A truly great place to visit with kids is just a short trip away. Many local residents have heard of Belle Isle, but only a few I’ve talked to have been there recently. Many remember the years of neglect and the closing of the zoo, but don’t realize that it is undergoing a revitalization in the past few years under DNR leadership!
We visited Belle Isle and found more to do than can be done in a day. To enter by car, you need a Recreation Pass, pay a park fee of $11 or use your library card to get FREE admission for the day through the Michigan Activity Pass Program. If you travel by foot, bike, or public transport then entry is free. We found parking to be plentiful, though we arrived on a Sunday just as many attractions were opening.
Belle Isle is set in a loop format and has many one-way roads, so the easiest thing is to loop around the exterior and walk in between things you would like to look at. The first stop on the main road is the historical Scott Fountain. It was a great place to begin! The area had lots of people enjoying the fountain, but was not crowded or congested at all. The surrounding area is beautifully landscaped and a family could spend a large portion of time enjoying walking around and/or taking pictures. There are tables and chairs for people to sit and relax. There is interesting history in the fountain itself, you can do some historical reading about the Scott Fountain .
At this point, you may want to repark your car and find a location near the next three points of interest: the Anna Scripts Conservatory, Aquarium, and Dossin Great Lakes Museum. All of these are worthy of a long leisurely stroll to enjoy all they have to offer.
First, the Anna Scripts Conservatory is a wonderful place to visit for all ages. It has a natural pathway that is generous enough for people to both linger to look and to move along. Some of the potential highlights for families are likely to be the Desert room, the Koi pond, and the Tropical House. The variety of cacti and the ‘real’ fruit trees were a treat for my family! Volunteers and staff on the grounds were very helpful in answering questions and sharing details on the plants.
A short walk away is the Aquarium. Though small and still in remodeling phases, the Aquarium was defiantly worth a walk-through. New exhibits are being added as it is slowly being brought back to life. The adults in our group appreciated the architectural beauty of it. The kids really spent a lot of time at the invasive species information because it is a topic that they have covered at school. Although it was small, dark, (which was very tricky to get pictures with the camera we used at the time), and fairly warm in the interior, we really liked our stop there and can’t wait to return to see what will be added next!
Not very far away was a small museum we found to be a pleasant surprise! The Dossin Great Lakes Museum. Here is a place for anyone young and old that has in interest in the history of the Great Lakes or that has a fascination for ships. The exhibits were great for elementary-age and up kids. Lots to look at, touch, see, and do. The exhibits added to our kids prior knowledge from Michigan History. For its small size, a lot is packed into this museum! Our highlights were the Built By the River, which went over the Great Lakes and its uses for trade and commerce through the years. There is also a portions of ships placed IN the museum to explore! Don’t forget to take a peek at the exterior exhibits that include a Coast Guard Ship to explore and an anchor from the Edmund Fitzgerald. For more information on what you could see, check out their website Dossin Great Lakes Museum.
Also, right in this area is the addition of a Giant Slide. This was not open when we went, so I would check the hours. It is one of the few things in the park you would need to pay an additional fee for, but it was low. Currently, it is listed as $1 a ride.
At this point we could have walked to explore further, but chose to repark our car since we were not familiar with the layout of the park. We moved our car toward the other end of the park and took a short stroll to the Livingston Lighthouse. It was a bit of a walk on rough stone trail, perfect for older kids but might be tricky with a stroller or wagon. Around the Lighthouse was foot trails that allowed visitors to walk along the shoreline or loop back to the interior of the park. We enjoyed standing along one of the trails and admiring Canada!
Near the Livingstone Lighthouse is the Nature Zoo. This is the only disappointment we had on our trip. With a ‘Zoo’ label, we had hoped it would be a small but still be ‘zoo-like’. It is a beautiful building and had friendly staff, but it was more a Nature Center than a zoo. We did not get a chance to view the Fallow Deer, which we were not aware was a specific feeding schedule. The Nature Zoo is nice and we enjoyed our walk through. There are many hands-on, touchy, and interactive things to do for young and old. It is clean, visually interesting, and worth a stop as long as you plan it for a portion of your visit instead of the highlight. Lots of information in local ecosystems, native plants and many small terrariums of small creatures. Keep your expectations inline with a Nature Center experience and it should be a nice addition to other attractions you may do.
After a full loop of the park , we headed home with the idea to return and visit things we missed. Next time, we vowed to bring our bikes to explore in from a different viewpoint. We noted that there were kayak, canoe, & paddleboat rentals that would allow us to travel the small waterways & canals we saw on the island. Fees are subject to change and are located in the Recreation portion of the Belle Isle Website. You also can fish (fishing license needed) and golf on Belle Isle! Lastly, there was a beach! Sadly, we did not bring swimsuits or beach gear and had to walk by scores of swimmers enjoying the waters.
Of note, there are plentiful playgrounds on the grounds of Belle Isle. We did not explore them because there was so many other things to do, but they appeared clean and in good repair as we walked by.
If you plan on eating in the park, pack your own food! Vendors do frequent the park during busy times, but are not on a set schedule. There is currently no food or restaurant options available. Yet, park benches and picnic tables were plentiful with plenty in both shade and sunny locations.
Signs of revitalization could be seen across the park in the form of new signs, piles of trimmed landscaping being cleared, and plentiful trashcans in well-populated areas. There were a few locations that were closed-off (Old Zoo area) or inaccessible due to renovations (some restrooms in the further corners of the park). Signs of rebuilding/renovation were obvious and the most popular areas of the park are inviting. As we drove around the loop, a few areas have not been updated and looked unkept but I suspect they are likely are on the to-do list for the DNR as time goes by.
A visit to Belle Isle should be on your summer list. It easily could be a full day trip with only small costs of entry and possibly trying out the Giant Slide or renting a kayak! On warmer days, the Anna Scripts Conservatory, Dossin Great Lakes Museum, and the beach would provide a great break from the heat. Please make sure you check the hours of attractions you want to see at the Belle Isle Website so that you don’t miss anything!
Kathryn Clements is a PreK teacher, mom to fraternal tween twin girls, and wife to a technology-loving husband. For fun she loves to read, explore new museums or parks, and go on day adventures with her family!