Nestled in the northern reaches of Lake Superior lies a hidden gem known as Isle Royale National Park. This remote paradise is a testament to untouched natural beauty and is often touted as one of the least visited national parks. Its location in the Upper Peninsula and proximity to Copper Harbor and the North Shore make it accessible by boat, such as the Ranger III or Voyageur II.
Isle Royale National Park beckons adventurers with its dramatic landscapes, from the rocky Scoville Point to the serene Tobin Harbor. Siskiwit and Washington Harbor glisten providing breathtaking views for day trips.
The Minong Ridge trail offers hiking enthusiasts a challenging trek, while the iconic Rock Harbor Lighthouse stands as a beacon of history.
This isolated island, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, remains a closed environment, fostering unique ecosystems. The wolf population and resident red foxes create a delicate balance, while snowshoe hares and other wildlife thrive in this pristine wilderness.
Join us as we explore the submerged lands, discovering the secrets of Isle Royale’s enchanting landscape, rich maritime history, and the enduring allure that beckons park visitors year after year.
History of Isle Royale National Park
Within the pristine waters of Lake Superior, Isle Royale National Park boasts breathtaking natural beauty and a rich tapestry of history.
As part of the National Park Service and one of the least visited national parks, Isle Royale has a story to tell that stretches back centuries.
Long before the establishment of Isle Royale National Park, the island played a significant role in the lives of Native Americans and other indigenous peoples. The Minong Traditional Cultural Property  on the island holds evidence of human occupation dating back over 4,500 years. It’s a testament to the enduring connection between the island and the indigenous communities that once thrived.
The island’s strategic location in Lake Superior has made it a focal point for maritime activities throughout history. Copper Harbor (location) on the nearby Upper Peninsula earned its name due to the valuable copper deposits discovered in the 19th century. This discovery led to a flurry of mining and shipping activities around Isle Royale.
In the heart of the Upper Peninsula, Grand Portage (location) stood as a testament to the region’s rich history and the gateway to the untamed Isle Royale National Park. For centuries, this historic fur trade route served as a vital link between the North American interior, a testament to the endurance of early Native Americans traders. While Grand Portage is renowned for its role in history, it is also a sanctuary for nature lovers.
One of the most iconic historical landmarks in the park is the Rock Harbor Lighthouse built in 1855. This structure served as a vital beacon for mariners navigating the treacherous waters of Lake Superior. Today, it’s a symbol of the island’s maritime heritage and a must-visit destination for park enthusiasts.
In 1940, Isle Royale was designated a national park, securing its place in the annals of the National Park Service. The pristine Siskiwit Lake and Tobin Harbor have been preserved in their natural splendor, offering visitors a glimpse into the untouched wilderness that has captivated explorers and adventurers for generations.
From the heights of Mount Franklin to the lookout at Louise on Mott Island, this park showcases its splendor while honoring its place among historic places in the National Park System. In addition, several historic sites on Isle Royale have been meticulously preserved and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Isle Royale’s historical charm, combined with its stunning landscapes, draws visitors from far and wide. Whether arriving on the Ranger III or by other means, every visitor will experience a unique blend of history, natural wonder, and tranquility.
Key Facts About Isle Royale National Park
Size: Approximately 894 square miles (2,314 Square Kilometers).
Number of Visitors: 25,576 (in 2022)
Establishment Date: April 3, 1940
Number of Hiking Trails: About 6 easy-to-challenging trails
Total Length of Hiking Trails: Approximately 165 miles (265 kilometers).
Lowest Point: Lake Superior at 600 feet (183 meters) above sea level.
Highest Point: Mount Desor at 1,394 feet (425 meters) above sea level.
Other Interesting Facts About Isle Royale National Park
- Isle Royale National Park is one of the most remote national parks in the U.S., situated in the northwest corner of Lake Superior. It’s so secluded that visitors must reach the island by ferry, seaplane, or private boat, making it a pristine wilderness escape.
- The park is renowned for its thriving moose population. Isle Royale is home to one of the longest-running predator-prey studies in the world, focusing on the dynamics between moose and their primary predator, the gray wolf.
- Before becoming a national park, Isle Royale was a center for copper mining in the mid-1800s. You can still find remnants of this history, including abandoned mineshafts and equipment scattered throughout the island.
