Isle Royale National Park: The Complete Guide

A rocky shore, lined with trees, surrounded by Lake Superior

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Isle Royale National Park

Michigan, USA
Phone +1 906-482-0984

One of America's most remote and overlooked national parks is off the northern coast of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, not far from the Canadian border. There, travelers will find a collection of small islands, the largest of which is Isle Royale, a hidden wilderness with much to offer those willing to make the journey.

A hunting ground for prehistoric Native Americans, Isle Royale is nearly 190,000 acres in size and stretches 45 miles in length. During the 1840s, as a copper boom hit the state of Michigan, small mines were set up all over the island. Later, it served as a home for commercial fishermen earning a living on Lake Superior. However, all commercial activities halted in 1940 when the U.S. government declared Isle Royale a national park.

Since then, it has been a popular destination for backpackers, kayakers, anglers, and other adventurous travelers. Because of its remote nature and the lengthy ferry ride required to get there, the park isn't visited by an overwhelming number of people. On average, it sees around 25,000 visitors yearly, which pales in comparison to the millions visiting the country's more well-known parks.

If you're planning a visit, here's what you should know.

Kayakers paddle the waters of Lake Superior in Isle Royale National Park.

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Things to Do

The most popular activities for visitors to Isle Royale are camping, hiking, and backpacking. Some travelers elect to take the ferry out to the island, set up camp at one of its 36 campgrounds, and explore the area on short day hikes. Others prefer to hike the entire island length end-to-end, camping at different locations as they go.

Other activities on Isle Royale include fishing for lake trout, whitefish, and sturgeon. Canoeing and kayaking along the island's banks—or one of the other 400 smaller islands in the vicinity—is also a great way to explore the park. Scuba diving in Lake Superior is also popular here, with several shipwrecks located not far offshore. Fishing, paddling, and diving trips should be booked with local guide services before arrival.

Best Hikes & Trails

Isle Royale doesn't disappoint with its options for trails to follow. Don't bring your dog along; they aren't allowed on any trails.

  • The Greenstone Ridge Trail: This route runs the island's length, covering 39.5 miles while en route. The trail is very well marked, easy to follow, and is a moderately strenuous hike, primarily due to distance rather than elevation gain. Most backpackers will cover its length in three or four days, but with plenty of campsites on the Greenstone, some visitors will enjoy it at a more leisurely pace.
  • Feldtmann Lake Loop Trail: This alternative backpacking trail is about 33 miles long and takes about three to four days to complete. Because of the popularity of the Greenstone Ridge Trail, you won't encounter too many other people while hiking.
  • Mount Ojibway Trail: This trail is an easy 3.5-mile walk up to the Ojibway Tower. Hikers will trek inland and are guaranteed to see some of the most incredible views on the island. This trail descends and meets with the Tobin Creek bed and features a steep climb up Greenstone Ridge. It's considered an intermediate trail, so make sure you're up for it.
  • Stoll Trail: This 4.7-mile trek to Scoville Point is also very scenic, with most of the hike taking place along the shore and in the island's forest. It's considered a relatively challenging route and can take up to an hour and a half to complete. This short trek is excellent for birding and trail running,
  • Tobin Harbor Trail: This trail is also a great day hike for campers looking to stretch their legs and is perfect for kids and families. It stretches just 6 miles and has some gradual climbs, but nothing complicated.
A rocky cove on the shores of Isle Royale National Park

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Where to Stay

Most visitors to Isle Royale camp at one of the 36 designated campgrounds throughout their stay. Each location features tent campsites, outhouses, and potable water sources for cooking and drinking. A permit is required to stay at any of those sites, but no extra fees are required beyond the park's $7 entry fee.

Even during the busiest travel season—July and August—vacancies can usually be found at these campsites. If one is full, it is usually a relatively short walk down the trail to the following location. Some planning may be necessary to avoid wandering into camp after dark, but usually, it isn't a challenge to find a place to pitch your tent.

