6 things to know before visiting Isle Royale National Park
Isle Royale National Park regularly compiles lists of the least visited national parks in the country. Which is really not a surprise, since the park is not easily accessible.
You can only reach this national park, an island in Lake Superior, by seaplane, boat or ferry. In addition, the window to visit Isle Royale is relatively small. It is open to visitors from mid-April to the end of October.
So why would you visit this national park when it is so remote? Well, that is precisely the reason.
Isle Royale National Park, which is actually an archipelago made up of a large island 45 miles long and 400 much smaller islands, is pristine, rugged, and breathtakingly beautiful.
Amenities and visitors are minimal here. So when you arrive at the park, you feel like you are part of a special club, discovering a destination known only to a privileged few.
In fact, around 25,000 people travel to Isle Royale National Park each year to hike, canoe, and kayak, and simply take in the unspoiled landscapes, from rocky shores and crystal-clear waters to towering leafy trees. persistent. Yet, this is a tiny fraction of the millions of people who spend time in popular national parks like the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone every year.
Fewer people at Isle Royale National Park each day means there isn’t a crowded panoramic view for that perfect shot. You won’t run into traffic jams at park entrances or fight for parking spaces on busy lots, as cars are not allowed on the island. With so few visitors, you could spend an entire day on the Isle Royale hiking trails or at a secluded campsite and see no one.
If solitude, raw natural beauty, and the opportunities to commune with Mother Nature are appealing for your next visit to a national park, Isle Royale is certainly the place to do it.
Below you’ll find more things to know about visiting Isle Royale National Park, based on my full day visit to the isolated park this summer. After arriving by seaplane, trekking calm, wooded trails, tasting wild blueberries, picnicking near the ferry dock, visiting the Rock Harbor Lodge, then resting on a restaurant terrace with a cold local beer, I considered it one of my favorites. national parks ever (and I’ve been to 35). Yes, I enjoyed the experience so much!
1. You can arrive by plane or ferry to either end of the island
Unless you have your own boat or if you want to hire one, you’ll likely take a commercial ferry or seaplane to Isle Royale. The National Park Service details all the different seasonal transportation options ports in Minnesota (Grand Portage and Grand Marais) and Michigan (Hancock / Houghton and Copper Harbor). Daily seaplane and ferry schedules vary, but round-trip bookings can accommodate both day and night visitors.
Ferries and planes arrive either at the southwestern end of the island (Windigo) or the northeast end (Rock harbor). Both areas have facilities and amenities for visitors such as a visitor center, accommodation options (more on those below), shop, nearby campsites, departures hiking trails and canoe and kayak rentals. More information on the leisure offerings of each zone can be found in the Windigo region guide and the Guide to the Rock Harbor area produced by the National Park Service.
2. Making your transportation plans early is key
Once you’ve set your dates for your trip to Isle Royale, you’ll want to make commercial transportation reservations, whether you’re traveling by plane or ferry to the island.
It wasn’t until mid-July that my husband and I finally consolidated our RV travel plans at the end of the summer, determining that we would want to visit Isle Royale on August 30. reservation request with The Ile Royale seaplanes then – 6 weeks before we wanted to visit – waited… and waited… for confirmation that we would be able to fly from Hancock, Michigan, to Rock Harbor at the times and date I chose.
As I had no news after a few days, I called the Isle Royale Seaplanes office, to let me know that there were 176 more booking requests ahead of me that they needed to make in the queue. ‘waiting. Ouch!
I was worried we might even be excluded from access to the national park so we booked reservations on the Isle Royale Reine IV ferry service from Copper Harbor, Michigan to Rock Harbor. Once I got confirmation on August 7 that our seaplane reservations were indeed accepted, I canceled our ferry reservations (with a 15 percent cancellation fee).
The bottom line: If I had started making plans earlier, I might not have panicked and felt the need to book transport twice. Everything went well at the end, but was a little scary for a while.
