New York is home to 180 state parks. And, while getting to most of them is pretty straightforward, others, like Rock Island Lighthouse State Park in Jefferson County, are a bit trickier.
In this case, that’s because, as the name implies, Rock Island Lighthouse State Park is on an island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River.
Fortunately, there are several ways to reach this park, including options for those without a boat, so anyone can visit and explore this interesting spot.
History of Rock Island Lighthouse State Park
A light was first built on Rock Island in 1858 to help guide ships through a particularly narrow and perilous section of the river.
The current structure on the island was constructed in 1882 to increase the visibility of the light. Unfortunately, the next year, the lighthouse keeper’s house was enlarged, which blocked the light from much of the channel through an area known as the American Marrows.
In part because of this flaw in the design, in August 1889, the A.E. Vickery ran aground on the island during a storm and sank just offshore (after everyone on board was rescued). The shipwreck is marked with buoys just offshore and is a popular diving site because it’s amazingly well-preserved 115 feet below the surface.
Seeing the issue with the lighthouse’s location on the island, it was moved in 1903 to the edge of the island. Somehow, the lighthouse was moved intact and raised on top of a base, though no one today is quite sure how it was done.
In 1958, the light’s service as a navigational aid ceased, and it was put up for sale. In 1976, the island was officially opened to the public as Rock Island Lighthouse State Park.
What to See at Rock Island Lighthouse State Park
Rock Island Lighthouse State Park is a four-acre park about 4.5 miles north of Clayton, New York. The island is very well maintained and a great spot to visit if you are exploring the river. Visiting the island is free (including free docking if you have your own boat), though tours of the lighthouse and access to the keeper’s house cost $3.
The most prominent spot is obviously the lighthouse, which stands 50 feet above the water. A spiral staircase leads to the top of the lighthouse, where you can still see its rare sixth-order Fresnel lens.
Caretakers lead the tours to the top of the lighthouse and offer a wealth of information about its history while atop the structure. The views from the top are phenomenal, and you can even see deep into the river’s water.
The lighthouse keeper’s house is located at the highest point on Rock Island and is a beautifully restored two-story home clad in bright red siding.
The house contains a small museum on its first floor that tells the story of the island and the keepers who worked here, as well as information on how the lighthouse worked. There is also a gift shop and a few packaged snack and drink items are available for purchase. They also offer a free island scavenger hunt for kids.
Other structures on the island include an old boathouse, a modern bathroom facility, and the dock, which has room for a good number of boats.
Of course, a lot of the fun of being on the island is simply relaxing on the rocky areas and watching the boats go by. If you’re lucky, you might even see a giant cargo ship heading into or out of the Great Lakes as they pass just off-shore.
There are also a few picnic tables scattered around the island.
The lighthouse and keeper’s house are open to the public on select days from mid-May through mid-September from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. However, the park itself is open during daylight hours year-round, so you can still explore the island outside of these operating hours.
Getting to Rock Island Lighthouse State Park
There are two ways to get to Rock Island Lighthouse State Park: taking a boat tour or with your own boat.
Clayton Island Tours is the only boat company that has permission to dock at the island, and they offer tours on most days that the island’s buildings are open. This is how I accessed Rock Island Lighthouse State Park.
During these tours, the boat docks for approximately one hour, which is enough time to tour the lighthouse and explore the island without feeling rushed.
I took their glass-bottom boat tour, which stops at the island, but they also offer other options as well that include a stop. Just make sure to verify that the tour your book stops here as not all of their offerings do.
The other way to reach the island is with your own boat. There is enough room for half a dozen boats or so to dock at one time, and there is no fee to dock here while exploring the island. (Just the aforementioned $3 fee if you want to tour the lighthouse.)
This park has a variety of amenities including boat rentals (which may be cheaper than a tour if you have a larger group), a beach, and a campground. During most of the time that the lighthouse is open, there is a $7 charge per vehicle to access the park.
According to the website for Rock Island Lighthouse State Park, it’s about a five-minute boat ride from the state park to the lighthouse. If you are kayaking, the lighthouse is about 0.75 miles downriver of the launch site in Grass Point State Park.
Of course, for those with powered boats, there are many other launch sites throughout this part of the St. Lawrence River that you could leave from.
But, however you get here, this is definitely a fun and unique state park to explore.