The Ultimate Guide to Isle Royale National Park

Adventure awaits the bold at Isle Royale National Park, an island in Lake Superior that’s one of the country’s least-visited national parks. The reward for those who do come: rugged beauty, challenging hikes and the chance to spot a moose.
Isle Royale

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.

Credit: Getty Images
You Should Know
What to pack and how to get there
Man hiking in Isle Royale National Park

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. 

Credit: Per Breiehagen
Hike Highlights
Most hikes leading into the interior of the 206 square miles of the park are meant to help visitors get from one campground to another.
Man and woman hiking in Isle Royale National Park

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.)

Credit: Aaron Peterson
Scenic Stops
If you prefer not to hike, you can take in the scenery in the relative comfort of a boat tour. Cruises sail six times a week from Rock Harbor on different routes to smaller islands and sights not accessible from the mainland (like Raspberry Island and Passage Island Lighthouse). You can find the schedule and destinations here
Rock Harbor on the coast of Isle Royale National Park
Credit: Getty Images
Wildlife Watch
Isle Royale is known for having moose and wolves. Moose frequently appear on the trails—they can be quite surly, so keep your distance—but it's still a thrill to spot one. It's rare to see their main predator though; wolves tend to hunt at night and shy away from humans. Look for these animals (and more) on your visit.
Isle Royale
Where to Stay
Would you rather bed down at a hotel or camp under the stars? These basecamps put you close to the action so you can explore the park by day and unwind your way each evening.
Man looking over water from Rock Harbor Lodge deck in Isle Royale National Park

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.

Credit: Per Breiehagen
Credit: Getty Images
What (Else) To Do
Looking to peel off your hiking boots for a bit? Here are a few activities to keep you occupied, both on and off the island.
Kayaking between rocks in Isle Royale National Park
On the Island

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.

Off the Island

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.

Credit: Per Breiehagen
Harbor Haus Restaurant in Copper Harbor, Michigan
Harbor Haus Restaurant, Copper Harbor, Michigan
| Credit: Bob Stefko

Where To Eat

Since options in the park are limited, be sure to enjoy a solid meal and stock up on groceries before boarding the ferry in Copper Harbor. (Once on the island, you'll be grateful for Greenstone Grill's basic all-day fare—and Keweenaw Brewing Company beer.)

Related Content

  • Harbor Haus Restaurant

    The primary fine-dining option, Harbor Haus serves traditional Bavarian specialties as well as classic American fare. Dessert choices are as tasty as the view of Lake Superior from the dining room and deck. Anticipate long waits during the high summer season.

  • The Mariner North

    Low-key, unassuming and with friendly service, this is the quintessential Michigan UP restaurant. Order a steak, and you'll know why this is a favorite for locals.

  • Jamsen's

    This is the best spot to grab a coffee and a turnover stuffed with fresh Keweenaw berries before heading out on the ferry.

  • Groceries

    You can find a lot of basics at The Gas Lite General Store in Copper Harbor, but the closest real supermarket is in Calumet, about 45 minutes away.

You won't find as many options in Grand Portage, but here are the best ones in town or en route:

Related Content

  • Island View Dining Room

    Located in the Grand Portage Lodge and Casino (a 5-minute drive from the ferry dock), this is a good option for one last hearty meal before leaving the mainland.

  • Chicago Bay Marketplace-Bakery-Deli

    If you don't like gluten, stay away! This deli-bakery in Hovland serves sandwiches on homemade bread, pizzas on homemade crust, and an assortment of fresh cinnamon rolls and other baked goods that will have your mouth watering as soon as you walk through the door.

  • The Fisherman's Daughter at Dockside Fish Market

    Make a pit stop in Grand Marais on your way to Grand Portage for freshly caught seafood. Most of the options are deep-fried (the restaurant is known for its fish and chips), but you can also buy smoked fish by the pound.

  • Groceries

    When leaving from Grand Portage, Grand Marais will be your best bet for groceries, about 35 miles away.

Why I Love This Park

Isle Royale National Park
Credit: Getty Images