Isle Royale National Park: Michigan’s Island Wilderness

Isle Royale (Minong “the good place” in Ojibwa) is one of the least visited national parks in the country. Conversely, it is also one of the most revisited and among National Geographic’s “Best of the World” list for 2021.

Photo credit: Rachel Sabin

Isle Royale and its rugged archipelago wilderness in Lake Superior has 450 islands, 160+ miles of wilderness trails, four lighthouses, sunken shipwrecks and no cars. The park is renowned for being a place to disconnect and bask in the sights and sounds of nature. Of its 133,782 acres, 132,018 are designated wilderness making this park an amazing hiking destination. 

Located in Lake Superior (53 miles north of Copper Harbor, Mich., and 20 miles east of Grand Portage, Minn.), Isle Royale is remote and takes planning to visit. Due to extreme winter weather conditions, the park is open annually from mid-April through October. Keep in mind that weather also heavily influences traveling to and from the island and what you do during your stay. If you would like to visit, be sure to arrange transportation by ferry or seaplane in advance. there are seasonal hours at the visitor information centers in Houghton, on the island at Rock Harbor and Windigo and at the park’s summer headquarters located on Mott Island.

In addition to being a national park, in 2019, Isle Royale was added to the National Register of Historic Places as The Minong Traditional Cultural Property. This important designation reflects the recognition of the cultural history of the island and, notably, that of Native Americans. Also, in 2021 the Minong Mine Copper Mining District was designated a National Historic Landmark recognizing the significance of both the indigenous and historic copper mining that occurred at Minong Mine. The park also boasts many other listings on the National Register of Historic Places including historic structures and shipwrecks.

For those traveling by ferry, the experience of the park begins even before you arrive on its shores. As you approach the island you can actually feel its warmth and smell the earth and vegetation. For people who do not often travel long distances over water, this experience is quite unique and memorable.

Visitors disembark at the island at either Rock Harbor or Windigo. Rock Harbor has a full- service marina with canoe and boat rentals, a camper store, showers, a gift shop and a snack bar. Windigo, at the Island’s west end, has a camper store with supplies, food and marine gasoline. These locations are where backpackers fill their water bottles, double-check their supplies and prepare to head down the quiet trails into the pristine wilderness.

Photo credit: Jorie Strunk

A hike at Isle Royale is like no other. Leaving the wider more frequented trails near Rock Harbor and Windigo, hikers enter into a unique natural landscape. Narrow trails with few other signs of humans lead through boreal forests, wetlands and over rocky outcrops. Once away from the main waterways, the only sounds are that of nature such as the rustling of leaves, call of loons, bellow of moose, chirps of squirrels and songs of birds. Popular sights and viewpoints include Grace Creek Overlook, Minong Ridge Overlook, Scoville Point, Mount Franklin, Suzy’s Cave, Ojibway Fire Tower, Edisen Fishery and Rock Harbor Lighthouse.

There are many more ways to enjoy Isle Royale’s exceptional beauty. Canoe, kayak and fish on Lake Superior’s open waters or inland lakes. Boat or scuba dive on Lake Superior. Visit lighthouses and historic sights. Enjoy an amazing view of the night sky. Take stunning photographs – this is one of the few places in Michigan where you could see moose and if you are lucky a wolf. The park also offers junior, youth and adult ranger programs as well as guided tours.

To even begin to experience everything that this unique park has to offer, plan to spend at least two or three nights. There are 36 campgrounds accessible only by foot or watercraft located along the Lake Superior shoreline and inland; two rustic camper cabins in Windigo and Rock Harbor Lodge and cottages.

Ready to truly experience peace and quiet? Plan your U.P. trip today!

 

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