The Ultimate Guide to Isle Royale National Park
As the island grows from the deck of the approaching ferry, so too does the excitement. Travelers gather their packs and lace up their hiking boots in anticipation. They're headed to Isle Royale National Park, off the coast of Michigan's Upper Peninsula in the heart of Lake Superior. This isn't a park for the adventure-averse: Isle Royale is one of the least-visited national parks in the U.S. and one of the country's last bastions of remote wilderness. Ferries, running from both Michigan and Minnesota, take hours to reach the main island. And once you're there, well, you'd better be ready to rough it.
Upon arrival, a park ranger lays out the rules, hazards and expectations in the park: No open fires without a metal fire ring. No collecting souvenirs, like flowers or antlers. Pack out all your waste. (And they mean all your waste.) If you encounter a moose on the trail, give it a wide berth. Forgot something on the mainland? Cross your fingers that the small store next to the dock has what you need.
After getting a backcountry permit, it's time to head out. Nervous energy builds as you head toward the trail. With every step, the noise and nonsense that defines life on the mainland drifts further away. (Cell service is rare.) Depending on the time of year, it's possible to spend all day on an interior trail surrounded by fir, spruce, and ash forest and not see another human being until stumbling into that night's campground. And when you finally reach camp and sling your backpack off your tired shoulders, you know you'll sleep well.
PLAN Isle Royale isn't a spur-of-the-moment park; a trip here requires meticulous preparation and planning. The only way to arrive is by boat or seaplane. Transportation often sells out, so book as early as possible. Likewise, accommodations within the park—the Rock Harbor Lodge and Windigo Camper Cabins—fill early. If you plan to backpack and camp, you will need a rough idea of your route to obtain a backcountry camping permit.
PACK If you're not staying at Rock Harbor Lodge, plan to bring everything you might need, including food, a camp stove and a good water filter. (Potable water is only available in Rock Harbor and Windigo.) Due to extremely spotty cell service, an emergency SOS beacon, like the Garmin inReach, is also key. And bring good hiking boots for rugged, rocky trails.
DRIVE There are no roads to or on Isle Royale, so park your car at one of the ferry lots for a small daily fee.
FLY United has daily flights into Houghton County Memorial Airport on the Upper Peninsula. For those flying into Minnesota, Duluth International Airport is the best bet.
RIDE Ferries run seasonally from Copper Harbor and Houghton in Michigan, as well as Grand Portage, Minnesota. (Copper Harbor is the primary gateway.) Find the ferries and schedule links here. Expect to spend three to six hours crossing Lake Superior.
ROCK HARBOR TO DAISY FARM CAMPGROUND This trail almost entirely follows the coast for 7 miles, with a soundtrack of lapping waves, trilling loons and the occasional outboard motor. The trail undulates a bit over rocky rises and occasionally detours into the woods, but experienced hikers shouldn't have any problems. From Daisy Farm, you can do a 1.7-mile hike to Mt. Ojibway Observation Tower for a 360-degree view of the island.
STOLL TRAIL TO SCOVILLE POINT Perhaps the most popular hike for lodge guests, a 4-mile round-trip trail to the tip of the island winds through forest and coastline, past bluffs and cliffs.
FOR THE PROFESSIONALS One of the park's weirder claims to fame is that it's home to the largest island (Ryan Island) in the largest lake (Siskiwit Lake) on the largest island (Isle Royale) in the largest freshwater lake (Lake Superior) in the world. Getting to Ryan Island takes a lot of advance planning and skill—which means you shouldn't undertake this adventure without the necessary experience. The route requires paddling several lakes and crossing multiple portages, sometimes carrying your boat as far as 2 miles across difficult terrain. (Most folks who attempt this use a lightweight inflatable pack raft.) But for those prepared, the interior lakes are incredibly beautiful and worth the effort. (For a less harrowing adventure, rent a kayak from Rock Harbor Lodge and paddle to the Lookout Louise Trail, which takes hikers about a mile up to a scenic viewpoint.)
CHECK IN Lodging options are limited and only open from June to September, typically. On the northeast end of the island, Rock Harbor Lodge has 60 rooms, each accommodating up to four people, all with Lake Superior views. An additional 20 Housekeeping Cottages, sleeping up to six, are available at the lodge. Two Windigo Camper Cabins on the southwest end are primitive: neither have indoor plumbing, and amenities like bed linens and cookware aren't provided. (Though they can be rented at the Windigo camp store.) These cabins usually book up very early. All reservations can be made via Rock Harbor Lodge.
CAMP OUT Most visitors camp in one of 36 campgrounds across the island. Some campgrounds have wooden shelters—basically tiny cabins with a screen door and no furniture. These shelters can't be reserved and are highly sought after. Bring a tent, just in case.
PADDLE A KAYAK After hiking, kayaking is probably Isle Royale's most popular activity. Rent a kayak at Rock Harbor Lodge or bring your own on the ferry for a fee.
THROW A LINE IN The amount and variety of fish in Lake Superior boggles the mind. Catch trout, salmon, walleye, pike and more. (Be sure to buy a Michigan fishing license beforehand!)
BIRD WATCH Don't forget your binoculars; you'll find dozens of bird species nesting in trees or swimming in Lake Superior.
RIDE SINGLETRACK If you enjoy mountain biking, add a couple of days at the beginning or end of your trip. Copper Harbor, Michigan, offers singletrack routes, and Duluth's award-winning trails are awesome as well.
GO ON A SELF-GUIDED LIGHTHOUSE OR WATERFALL TOUR Visitors can find eight different lighthouses along the UP's Keweenaw Peninsula shoreline, as well as several waterfalls within a short drive. You should be able to pick up a brochure with locations at any visitors center.