You'd Never Guess This Stunning National Park Is Not by the Ocean
There's East Coast, West Coast, and no coast.
Just when you think you can’t get any more backwoods than road tripping Michigan’s sparsely populated northern coast of the Upper Peninsula, why not hop on a boat six hours further north into the savage shipwreck region of Lake Superior just for funsies? Your destination? Isle Royale National Park, a remote island that lacks roads and major infrastructure, but does indeed have packs of timber (gray) wolves and a bunch of moose roaming around.
The indigenous Ojibwe who visited the island for more than 4,500 years called this land Minong, meaning “the good place.” It’s safe to say they were definitely onto something. The 45-mile-long, nine-mile-wide island in the literal middle of nowhere is filled with hiking trails that were created by flowing lava, then flattened and smoothed by glaciation. The island is dotted with balsam fir, white spruce, paper birch, and aspen forests, and the water close to shore is crystal clear—perfect for sea kayaking in protected bays and sheltered coves along the otherwise rugged shoreline.
The fact that Isle Royale is so difficult to get to makes it the least visited national park in the country outside of Alaska, even though it was granted national park status in 1940 by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Besides the high season of late July and August, you may find yourself alone on the trails, other than an occasional visit by a curious beaver or a red fox. Michigan has five national parks, lakeshores, and heritage sites, but even many Michiganders living in the Lower Peninsula aren’t aware of Isle Royale’s existence. Strange, considering it’s the largest island in the largest freshwater lake in North America, and it is also by far the state's largest Wilderness area. In fact, 99% of Isle Royale National Park has been designated as official national Wilderness and serves as a United States Biosphere Reserve.
The travelers that Isle Royale attracts are the rare breed of people who get super psyched to hear that they have to boat across some surging waters, then hike to set up camp at one of the 36 established primitive campgrounds (available on a first-come, first-served basis, and some with only three campsites). Yeah, you heard that right. You go through all of that to arrive and then can’t even be guaranteed a reservation. Worst case scenario, you would just keep trudging along on about 170 miles of trail or kayaking to traverse the island’s many streams and rivers till you find an available spot. No worries. Just come prepared with plenty of provisions and fling yourself into what is sure to be a memorable adventure. Here’s the lowdown to help you plan.
How to get to Isle Royale
Isle Royale is located in the northwest section of Lake Superior, and is actually closer to Canada than to the US (it’s only 15-18 miles from Canada, but about 50 miles away from the closest land in the US). Bear in mind that from November 1 – April 15 of every year, Isle Royale and its surrounding islands are closed to all visitors. Reservations for transport need to be made on a passenger ferry or seaplane.
The Ranger III ferry travels only twice a week to the island from Houghton, Michigan from the end of May through early September, so plan your hiking times accordingly. The trip takes six hours from Houghton’s Portage Canal in the Upper Peninsula to Rock Harbor on Isle Royale. Make sure you return to the dock punctually to leave Isle Royale, or you’ll be stranded a few days before the next boat arrives. Seriously, if you miss the boat, you have to figure out where to sleep that night. During the ride, the ferry cruises beneath the world’s largest lift bridge and past the dramatic shoreline and towering lighthouses of the Keweenaw Peninsula
If you find yourself further north than Houghton, you can start your ferry ride in Copper Harbor on the Keweenaw Peninsula with the Isle Royale Queen IV, trimming the journey to Rock Harbor to just over 3 hours. Their schedule is a bit all over the place most months, so it’s a good idea to look in advance, but in August they offer daily trips.
If you’re feeling swanky, Royale Air Service offers a seaplane service from Houghton to Windigo or Rock Harbor that gives a pretty sweet bird’s eye view of the island upon arrival.
Get your permit in advance
The park charges a $7 entrance fee per person for each day you spend within the park. This includes the day you arrive and the day you depart the park, no matter what time you travel. The Isle Royale Season Pass costs $60 and will cover up to four adults (16 and older)—so the pass holder plus three guests—for all visits during the park season (April 16 through October 31). Children 15 and younger are exempt from entrance fees. Beginning in 2022, Isle Royale National Park will no longer accept cash or checks, only credit card transactions will be accepted. Your best bet is to pay in advance online. While entrance fees and passes can be purchased at Rock Harbor and Windigo upon island arrival, many people getting off the ferry buy theirs then, and it’s no fun to wait in line when all you really want to do is start exploring.
So I arrived and figured out my entrance fees. Now what?
You’ll most likely want to hike the Greenstone Ridge Trail, either in a section or in its entirety. The ridge is named for the color of the underlying Greenstone Flow, a basalt rock that gets up to 800 feet thick and has a curiously greenish hue; it is considered to be part of the largest lava flow on earth that once covered an area from Kansas all the way up into Canada. This trail runs on a ridge almost the entire length of the island, 43 miles in total, starting from where the Greenstone Ridge rises out of Lake Superior in the east at Lookout Louise.
To get to the lookout, you could walk to Lane Cove via the Tobin Harbor and Mount Franklin trail. Or you can skip that part and schedule a water taxi service in Rock Harbor to take you to the Hidden Lake dock in Tobin Harbor, where you can begin hiking the Greenstone Ridge Trail.
The trail heads west through deep woods, across swamps, and past pristine lakes and ponds that attract more than 150 bird species. The Greenstone Ridge drops back down into Lake Superior not far from Windigo at the west end of the island. Most hikers can complete the trail in four or five days, and there are a number of rustic camping options along the trail. You’ll come across several inland lakes, and because it traverses the highest points on the island, it offers killer views of Lake Superior and the island to both the north and south.
