Presque Isle is celebrating its 100th anniversary as a state park this year and it’s not hard to see why close to 5 million people visited it in 2020.
Known to Erie County locals as “the peninsula,” its 3,200 acres arch into Lake Erie, creating Presque Isle Bay.
You want recreation on land? Presque Isle has it on beaches and on trails open to those on foot or wheels. In the water? Yep, you can swim and boat and fish.
Enjoy a leisurely drive? The park’s roads form about a 13-mile loop and, going 25 mph, you’ll see plenty of scenic views even if you don’t stop.
Like nature? You’ll find a variety of wildlife at the state park, where more than 330 species of birds have been identified. Interested in history? It’s there too, tied to the War of 1812’s Battle of Lake Erie.
And don’t forget the Presque Isle Lighthouse, with a 57-foot tower offering a panoramic look at the park.
“It’s beautiful. There’s a lot to do,” first-time visitor David Cardwell said.
He and his wife, Janet Cardwell, drove almost seven hours to reach Presque Isle State Park from their home in Jersey City, New Jersey. The couple, who are in their 50s, brought along their bicycles and said they learned about Presque Isle’s Multi-Purpose Trail in a Rails-to-Trails guidebook. While the park’s 13½-mile paved trail wasn’t created from a railroad corridor, the couple said it received great reviews.
The Cardwells said they rode their bikes around the park, took a paid boat tour on the Lady Kate and hiked to Gull Point, the natural area on the peninsula’s eastern end.
“We didn’t kayak, but maybe next time,” David Cardwell said.
On a rainy August morning, they stopped at the Tom Ridge Environmental Center, 301 Peninsula Drive. The center features displays on Presque Isle’s history, ecosystems, wildlife, plants and more.
The building, which is also home to the park office, features a 75-foot glass-enclosed observation tower.
Outside, a new nature play space for children is in the works. Another one is already located at Beach 11. A playground is near Beach 7.
Anne DeSarro, park environmental education specialist supervisor, said the Ridge Center is also the source of interpretive, educational and recreational programs offered at Presque Isle, many for free.
When she encounters first-time visitors at the Ridge Center, DeSarro said, she suggests they start with a drive around the park. From their vehicle, they might see great blue herons, deer, fox and more. If they have a little time, she encourages them to stop and get out, maybe on a beach where they can simply walk to the edge and watch the waves of Lake Erie.
Radio transmitters:Erie Bird Observatory uses tiny technology to study Presque Isle migrations
If they have more time, DeSarro directs them to the Presque Isle Lighthouse, the Perry Monument, the North Pier Light and the houseboats.
The lighthouse was completed in 1873. Owned by the state, it is still a working aid to navigation, with a light maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard. Visitors can roam the grounds for free but pay a fee for a tour of the house or to climb to the top of the tower.
“It’s pretty significant historically,” DeSarro said.
Climb to the top:Erie Land Lighthouse, Presque Isle Lighthouse opening for tours
So is the Perry Monument, built in 1926 on Crystal Point near Misery Bay and named for American naval commander Oliver Hazard Perry, who beat the British in the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812.
Educational panels display information about Perry and the battle.
While it took place off the coast of Ohio, the U.S. ships spent time at the peninsula. Its Little Bay sheltered Perry’s fleet and was renamed Misery Bay by sailors who survived harsh winters there, according to a Presque Isle map. According to park legend, nearby Graveyard Pond got its name because some sailors were buried there.
“Now it’s a beloved boating spot,” DeSarro said.
Visitors can rent watercraft at the boat livery or sign up for free pontoon boat rides in the lagoons. There’s also a turtle observation deck with binoculars and educational panels to help people spot the native species that like to pile on logs in the sunshine.
Farther along the peninsula, the North Pier Light dates to the 1850s and is located on the east end of the channel leading into Presque Isle Bay. The light appears on a U.S. Postal Service Forever Stamp starting this month.
Visitors can’t enter its 34-foot-tall black-and-white-striped tower but DeSarro recommends a walk along the pier to the light, where she says you’ll pass people catching yellow perch, walleye, sunfish, catfish, bluegills, goby and bass.
“That’s like a main highway for the fish,” she said about the channel.
The same is true for boats.
“You’ll see every kind of boat go through that channel if you sit for 15 minutes during boat season,” DeSarro said.
On the way to the North Pier Light, visitors will pass the houseboats on Horseshoe Pond. Their private owners pay a fee to the state to be there.
“None of them are available to stay in,” DeSarro said.
Overnight stays aren’t allowed at Presque Isle, but various campgrounds, hotels and motels are located in the Erie area.
The Minick family, from Mount Pleasant, recently spent a week at a campground near the park entrance. Grabielle Minick, 30, said they were drawn by the freshwater beaches, which are closer than the ocean, and the “family-oriented things to do.” It was the third visit to the park for the family that also includes dad Jesse Minick, 36, and daughter Kinley Minick, 9.
“Our beaches are open year-round for enjoyment,” DeSarro said. “You can go on the beach from sunup to sundown. You can only swim when there’s a lifeguard.”
The beaches are usually guarded for swimming from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, although sometimes for a few additional weekends in September.
Leashed or restrained pets are allowed at the park except in designated swimming areas.
“We ask that people clean up after their pets,” DeSarro said. Visitors also are asked to “leave no trace” of themselves by properly disposing of their trash.
For those who don’t like sand between their toes, Presque Isle offers miles of interior trails for hiking. August isn’t necessarily the best time to explore them, though, because of the insect activity, DeSarro said.
Her favorite is Dead Pond Trail because hikers go from grassland to shrubland to ponds, swamp, forest and old dunes — the whole succession.
“We have a tremendous amount of different habitats,” she said. “Biologically, this place is so rich.”
But you can’t take it with you, other than in your memories or photographs.
DeSarro said the removal of natural items, including stones, shells, driftwood, plants and animals, isn’t allowed. An exception is beach glass, which can be found at numerous spots around the park.
“You can take the glass because it’s considered litter,” DeSarro said.
301 Peninsula Drive, Suite 1
Erie, PA 16505-2042
Read More:Presque Isle State Park is more than a day at the beach