This hidden treasure of a park is accessible only by boat or seaplane—which many travelers consider part of its allure. While it takes some planning to reach this ruggedly gorgeous archipelago in the northwest corner of Lake Superior, upon arrival, you’ll be rewarded with incomparable solace. Though Isle Royale is one of the least visited national parks, anyone who has spent time here will understand why it is also one of the most revisited parks in the country.
Facts and figures
- Designated a national park in 1940, Isle Royale was later named a national wilderness area in 1976 and made an international biosphere reserve in 1980.
- Covering 894 square miles, the park contains one large island that is surrounded by more than 450 smaller islands in Michigan’s Lake Superior.
- On average, Isle Royale welcomes 18,000 visitors each year—that’s fewer than Yellowstone National Park sees in a typical day.
- For more than 50 years, researchers have studied the lives of the wolves and moose that inhabit the island. In what has become the longest-running predator/prey study in the world, researchers have deduced that each member of the island’s wolf population descended from a single female who took up residence in the 1940s.
- The park offers 36 campgrounds that are accessible only by foot or watercraft, as there are no roads or cars allowed in the park.
The island’s topography was formed approximately 11,00 years ago, when two miles of ice covered the land, pressing it into the earth. This ice was also responsible for the creation of Lake Superior.
Long before Europeans explored the island, indigenous people mined copper here; in fact, archaeologists have unearthed shallow mining pits that date back 4,500 years. In 1671, the French claimed ownership of the island.
The U.S. took possession of Isle Royale in 1783. Over the course of the next century, portions of the forest were burned or logged to make room for new settlements. Inhabitants mined the region for copper and began commercial fishing—a tradition that was passed down through families for years.
By 1920, the island was attracting new lumber and mining companies eager to tap new resources. But Albert Stoll, a columnist for the Detroit News, made it his mission to protect the remote wilderness. Along with his editors at the paper, Stoll launched a 20-year campaign to bring exposure to the park. In 1940, President Roosevelt declared the area would be protected as a national park.
Things to see and do
To access one of the park’s three points of entry (Houghton, Rock Harbor and Windigo), visitors need to make a reservation with one of the many transportation services that operate passenger ferries and seaplanes from Michigan and Minnesota. Although one-day visits are possible, park rangers recommend staying overnight to get a deeper feel for the park’s solitude. In fact, the average length of stay on the island is three days—versus the four hours people typically spend at a national park. Another bonus to staying overnight? If your timing is right, you may catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights in the night sky.
There’s no better way to experience the park’s splendor than by hiking along its 165 miles of trails. Both the Rock Harbor and Windigo areas offer backpackers a variety of short and lengthier options. Keep in mind that the terrain is rugged and requires bushwhacking in certain areas, so sturdy shoes are essential.
In addition to seeing moose and gray wolves, you’ll have the opportunity to spot beavers, mink, red fox, river otters, snowshoe hare and wood frogs. Look to the skies to see loons, pelicans, woodpeckers and other birds flying through on their annual migrations.
Set aside some time to explore the waterways by boat. There are National Park Service-guided tours, as well as opportunities to rent a motorboat, canoe or sea kayak. Lake Superior is known for its frigid water and sudden shifts in weather, so canoeing and kayaking isn’t suited to novices.
While no license is required to fish inland waters, you’ll need a Michigan fishing license to catch trout, salmon and walleye in Lake Superior.
Adventure enthusiasts will enjoy exploring the 36 campgrounds located throughout the park, accessible only by foot or boat. Featuring tent sites, a water source and outhouses, all campgrounds require permits and are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Consecutive stay limits vary throughout the park.
Visitors who prefer less primitive accommodations should book reservations at Rock Harbor Lodge, the island’s only full-service lodging facility. Boasting a range of options, from rustic cabins to lakefront rooms, Rock Harbor Lodge operates two restaurants, as well as a marina that rents kayaks and canoes.
Best time to go
Due to extreme winter weather, Isle Royale is closed to visitors from November 1 through April 15, making it the only national park in the country that completely closes in the off-season. July and August tend to be the busiest months—and also when biting blackflies are most prevalent—so instead plan to visit in May, June or September, when the weather is moderate and campsites will be more readily available.