Exploring Belle Isle State Park
Join us on our exploration of Detroit’s most well known green space, Belle Isle. Since this beautiful spot is located so close to our home-town, we often get to spend quality time exploring around and revisiting our favorite spots. We’ve been planning this Belle Isle State Park Photo Tour for quite some time, so without further ado…
An escape from the city… Right in Detroit Michigan!
You may know the Isle as a kind of urban oasis. This is a very popular spot to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. There’s a beach, numerous picnic areas, sports fields, and even a nature trail. However, you may not have realized just how historic Belle Isle is. There’s so many of the beautiful buildings and storied institutions which still remain there to this day. We’ll try to cover as many as we can!
A brief history of Belle Isle State Park
As one of Detroit’s oldest parks, the history of Belle Isle goes back to the time when French explorers began settling in our area. Belle Isle was originally known as Hog Island back in the 1700’s (we’re glad the name didn’t stick). French adventurers began settling on the island, and that was their initial name. The park, as it is currently known, opened in 1845 amidst a nationwide movement that encouraged the development of urban parks. It was at this time, that the crown jewel of Detroit was named Belle Isle.
Belle Isle was styled in the form of Parisian gardens. At 900 acres, it is the largest city island park in the United States. At this size, it is larger than New York’s Central Park. Central Park was also designed by the same architect as the mastermind behind Belle Isle, Frederick Law Olmstead.
From here, we’ll begin our tour! Keep reading to see some popular and perhaps some “less popular” things to do and see in Detroit’s biggest State Park.
James Scott Memorial Fountain
One of the most popular attractions on Belle Isle is the James Scott Fountain. The fountain is located on the western end of Belle Isle, and was designed by Cass Gilbert and sculpted by Herbert Adams. Made largely of white marble, the fountain remains pretty much intact now, as the day it was dedicated nearly 100 years ago in 1925.
The Belle Isle Casino
After the park opened in 1845, a Belle Isle Casino was one of the very first structures built on the park island. The casino first opened in 1887. But, it was not a casino in the sense that we typically attribute to the word today. Simply, it was more of a meeting and gathering place for those who were enjoying the isle. The first casino in the park was built entirely of wood and lasted only about 20 years. The casino that is currently standing on the isle was opened in 1908, and remains a meeting place and a great place to host events like weddings to this day.
James J Brady Memorial
This memorial can be found near the central part of the isle, on the more western side on Central & Inselruhe Avenues. It is dedicated to a man who, in the early 1900’s was one of Detroit’s foremost philanthropists dedicated to helping Detroit’s young and often orphaned children.
Alpheus Starkey Williams Monument
This monument is dedicated to the famous Detroiter Alpheus Starkey Williams. The Major General wore many hats during his lifetime. Most notably, as a lawyer, militiaman who fought in the Mexican-American War & Civil War, probate judge, editor of the Detroit Daily Advertiser newspaper, congressman, postmaster, and gubernatorial candidate. Today, a statue in his likeness stands watch with his war-steed named Plug Ugly over Belle Isle, located at Central Way & Inselruhe Street on the island.
Nancy Brown Peace Carillon Tower
The Carillon Tower is dedicated to former Detroit News columnist Nancy Brown who wrote an “experience column” which was very popular back in the early 1900’s. The turn of events which brought about the Carillon Tower was a religious Sunrise Service that would happen annually on the Isle. Drawing up to 50,000 people, this event, and the organizer (Nancy Brown) inspired the design and implementation of this beautiful tower. During it’s heyday, the tower was the centerpiece for the Sunrise Services as well as concerts and other gatherings. You can find the tower on Belle Isle, at Muse Road and Picnic Way.
Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory
Designed by noted architects Albert Kahn and George Mason, the conservatory first opened it’s doors to the public back in August of 1904. It has been in continuous use since then. This makes the conservatory the oldest running establishment of it’s kind in the United States. (Belle Isle seems to have a few of these “oldest running” titles). Today, this, and many other establishments on Belle Isle fall under the protection of the Belle Isle Conservancy, a non profit organization dedicated to preserving the history of the Isle.
They also host weddings and other events here. For those, you must contact the Michigan DNR for information. I’ll throw a link in at the bottom of the page, should you wish to find more information about what they offer.
