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Camping Rock Island State Park Wisconsin

Camping Rock Island State Park, Wisconsin

Camp Wisconsin: I’m talking with Randy today. He’s going to tell us about Rock Island State Park in Wisconsin. Randy, it’s a little bit of a unique situation for camping there. Why don’t you give us a little bit of background on Rock Island State Park to get us started?

Randy: Rock Island State Park, in the last century, was owned for most of its time by a guy by the name of Chester Thordarson. He’s inventor of electrical things and audio equipment. He owned the entire Island, expect for around the lighthouse.

Camping Rock Island State Park Wisconsin
Rock Island State Park in Wisconsin

Camp Wisconsin: How many acres is the Island?

Randy: 912.

Camp Wisconsin: And I’m really curious about that. Do you know what, more specifically, he invented or any companies that he started?

Randy: Well, he owned the Thordarson Transformer Company.

Camp Wisconsin: Oh, okay.

Randy: Which, until recently, was under its own flag name. It’s been bought out. They’re still making product. Chester died in 1945, but he was in that Golden era of the early 1920s, roaring ’20s, and it had to be a beautiful time to live. You know, they’re developing aircraft and electricity and audio stuff. He was real close friends with the CEO of the Sensis Corporation, because made a lot of coils, amplifiers, and stuff like that. It had over 100.

Camp Wisconsin: That’s fascinating to me. So, he was obviously doing really well for himself.

Randy: He did very well.

Camp Wisconsin: Amazing. And when was it purchased by the State then to become a State Park?

Randy: The State got it in – it became a State Park in 1965.

Camp Wisconsin: Okay.

Camping Rock Island State Park Wisconsin Bench
Rock Island State Park Scenic Lake View

Randy: And the master plans. Basically the whole living is rustic conditions. The areas that are developed will be maintained. The other areas will be left natural. And because of its location on the Grand Traverse Islands, it has an incredible amount of rare and endangered flowers and things.

Camp Wisconsin: Sure.

Randy: Probably some snails and stuff. So, the northern three-quarters is a State Natural Area as well, to give it more protection.

Camp Wisconsin: Oh, okay.

Randy: Basically it’s a quiet place. You know, it’s one of those places where there’s – when we upgraded our flush toilets, we didn’t put lights in them just because we didn’t want to create light pollution, and nobody has complained.

Camp Wisconsin: That is fantastic. So, it’s all people that are coming over. Do they come over just on foot, or can you actually come out there with a car?

Randy: Rock Island is strictly an Island. Most people come on the ferry. It’s called a car fee.

Camp Wisconsin: Yeah.

Randy: And there is a charge for that of course. That’s run by the Washington Island Ferry Company now. Private boats are welcome. We’re getting to be known for good kayaking. Again, we’re out in the middle of Lake Michigan. So, when the waves get too high, the people are able to put their kayaks on the ferry and bring them back.

Camp Wisconsin: Sure. And what types? So, it’s all primitive camping that you have there. And what are the most popular activities there on the Island then while I’m camping on Rock Island State Park?

Randy: Just the camping itself. Enjoying the peace and the quiet. You know, you don’t have sirens. You don’t have cars going by. You don’t have trucks or trains. You don’t have all of that stuff. Each campsite is a rustic campsite with a picnic table and a fire ring. Most of the toilets are pit toilets. There’s one flush toilet. We’ve got the oldest lighthouse in Wisconsin. It’s the third oldest on Lake Michigan, and it’s been restored pretty beautifully. Friends of Rock Island did that. In addition, they operate seven days a week from Memorial Day until Columbus Day. Tours are free. Free or low donation. Really a kind of cool program. It’s run strictly by volunteers.

Camp Wisconsin: Yeah.

Randy: Volunteers live in there for a week of the crack in exchange for cleaning and giving the tours.

Camp Wisconsin: That sounds awesome. And how long does it take to get over on a ferry?

Randy: Ferry run is about ten minutes. It’s just over a mile between the two Islands here.

Camp Wisconsin: Oh, not too bad at all.

Randy: Yeah.

Camp Wisconsin: Sure.

Randy: It’s not a big issue.

Camp Wisconsin: Okay, two more questions for you, Randy. If you were going to spend just one hour on Rock Island State Park in Wisconsin, how would you spend your time there?

Camping Rock Island State Park Wisconsin House
Rock Island State Park

Randy: Well, because everybody’s on the same level, everybody’s walking when they’re on Rock Island. If I only had one hour, I would tour the grounds. The Ferguson Estate. We have, it’s called, the Viking Hall, or the Boathouse depending on – it’s a great big formative, big stone building. It’s right at the dock where you approach. And we’re setting up a Boathouse Program similar to the one at the lighthouse, where there will be a family giving tours, answering questions, and kind of orienting people to the Island. It’s pretty cool.

Camp Wisconsin: All right, awesome.

Randy: That’s really impressive actually.

Camp Wisconsin: Great. And last question for you, Randy: if you were going to spend just one night on Rock Island State Park, which specific site would you stay at and why?

Randy: We don’t have hardly any bad sites. We’ve got several that are in the State’s Friends Organization. You know, in the last decade been nominated. Received rewards for best kayak, best walk-in and stuff. The water view campsites are the most popular. There are five remote sites that are on the far side of the Island. So, if you want to pack your gear a mile, it gives you a little bit more remoteness to it. But being a walk-in Island, the campsites are a lot farther apart than most campgrounds. We’ve got the two group sites that are getting to be more and more popular for family reunions and things. Really there aren’t any bad sites.

Camp Wisconsin: All right, sounds good.

Randy: The lettered sites – A through E – are the most popular, and the sites in the 20s, which face Green Bay, are probably the next most popular.

Camp Wisconsin: All right. Well, hey Randy, thank you so much for taking a little bit of time out of your morning to tell us a little bit more about Rock Island State Park and the history there. Very, very fascinating and we’ll definitely get the word out to our visitors right away. Thanks so much.

Randy: Okay, bye.

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