- Isle Royale is the largest island in Lake Superior, measuring approximately 45 miles (72 km) in length and 9 miles (14 km) at its widest point. It’s a geological wonder shaped by glacial activity over thousands of years.
- In addition to moose and wolves, the island is home to several unique wildlife, including red foxes, snowshoe hares, and otters. Birdwatchers also flock to the park to spot rare species like the northern goshawk.
- The island has a long history of indigenous occupation dating back thousands of years. It was once home to Ojibwa and Dakota communities who left cultural artifacts and archaeological sites behind.
- Hikers can explore over 165 miles (265 kilometers) of trails, offering a range of experiences from easy strolls to challenging backcountry adventures. The scenic Greenstone Ridge Trail, spanning the Island’s length, is a popular choice.
- Rock Harbor and Tobin Harbor on the island’s eastern side are bustling hubs for park visitors.
- The park’s official vessel, the Ranger III, is a large ferry that transports visitors and supplies to Isle Royale. It’s not just a mode of transportation; it also provides an informative and scenic journey to the island.
- The waters surrounding Isle Royale hold the wreckage of numerous shipwrecks, some of which can be explored by scuba divers. These wrecks tell tales of maritime history and the challenges of navigating Lake Superior.
Climate and Weather
Isle Royale National Park boasts a diverse climate that evolves dramatically from season to season. So, understanding what to expect during your visit is crucial to making the most of your trip.
Spring (April to June)
Spring on Isle Royale brings a mix of cool temperatures, with highs ranging from 5°C to 15°C (41°F to 59°F). Nights can be chilly, dropping to 0°C to 5°C (32°F to 41°F).
Early spring sees the island waking from its winter slumber, with snow and ice slowly receding. Park visitors, especially Isle Royale visitors, can enjoy the solitude of the island. It’s an ideal time for experienced scuba divers to explore shipwrecks along the coastline.
Hiking along the Greenstone Ridge (location), exploring rocky Scoville Point, and immersing yourself in the island’s budding flora are fantastic early-season activities. But remember to bring rain gear, as this season tends to be rainy.
Summer (June to August)
Summer is the warmest season, with daytime highs ranging from 15°C to 25°C (59°F to 77°F) and nighttime lows of about 10°C to 15°C (50°F to 59°F).
Summer is the most popular time for park visitors, making it a bustling season. Lake Superior’s water temperature warms up, making it ideal for swimming, kayaking, and day trips to nearby attractions like Rock Harbor or Copper Harbor.
Isle Royale visitors can hike along the scenic trails, take the Sea Hunter boat tour, or explore Mott Island and its historic structures. The clear waters also make it an excellent time for scuba diving and spotting the island’s abundant wildlife.
Fall (September to November)
Fall brings cooler temperatures, with highs ranging from 10°C to 15°C (50°F to 59°F) and lows dropping to 0°C to 5°C (32°F to 41°F).
As autumn colors blanket the island, Isle Royale sees fewer visitors, making it a serene escape. Experienced hikers can relish the changing scenery along the Greenstone Ridge and enjoy breathtaking views from Lookout Louise.
Fall is the perfect time for hiking, wildlife viewing, and soaking in the island’s tranquility. The crisp air and vibrant foliage create a picturesque landscape.
Winter (December to March)
Winter on Isle Royale is cold, with highs rarely reaching above freezing and lows dipping to -15°C to -5°C (5°F to 23°F).
Isle Royale is closed to regular park visitors during the winter, but a handful of researchers and residents call it home. The lake level drops significantly during this season.
Unless you’re part of a research team or a winter resident, visiting Isle Royale during this season is not recommended due to extreme conditions and limited services.
The Best Time to Visit
Consider your preferences and interests when you are planning to visit Isle Royale National Park.
Early summer and fall offer solitude and cooler temperatures, making them ideal for hiking and tranquility. The bustling summer months are perfect if you prefer the warmth and water activities.
From vibrant foliage in the fall to snowy landscapes in the winter, each season on the island offers a distinct experience. So, tailor your trip to align with your desires, and you’ll discover the beauty and charm of this remote paradise.