Belle Isle Aquarium
Right next to the conservatory, you’ll find the venerable Belle Isle Aquarium. The aquarium was built at the same time as the conservatory in 1904 and designed by the same architects. It’s run from 1904 until 2005 (when it temporarily closed) made it the oldest running facility of it’s kind in the United States. Thankfully, less than 10 years later… It was reopened by the state in 2012 with grant money, public support, and a very fervent group of volunteers. You can visit the historic aquarium 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Friday through Sunday.
Detroit Yacht Club
The DYC was first founded in the late 1870’s. Since it’s inception, it has gone through various iterations ultimately leading to it’s current beautiful facility which was designed by George D. Mason in 1923. This storied club has survived fire, the great depression, and 5 separate buildings. Today, the club continues to prosper and plays host to a wide variety of events (they rent out their rooms for weddings and other similar events) as well as supporting the members who dock their boats there.
Dossin Great Lakes Museum
The Dossin Great Lakes Museum is dedicated to documenting the history of Detroit’s active role in maritime affairs throughout the Great Lakes and nationally. The museum in it’s current form, was first opened in 1961. Due to disrepair, the current museum was built to replace the older version. You see, the museum was previously housed in an old schooner, the J.T. Wing. The ship first entered service in 1919. Incidentally, the museum had to be relocated due to the deteriorating condition of the old boat. The preservation of this old watercraft would have proven too costly, so it was destroyed by fire in the Detroit River in 1956.
The current museum hosts a bevy of attractions including one of the anchors of the ill-fated SS Edmund Fitzgerald which sank in Lake Superior in 1975. You’ll also find one of the largest collections of model ships in the world here.
Because I love the song, I’ll leave this here for fans of the Gordon Lightfoot song about the Fitzgerald.
“Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours?” -Gordon Lightfoot
Belle Isle Athletic Shelter
The Belle Isle Athletic Fields and Shelter are on the inner portion of the park, right near the nature trails and the old now defunct zoo. The State Park is currently planning renovation of the field surfaces (it may be on ongoing at the time of writing). So your experience here is about to get a whole lot better. As of now, you can go to the Come Play Detroit website. To reserve any of the softball, football, basketball, handball/racquetball, tennis, or soccer areas. They will also provide the ability to use the lights and include an additional service for dragging and lining the fields.
Belle Isle Nature Center
The Belle Isle Nature Center is an ancillary division of the Detroit Zoological Society which is also the organization which runs the Detroit Zoo in Royal Oak. They have a good thing going here with a mission of providing education to all regarding preserving nature, conservation efforts, and protecting water quality. They have career programs for K-12 students, assistance for teachers, lead community projects designed to help our environment, and provide a platform for community and school field trips & outreach.
Aside from all that, they are also proud to have some pretty cool attractions at the Nature Center itself. You’ll find the ability to get an up close & personal view of some native Michigan wildlife, enjoy a beehive exhibit. Definitely spend some time to check it out!
Belle Isle Nature Trails
There are hiking opportunities throughout the park. The largest trail is the Belle Isle Loop. This trail is a 5.4 mile loop which, as it’s name suggests, pretty much follows the shoreline of the island. You’ll enjoy great views of the surrounding US and Canadian shoreline and be able to explore little offshoot trails leading to some of the park’s notable attractions.
The other notable trail on Belle Isle is the Belle Isle Lighthouse and Blue Heron Lagoon loop. This 2.2 mile trail leads around the lagoon and brings you to the lighthouse, as you might guess.
There are also trails on the interior of the isle. With one beginning right near the aforementioned Athletic Complex. This offshoot ultimately leads into the Blue Heron Loop and the main trail surrounding the island.
One of my personal favorite spots on Belle Isle State Park is Sunset Point. In my humble opinion this is one of the best spots in Southeast Michigan to sit down and enjoy watching the day slowly fall into the night. Are you here as a photographer? Enjoy this view in any weather. For example, keep scrolling and you’ll see some samples of the diverse views, whether the sun is shining or not! Even cooler sometimes, is the view if you happen to stay here into the night. The scene here is always the same but, the scenery is always different. If you need a peaceful end to your day in the city, Sunset Point is high on my list of recommended spots in Detroit.
That’s all for now… We hope you enjoyed your Belle Isle State Park tour!
This will be an ongoing project of ours. Be sure to look out for more information! We will be adding more, as our adventures permit more exploration. Since we feel that Belle Isle is Detroit’s most unique and beautiful park… we want to share all the information we can! Hopefully, you enjoyed this tour, and invite you to share your favorite spots on Belle Isle in the comments of this post.
We are always adding to our store! Check back often to see new Belle Isle artwork.