Nobody stumbles upon Isle Royale or stops in on a whim during a drive to somewhere else. This national park—one of the nation’s least-visited—requires a ferry ride of 2-6 hours, depending on which town in Minnesota or Michigan serves as your port of departure. And with the notoriously moody Lake Superior separating the remote archipelago from civilization, your passage to the dock at Windigo or Rock Harbor could be an adventure on its own, depending on how well your stomach handles rough seas.
But the somewhat daunting logistics only heighten the allure of Isle Royale for travelers who see its remove from the rest of the world as an irresistible lure to explore elements like these:
The Wolf Man Rolf and Candy Peterson have spent their summers in an Isle Royale cabin for more than 40 years as Rolf leads a landmark study of the island’s moose and wolves. The gregarious couple welcomes visitors (who arrive via water taxi, national park tour boat, or private boat or kayak) to examine their epic collection of moose bones and come into the cabin for a brownie. Rolf gladly gives impromptu lectures about the stories revealed in moose antlers or the genetic problems driving the island’s isolated wolf population to the brink of extinction. Visiting the Petersons is like coming across the Field Museum in the middle of the most gorgeous hike or paddle of your life.
Activities for Literally Everyone Most visitors go straight from the ferry to the backcountry, disappearing onto hiking trails and countless paddling routes among the islands and coves. Others stay in lodge rooms at Rock Harbor, dining in the two restaurants and listening to Superior’s waves lap at the base of their deck all night. Ranger tours by trail and boat provide easy access to sunset vistas, a lighthouse and preserved fishing cabins. Need proof of the park’s diverse appeal? Consider: One passenger on my ferry trip relied on a walker to make his way to the lodge. A day later, a campground host told me about a former Navy SEAL who recently swam his way around the park in the 48-degree water, towing camping supplies on an inflatable mattress.
Ghost Resorts In the 1920s, resorts and private vacation cabins dotted islands in the soon-to-be national park. Several buildings remain among the trees and undergrowth that are slowly absorbing them back into Amygdaloid Island. Visitors who know where to look can dock in a quiet cove and walk up to peek through the windows. Furniture still stands in several rooms, complete with books on the shelves. No one will blame you for jumping at the glimpse of your own reflection in the glass.
Wildlife Eagles ride thermals overhead, loons sing by day and by night, and mergansers shuttle flocks of downy chicks along shorelines in the summer. The howl of a wolf has become a rarity these days, but you have a great chance of spotting a moose while you’re hiking.
Mesmerizing water Even on glassy calm days, Lake Superior poses challenges for paddlers. The water is so mind-bendingly clear that boulders 40 feet down seem a foot or two away. Kayakers suddenly realize that rather than riding a plane, they’re floating above another world. Looking down into all that extra dimension can mess with equilibrium and send you for a swim. Even if you stick to the park’s tour boats, you’ll get glimpses into Superior’s depths that change your perspective on lakes forever.