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Belle Isle Park: Best Things to Do on Detroit’s Jewel

Visit Belle Isle Park Detroit

In Michigan, you never have to travel far to get away, and Belle Isle Park in Detroit is proof of that.

For Metro Detroiters, it’s just a short drive to downtown Detroit to visit the jewel of the city, Belle Isle. For others, It’s a perfect destination for a quick getaway or daytrip.

Beautiful Belle Isle State Park, a spectacular 982-acre island in the middle of the Detroit River, is the perfect example of history and natural beauty in the midst of a metropolis.

Here, in the midst of Detroit MI, a place rich with national historic landmarks, this Detroit gem is a living reminder of the city’s grand past coming around again. With three lakes and 150 wooded acres, it’s our very own answer to New York City’s Central Park.

From its stunning perennial garden and outdoor recreation spaces to its museums and architectural gems like the Anna Whitcomb Scripps Conservatory, Belle Isle in Detroit is special.

This “Jewel of Detroit” is one of the most culturally significant places in southeast Michigan, rich with the history of Detroit.

Read on to discover everything you need to plan a visit to the natural beauty Belle Isle Park.    

Belle Isle Bridge in Detroit Michigan

How to Get to Belle Isle Park in Detroit

Walkers and bikers can visit the island for free.

However, if you’re traveling by car, you’ll need to purchase a Recreation Passport. You can purchase one through the Michigan Department of Natural Resources or upon entry into the park.

Additionally, the Belle Isle Conservancy and park staff offer school groups, scouts, and organizations guided tours of the Belle Isle Aquarium.

There are specific and limited offerings for the docent-led program, as well as a self-guided experience.

bridge on Belle Isle State Park in Detroit

About Belle Isle State Park

Belle Isle may be small, but it’s absolutely full of nature, culture, fun, and Michigan history.

In the 1700s, French settlers used the island for their livestock, which gave it the original name “Hog Island.”

Eventually, it became known as Belle Isle, and the park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. Olmsted was famous for his other urban landscape architecture of Central Park in New York City.

Olmsted’s design saw the land as urban oasis surrounded by industry and manufacturing, making Belle Isle a true nature gem in the city.  

Belle Isle was then a hub for the Detroit Boat Club, the Belle Isle Casino, the Detroit Yacht Club, and general recreation.

You could even see fallow deer running free in the island park in the first half of the 20th century. 

Belle Isle Park in Detroit

Becoming Belle Isle State Park

In 2014, Michigan formally declared Belle Isle as a Michigan state park, which provided additional funding to restore this beautiful park.

Millions of visitors now know Belle Isle as a popular spot for family reunions, educational trips, and amazing views of Detroit and the nearby Canadian border.

Additionally, Belle Isle has become a popular event and wedding venue

Douglas MacArthur Bridge

From the trip over to the island via the Douglas MacArthur Bridge (also known as the Belle Isle Bridge), to the first glimpse of the majestic foundation and spectacular views of the city skyline, it’s clear that Belle Isle is something special. 

You’ll find museums, a nature conservatory, ponds, hiking trails, and even a lighthouse.

You’ll also find plenty of comfortable picnic shelters and beaches to go around, as well as a spot to rent a canoe or kayak, so definitely consider Belle Isle for your next outing. 

Dog- Friendly Belle Isle

Belle Isle Park is pet-friendly and has a section of pet-friendly beach for your furry friend to roam.

Belle Isle Park in Detroit Michigan

Exploring Belle Isle

Here’s our quick guide to everything you should explore on a trip to Belle Isle.

If you’ve never been to Belle Isle, it’s a good idea to take a quick trip around the island and scope out the grounds.

The stunning vistas of Detroit riverfront and Windsor, our Canadian neighbor can be breathtaking.  After you’ve surveyed the island, don’t miss these must-see spots on the island. 

Belle Isle Aquarium in Detroit

Things to See on Belle Isle

Belle Isle Aquarium

Opened in 1904, The Belle Isle Aquarium is the oldest aquarium in the United States. The aquarium building was designed by Albert Kahn, famous for other Detroit buildings like the Fisher Building.

It’s now under the Belle Isle Conservancy’s operation, more popular than ever to Detroiters and out-of-towners alike.

