Isle Royale National Park
Isle Royale National Park rests in the heart of Lake Superior and is a destination for travelers seeking a true backcountry experience. The least visited of the United States’ national parks, this remote paradise is only accessible by boat or seaplane. But those who make the journey find themselves coming back again…and again. In fact, Isle Royale visitors typically stay there 3.5 days, while the average visit to a national park is about 4 hours.
The island offers incredible hiking, fishing, camping, and paddling opportunities to its visitors. And because of its almost complete absence of light pollution, the park makes for one of the best locations to observe the majestic aurora borealis (Northern Lights) and truly dark skies.
No other national park offers such an intimate experience with the outdoors. Because of the 45-mile long island’s remoteness, visitors are more likely to run into local wildlife than other humans while trekking across the park’s extensive trail system. The park is best known for the local moose and gray wolf populations, but visitors may also stumble upon other small mammals like beavers, red foxes, snowshoe hare, minks, and river otters. The haunting call of loons, which nest along the shorelines, is one of the most memorable experiences.
How Do I Visit Isle Royale National Park?
Visitors can only reach the park by seaplane or ferry. Ferries depart from Houghton (~6 hours one way) and Copper Harbor (3.5 hours one way). Isle Royale Seaplanes depart from Houghton and can get travelers to the park in less than an hour. Plus, you’re rewarded with fantastic views of the island and Lake Superior.
Plan Your Trip to Isle Royale
- Picking Your Dates: Because of the extreme winter weather, Isle Royale National Park is only open April 16th to October 31st each year. Peak visitation on the island runs July through August because of the warmer temperatures; however, many Keweenaw locals prefer to visit in June and early fall to avoid the “crowds”.
- Preparing for the Weather: Watch the weather and prep accordingly. Weather conditions can change quickly thanks to Lake Superior, so bring your rain gear and warmer clothes for when the temps drop at night.
- Bringing Gear: For visitors planning to bring canoes or kayaks, ferries are the best option. Click here to review the ferry schedules.
- Food and Supply Options: Park visitors are permitted to bring food onto the island, and a trip to Isle Royale should definitely include at least one meal roasted over a campfire! But travelers don’t need to pack all their food and supplies. The Rock Harbor Lodge Dockside Store carries various groceries, freeze dried foods, daily fishing licenses (cash only), fishing tackle, stove fuel, camping, hiking, and boating accessories, showers, laundry facilities, and sundries. And the Greenstone Grill serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner to hungry travelers.
Isle Royale Do’s & Don’ts
- Do Bring a good pair of hiking shoes: With more than 160 miles of hiking trails (and no cars allowed on the island), comfortable (broken-in) hiking shoes are a must. According to Pure Michigan, the Greenstone Ridge Trail is the crown jewel of Isle Royale National Park. The 43-mile trail takes hikers along the rocky Greenstone Ridge, through deep woods, across swamps, and past pristine lakes. Most hikers make the journey in 3 to 5 days.
- Don’t Opt for a Day Visit: Although one-day visits are possible, you really need a longer stay to get a true Isle Royale experience. Because of the ferry schedules, a one-day visitor must sandwich a couple of hours of sight-seeing between boat arrival and departure.
- Do Bring plenty of insect repellent: If you plan to stay along the park’s shorelines, the Lake Superior breeze will keep most of those pesky mosquitoes and black flies at bay. But inland voyages, particularly during mid and late June, can be sabotaged by these blood suckers and biters. Don’t worry, the general store in Rock Harbor will have plenty on hand, but if you have a personal preference, be sure to pack plenty of it.
- Do Grab a Paddle: With numerous inland lakes, bays, and islands, Isle Royale is a paddler’s paradise. The park contains many miles of waterways for canoeists and kayakers. Canoes and kayaks are available for rent in both Rock Harbor and Windigo when Isle Royale Resorts services are operational. Guided paddle excursions are also offered by the Keweenaw Adventure Company which offers single and tandem (two-people) kayaks, wetsuits and other necessary gear.
- Don’t Skip out on Ranger Talks: Isle Royale is a national park, and like all other national parks, visitor education is a primary goal. The Park Rangers at Isle Royale are truly experts in the field of conversation and wildlife management, and research on local moose and wolf populations is one of Isle Royale’s most defining characteristics. Ranger Programs are offered at both Rock Harbor and Windigo locations.
- Don’t Feed the Wildlife: Yes, it’s tempting. A cute little critter strolls into your campsite looking for something tasty to eat. But (human) visitors need to resist the urge to offer them a snack. Feeding animals on Isle Royale is illegal. More important, it’s unhealthy for wildlife and puts them at risk the next time they visit a campsite looking for food.
- Do Visit Rock Harbor Lighthouse: Today, Lake Superior is a major hub of shipping traffic, but during the late 1800s and early 1900s, transportation by boat was the most efficient means of travel. Lighthouses played a critical role in safely guiding commercial and passenger vessels. Built in 1855, the Rock Harbor Lighthouse is the oldest on the island (there are two more), and today stands as a testament to the island’s once-thriving mining maritime role. Nine nearby shipwrecks speak to the dangerous shipping conditions on Lake Superior and are now popular attractions for experienced scuba divers.
Most visitors opt to camp at one of the park’s numerous rustic camp sites. But camping isn’t mandatory! Travelers can also choose to stay at the 60 room Rock Harbor Lodge which has an on-site restaurant or rent a cabin or cottage. Visitors who travel during “off-peak” season will get discounted rates. Be sure to make reservations well in advance since these rooms book quickly.