Visitors who prefer to stay in a lodge will find two options—one at either end of the island. In Rock Harbor, the Rock Harbor Lodge offers comfortable accommodations right along the lakeshore. In Windigo, the Windigo Camper Cabins are a bit more rustic, featuring basic beds and furniture but no indoor plumbing. Guests will need to bring their own cooking supplies or rent them when they arrive onsite.

There are two restaurants on the island located at the Rock Harbor Lodge. Visitors can eat at the Lighthouse Restaurant or the Greenstone Grill while in that part of the island. There are also camp stores—which offer limited options for food, drinks, and snacks—in both Rock Harbor and Windigo. If you plan on venturing into the park's interior, you'll want to pack plenty of food for the length of your stay.

A blue and yellow ferry departs for Isle Royale National Park

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How to Get There

The majority of visitors to Isle Royale National Park come via ferry. There are daily departures from several locations in both Michigan and Minnesota. Which ferry you take depends on where you want to arrive on the island. There are three ferries, and they set out and arrive at different locations:

  • Ranger III: Departs from Houghton, MI, and arrives in Rock Harbor. Travel time is six hours.
  • Isle Royale Queen IV: Departs from Copper Harbor, MI, and arrives in Rock Harbor. Travel time is 3.5 hours.
  • Voyageur II or Sea Hunter III: Departs from Grand Portage, MN and arrives in Windigo. Travel time is 2 hours.

Traveling by ferry costs $150 for adults and $115 for children aged 15 and under. An additional $60 is required to transport canoes, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, and bikes. A double kayak runs $80, while an inflatable costs $30. Prices are round-trip.

Seaplane service is available for those who want faster transportation to the island or are looking to avoid potentially rough waters. Isle Royale Seaplanes operates out of Hancock, Michigan, with dropoffs at either Rock Harbor or Windigo. Round-trip flights cost $360 and take 40 minutes to reach the park.

A moose sits in the lush green forest of Isle Royale National Park.

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The National Park Service has gone to great lengths to make Isle Royale as accessible as possible to all visitors. That includes offering handicap-accessible restrooms and restaurants in Rock Harbor and other facilities in Windigo. There are also campsites at the Daisy Farm and Rock Harbor campgrounds that can accommodate wheelchairs, although the trails to reach those campsites are not explicitly built for handicap access.

Additionally, the ferries and island boat tours provide access for wheelchairs, as do the seaplanes flying to the island. Beyond that, however, most trails and backcountry campgrounds are not accessible.

Although no pets are permitted on Isle Royale, service dogs are allowed. A certificate for service dogs must be obtained before arrival at the park. Receiving that certificate involves contacting the park service for the necessary paperwork and consulting with a veterinarian no more than 15 days before arrival. More information can be found on the Park Service website.

The Northern Lights shine on the horizon with millions of stars overhead.

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Tips for Visiting

  • Isle Royale is closed from Nov. 1 to April 15 each year. If you're planning an early spring visit, watch the weather and check the park's website for updates on its current status.
  • Considering its location in the heart of Lake Superior, you would think there would be much wildlife to see on Isle Royale. As it turns out, more than 400 species of birds visit the park, which is also home to moose, wolves, otters, foxes, and other creatures. Keep your eyes peeled for these local residents.
  • A visit to Isle Royale is often a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so why rush it? If your schedule allows, plan on extending your stay by a day or two. This will enable you to hike and backpack more leisurely and gives you time to stop and soak in the views.
  • In addition to the park's natural wonders, there are also some historical sites to see. For instance, one can visit one of the old copper mines or hike to a lighthouse. These landmarks are engaging, fun, and well worth your time.
  • Isle Royale is a Dark Sky Park, meaning it is an excellent place to go stargazing. The stars that are visible on a clear night will blow your mind. And if you're lucky enough, you might be there on a night when the Northern Lights are visible.
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Isle Royale National Park: The Complete Guide