Recommended Gear for Visiting Isle Royale National Park
Proper gear can make all the difference in ensuring a safe and enjoyable trip to Isle Royale National Park.
Whether you’re hiking the rugged trails or embarking on a scuba dive in Lake Superior, here’s a list of recommended gear to pack for your island adventure:
- Rain Gear: Isle Royale’s weather can be unpredictable. A good quality rain jacket and waterproof pants are essential to keeping you dry during sudden showers when hiking along the rocky Scoville Point. We also have a guide to hiking in the rain to help you understand more.
- Sturdy Footwear: Comfortable hiking boots or shoes are a must, especially if you plan to explore the island’s diverse terrain. They’ll keep your feet dry while hiking around Tobin Harbor or trekking the trails near Siskiwit Lake. We have a guide that can help you choose the perfect hiking boots for your next adventure.
- Layered Clothing: Given the fluctuating temperatures, layering is essential. Pack moisture-wicking base layers, insulating mid-layers, and a warm outer layer for evenings by Mount Franklin or Lookout Louise.
- Backpack: A well-fitted bag is essential for carrying water, snacks, rain gear, and other essentials during day trips to places like McCargoe Cove or the island’s southwestern end.
- Map and Compass: Isle Royale’s trails can be challenging to navigate. So, bring a detailed map and compass if you plan to venture into the Island’s remote areas, such as the northeast end.
- Water Purification: Access to fresh water is abundant, but it’s essential to carry a water purification system or tablets to refill your water bottles from the island’s inland lakes and streams. You can also find a lot of helpful information in our wilderness survival guide.
- Snacks and Food: While there are dining options in places like Rock Harbor, having trail snacks and lightweight, energy-rich meals for longer hikes is advisable. Here’s our guide to 25 delicious backpacking food ideas.
- Binoculars and Camera: The island’s wildlife and breathtaking views are worth capturing, whether you are at Tobin Harbor or the south side. So, a pair of binoculars will enhance your wildlife-watching experience.
- First Aid Kit: A basic first aid kit can be invaluable, especially if you’re on day trips far from medical facilities or the Houghton Visitor Center on the mainland.
- Insect Repellent: Mosquitoes can be prevalent, especially on the island’s west end. Be prepared with insect repellent to make your exploration more comfortable.
- Headlamp or Flashlight: For those camping overnight, a reliable headlamp or flashlight is essential for navigating campsites, especially in the dark on a voyage aboard the Voyageur II.
Always check with the National Park Service for specific regulations and recommendations as you prepare for your Isle Royale adventure.
What To Do in Isle Royale National Park
Isle Royale National Park offers a treasure trove of outdoor adventures for nature enthusiasts and explorers.
From backpacking and camping in the wilderness to day hiking along rugged trails, fishing in crystal-clear inland lakes, scuba diving in the depths of Lake Superior, and joining guided boat tours to discover hidden coves, Isle Royale beckons with endless possibilities.
For those seeking a deeper connection to the island’s history and ecology, the park’s ranger programs provide fascinating insights and educational experiences.
Whether you’re a solo adventurer or traveling with family and friends, Isle Royale promises a world of natural wonders and outdoor activities to satisfy your wanderlust.
Hiking and Backpacking
Isle Royale National Park is a haven for hiking and backpacking enthusiasts, offering a pristine wilderness. The Greenstone Ridge Trail is the backbone of Isle Royale. An extensive trail that spans the island’s length, providing access to a diverse range of ecosystems and stunning vistas.
Rock Harbor is the gateway to many trails, featuring the historic Rock Harbor Lodge and a fascinating underwater world for experienced scuba divers. Lookout Louise is a short hike with rewarding views of Lake Superior and the island’s rugged shoreline. Lastly, Windigo, on the southwest end, serves as a hub for various day trips, including exploring nearby forests and waterways.
Best Hikes in Isle Royale National Park
- Stoll Memorial Trail (Scoville Point): This is a 4-mile (6.4 km) round trip moderate trail that offers stunning views of Lake Superior from the rocky Scoville Point. You’ll traverse dense forests and emerge onto rocky outcroppings for breathtaking vistas. Keep an eye out for red foxes and edible berries. It typically takes about 2-3 hours to complete, making it a great half-day hike.