3. You could get stuck on the island
Isle Royale Seaplanes provides passengers with a flyer that outlines what to do if bad weather sets in and your return flight from the island is delayed. (First tip: be patient.)
Isle Royale’s lack of cell service and Wi-Fi makes it difficult to convey information about transportation updates to individual passengers (text alerts are not an option). But seaplane and ferry operations staff can talk to park rangers, so if there are any changes to the schedule due to weather or other issues, the rangers will update a large whiteboard. outside the reception center.
The day before our visit to Isle Royale National Park, the weather was appalling. Extreme winds disrupted the ferry schedule and at least one ferry was unable to get to the island to pick up passengers. So when we got to Isle Royale the next day, we met people who unexpectedly had their trip extended overnight!
There were a lot of people waiting to get on the ferry to leave the island that afternoon – both people who had confirmed reservations for a departure on August 30 as well as passengers who wanted to leave on the 29th. August. But we heard from the ferry captain meeting the passengers, doing his best to get all visitors back to the mainland as quickly and safely as possible.
4. Accommodation options range from cozy to rustic
In Rock Harbor, you can stay in a Rock Harbor Lodge lakeside room, which is a short walk from two restaurants (only one of which was open in 2021) and close to where the daily sightseeing boats take passengers. Further on are the chalets in the port of Tobin, where the seaplanes land.
In Windigo, 75 km on the other side of the island, rustic motorhome cabins are available. These cabins are an alternative to tent camping. There are beds in the cabins, but no linens and there is no interior plumbing – the outhouse is nearby.
Even more rustic are the camping options – and there are many. Campsites for groups (seven or more people) and individuals are clearly marked. Some are very close to the harbor docks, so you don’t have to walk far into nature to pitch your tent. Others are much further away and require a few hours of hiking to get there. Some sites have shelters where you can put your sleeping bag, and campgrounds have consecutive night limits. Read all about the different camping possibilities and the required permits here.
5. National park staff are extremely helpful
After landing in our seaplane, we took the short, wooded drive from Tobin Harbor to Rock Harbor to check in with a national park ranger as instructed. Forest rangers are deployed in a tent to greet visitors upon arrival.
Our orientation meeting with the ranger was very helpful as he shared information on hiking trails in the area – a popular route was closed due to a forest fire on the island. He explained in detail where we could get food (at the Greenstone Grill) and how to rent a kayak. We also enjoyed learning more about the animals that inhabit the island, namely nearly 2,000 moose and about 15 wolves (we didn’t see any on our day hike).
The rangers also know the history of the island and are happy to share what they know. It was first inhabited by the Ojibwe tribe, whose members called the island “Minong”. Later, European settlers made their mark, engaging in commercial fishing, hunting (for furs), copper mining, and sugar bushes on the island. Tourism developed in the 1900s, and Isle Royale became a national park in 1940.
6. You have the opportunity to take advantage of downtime
We had about six hours to spend on Isle Royale which was enough to hike four miles and explore the Rock Harbor area on the island. We chose not to rent a canoe or kayak (but we could have), and the MV Sandy the sightseeing boat trips were not taking place (they are expected to return in the 2022 season) so we stayed ashore. We walked around to see different scenic views of Rock Harbor, took our time to eat a picnic, and checked out souvenirs in the store and in the visitor center.
We were also happy to have brought books to read on a bench by the water’s edge, where we also watched the kayakers unload their gear on the beach after multi-day kayaking and camping trips. (We heard a kayaker say she had been out for 11 nights and couldn’t wait to order pizza and have a draft beer at the lodge restaurant!)
Indeed, enjoying the slow pace, resting in nature (with or without a book) and enjoying the calm atmosphere is what makes a visit to Isle Royale so appealing. Without cell service and very limited Wi-Fi, it’s easy (and wonderful!) To forget the real world for a while at Isle Royale and just enjoy the company of Mother Nature.
For more information on Isle Royale National Park and other less frequented national parks, consider: