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  • Writer's pictureSam Hageman

Michigan State Parks: Belle Isle


BACKGROUND

Belle Isle State Park is a 982-acre island right off of Jefferson Ave located in the City of Detroit. Belle Isle was made the 102nd Michigan State Park in 2014 when the State of Michigan signed a lease agreement with the City of Detroit for 50 years. Belle Isle is home to the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, Belle Isle Nature Center, Belle Isle Aquarium, & iconic James Scott Memorial Fountain. Belle Isle also gives you one of the best views of the City of Detroit skyline from the Detroit River & is perfectly situated in the only place where Canada is South of the United States, the international border between the City of Detroit & our neighboring Canadian City, Windsor.

Belle Isle also offers an escape for local residents to go outside & explore nature in one of the U.S.A.'s largest urban cities. Belle Isle offers multiple trails throughout the park, along with a 6 mile paved perimeter road around the island for biking, walking, running, & more. For more information visit the Michigan State Park website here.


PROS OF BELLE ISLE

Belle Isle is our favorite local Michigan State Park to visit & has a lot of Pros. It is close to home for anyone in the Metro-Detroit area, especially those within the City of Detroit & it's bordering cities. The park is also accessible by bus for anyone within the city limits.

For us & many dog owners who live in the city or surrounding cities, Belle Isle offers a lot of options for hiking, training, or playing with our dogs. There are multiple trails that allow for long hikes along the waters edge or within the island itself.

One of the most popular trails is the William Livingstone Memorial Lighthouse trail which offers a large trail around the lighthouse, along the shores of the Detroit River, & all the way back to the fence that is a part of the driving range (hopefully one day this will be made into a full loop to go around the Blue Heron Lagoon). Another popular spot is the improved gravel trail near Lake Okonaka.

There are a few other more lesser known trails within the island itself, but I will leave that up to you all to find & explore. It wouldn't be any fun without an adventure, right?!

Another benefit of Belle Isle is the access to water, not only for swimming in the Detroit River, but also for fishing, kayaking, paddle-boarding, sailing, freighter watching, & more. Further, Belle Isle also offers activities & places to visit throughout the island that are fun for the whole family, like a driving range, athletic fields, playgrounds, the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, the Belle Isle Nature Center, the Belle Isle Aquarium, & plenty of picnic areas you can make an entire day out of exploring Belle Isle.

CONS OF BELLE ISLE

Belle Isle is our favorite local park & we enjoy going there frequently, however it is far from perfect & has a few cons. Since Belle Isle is a wetland, a lot of the Island can be very muddy to hike & a lot of flooding occurs once the snow melts/during the rainy season. However, this can also mean more road closure & more places to explore.

A pro about Belle Isle is that it is in a major city, but it can also be a con as it attracts a lot of tourists & can be overcrowded, especially in the summer at the public beach (as well as any access to the Detroit River around the Island), fountain, museum, aquarium, nature center, & the Detroit skyline view.

Along with a lot of people comes a lot of irresponsible people, disrespectful people, trash & damage to the Island. We frequently pick up bags of garbage while we are out & about, especially in the summer. There are also problems with parking in certain areas (especially the Detroit Skyline area & Lighthouse Trail), so people can be very rude & park wherever they want...even in the middle of the road double parked.

We also frequently encounter bad dog owners who fail to pick up after their dog; let their dogs run up to people/other dogs/wildlife & have no control over them; have the mentality that just because their dog is "friendly" it can do whatever it wants; & that Belle Isle is a dog park instead of a State Park for everyone to use. It can be quite frustrating, especially if you have a reactive dog.

Another major con is the Grand Prix. The Grand Prix is an IndyCar race that is only three days (Friday to Sunday) in June & has occurred most years since 1989 with the race moving to Belle Isle in 1992. The Grand Prix destroys a lot of the Island with the equipment, barriers, seating, etc.; closes off island icons like the James Scott Memorial Fountain & Skyline view of Detroit; closes 1/3 of the island for 80 to 120 days of the Spring/Summer (although arguably larger land mass when you exclude areas still closed from the Zoo & other abandoned parts of the island); causes overcrowding in other areas of the island left open; & has potential harm on the natural wetlands wildlife on the island (although unsure how much as there has not been a proper environmental study done on the island from the effects of the Grand Prix).

When you look at other IndyCar races around the country, most only take 3 weeks for set up & tear down, but because the contract allows so much time for the Grand Prix, Roger Penske takes full advantage of his enlarged timeline. Although the Grand Prix donors in conjunction with the Belle Isle Conservancy help generate money for maintaining Belle Isle & "improvements" on the Island, many of these improvements have only been shown to benefit the Grand Prix (such as the roads) rather than the improvements to the natural areas of the island.

After frequently going to Belle Isle over the past few years, this was the a great year for patrons who love Belle Isle without the Grand Prix (canceled due to COVID19 Stay-At-Home Order), as well as for the wildlife who live on the island (including Bald Eagles who started living on the Island over the past few years). Although some may disagree & believe this race only impacts a simple weekend, it truly destroys the use of the park for almost 4 months of the year.

Another con is decaying areas of the park, including the massive area of the old Detroit Zoo located in the middle of the Island. Since 2002 the Zoo has sat unused & decaying. The Zoo is still fenced off in the middle of the island & takes up a large part of the island. Although some improvements have been made to old abandoned areas of the park, including areas like the old golf course, there are still massive improvements that need to be done to get rid of the old decay on the Island.


Even with the cons of Belle Isle, we still do love the Island & adventuring all over the park. We hope you get the chance to enjoy Belle Isle State Park!


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