- Hike to Suzy’s Cave: A roughly 3.8 miles/6 km (via Rock Harbor and Tobin Harbor Trails) round trip moderate trail that leads to Suzy’s Cave’s unique features. This front-country trail leads through forests and meadows, with opportunities to spot wildlife. Enjoy views of Washington Harbor along the way, and plan for 2-6 hours to complete the hike.
- Hike to Minong Ridge Overlook: This is an approximately 6-mile (9.6 km) round trip moderate to challenging front-country hike, due to elevation gain, that takes you to an overlook on the Minong Ridge. It provides panoramic views of the island’s west end and Lake Superior. In addition, it’s a remote paradise offering solitude that takes about 2-6 hours to complete, so prepare for a long day trip.
- Hike to Grace Creek Overlook: This is an approximately 3.6 miles (5.7 km) round trip moderate trail that offers awe-inspiring vistas of the island’s south side. The hike meanders through forests and opens to a rocky bluff with a breathtaking view of the surrounding waters. Expect to spend 2-4 hours on this hike.
- Windigo Day Trip: A customizable trip, depending on your interests, on the island’s southwest end, serving as a gateway for various day trips. You can explore the Windigo nature trail (about 1.2 miles/1.9 km long), visit the Windigo Visitor Center, or embark on a scuba dive in the surrounding waters for experienced divers. You can even spend a few hours to a full day exploring Windigo and its nearby attractions.
- Greenstone Ridge Trail (location): This is an approximately 40 miles/64 km (end to end) challenging trail due to its length and elevation changes. Greenstone Ridge Trail spans the length of Isle Royale and offers diverse terrain and ecosystems. You’ll encounter historic places and stunning vistas. Completing the entire trail takes 4-6 days, but you can choose shorter sections for day hikes.
- Rock Harbor Day Trip: A customizable trail based on interests with alternatives for short hikes and walks. You can explore the Rock Harbor area, visit the Rock Harbor Lodge, take a short hike to Lookout Louise, or join a boat tour like the Ranger III or Voyageur II. Depending on your chosen activities, you can spend a few hours to a full day exploring Rock Harbor. But check the current conditions of the area through the Tobin Harbor Webcam or the current weather page.
Isle Royale National Park offers a unique camping experience that allows visitors to immerse themselves in the island’s pristine wilderness.
There are numerous campgrounds and backcountry cabins scattered throughout the island. So, campers can choose from different settings, each offering its own charm and natural beauty.
Whether you’re looking for secluded places in the wilderness or convenience near amenities, there is something to suit every camping style.
Here is a list of some of the available campgrounds in the Park. But you can view the entire list here.
- East Chickenbone Campground: Nestled near the eastern shore of Lake Superior, this small group campground offers a serene lakeside experience.
- West Chickenbone Campground: Situated on the west end of Chickenbone Lake, it provides a remote and tranquil setting for group campers.
- Chippewa Harbor Campground: Offering stunning views of Lake Superior, this campground is accessible by boat and provides a peaceful retreat.
- Daisy Farm Campground: Located along the Greenstone Ridge Trail, Daisy Farm is a popular choice for backpackers and offers proximity to scenic overlooks.
- South Lake Desor Campground: Set near the picturesque South Lake Desor, this campground is known for its tranquil atmosphere.
- Feldtmann Lake Campground: Isolated on the island’s west end, this campground offers solitude and access to Feldtmann Lake.
- Hatchet Lake Campground: A remote site for experienced backpackers, it’s a serene spot near Hatchet Lake.
- Island Mine Campground: Located near a historic copper mine, it provides a glimpse into the island’s mining history.
- Lake Richie Campground: Situated on Lake Richie, this campground offers scenic beauty and water access for paddlers.
- Malone Bay Campground: This site offers breathtaking views of Malone Bay and is an ideal relaxation spot.
- McCargoe Cove Campground: Positioned along McCargoe Cove, McCargoe Cove Campground is a popular stop for kayakers, offering access to hiking trails.
- Moskey Basin Campground: Set near the picturesque Moskey Basin, it’s a favorite among backpackers and offers stunning sunsets.
