02 Dec Mini Guide to Isle Royale National Park
Located in Lake Superior, Isle Royale National Park is an island only accessible by boat or seaplane. It is one of the least visited national parks in the United States. Even though the island is closer to Canada and Minnesota, it is located in Michigan waters and runs on the Eastern Time Zone. Camping, hiking and paddling are some of the most popular adventures on the island, and wildlife and wildflowers are abundant. No wheeled vehicles are allowed, as the park wants to preserve its natural state. This means that the only way to get around on land is by foot, and there are miles and miles of trails to explore.
We took a day trip to the island as we were short on time, but we still had a great day. The trip started out bright and early on a chilly summer morning—our boat departed from Grand Portage, Minnesota. On the way to and from the island we stopped by the “Witch Tree”, a lighthouse, and a sunken ship called America.
Our destination for the day was Windigo Ranger Station for 4 hours of exploring. We did a bit of hiking and listened to one of the ranger programs telling about the history of the lodge on the island. It was a wonderful day, but it left us wishing for even more time at the national park!
Park Facts and History
- Isle Royale National Park was established in 1940.
- To reach the island, either a seaplane or a boat is required. Private boats are allowed to dock at Isle Royale, and there are ferries for day trips and multi-day trips to the island.
- The highest point on the island is located on Mount Desor, which is 1394 feet above sea level.
- The square mileage of the park is 850 square miles, but only 209 square miles are above water.
- In addition to Isle Royale, the national park consists of around 400 smaller islands.
- Isle Royale is home to the largest island, on the largest lake, on the largest island, which is located on the largest fresh water lake by surface area in the world. A tad bit confusing, right? Well here’s another angle: “Ryan Island is found in Siskiwit Lake, which is the largest lake on Isle Royale, and Isle Royale is the largest island in Lake Superior.”
- Copper was once mined on Isle Royale and signs of the island’s past are still visible today.
- Due to Lake Superior’s notoriously difficult weather, there are several shipwrecks within the park’s boundaries.
- There are around 165 miles of hiking trails, and numerous paddling routes through and around the island.
- The island holds two main developed areas: Windigo and Rock Harbor, while the rest of the island remains rustic and natural.
- Windigo has a store, showers, restaurant, a boat dock, campsites, and rustic cabins.
- Rock Harbor has a store, showers, restaurant, a boat dock, hotel lodge, and campsites.
Because the island is located in Lake Superior, the only way to arrive is by boat or seaplane. Four ferries and one seaplane offer transportation services to Isle Royale. The ferries depart from Grand Portage, MN, Houghton, MI, and Copper Harbor, MI, and the seaplanes depart from Houghton, MI, as well. Private boats are also allowed to dock at the island.
There is plenty of wildlife to see on Isle Royale such as moose, wolves, beavers, cows, and fox. Currently, there are only 18 species of mammals on the island largely due to the fact that it is so hard to reach. There are over 40 different varieties of mammals on the land surrounding Isle Royale, but the 14+ mile distance makes it hard for mammals such as bear or porcupine to venture to the park. One of the most abundant mammals on the island is the Red Squirrel, even though no one really knows how the squirrels arrived on the island.
Birds are another plentiful resident of the island, and it’s easy to see how they arrive—they fly! There are loons, swans, geese, ducks, owls, Great Blue Heron, Spotted Sandpiper and so many more.
Things to Do
Isle Royale offers plenty of activities to keep you busy. You can explore the water by kayaking, canoeing, boating, swimming and even diving at the nearby shipwrecks. Sightseeing tours are offered to destinations such as Hidden Lake, Edisen Fishery, Rock Harbor Lighthouse, or one of the many nearby islands.
The island is home to 165 miles of hiking trails, so you can go on multi-day adventures or on a short hike for the afternoon. There are plenty of options to find a trail that fits your needs, and there are ranger led hikes if you feel you need a bit more guidance.
You can even visit the site of an ancient copper mine or listen to one of the daily ranger talks to get a dose of history.
Where to Stay/Accommodations
The only accommodation options for Isle Royale are camping at one of the many campgrounds, staying in a Windigo Camper Cabins or getting a room or cottage at the Rock Harbor Lodge. The Rock Harbor Lodge has a restaurant and snack bar, a marina and store, kayak, boat and canoe rentals, and a variety of sightseeing tours.
If you prefer a more rustic approach, stay in one of the cabins or campgrounds. The Windigo Camper Cabins are one room and have beds, a table, chairs, a grill and electricity, but they do not have indoor plumbing. There are 36 campgrounds scattered around the island—some can be accessed by boat, and all can be accessed by hiking. Camping on the island is free; however, there is a $4 per person, per day, user fee in effect for the park. Campsites cannot be reserved in advance unless you have a group of more than 7 people. If you find there are no campsites left open, you can share with a fellow camper as sites are large enough to accommodate multiple tents.
- The park is closed from November 1st through April 15th every year. Full service on the island starts the first week of May.
- There is a $4 per person per day user fee while visiting the park.
- No vehicles or wheeled devices allowed on the island (except for wheelchairs).
- The island runs on EST (Eastern Time Zone), so pay attention to time changes if you arrive from Minnesota, which runs on CST (Central Time Zone).
- Camping reservations are not allowed for parties smaller than 7 people. If you have 7 or more in your group, group reservations must be made in advance, and additional information can be found on the group camping page.
- Most campgrounds do not permit campfires, but gas/alcohol stoves are permitted.
- Water needs to be pulled from either Lake Superior or inland lakes and purified prior to use for drinking or cooking.
- Pets are not allowed.
- The ferries do not run every day, so be sure to check arrival and departure schedules when making plans to visit the island.
- Roundtrip tickets on the ferries for multi-day trips range from $103-$170 depending on your departure point and destination. day trips to the island are $67 and up.
We are working on a goal to visit every national park in the United States, and along the way we are creating mini guides to each park showcasing the park highlights, things to do, accommodations, essential info and a general overview. To see more of the mini guides we’ve created, head over to our National Park Project page. And, always remember to confirm any information directly with the park before departing–information and details may change and we want your trip to go as smooth as possible!