12 Things to See and Do at Belle Isle Park in Detroit, Michigan
In 2013, the Michigan DNR added Belle Isle Park in Detroit to its amazing portfolio of state parks and recreation areas. This 982-acre island can be found in the Detroit River between Michigan and Canada, and it presents visitors with many things to see and do. Museums, animal attractions, amazing views, stunning architecture and numerous historical monuments continue to draw visitors to Belle Isle, which has also been the host location of Metallica’s Orion Music Festival and the Detroit Indy Grand Prix. A Michigan Recreation Passport is now require for vehicles on the island, and the state has promised to invest more than $20 million into improvements over a three-year period. Belle Isle is larger in size than New York City’s Central Park, and also serves as the eastern starting point/end point of the cross-state Iron Belle Trail.
Check out the James Scott Memorial Fountain – this memorial to a controversial Detroit businessman who left $200,000 to the city specifically for this fountain is one of the more popular island attractions in the summer. Crafted from marble, it features lions, turtles and frogs in its multiple bowls and a central spray that reaches more than 100 feet into the air. A scene from the 1973 film Scarecrow (starring Al Pacino and Gene Hackman) was filmed here, and a statue of James Scott sits facing the fountain. The fountain typically operates from 10 am to 10 pm daily during the summer and into September.
Visit the Dossin Great Lakes Museum – with a great location long the Detroit River, this maritime museum focuses on the maritime history of Detroit but also includes exhibits and artifacts from the rest of the Great Lakes. Highlights include a large model ship collection, the bow anchor of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, the hydroplane racing boat Miss Pepsi and the pilot house of the SS William Clay Ford. Admission is FREE.
Hike to the William Livingstone Memorial Lighthouse – this is the only Great Lakes lighthouse constructed of marble, and it honors William Livingstone, who for more than two decades served as the president of the Lake Carriers Association. Located near the island’s eastern tip, the lighthouse is 47 feet tall and features a beacon that still shines today. It is about a 1/4 mile walk from the parking area on a level dirt path.
Visit Belle Isle Aquarium – dating back to 1904, this was the oldest continually-operating aquarium in North America when it closed its doors in 2005. Thanks to the efforts of volunteers and the Belle Isle Conservancy, it re-opened in 2012. Open on Saturdays and Sundays with FREE admission, the aquarium features a wide variety of fish and more.
Visit the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory – this botanical garden designed by Albert Kahn is next door to the Belle Isle Aquarium and also open with FREE admission. Visitors can walk past exotic plants from South America, Asia and other locations around the world. Open Wednesday-Sunday, 10 am to 5 pm.
Visit Belle Isle Nature Zoo – while Belle Isle used to have a larger zoo (now overgrown and abandoned) that housed bears and more, today it is home to the small and FREE Belle Isle Nature Zoo. This family-friendly zoo features reptiles, amphibians, fallow deer that once roamed the island, fish and birds. There is a nature trail, and opportunities for guests to feed the deer. Open Wednesday through Sunday, hours vary by season.
Views of downtown Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, Canada – Belle Isle’s location in the river gives visitors the chance to see the Detroit skyline and the Windsor, Ontario shoreline at the same time. The Ambassador Bridge stands tall in the river and can easily be seen from the shore near the Scott Fountain, and iconic buildings like the GM Renaissance Center are easy to pick out from a distance.
Watch for passing freighters – the Detroit River is a busy shipping channel for vessels moving to and from the St. Lawrence Seaway. Any freighters coming from the east that are headed to busy shipping ports like Chicago or Duluth must pass by Belle Isle on their way, making this stretch of river one of the busiest on the Great Lakes. Pictured is the Federal Oshima, a 655-foot “salty” registered in Hong Kong.
Have a picnic at one of the many shelters – there are countless great spots for a picnic on the island, with options ranging from the beach to in front of the Scott Memorial Fountain. However, it weather is an issue or you’re looking for a hard, flat surface, head to one of the picnic shelters on the island. Most are colorfully painted with a nod to the past.
Check out the numerous memorial monuments – you won’t have to drive far on Belle Isle to see a memorial monument. When we made a return visit this month we found more than 10 without looking too hard. One of the most noticeable is the one pictured above (located where Inselruhe and Central Ave. intersect) that depicts Alpheus Starkey Williams. A prominent Detroiter who spent time as a judge, lawyer, newspaper editor and postmaster, Williams served as a lieutenant colonel in the Mexican-American War and as a brigadier general in the Civil War. Other island memorials pay tribute to Ransom Eli Olds, James J. Brady, soldiers who fought in Cuba, Puerto Rico, China and the Philippines, a monument to ongoing peace with our Canadian neighbors and more.
Listen for the bells at the Nancy Brown Peace Carillon Clock Tower – this 75 year old tower stands near a popular spot for picnics and concerts many years ago, and while it fell on hard times due to vandalism in the 1970s its bells still ring today. The grounds are a bit overgrown, but the tower retains the beauty from when it was built, with detailed panels and nods to the Art Deco and Gothic styles of architecture. It is meant to honor the ongoing peace between the United States and Canada, and is named after the pen name of a popular Detroit News columnist.
Marvel at the architecture of the Belle Isle Casino – yet another of the island’s buildings that was designed by Albert Kahn, this “casino” is not and never has been a gambling location. It is used for special events and available to rent out, and in earlier years was a popular place for dining. It provided visitors with views of Detroit and Canada, and was open for flowing breezes before air conditioning was readily available. Kahn designed it after a visit to Italy, and amazing architecture is Renaissance Revival inspired. Amazingly after all these years, it is one of the most beautiful and well-preserved buildings on the island and a throwback to a time when the island was much busier and vibrant.