- Rock Harbor Campground: Located near the main visitor center, it’s a convenient base for exploring the Rock Harbor area.
- Siskiwit Bay Campground: This remote site on the island’s north shore provides a peaceful retreat for backpackers.
- Lake Whittlesey Campground: A small campground near Lake Whittlesey, offering a quiet and scenic environment.
- Todd Harbor Campground: Known for its stunning sunsets, Todd Harbor is a peaceful camping spot on the island’s north shore.
- Wood Lake Campground: Nestled near Wood Lake, this campground offers a serene lakeside experience.
- Intermediate Lake Campground: A small campground on the island’s interior, ideal for those seeking solitude.
- Washington Creek Campground: Conveniently located near the Washington Harbor visitor center, it’s a great starting point for exploring the island.
You’ll need an overnight Camping Permit and a backcountry permit in Isle Royale National Park. These permits help manage the limited camping space and protect the island’s delicate ecosystem. Also, you need group reservations, especially during the peak summer season, to ensure you have a spot at your desired campground.
Consider purchasing stove fuel, camping gear, and other necessities in nearby locations like Grand Portage and Copper City if you plan to camp within the Park.
One of the most enticing aspects of boating on Isle Royale is witnessing the park’s breathtaking beauty from the water. The rugged shoreline, lush forests, and dramatic cliffs create a stunning backdrop that can be experienced from the deck of your boat. As you navigate Lake Superior, keep your camera handy to capture the awe-inspiring views.
However, it’s crucial to be aware of the regulations for boating in Isle Royale National Park. The National Park Service oversees all activities within the park, and private boaters must pay daily entrance fees upon arrival and the necessary permits, which are available in advance by calling the Houghton Visitor Center at (906) 482-0984.
Canoeing and Kayaking
The clear, azure waters of Lake Superior beckon adventurers to explore its secluded coves, remote islands, and rugged shoreline by canoe or kayak.
But before embarking on your canoeing or kayaking adventure, you’ll want to ensure you have the necessary permits from the National Park Service. These permits help protect the Park’s fragile ecosystem and ensure visitors can enjoy the wilderness responsibly.
Lake Superior is known for its clean, cold waters and thriving fish populations. As you venture out on a fishing expedition within Isle Royale National Park, you’ll be greeted by the endless blue expanse of Lake Superior, a breathtaking view that enhances the thrill of the catch.
From casting off the rocky shores to fishing from the deck of the Sea Hunter, there are options for anglers of all skill levels.
It’s necessary to understand the fishing regulations set forth by the National Park Service before you embark on your fishing adventure on Isle Royale. Fishing in Lake Superior waters must follow the Michigan Department of Natural Resources fishing laws and regulations. However, licenses are not required to fish in the inland waters of Isle Royale.
Lake Superior is known as the “Graveyard of the Great Lakes” due to its treacherous waters. Isle Royale is home to numerous shipwrecks that bear witness to the lake’s formidable reputation. These sunken vessels are like time capsules of maritime history, offering a unique opportunity for experienced scuba divers to dive into the past.
The National Park Service, in collaboration with other agencies and organizations, conducts underwater research and preservation efforts on the shipwrecks of Isle Royale. One notable expedition is the ongoing “Sea Hunter” project, aimed at documenting and preserving these submerged relics. Experienced divers participate in this important work, contributing to the understanding and conservation of these historic sites.
The northeast end of Isle Royale is a hotspot for diving adventures. You’ll find some of the island’s most renowned shipwrecks, including the iconic “America” and “Cumberland.” These submerged time capsules offer a glimpse into the history and a chance to witness the incredible underwater ecosystems that developed around these wrecks.
For experienced scuba divers, bringing their scuba gear is recommended. The crystal-clear waters of Lake Superior offer incredible diving opportunities, from shipwrecks to underwater rock formations.
Check the park’s regulations before embarking on this adventurous journey.
Where to Stay
Isle Royale National Park offers a range of accommodations to suit different preferences, from rustic camping to more comfortable lodging options.
Here’s where to stay both within the park and in nearby towns:
Inside Isle Royale National Park
- Rock Harbor Lodge: For those seeking a comfortable stay on the island, Rock Harbor Lodge provides accommodations, including rooms and cabins. It’s an excellent option for a cozy retreat with private bathrooms and dining facilities.
