Friday, May 3, 2019

A full guide and tips for taking the ferry over to Rock Island State Park

Located at the very tip-top of the Door County peninsula, Rock Island State Park is an escape into a unique kind of wilderness that requires a bit of work to get to.

So you want to explore the most remote state park Wisconsin has to offer? Fear not, eager backpacker, here's everything you need to know to plan the perfect trip. With rich Scandinavian roots dating back to the 1800s, thick hardwood forests, ten miles of hiking, rocky cliffs, a prominent historic lighthouse, and primitive backpacking sites that dot the shoreline, Rock Island State Park is a special place that belongs on your travel wishlist.

Unlike other state park properties in Wisconsin, Rock Island requires the most amount of logistical planning to actually reach the 912-acre island alone in the serene waters of Lake Michigan. You'll have to drive to the northern edge of mainland Door County, hop on one ferry to Washington Island, then catch a second smaller ferry to Rock Island itself. Hashing out the details ahead of time accurately is a must because timing can be a bit tricky. In this guide, I'll break it down into a few helpful easy-to-understand steps. 

Northport is your hub 
Follow HWY 42 through the towns of Ellison Bay and Gills Rock until it reaches the ferry landing at Northport. From here, you'll buy your tickets and board the first ferry that takes you across to Washington Island. You can also leave your car parked for free at Northport if desired. There are also bathrooms, a souvenir shop, and a cafe here.

Two ferries, four tickets
In order to successfully step foot on Rock Island, you'll need four ferry tickets: Northport to Washington Island, Jackson Harbor to Rock Island, Rock Island to Jackson Harbor, and Washington Island back to Northport. Purchase all tickets at the ticket office at Northport, where you can pay with a credit card. Note, you cannot pay with a credit card at the Jackson Harbor ticket office where you board the ferry to get to Rock Island.

Round-trip tickets for one car, taking you the full way from departing in Northport, driving to Jackson Harbor, and arriving on Rock Island cost me about $50. Tickets for the ferry to Rock Island State Park are sold on a first-come/first-serve basis. Find a breakdown of the pricing here. You must be in line at the Washington Island ferry 15 minutes ahead of time.

Watch the schedules closely
It's important to know and memorize when the last ferry leaves for/departs from Rock Island in order to plan a successful day hike or multi-day backpacking adventure. Additionally, when you arrive at Jackson Harbor (on Washington Island), give yourself time to unload your car, and prepare your camping gear. The trip from the landing at Washington Island to the ferry dock in Jackson Harbor takes about twenty minutes via car or about 8.4 miles. Don't rush it.

Currently, the ferry to/from Rock Island State Park operates May 24 through October 14. Hours do change seasonally, with more trips scheduled between June 21 and September 2. There is a later ferry on Fridays and Saturday evenings during the summer months. The last ferry to leave from Rock Island is at 6:15pm (4:15pm all other days including spring and fall). Additionally, the last ferry to reach Rock Island is at 6pm (4pm all other days including spring and fall).

Don't run the risk of catching the very last ferry from one island and then missing the last ferry of the day from the other. Give yourself a window with plenty of time.

View the complete Washington Island ferry schedule here.
View the complete Rock Island ferry schedule here.

On the boat
The larger ferries running back-and-forth from Washington Island to Northport have bathrooms plus both indoor and outdoor seating areas. Expect about a 30-minute ride on the first ferry from Northport to Washington Island, then about a 20-minute hop from Jackson Harbor to Rock Island. The second ferry you'll take, dubbed the Karfi, to reach the state park is smaller and open. Check the weather and dress accordingly.

Other suggestions
First and foremost, bring your camera! While bicycles are allowed on Washington Island, Rock Island is foot-travel only and bikes cannot be brought on the ferry to the state park. It is possible to haul a kayak, canoe, stand-up paddleboard, or cart on the passenger-only ferry to Rock Island for an additional fee. Looking for a quick bite to eat? Stop at Island Pizza next door to the ferry office on Washington Island for a ridiculously good, giant, slice of pizza. Their chilly is also equally as fantastic. Island Pizza only takes cash, but buying a souvenir or snack in the ferry office with a debit card allows for cash-back. Want to go car-less? Rent bicycles, UTVs, and mopeds near the dock once arriving on Washington Island. There's also a friendly shuttle/taxi service that will take you around the island and drop you off at distant Jackson Harbor for the Rock Island ferry by calling 920-535-0617.

As always, if you have any questions leave a comment and I'd be more than glad to help.

Urgent: As of July  2020, Rock Island State Park will remain closed throughout the 2020 camping season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ferry service to and from Washington Island is still operating but with a revised schedule.


Updated 7/9/20