A Look at the Revamped Belle Isle Nature Center

The revamped Belle Isle Nature Center focuses on showcasing nature in an urban environment so you can explore Detroit’s wild side.
Belle Isle Nature Center guests can look for bull frogs in the "Detroit River." // Photograph courtesy of the Belle Isle Conservancy

This time of year, birds begin to sing, wildflowers blossom, and tree buds grow into leaves. Spring reminds us of our cohabitant — nature. It resides in Detroit, and that’s the premise behind the recently revamped Belle Isle Nature Center.

“You’ll see the intersection of the built and the natural environment everywhere,” says Director Amy Greene. “It’s growing between the cracks in the sidewalks.”

The updated exhibits, which reopened in October, invite visitors to explore this intersection — from the possums and rats scavenging the Detroit sewer system to the insects pollinating urban gardens. It is two years and $2.5 million in the making.

Like most public attractions, the nature center closed in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Staff evacuated the animals to the Detroit Zoo’s main campus, closer to veterinary care (the Detroit Zoological Society has run the nature center since 2006).

After the second wave of shutdowns foiled their attempt to reopen that fall, the staff realized the extended vacancy left room to renovate. They brainstormed concepts, drawing from educational programming the nature center has provided for years. One activity that came to mind was hunting for bugs with children in an early childhood center parking lot off Gratiot Avenue, Greene says.

“[We wanted to make the center] a place where children who live in the city will find value, belonging, and significance,” Greene says. “You don’t have to go out to the wilderness to experience how you belong and fit.”

The animal enclosures are upgraded for easier zookeeper access. They are also decorated to reflect environments where the animals live in metro Detroit. The turtles swim in front of a mural depicting the coast of the Detroit River. Water snakes and salamanders inhabit wetlands and woods.

The new frog and toad exhibit offers an interesting view and photo opportunity. Visitors can enter a tunnel underneath and pop their heads up into a plastic orb at the center of the enclosure to get a better look at the amphibians (it’s similar to a feature of the prairie dog exhibit at the Detroit Zoo).

This month, staff will set out bird feeders for hummingbirds and listen for migrating orioles — all on display through the improved bird-watching window.

The nature center is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week. Admission is free, outside of park access fees.

Spring and Summer Events on Belle Isle

In addition to the Nature Center, there is plenty to do on Belle Isle this spring and summer including:

Koi Festival

This year marks the seventh annual Koi Festival, a celebration of Japanese culture inspired by the Belle Isle Aquarium’s koi collection. Enjoy family-friendly activities, performances, and snacks at the aquarium. May 6-7.

The Giant Slide

Hang onto your bag and lean forward — the world-famous plunge is back in business starting Memorial Day weekend. Operating hours are 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday, through Labor Day. Tickets are $1 per ride. May 26-Sept. 4.

The Taco and Tequila Festival

Grab an adult beverage with delicious food truck fare and listen to live music at Belle Isle. Tickets are $30 for general admission and $40 for VIP. Proceeds will benefit Friends of the River, a nonprofit dedicated to improving water quality and access in Michigan. June 24.

Belle Isle Art Fair

See and purchase art from over 80 juried artists, grab a bite from a vendor, and enjoy acoustic music performances. Except for the park access fee, it’s completely free to attend. Aug. 5-6.

What’s Not Happening on Belle Isle This Year

The Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory

The greenhouse will be closed for renovation through 2024. However, the Belle Isle Aquarium and Piet Oudolf Garden will remain open all year.

The Fallow Deer Garden

The popular feeding attraction has retired. Detroit Zoo staff moved the remaining elderly fallow deer to the main campus in 2021. Since then, they have passed away peacefully and well beyond their life expectancy, Greene says. They were descended from a wild population, initially brought to the island in the late 1800s.

The Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix

Last year was the final year the Grand Prix took place on Belle Isle. The annual race is moving back to the streets of downtown Detroit, where the event first began. It takes place June 2-4. Ticket information is available at detroitgp.com.

For more information about the nature center and these upcoming events, go to belleislenaturecenter.detroitzoo.org

This story is part of the May 2023 issue of Hour Detroit. Read more in our Digital Edition.