- Rustic Camper Cabins: Several campgrounds on the island offer rustic camper cabins that provide a sheltered space for campers. While these cabins lack electricity and plumbing, they offer a more comfortable alternative to tent camping.
- Tent Sites: Most campgrounds within the park offer tent sites with fire rings and picnic tables. These sites provide a more immersive camping experience and allow you to connect with the Island’s natural beauty.
- Copper Harbor, Upper Peninsula: Located on the mainland (location), this populated community is within Grant Township. It is a popular base for travelers heading to Isle Royale. Copper Harbor offers a range of lodging options, including motels and vacation rentals. It’s also a convenient departure point for ferries to the island.
- Grand Portage Marina and RV Campground (location): This campground, in Grand Portage (location), just across the border in Minnesota, is an ideal option for RVers who want to explore Isle Royale. The marina provides access to recreational activities like fishing, kayaking, and ferry services to the island.
- Copper City, Upper Peninsula (location): This small community on the mainland of Michigan offers lodging options for travelers heading to the national park. While the accommodations are basic, they provide a convenient base for exploring the island and other attractions nearby.
How to Get There and Getting Around
Isle Royale National Park’s remote location on Lake Superior makes the journey to this pristine wilderness an adventure in itself. Getting to the Park requires a combination of air and water travel.
Here’s how to get there and navigate the island once you arrive:
Houghton County Memorial Airport (CMX)
Houghton County Memorial Airport, located in Houghton about via US Hwy 41 S, Michigan, is the nearest airport to Isle Royale National Park. While it doesn’t offer direct flights from major cities, it is a gateway to the island.
Getting from Houghton County Memorial Airport to the Park:
- Ground Transportation to Copper Harbor: From Houghton County Memorial Airport, you can arrange ground transportation to Copper Harbor (direction), the primary departure point for ferries to Isle Royale. Shuttle services and rental cars are available at the airport. The drive to Copper Harbor takes approximately 50-60 minutes, offering scenic views of the Upper Peninsula.
- Ferry to Isle Royale: Once you reach Copper Harbor, you’ll board a ferry to Isle Royale National Park. Two ferry services operate between Copper Harbor and the island: the Ranger III (by the National Park Service) and the Isle Royale Queen IV. These ferries provide transportation for both passengers and cargo and offer a range of departure times during the summer season. Ferry transportation services also transport canoes and kayaks for a fee.
Thunder Bay International Airport (YQT)
Thunder Bay International Airport in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada, is another option that is not as close as Houghton County Memorial Airport. However, it is another alternative for travelers heading to Isle Royale from Canada (direction).
From Thunder Bay, visitors can take a ferry to the island. It’s worth noting that this route involves crossing an international border, so travelers should be aware of immigration and customs requirements.
Getting Around on Isle Royale National Park:
- Hiking: Once on the island, many visitors explore on foot. Hiking is an excellent way to access remote areas, discover breathtaking viewpoints, and immerse yourself in the island’s wilderness.
- Boating and Kayaking: With its many inland lakes and shorelines, Isle Royale is a boating and kayaking paradise. You can bring your watercraft or rent one on the island to explore the pristine waters, visit hidden coves, and access remote campgrounds.
- Guided Tours: For those who prefer a more structured experience, guided boat tours are available, and offer informative and scenic journeys around the Island. These tours provide insights into the park’s history, geology, and wildlife.
- Rock Harbor Lodge Shuttle: If you’re staying at Rock Harbor Lodge, a shuttle service is available to transport guests to various trailheads and points of interest within the Rock Harbor area.
As we wrap up our exploration of Isle Royale National Park, it’s clear that this remote wilderness is a haven for nature enthusiasts and adventurers alike. From its rugged trails, serene inland lakes, and scenic viewpoints to the fascinating history of its mining heritage and maritime past, the Island boasts a rich tapestry of experiences waiting to be discovered.
Whether you’re a backpacker seeking solitude on the Greenstone Ridge or a scuba diver exploring the depths of Lake Superior’s shipwrecks, Isle Royale invites you to embrace the wild and immerse yourself in its breathtaking landscapes.