms filled with different types of plants. There are huge palms, orchids, cactus, bananas trees, oranges, figs and various flowering plants and outside, a formal garden.
Sad fact: The palms have to be cut down when they reach the 85-foot glass and touch the dome’s top. (but it doesn’t happen very often. The last time was in 1955.)
Address: 900 Inselruhe Ave, Detroit, MI 48207
Dossin Great Lakes Museum
This 16,000 square foot museum showcases over 300 years of the maritime history of the Great Lakes. And yes, that includes much about the well-known Edmund Fitzgerald (thank you, Gordon Lightfoot).
Did you know the Detroit River was a route for many migrating settlers? Or that American Indians paddled canoes down it before Michigan was even a state? It’s still one of the busiest rivers in the world today.
A few cool things you’ll find inside include an anchor from the Edmund Fitzgerald and a restored “Gothic Room.” It’s an old-school smoking lounge once housed on the S.S. City of Detroit III cruise ship. Oh, those golden years when smoking was “healthy.”
Address: 100 Strand Dr, Detroit, MI 48207
Detroit Yacht Club
Founded in 1868, the Detroit Yacht Club is one of the biggest and oldest in the country. Housed on its own small, private island attached to Belle Isle from a bridge, it’s a place for Detroit’s elite. The clubhouse, designed by George Mason (architect of the Grand Hotel on Mackinaw Island), hosts weddings and events.
It is as hoity-toity as you’d expect a yacht club to be, though I can’t say for certain since I’ve only seen pictures. You need an invite to get inside, and I, unfortunately, don’t run in the “right” circles. One day maybe, but as Groucho Marx said, “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.”
Address: 1 Riverbank Dr, Detroit, MI 48207
Belle Isle Nature Center
The ecology of the island is interesting and diverse and you can learn about it at the Belle Isle Nature Center.
Visitors can get an insider’s view of an actual beehive and get an up-close look at some Michigan wildlife. A bird observation window allows guests to watch native and migratory birds.
The center holds fish, amphibians, invertebrates, and various reptiles. Out back, there are goats and other petting farm animals including the rare European fallow deer. The deer used to have run of the island before nearly going extinct from inbreeding.
Address: 176 Lakeside Drive, Detroit, MI 48207
James Scott Memorial Fountain
Many consider this “the” place on Belle Isle and you can often find it swarming with people. It’s a favorite place to take pictures with the setting sun as a backdrop.
Designed by architect Cass Gilbert fountain was supposed to cost $200k and be completed in 1925. It was completed on time, but at the cost of $500k, in true Detroit style.
There was controversy too. It seemed Scott was not well-loved and didn’t have any friends or family to leave his money to. When he died, he donated it to Detroit with the stipulation that they build a fountain in his honor. People were upset that such an unsavory fellow would have a monument on the island. But the city wanted that money and built it anyway. And now there is a nice fountain in the park that almost nobody knows the history of anyway.
The white marble lower bowl of the fountain is 510 ft and the main spray shoots 125 into the air. A statue of Scott sits alongside the fountain. Lion figures and images of Detroit adorn it.
Fun fact: A famous scene from the 1973 Scarecrow, starring Gene Hackman and Al Pacino was filmed here.
Address: Sunset & Fountain Dr, Detroit, MI 48207
Belle Isle Beach
For an urban beach in the Detroit River, it’s much nicer than you probably expect. Stretching a quarter-mile long on the island’s Detroit side, this sandy beach is perfect for a day in the sun.
There are locker rooms and shower facilities, bbq grills and food trucks nearby. The water tends to be cold, and distance you can swim into the river is limited by boat traffic, but it’s a refreshing treat on a hot city day.
Open daily 5 a.m.-10 p.m. from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Address: 7845 Riverbank Dr, Detroit, MI 4820
Secret spot: Another more private water spot, called the hippy beach, is hidden near the northern center of the island behind the lighthouse. It’s small but secluded, or at least it used to be before everyone found out about it. It takes a bit more effort to get to, and it’s tiny, so plan accordingly.
Kayak Launch & Paddleboard Rentals
You can tour the canals that go through the center of the island Paddle past the Yacht Club, Detroit Boat Club, and lighthouse while enjoying the view of the Detroit and Windsor skylines.
Kayak rentals and paddleboards can be had by the hour or the day. Plan your own tour, or take a guided one around the island with an experienced boater. I toured through the canals and it was a peaceful, relaxing afternoon. if I ever did it again I’d bring a garbage bag to pick up the trash. Belle Isle has so much potential, but there is still a lot that needs to be fixed and cleaned up and the canals are not immune to many years of overgrowth and neglect.
The island and canals get better every year, so check it out for yourself.
Belle Isle Casino
The Belle Isle Casino is one of the oldest buildings on the island, but it wasn’t used for gambling. It’s always been a venue for gatherings and parties. Never gambling. The word “casino” originally meant a small country villa, summerhouse, or social club.
The casino now hosts many festivals and events, but its most popular activity is as host of weddings. Filled with Old marble and large spaces the two-story venue can be had fairly inexpensively for a night.
This is a perfect reason to get your kids to behave while they tour through a day filled with so much history. Tell them if they’re good they can end the day on the giant slide. Anyone over 48 inches tall can ride the side for just $1.
There used to be a water slide at the beach too, but it fell into disrepair during the downtimes and was removed a few years ago.
Address: Central & Inselruhe Aves, Detroit, MI 48207
Belle Isle Golf Course
This 9-acre, 30-bay full-length driving range includes three putting greens, two chipping greens and four sand traps. I’ve never been, but I’ve heard it’s really nice.
The course sits on the Canadian side of the island gets a lot of wind, so it can be a challenge to your game, but the views of Windsor and the river also make it a favorite picnic spot for many Detroiters. And your golf game can use a bit of challenge, eh?
Address: 175 Lakeside Dr, Detroit, MI 48207
Belle Isle Boat House
Yet another historical building on the island – can you believe it?! Built in 1902, this building, formerly known as the Detroit Boat Club, is like all areas of the island, currently being restored.
Detroit architect Alpheus Chittenden designed the Spanish-style brick and stucco building. It still has many historic and lavish elements and old wood like you’ve never seen. Back in 1902, lavish was the norm.
Fun fact: Chittenden also designed the World’s Largest Stove for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The massive cast iron stove used to be house at the Michigan Fair Grounds. Sadly, it was destroyed in a fire and is no more.
Address: E Picnic Way, Detroit, MI 48207
Livingstone Memorial Lighthouse
You can find this light green marble beauty at the north end of the island. It’s marble construction make it one of the only a very few in the country – oh those golden days of excess! The memorial to William Livingstone, built in 1929, was more than a beacon for ships in the night.
Once a year, the Detroit Grand Prix IndyCar Series is hosted on the island. For one month, a temporary track is set up across the island for the race cars that can be heard tearing it up throughout downtown.
Over the years, there have been many complaints about the races because of the destruction to the island. But there’s also a lot of money and attention given to it, so like most things involving this island, it’s a trade-off.
Visiting the Island
While there is a lot about the island that still needs to be fixed, there is a lot of glorious history and architecture worth preserving and celebrating. It’s easily worth a visit and spending a day. If nothing else, it’s a lesson in the lavish excess of the past and what happens when we don’t take care of things.
There’s a lot to see and do on the island and it’s the perfect place for a diverse group to visit with activities for anyone to enjoy.
Because it’s now a state park you’ll need a permit, or day pass, to enter unless you go by boat, foot, or bike.