Belle Isle in Detroit Offers Tons of Family Fun
Southeast Michigan's urban island gem is packed with activities for kids – from gardens and beaches to fishing, ship history and a cool playground
Joe Thompson has been fishing on Belle Isle since his youth – first with his dad, and later with friends and no adult supervision. Then he brought his sons, and now he brings his grandkids.
"It's not just about catching fish," says Thompson of Detroit. "It's partly a family outing, partly a trip down memory lane for me, and partly a therapeutic exercise. There's something about looking at the same body of water for 50 years and seeing the changes around it."
The more things change, the more they stay the same. And that's certainly true of Belle Isle, which run 2 1/2 miles long and spans 982 acres. Find out a bit more about this iconic local spot – and what it offers for your brood.
A gathering place
Belle Isle is open daily from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. There is no admission charge, and access is gained by traversing MacArthur Bridge from Jefferson Avenue.
Noted urban park designer Frederick Law Olmsted landscaped the nation's largest island park, which opened to the public in the closing years of the 1800s.
Despite setbacks tied to the poor economy – its aquarium and golf course are now closed – the island continues to draw patrons from Detroit and the suburbs seeking a day of relaxation, in part because it's mere minutes away from millions of southeast Michigan residents.
Fitness folks bike, skate, walk or jog the paved one-way perimeter. Others settle for driving. Families picnic along the shore of the Detroit River. Teams play softball on the many diamonds. There also are tennis and handball courts.
Belle Isle is home to a trove of structural treasures, too. Famed architect Albert Kahn designed the aquarium, the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, the Livingstone Memorial Lighthouse and redesigned the casino (not actually a gambling house, but a meeting place). Cass Gilbert designed the magnificent Scott Fountain. George Mason designed the Detroit Yacht Club and the park's original administration office.
While the city of Detroit operates Belle Isle, many of the park's amenities have fallen under the auspices of the nonprofit group Belle Isle Conservancy, formed in 2011 – a merger of four efforts, including the Friends of Belle Isle, Belle Isle Botanical Society, Belle Isle Women's Committee and Friends of Belle Isle Aquarium.
"We raise money and work with the city to keep Belle Isle beautiful and to engage people in the many park activities," says Mary Waterstone of Detroit, a past president of Friends of Belle Isle. "Our work is never done."
So what's there to do on Belle Isle? Plenty! Here's a sampling.
Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory
"Certainly, people should visit the conservatory," Waterstone says. "It's over 100 years old and has the largest orchid collection in the country. It's a self-guided tour, and there's no admission charge."
The domed conservatory houses hundreds of species of cacti, succulents, ferns, palms and other tropical plants. Outside exhibits include perennial gardens, a rose garden and lily pond. It's the home of the Belle Isle Botanical Society and can be rented for wedding receptions and other special events.
Yes, this is absolutely a hobby among some folks who've lived on the Great Lakes waterway all their lives – and Belle Isle is one of the best freighter-watching locations!
"Ships coming off the upper lakes" – those would be Huron, Superior and Michigan – "have to come by here, and this is a great spot for seeing them," Thompson explains. "When I was a kid, I used to want to stow away on them or work on them when I grew up. Today, I just look at them and admire them."
Why not bring your young aspiring sailor to see these giant vessels cut through the waves?
Belle Isle's beach is a half-mile long and is the only public beach along the Detroit River. The park's water slide is right nearby (for just $3, the kids can ride all day long).
"There are lifeguards on duty and the city grooms the beach on a daily basis," Waterstone says – typically from noon to 8 p.m.
Future note: The beach is also a great area to watch the Detroit APBA Gold Cup hydroplane races every July.
The park boasts four fishing piers, but anglers are free to fish from shore all over the island.
Educational programs at the zoo include a popular deer encounter. Approximately 25 deer that once roamed free throughout the park are now housed in a one-acre enclosure and barn. Watch for a variety of great family programming and creative craft activities at this quaint spot.
Part of the Detroit Historical Museum & Society, the Dossin's exhibits focus on Great Lakes shipping and maritime heritage. The highlight is the working pilothouse from the freighter "William Clay Ford." Check out the model ships and loads of signal flags, too.
There are many hands-on exhibits for kids. Hours are Saturday and Sunday only, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free!
This magnificent, acre-wide playground has swings, tunnels, a giant slide and other apparatuses that focus on fun. Don't miss out on that space capsule double-decker merry-go-round. It's all conveniently located near a family comfort station and concession stand.
Lighthouse buffs can get up close to this light on the island's eastern tip, accessible by a nature trail. Completed in 1930, it guides watercraft from Lake St. Clair into the Detroit River. It stretches 80 feet into the sky and is the only lighthouse in the nation constructed entirely of marble.
Don't be fooled! Several lighthouse guidebooks refer to the light by its proper name but erroneously include a photo of the Nancy Brown Peace Carillon Tower.
A carillon is a set of stationary bells – a tune played with said bells. The actual Nancy Brown Peace Carillon Tower was named after a Detroit News advice columnist; it was financed with funds donated by loyal readers.
Originally, 49 bronze bells chimed from the top of the 85-foot tower. Today, the tune is computer automated and plays every half-hour.
The western-most point on the island looks toward downtown Detroit and offers sunset views. The Belle Isle Women's Committee recently replanted the point with trees and flowers and paid for new sidewalks and a restroom. "They've kept it tranquil, and the sunsets are spectacular," Waterstone says.