But even with so much historical significance, the real stars of the show are the fish.

The aquarium houses species from all around the world, including clownfish, starfish, and emperor red snapper. See the same fish that can be found in Detroit’s river are on display, like perch and bluegill. 

A turtle at the belle Isle nature center

Belle Isle Nature Center

The Belle Isle Nature Center is another part of what makes Belle Isle such a popular destination for nature lovers. Belle Isle was the original home of the Detroit Zoo; which has moved to Royal Oak.

The remaining Belle Isle Nature Zoo within the Nature Center, operated by the Detroit Zoological Society, is home to a collection of interesting amphibians and reptiles including a wide variety of turtles. 

There are also many other exhibits that give visitors an opportunity to experience nature up close.

Belle Isle Nature Center visitors are able to get an insider’s view of an actual beehive and get an up-close view of Michigan wildlife, and a bird observation window allows guests to watch native and migratory birds as they feed.

The nature center is open for a variety of programmed activities. There is no fee, but you must pre-register to attend.

PRO-TIP: To experience Michigan’s fascinating terrain, join one of their nature walks around the island. 

Giant slide at Belle Isle Park

Belle Isle Giant Slide 

You don’t have to be a kid to have fun on Belle Isle, and this massive six-lane slide has been a popular draw for visitors to the island for many years.

From Memorial Day to Labor Day, visitors can get a real thrill out of the MDNR-operated Giant Slide in the middle of the island.

You can coast down six lanes of bumpy slide, $1 for one ride, or $5 for six rides. It’s exciting fun for all ages (but you must be 48 inches tall to ride).  

Anna Whitcomb Scripps Conservatory on Belle Isle, Detroit MI

Belle Isle Conservatory

One of the more iconic destinations on the island is the Belle Isle Conservatory, or Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, a glittering centerpiece with incredible scenery indoors and outdoors.

Designed by noted architect Albert Kahn, the glass conservatory is named for Anna Scripps Whitcomb. The Detroit philanthropist donated her vast collection of 600 orchids to the conservatory in 1955.

At the time, it was the largest municipally-owned orchid collection in the country.

The oldest, continually operating conservatory in the United States, sits on over an acre. It’s made up of five areas, each housing a different climate.

The striking, 85-foot central dome is the focal point of the horticultural building is said to have been inspired by Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. 

The Conservatory is home to unique exotic and tropical plants from around the globe and has five sections to house the diverse collection: the Palm House, the Tropical House, the Cactus House, a sunken Fernery, and the Show House.

Additionally, the gardens around the building are equally striking, with trimmed hedges, colorful flowers, and a lily pond.

The best part? Admission is free here.

James Scott Memorial Fountain Belle Isle in Detroit

James Scott Memorial Fountain

Another popular photo destination, the James Scott Memorial Fountain is an impressive feat of sculpture and architecture.

It was named for James Scott, a Detroit socialite with a questionable reputation (you can read more about him HERE).

The fountain itself was completed in 1923 and features 109 white marble water outlets shaped like turtles, lions, horns, and other artistic figures spouting water 40 feet high.

The original Pewabic tile basin, although damaged, is set to be restored with the Belle Isle Conservancy’s fundraising efforts.

This fountain is much beloved by Detroiters and is featured in many wedding photos and senior pictures. 

Dossin Great Lakes Museum

What better place to recognize the important role of the Detroit River in Great Lakes history than the middle of the Detroit River?

More than 300 years of maritime history is on display at The Dossin Great Lakes Museum.

Explore interactive exhibits like Built By the River, The Gothic Room, the Miss Pepsi Hydroplane, and the S.S William Clay Ford Pilot House.

Even the bow anchor from the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, one of the largest and most infamous Great Lake shipwrecks, is on display at the museum. Part of the Detroit Historical Society, the museum brings the rich history of the Great Lakes area to life.

Belle Isle Carillion on Bell isle park, the jewel of Detroit

Nancy Brown Peace Carillon

Filling the Isle with the music since 1940, the Nancy Brown Peace Carillon commemorates the ideal of peace, as well as the Detroit News Columnist Nancy Brown (pseudonym for Mrs. J.E. Leslie). The neo-gothic style tower is surrounded by a moat, facing the nearby Canadian border. 