Boat on endless lakes
If you’re tired of hiking and want to sit on your butt recuperating while still seeing pretty sites (no judgment here), the Voyageur II offers ferry service at various ports around Isle Royale all summer long. The ship provides some sweeping views of Isle Royale’s wilderness from the water and also functions as a way for backpackers to speed up travel between the Windigo, Daisy Farm, McCargoe Cove and Rock Harbor docks.
For a more touristic excursion, the MV Sandy does sightseeing cruises of the island shoreline that are guided by National Park Service rangers and often allows the opportunity to disembark on remote islands (since the national park is made up of Isle Royale and then 400 other tiny islands) for ranger-led hikes. The tours depart from the Rock Harbor Lodge dock and head to places like Hidden Lake, Raspberry Island, the Edisen Fishery, and Rock Harbor Lighthouse. Isle Royale is home to two other lighthouses as well, the Menagerie Island Light and the Passage Island Light.
In the 100 inland lakes, you can fish for northern pike, trout, walleye, and perch without a permit; fishing in Lake Superior, however, requires a Michigan license. While the warm waters of the inland lakes may be tempting for a quick swim, just… don’t. It’s not a great idea due to rocky, weedy shorelines and an abundance of leeches.
Those who aren’t all tuckered out can explore the island with Keweenaw Adventure Company. They rent single and two-person kayaks, including the use of a wetsuit, which is a must in icy Lake Superior. Canoe routes and portages are on the eastern half of the island, and canoe rentals by half day, full day, or week are available at the marina at Rock Harbor Lodge.
Anyway, what was that about wolves?
In 1948-49, during an exceptionally frigid winter, an ice bridge formed between Canada and the Isle Royale, letting a small pack of Eastern timber wolves cross over. This was awesome for the island’s ecosystem, as the wolves keep the moose population in check. In the past, the moose had overpopulated and began to destroy their own food supplies. Since this initial population arrived, their numbers have varied from 50 animals in 1980 to a low of just two animals between 2016 and 2018, but recent numbers put their population at 14.
Dogs, cats, and other pets are not allowed anywhere within the park boundaries, including on boats, and trust me, they are incredibly strict about this. Pets can be a source of canine parvovirus, a disease that in the past has diminished the cherished wolf population. Realistically, you won’t cross paths with these reclusive creatures, but just hearing them howl as you lie down in your tent at night is sure to send shivers down your spine.
The most commonly seen mammals in Isle Royale National Park are moose, snowshoe hare, marten, beaver, red fox, and red squirrel, as well as river otter, whose population has increased dramatically in recent years. Massive moose can even frequent the lodges and campgrounds. Though they may look a bit slow and doofy, they are not tame nor are they harmless, especially if they feel threatened.
Where to stay in Isle Royale
Most people who come this far to a very remote island don’t mind being out in nature, and they tend to camp. You can either set up a basecamp and hike from there, returning to your tent every night, or backpack your way with all of your supplies to a different spot every night. One thing to prep for when camping on the island is that long-term campground stays are not available. Night limits (usually two–three nights) are in effect from June 1 through Labor Day.
Convenient basecamp locations are Washington Creek Campground and Daisy Farm Campground. The first sits along Washington Creek near Windigo on the southwest end of the island, accessible from the Feldtmann Lake, Minong, and Greenstone Ridge trails. Boats can park over at Windigo Dock, and then you can walk 0.3 miles to the campground. Isle Royale's largest campground is located at Daisy Farm in Rock Harbor Channel, reachable from the Rock Harbor Trail, Daisy Farm Trail, and Mount Ojibway Trail. Sites for one to three tents and three-sided shelters (maximum six people) are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Group campsites, for parties of seven to ten people, require advance reservations through the nps.gov website.
For food, camp stores located in Rock Harbor and Windigo offer basic supplies, but most backpackers bring their own food to the island, and usually camp stoves. Due to ongoing drought conditions and elevated levels of fire danger, all park areas have been forbidding the lighting of wood fires for cooking.
If you or your travel friends insist on a “real bed,” the Rock Harbor Lodge is where you need to head. The lodge is located on the northwest side of Isle Royale, an easy walk from the dock at Rock Harbor. While the rooms may still be a bit rustic, coming back from a long day hiking to eat locally-caught whitefish and then waking up to Michigan blueberry pancakes at the hotel dining room does have some allure compared to a handful of trail mix mined from the depths of your backpack.
What else should I pack?
The level of remoteness should not be underestimated. There is no bopping off to the nearest pharmacy if you forget your medicine. There’s no outdoor gear store to get last minute hiking clothes. This is the middle of a lake that seems more like an ocean. The weather, in true Michigan fashion, can be all over the place, but even in July temps rarely go above 75 degrees, and the lake can whip up some decent winds.
Bring comfy, broken-in hiking boots or shoes, plus layers, wind/rain gear, sunscreen, and insect repellant (mosquitoes and black flies typically hatch around late May to early June, meaning they are at their worst in late June and early July). But above all, make sure you bring with you a willingness to leave the comforts of the mainland behind and allow this place to deeply impact you. There are precious few national parks that let you connect with nature with hardly any other visitors. A few days or a week here being unplugged and hiking, kayaking, and stargazing is guaranteed to leave you recharged—and maybe desperately wanting to return.