Michigan's Remote and Wild Isle Royale National Park | Midwest Living

Michigan's Remote and Wild Isle Royale National Park

Wilderness reigns supreme and serene at one of the best-kept secrets in our national park system.

Wilderness mecca

Stranded in the vast waters of northwest Lake Superior, Isle Royale quietly shines as an example of what a national park should be: a wild, native landscape, buffered from the outside world. No development threatens, and no traffic jams plague its rare beauty.

Even though fewer visitors come to Isle Royale in a year (less than 18,000) than Yellowstone National Park receives in one July day (26,000-plus), the island's backcountry gets the most per-acre use of any U.S. national park. It also claims one of the highest return rates and longest average visitor stays (4.7 days) of all the national parks.

Isle Royale National Park

Ripe for adventure

Isle Royale National Park protects the entire 45-mile-long main island and almost 400 smaller islets and outcrops, all of them untouched by roads and most modern conveniences. Visitors come by water or air; once there, they explore by foot, paddle or private boat. Bicycles are not allowed.

Most of the island is backcountry--wilderness with 165 miles of trails, 46 inland lakes, rustic campsites and a seemingly endless scalloped shoreline, all ripe for adventure.

Explore by foot

Hiking on the islands is popular because of their rugged and unique terrain. North-south trails continually rise and fall over a series of ridges and troughs; the Greenstone Ridge Trail, on the other hand, remains relatively level as it traces a high east-west ridgeline across the island as much as 600 feet above the lake.

This unusual washboard topography began forming some 2 billion years ago, a product of spewing volcanoes, colliding continents and seeping lava flows.

Explore by water

As a water-based park, Isle Royale offers a unique twist on the typical national park scenic drive. The 40-foot MV Sandy casts off from Rock Harbor every day in high season, cruising out to various islands and ranger-led hikes.

For the adventurous, sea kayaking may be the ideal way to explore because it provides easy access to the park's smaller islands. Among the great paddling destinations: the 1855 Rock Harbor Lighthouse, now housing a small museum; the restored Edison Fishery, an example of the family-owned commercial fisheries that thrived here in the early to mid-1900s; and Bangsund Wolf Research Station, its grounds filled with wolf skulls and moss-covered moose antlers.

Keeweenaw Adventure Company offers four- to six-day kayaking and camping trips that allow visitors to take in everything Isle Royale has to offer. The island's Rock Harbor Lodge also has canoe, kayak and motorboat rentals.

Keeweenaw Adventure Company

MV Sandy

Where to stay

Rock Harbor Lodge, the only place to stay on the island, is located at the island's east end, within walking distance of a ferry dock. The lodge has simple, motel-style rooms, cabins, a dining room, a camp store and a marina.

Outside their doors, lodge guests can embark on several outstanding day hikes and ranger-led boat excursions or paddle on their own around protected bays in the resort's rental canoes.

Rock Harbor Lodge

Campers and boaters

Many visitors arrive toting backpacks (and some come in their own boats). Except for a few services in Windigo, the island's western gateway, the island is backcountry waiting to be explored. Permits are required for overnight stays in the campgrounds, at dock or anchoring nearby.

Overnight permits

Precious landscape

Isle Royale was designated as a United Nations biosphere reserve in 1980. The program identifies and encourages conservation of rare ecosystems worldwide. Other U.S. reserves include Yellowstone National Park and Florida's Everglades National Park.

Getting there by water

Transportation to Isle Royale is available from Houghton and Copper Harbor on Michigan's Upper Peninsula and from Grand Portage along Minnesota's North Shore. Allow time on both ends of your trip for possible weather-related delays.

The journey is just as much a part of the wilderness experience as the destination. Standing on the bow of the Isle Royale Queen IV (left), watching the island slowly rise from the wide blue horizon after a three-hour trip, creates an anticipation that driving through a park gate just can't match.

"Isle Royale has a mystique that people cherish," says Capt. Don Kilpela Jr., whose family has run the ferry for 30 years. "It's not an easy place to get to. Yet we figure 35 percent of our passengers are return guests--many of them multiple times."

From Copper Harbor, Michigan: Isle Royale Queen IV makes three-hour trips to Rock Harbor.
From Houghton, Michigan: Ranger III National Park Service ferry makes a six-hour trip to Rock Harbor.
From Grand Portage, Minnesota: Voyageur II ferry makes a seven-hour trip to Rock Harbor.

Isle Royale Queen IV

Ranger III National Park Service Ferry

Voyageur II Ferry

Getting there by air

For those who want a quicker journey than the ferries provide, Royale Air Service offers a 35-minute flight by seaplane to the island from the Houghton County Memorial Airport in Michigan.

Royale Air Service

The island's wildlife

The park is home to a variety of wildlife, including moose, wolves, beaver, loons and fox.

While the island's wolves are shy and stealthy creatures, visitors often spot moose, which seem almost nonchalant around humans. They regularly browse among the cabins and have been known to stroll past the outdoor amphitheater, summarily upstaging the ranger giving an evening nature talk. (Give wide berth to these 1,000-pound mammals, which can be exceptionally dangerous if they feel threatened.)

Island history

It's hard to believe that Isle Royale hasn't always been wild. Native Americans mined rich veins of copper here for more than 1,000 years; their hand-dug pits show up throughout the park. More modern mining operations thrived in the 1800s, as did commercial fisheries. Tourism bloomed at the turn of the last century, with Great Lakes steamers serving island resorts complete with dance halls and bowling alleys. Rock Harbor Lodge is the only resort left today.

The Bangsund Cabin (left) reflects the changing tides of Isle Royale's history. The cabin's walls went up in 1926, and it got a roof in 1930-31 from newcomers Jack Bangsund and his nephew, Bill. Bill and his wife, Isabell, raised three children in the cabin in the 1940s. "Bill quit fishing in 1949; Jack died here in 1959," reads a sign at the cabin. "It has been the field base for wolf-moose research since 1960."

(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® May/June 2008.)

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