William Livingstone Memorial Lighthouse

On the northeastern tip of the Isle, the William Livingstone Memorial Lighthouse sits facing Lake St. Clair, honoring Detroit Evening Journal owner William Livingstone.

Livingstone was also an important figure in Great Lakes shipping, making this a fitting maritime memorial. The art deco-style lighthouse was designed by you guessed it- Albert Kahn. 

Belle Isle beach on Belle Isle in Detroit

Belle Isle Beach

One of the coolest things to do on a hot summer day is go to the only beach in Detroit: Belle Isle beach. Located on the north side of the MacArthur bridge, the beach is a great place to relax under the shady trees and take in some spectacular views of the Detroit skyline.

Oudolf Garden

Adjacent to the Nancy Brown Peace Carillon is the Oudolf Garden.

This fabulous, naturalistic garden was designed by famed Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf.

Oudolf is the designer of both the Lurie Garden in Chicago and High Line in New York City. HIs design for the Belle Isle garden features perennials, grasses, shrubs, and trees.

The Detroit Grand Prix

As this is the motor city, Belle Isle serves an important role in living up to Detroit’s automotive reputation. Every summer, the Detroit Grand Prix drives Detroiters and racing enthusiasts wild.

The race is a massive annual event on the Isle, with Indy car drivers circling the perimeter of the island in record time. The race is currently scheduled for June 5, 2021.

Canoe Kayak Walk Ride Belle Isle

There are so many ways to explore Belle Isle State Park, and each one gives you a different glimpse of this island park. Rent a canoe or kayak and explore the ponds for up close and personal views of the natural beauty on Belle Isle.

Belle Isle F.A.Q.

Is BeIle Isle Open?

Belle Isle is open from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. throughout the year. 

How Much Does it Cost to Go to Belle Isle?

Per the Belle Isle Conservancy, “There is no cost to enter the park, however a Recreation Passport is needed to DRIVE onto the island. This costs $12/car and $6/motorcycle for Michigan residents and $34 for non-Michigan residents. Once purchased, the recreation passport will allow you to visit the island unrestricted until your car registration is due.

Visit Belle Isle in the Winter and Fall

The fall and winter months are my favorite times to visit Belle Isle Park. Not only have the crowds thinned out, there’s a real feeling of calm serenity on the tiny island.

In the autumn months, it’s a perfect spot for a fall color tour. The reds, yellows and golds of the leaves against the backdrop of a sparkling Detroit River are quite breathtaking.

In the winter months, it’s fun to watch the big chunks of blue ice floating atop the swift moving river, and watch people playing ice hocks on the frozen ponds.

Things to See Near Belle Isle

You can’t explore Belle Isle without passing through the city of Detroit’s other iconic destinations. Wayne County has incredible historical, artistic, and cultural significance in the state of Michigan.

There are over 270 historical sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places in Detroit.

Guardian Building, Eastern Market, and More

This includes sites like The Guardian Building, Eastern Market, and of course, Belle Isle park itself.

Make sure to stop by Eastern Market, to get first-hand experience of Detroit’s warm spirit, but especially all of the amazing cuisine.

And take a look at the perfect examples of art deco in Detroit’s city skyline, with the Guardian Building, the Fox Theatre, or the Fisher Building. 

Don’t miss the Old Christ Church on Jefferson, just up the road from the contrastingly modern Renaissance Center. This historic building is now the headquarters of General Motors.

Be sure not to miss the historic Ford Piquette Avenue plant, a former production center for the Ford Motor Company.

You’ll also want to swing by the Michigan Central Station, which is listed on National Register of Historic Places.

More to See in Detroit

For a closer look at amazing artistic works, The Detroit Institute of Arts is a world-renowned museum unlike any other. The museum also featuring the massive Detroit Industry Murals by Diego Rivera.

However, if you’re just here for city parks like Belle Isle, check out some other iconic parks in Detroit- Beacon Park, Campus Martius, or Grand Circus.

About The Author

Nora Rhein is a student at Wayne State University majoring in Public Relations and minoring in Theatre Management. She writes for publications like The South End student newspaper and Ease Up Magazine. She also serves as the Low Brass Section Leader in the Warrior Marching Band, and loves to explore Michigan’s beautiful parks with her greyhound, Skyrocket.