You know that go-to spot that you look forward to showing off when you have out-of-town visitors? For me, that place is Belle Isle, no contest. Did you know it was designed by the same landscape architect as Central Park in New York City? And that it’s the largest city island park in the country at almost 900 acres? Belle Isle is home to many free or low-cost, family-friendly activities, and below I’ll tell you how to take advantage of some of my personal favorites.
Before you go to Belle Isle, you should know…
Belle Isle is open year-round from 5:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. You will need a pass for your car when you visit; the yearly state park passport is $12, which you can buy when you renew your license plate or purchase as you enter Belle Isle. (More info on that here). Pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit riders do not need a park pass (you can take a bus for $1.50). Once you are on the island, most outings are free!
This map from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources is a helpful reference, especially if you’re a first-timer. Most of my favorite Belle Isle spots are clearly marked. It’s important to note that the main road that runs along the outer ring of the island is one-way. You can cut across in the middle of the island, but be careful not to miss your destination — it isn’t always a quick turn-around.
Some of the coolest features on Belle Isle, like the aquarium and conservatory, are still closed due to COVID-19. I’ve included their information below so you can keep your eyes peeled for re-opening information. They really are some can’t-miss activities!
12 ways to enjoy Belle Isle this Spring:
1. Explore The Belle Isle Nature Center.
Open daily April through October 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and Wednesday through Sunday during November to March from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. At the deer encounter, you can get up close and personal while the deer are fed at 11:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m., and 3:00 p.m. The Nature Center offers a free Nature Tots program for kids aged 2 to 4 and their parents on the third Friday and Saturday of the month at 10:00 a.m. or 11:00 a.m. Registration is required and can be completed online or by calling (248) 336-5885.
2. Tour The Dossin Great Lakes Museum.
It offers free admission, with year-round hours Friday through Sunday 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. The museum gives a history of the Great Lakes and Detroit River, several permanent exhibits (including an anchor from the Edmund Fitzgerald), and changing exhibits.
3. Burn some energy at Kid’s Row.
So. Many. Structures. My son could spend hours here climbing, exploring, and wearing himself out for a solid nap time.
4. Ride on the Giant Slide.
Open Wednesday through Sunday June 8th through Labor Day, 12:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. Each ride is $1, and you must be 48 inches tall to ride. I’ll admit, it made my palms a little sweaty, but if your kids are thrill-seekers, they will love this!
5. Relax at Belle Isle Beach.
Open 5:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. beginning the second week in June and extending through Labor Day. Grab a bite at one of the food trucks and ice cream trucks while you soak up some rays.
6. Rent canoes, kayaks, pedal boats, paddle boards, or bikes.
Riverside Kayak Connection is located at the Flynn Memorial Pavilion, and rentals include safety equipment.
7. Hike the trails.
There is a parking lot at the Athletic Shelter, where you can pick up a hiking loop along the Nashua Canal. There’s also a lot on Lakeside Drive (past the Coast Guard station but before the Nature Zoo). From there, you can hike to the Livingstone Memorial Lighthouse and continue on to views of the Detroit River.
8. Have a picnic.
Park along Sunset Drive when you first enter the island. Here you’ll find lots of grassy space along the water with views of the Renaissance Center and downtown. We love to grab take-out from one of our favorite restaurants and bring some bubbles, toys, and books for the whole family for a relaxing afternoon outdoors.
9. Visit the James Scott Memorial Fountain.
This is just a quick walk from the picnic location. It’s a classic Detroit icon and a great spot to take photos.
10. Reserve a pavilion for your next party.
You can make reservations up to one year in advance by calling 1-800-44-PARKS (1-800-447-2757) or visiting www.midnrreservations.com. (There is a $10 reservation fee.)
11. Visit the Belle Isle Aquarium.
The oldest aquarium in the country (though it was closed from 2005 to 2012), it is open Friday through Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. The aquarium offers free admission with a donation box at the door and features a collection of fish from around the globe. The “Nemo” and “Dory” fish in particular were a hit with my two-year-old. Please note the aquarium is currently closed due to COVID-19.
12. Walk through The Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory.
It is the oldest continually-running conservatory in the country, open Wednesday through Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Like the Aquarium, it is free to enter with donation boxes at the door. The conservatory contains five sections: the Palm House, the Tropical House, the Cactus House (so many gorgeous succulents!), a fernery, and the Show House. Please note the aquarium is currently closed due to COVID-19.