Isle Royale National Park
Isle Royale National Park is one of the least visited national parks in the country — but that doesn’t mean you should skip over it. Despite that fact, it is also one of the most revisited national parks nationwide, booked for months in advance. National Geographic even added it to its list of “Best of the World” in recent years! Here is everything you need to know about why this national park should be on your bucket list.
Where is Isle Royale National Park?
Isle Royale and its rugged archipelago wilderness are located in Lake Superior, 53 miles north of Copper Harbor and 20 miles east of Grand Portage, Minnesota. The park is renowned for being a place to disconnect and bask in the sights and sounds of nature.
How big is Isle Royale?
To be precise, Isle Royale has 450 islands, 160+ miles of wilderness trails, four lighthouses, sunken shipwrecks and no cars. Of its 133,782 acres, 132,018 are designated wilderness making this park an amazing hiking destination.
How to get there
Isle Royale is remote and takes planning to visit. 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.
You can take a ferry from Houghton, a six-hour trip one way, or Copper Harbor, which takes about three and a half hours. Seaplanes travel from Houghton and get you there in under an hour! Both are scenic ways to travel, and that gorgeous view begins when you depart. As you approach the island you can actually feel its warmth and smell the earth and vegetation. For ferry users who do not often travel long distances over water, this experience is quite unique and memorable.
History of Isle Royale
Once called “Minong” by the Ojibwa, meaning “the good place,” it’s speculated that the name was rooted in Isle Royale’s reputation for its berries, specifically thimbleberries and blueberries. In 1931, then President Herbert Hoover authorized Congress to “conserve a prime example of the North Woods Wilderness.” By March 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the land as 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. Then 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.
Due to extreme winter weather conditions, the park is open annually from mid-April through October. The best time to visit is during the summer, but it will also be the busiest time to visit. Even then, this destination still feels like a remote escape with others flocking to it. Keep in mind that weather also heavily influences traveling to and from the island and what you do during your stay. Be sure to check the forecast beforehand, and consider the temperatures may feel colder than they would at home because this is an island. We suggest packing layers for warm and breezier days.
Things to do in Isle Royale
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.
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, bellows 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. Sample some of those berries across the island, but make sure they aren’t poisonous first. The National Park Service has information about what is edible at Isle Royale online! Enjoy an amazing view of the night sky, and take stunning photographs of the unscathed beauty you’ll encounter!
Isle Royale wildlife
This is one of the few places in Michigan where visiting increases your chances of seeing moose and, if you are lucky, a gray wolf. But you will certainly hear them howling! Wildlife that is commonly found on the Upper Peninsula mainland is not always seen on the very remote Isle Royale. There are numerous amphibians and birds, a few reptiles and 18 mammals, including beavers. Each species has either made the journey or been reintroduced to the island. Other mammals to look for while hiking or paddling include red foxes, ermines, mink, five types of bats, Isle Royale red squirrels and possibly Canada lynxes. Read more about them on the National Park Service species page. The park offers junior, youth and adult ranger programs as well as guided tours, so they can give you pointers when looking for the wildlife.
Plan to stay overnight
To even begin to experience everything that this unique park has to offer, plan to spend at least two or three nights here. 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. Find lodging by searching Isle Royale on our Places to Stay page.
Have a great trip!
This is one bucket list item you won’t want to push off. Start planning and get excited, you’re about to experience peace and quiet in a whole new way. Until your trip begins, read about one of our partners’ first-time experiences at Isle Royale in this MI Playground blog.
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