Mini Guide to Isle Royale National Park, Lake Superior, Michigan

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.

Mini Guide to Isle Royale National Park, Lake Superior, Michigan

Our Experience

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.

Mini Guide to Isle Royale National Park, Lake Superior, Michigan

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!

Mini Guide to Isle Royale National Park, Lake Superior, Michigan

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.

Getting There

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.

Mini Guide to Isle Royale National Park, Lake Superior, Michigan

Mini Guide to Isle Royale National Park, Lake Superior, Michigan

Wildlife

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.

Mini Guide to Isle Royale National Park, Lake Superior, Michigan

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.

Mini Guide to Isle Royale National Park, Lake Superior, Michigan

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.

Mini Guide to Isle Royale National Park, Lake Superior, Michigan

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.

Mini Guide to Isle Royale National Park, Lake Superior, Michigan

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.

Mini Guide to Isle Royale National Park, Lake Superior, Michigan

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.

Mini Guide to Isle Royale National Park, Lake Superior, Michigan

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.

Mini Guide to Isle Royale National Park, Lake Superior, Michigan

Essential Info

  • 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! 

Have you ever been to Isle Royale National Park? Would you like to visit?

24 Comments
  • Traveling Rockhopper
    Twitter:
    Posted at 12:45h, 05 December Reply

    Another place I haven’t heard about… Maybe it’s good it’s one of the least visited national parks in the US, thanks that it keeps its natural beauty… 🙂
    Traveling Rockhopper recently posted…New Zealand – HobbitonMy Profile

  • Elaine J. Masters
    Twitter:
    Posted at 15:19h, 05 December Reply

    That’s a big goal to get to every National Park – there’s over 400! A wonderful endeavor and way to take in all that the U.S. offers aside from the urban adventures. I visited 8 this summer but didn’t know about Isle Royale till now.
    Elaine J. Masters recently posted…Surviving travel and holiday stressMy Profile

    • Jenna Kvidt
      Posted at 04:29h, 09 December Reply

      That’s great you made it to 8 National Parks this summer! There are so many amazing ones to check out–hope you had a great time! 🙂
      Jenna Kvidt recently posted…Snorkeling at the Mall of AmericaMy Profile

  • Alexa Meisler
    Twitter:
    Posted at 17:49h, 05 December Reply

    I have never heard of Isle Royale National Park! I’m planning to visit in May and have added it to my list of things to do!

  • Laura Lynch
    Twitter:
    Posted at 18:23h, 05 December Reply

    We have a small island like that here in the Pacific Northwest, that you can only reach by boat. It’s a really peaceful place to spend a day and get back to nature. The surroundings look just right for that there! It’s cool that it’s the largest island on the largest lake… Great facts!
    Laura Lynch recently posted…12 Costly Rental Car Mistakes You Don’t Want to MakeMy Profile

  • Sue
    Twitter:
    Posted at 01:58h, 06 December Reply

    So great to read a travel post that gives a great idea for a day trip. So often I read reports that are amazing but will take at least a week of my time to really appreciate the area. I had not heard about this park but it sounds like a great option for when in that part of the world.

  • Stefan
    Twitter:
    Posted at 04:32h, 06 December Reply

    That red squirrel looks so cute. Are there food options there? Or better to bring reserves with you?
    Stefan recently posted…Gay Bali: the ultimate LGBT travel guide to the island of the godsMy Profile

    • Jenna Kvidt
      Posted at 04:12h, 09 December Reply

      There are a few different food options–there are a couple of cafes and a couple of general stores where you can buy food. It’s a good idea to bring it with though because it would be a lot cheaper!
      Jenna Kvidt recently posted…Snorkeling at the Mall of AmericaMy Profile

  • LeAnna
    Twitter:
    Posted at 10:17h, 06 December Reply

    While I’m sure it would be freezing, it’d be fun to SCUBA dive some of those shipwrecks! Do you know there are any SCUBA companies that does regular dives there?
    LeAnna recently posted…Should I be Afraid of Travel and Terrorism?My Profile

  • Lesley
    Twitter:
    Posted at 10:17h, 06 December Reply

    The seaplane option sounds wonderful. I like places that are so remote. It makes it seem like traveling to another world.
    Lesley recently posted…Me Day at Outrigger Laguna Phuket Beach ResortMy Profile

  • Carol Colborn
    Twitter:
    Posted at 10:44h, 06 December Reply

    We have been to a number of national parks like you but have never heard of this! Looks awesomely pristine. I bet the difficulty of getting to it adds to its untoiuched mystique!

  • RaW
    Twitter:
    Posted at 22:20h, 06 December Reply

    It’s amazing to know that there are 165 km of hiking trails on an island in a lake! Perfect for a camping trip! I suppose even a week on the island wouldn’t be enough if you want to cover all the trails. Anyways, what do you mean by “Camping reservations are not allowed for parties smaller than 7 people”? Groups with 6 members or less do not need to make any reservation or are not allowed to camp?
    RaW recently posted…Egypt: Day 3 – A Little of History (and Luxury) in LuxorMy Profile

    • Jenna Kvidt
      Posted at 03:43h, 09 December Reply

      Camping is allowed for groups less than 7, but you can’t make reservations in advance. You just need to find a site when you arrive. And I agree, I think it would be hard to see the island in only a week–there is so much ground to cover!
      Jenna Kvidt recently posted…Snorkeling at the Mall of AmericaMy Profile

  • Helena
    Posted at 08:46h, 07 December Reply

    I’m planning a trip to USA next year and this was a fun post to read. I’ve been reading up on National Parks and State Parks for the past few weeks, there’s so many amazing ones and I’d love to visit each and every one of them myself. It’s a great goal you have and I wish you the best of luck in completing it 🙂
    I’d love to visit this park but it’s a little out of the planned route, so will have to skip it. This time.
    Helena recently posted…En dag på SpaMy Profile

    • Jenna Kvidt
      Posted at 03:35h, 09 December Reply

      Thanks–we are looking forward to checking more of the parks out soon! Hope you have a great time at the ones you are able to visit–there are so many amazing options! 🙂
      Jenna Kvidt recently posted…Snorkeling at the Mall of AmericaMy Profile

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