Belle Isle brings mother nature back to Detroit

othing quite marked Detroit’s recent economic struggle and resurgence like Belle Isle. 

The beloved 982-acre park, which is bigger than Central Park and located in the Detroit River between Canada and Detroit, drew crowds from far and wide for a serene experience with nature in the heart of industrialized America – up until the early 2000s, that is.

That’s when the city – and the park – hit an economic rough patch. Overnight it seemed to go from a natural paradise to a blighted sign of the city’s struggles. Luckily though, that’s not where this Cinderella story ends.

In 2013, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the city of Detroit initiated a 30-year lease of the space.  Around the same time, the Friends of Belle Isle, Belle Isle Botanical Society, Belle Isle Women’s Committee and Friends of Belle Isle Aquarium officially joined forces, after a process that started in 2009, to create the Belle Isle Conservancy.

“The Belle Isle Conservancy is here to represent the community and to restore the park,” says Genevieve Nowak, the director of volunteer services at Belle Isle. “It’s made up of people from the neighborhoods that wanted to help Belle Isle.”

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And help Belle Isle, they did.

Under the management of the DNR, and with the help of the community, the conservancy was able to clean up Belle Isle, restore its natural beauty and breathe life back into the museums and other attractions, which are now open to the public.

“We have our aquarium, which is the oldest aquarium in North America,” Nowak explains. “We have the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, which is next door to the aquarium, and the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, where you can learn about ships and the Great Lakes.”

The isle also offers playgrounds, including an ADA-accessible one, a giant slide, outdoor sport courts and a beach access.

But what really sets this spot apart from other destinations, however, is the chance to experience nature in the heart of Detroit. 

“We have owls, turtles, geese, coyote and white-tailed deer that you can see on the nature trails or just enjoying the island,” Nowak says.

The location of the island, in the Detroit River, also offers prime opportunities for walleye, catfish, perch and smallmouth bass fishing, with a valid fishing license – and the Belle Isle Nature Center, where families can get up close and personal with unique critters.

“Believe it or not, metro Detroit is an ideal location for fishing, kayaking, paddle boarding and even just relaxing along a beautiful stretch of water,” says Matt Pedigo, chair of the Michigan Wildlife Council.

Other really good ways to immerse yourself in nature include biking the 5.5-mile loop around the isle and hiking or snowshoeing the “rare wet-mesic forest” trails that will remind metro Detroiters of what the area looked like hundreds of years ago. Kayaking through the many canals of the river is also a popular park pursuit.

“Last year, I was on the kayaks with my family, and you can find little hidden pockets where you almost feel like it’s a secret location,” Nowak says. “You’re in Detroit, but it’s so serene and calm and beautiful that you feel like you’re a million miles away from everyone else.”

There’s also plenty of nature-based kids camps and school programs throughout the year, like Stewardship Saturdays, that aim to get locals involved in wildlife conservation projects such as the pulling of invasive plant species.

“We want to create awareness of how community and individual littering affects the park and waterways and to cultivate change. This is everybody’s park, and it’s everyone’s responsibility to keep it clean,” Nowak says.

For an $11 Recreation Passport you can go to Belle Isle – or any Michigan state park – as many times as you like throughout the year.  Plus, almost every activity and museum offered at Belle Isle is free with your park pass.

“It’s a beautiful, wonderful location,” Nowak says. “The people who live in the neighborhoods of Belle Isle want people to feel completely welcome. This is your park, your island, so come and enjoy it.”

About the Michigan Wildlife Council

The Michigan Wildlife Council is entrusted with educating the public about the importance of wildlife conservation and its role in preserving Michigan’s great outdoor heritage for future generations. The council is dedicated to increasing public knowledge about how wildlife and Michigan’s outdoors are managed and funded so that we can continue to enjoy them as we do today. Find out more at hereformioutdoors.org.

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