Insider's Guide to Isle Royale National Park

Minong Ridge, Isle Royale National Park.
Minong Ridge, Isle Royale National Park. flickNYC
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Whether braving the choppy, long, boat ride across the frigid waters of Lake Superior or having to plan for full self-sufficiency for the duration of your stay, everything about Isle Royale National Park screams adventure. Located just out of reach of the outstretched fingers of Canada, the archipelago of Isle Royale and dozens of smaller islands are on the edge of a geologic fault which pushed up from the lake floor. The land was scoured by glaciers into a long ridge that is now officially part of Michigan. Travelers willing to do the work in getting to IRNP are handsomely rewarded with an unparalleled back-to-the-wilderness experience.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Isle Royale is the life and death battle that has been playing itself out on this isolated island between the moose and wolf populations for decades. As predator and prey, their lives and deaths are linked in one of the longest continuous predator-prey studies in a closed environment in the world. Neither animal is native to the small island and it is believed that they reached it via ice bridges that formed from the mainland. Unless action is taken to rejuvenate the population, the study may soon come to a close as there are only two known wolves still alive as of 2016. Other common mammals are red foxes, beavers, red squirrels, snowshoe hares, and otters. There are also a wide variety of birds including eagles and ospreys who nest on the island. Much to anglers delight, northern pike are plentiful in the inland lakes, along with varieties of trout, walleye, and other sport fish.

The 571,790 acres of Isle Royale National Park were declared conserved land by Congress in 1931 and were established as a national park in 1940. Accessible only by boat or float plane with a limited season, May to September (it’s the only NP to fully close for the winter), a visit does take some effort and advanced planning. Unsurprisingly, this makes it one of the least visited parks, with only 18,684 visitors in 2015.

Classic Adventures

Minong Ridge, Isle Royale National Park.
Minong Ridge, Isle Royale National Park. flickNYC

Simply being on the island enjoying the peace and quiet is a major draw of the park. There are 36 campgrounds and one lodge to use as basecamps for exploration of this 45-mile-long, 9-mile-wide stretch of unspoiled land. Permits are required for all overnight stays. Quiet hours are from 9:00 pm to 5:00 am. The rustic Rock Harbor Lodge offers a mix of rooms and cabins, two restaurants, and a general store.

Hiking opportunities abound with 165 miles of trails to venture out on. Most trips begin from either the Windigo Visitor Center on the southwestern end of the island or from the Rock Harbor Visitor Center on the northeastern end.

For those who seek adventure on the southwestern side, the 6-mile round-trip Minong Ridge offers a challenging hike that climbs rocky ledges through pine forest and drops into marshes, replete with beavers and moose, opening into a spectacular view of flat-topped Pie Island and the Canadian shoreline. To extend the trip, the entire trail stretches 26 miles to McCargoe Cove and can be backpacked.

For a something a bit different, hikers can visit the Ojibway Fire Tower on the northeastern end. This hike can be either a 3.5-mile round- trip or as a 5.1-mile loop starting at Daisy Farm Campground. This trail climbs up and over several ridges to the highest point on the eastern end of Isle Royale. Today, the former fire tower houses scientific instruments supporting a nationwide atmospheric monitoring program.

Paddling in Isle Royale National Park.
Paddling in Isle Royale National Park. Jackie Dangl

With numerous lakes, bays, and islands, Isle Royale National Park provides many miles of crystal water for the experienced paddler. Canoe and kayak rentals are also available at the Windigo Store. On the southwestern side, the calm, protected waters of Washington Harbor are ideal for a leisurely paddle. Head out to Beaver Island, explore Washington Creek, or just cruise along the shoreline looking for mergansers and otters.

For multi-sport enthusiasts, paddle across the channel from America Dock to explore Raspberry Island on foot through the boreal forest and a fragile bog. Keep your eyes out for the insect-eating sundew and pitcher plant that thrive in the bog environment.

Don't have enough time for an overnight visit to Isle Royale National Park? Day trips, while less common, are possible. Some ferries offer round-trip excursions and allow 3-4 hours on land for taking in the island's charms.

Secrets of the Park

SS America, Isle Royale National Park.
SS America, Isle Royale National Park. Dennis Kilbride

The hazardous, rock-infested waters surrounding the island have been an obstacle to shipping on Lake Superior since the early days and more than 25 major shipwrecks have occurred on its reefs. The wrecks left behind offer a historical playground of over 10 major sites for scuba divers to investigate. It’s possible to dive the sites on your own and there are also several operators in the area that can arrange multi-day, fully supported trips (recommended). Due to the water temperatures, plan for use of a semi-dry or drysuit.

The America is the most popular and frequently visited wreck. She was launched in 1898 and had a long career carrying passengers and delivering mail and supplies. The ship was damaged as she was making her way out of the harbor in 1928 and the captain ordered it beached in an attempt to save her, to no avail. Divers can swim through virtually all of the remaining portions of the remarkably intact ship including the crew quarters, galley, ballroom, and engine room, where you can see the flag on its famously painted engine.

Immerse Yourself

Greenstone Ridge Trail, Isle Royale National Park.
Greenstone Ridge Trail, Isle Royale National Park. Ben W

The best way to appreciate the true wild nature of the park is to hike the entire 40-mile Greenstone Ridge Trail that treks across the spine of the heavily forested island. Over this four-day, three-night hike you’ll cross the highest point on the island, the 1,394-foot Mount Desor. The opportunity to get up close and personal with nature is unparalleled, with a chance for a variety of wildlife encounters moose feeding in trailside swamps, loons bobbing along with chicks in tow, and, if truly lucky, hearing the haunting howls of wolves. It’s possible to forage for berries and catch your own fish dinner in one of the many inland lakes where no fishing permit is required.

There are designated wilderness campsites along the trail, however this is true, self-sufficient backpacking at its finest. There is no place on the island to get supplies so you must pack in everything you need and follow ‘leave-no-trace’ protocols.

Rock Harbor and Windigo both have potable water. All of the designated campgrounds also have a source of water, however it needs to be filtered or boiled, as does all surface lake and stream water. To purify, it needs to be passed through a 0.4 micron or less water filter. A UV filter will not work for killing parasites known to be present.

The suggested route is to hike from the southwest to the northeast and a water-taxi shuttle can be arranged. Permits are required for all overnight stays at campgrounds and should be displayed on backpack when hiking, and on your tent or shelter when at camp.

How to Get the Most Out of Your Visit

  • Isle Royale is a popular Michigan destination for Boy Scouts and groups. Book travel well in advance as large groups will fill up the limited seating on ferry boats.

  • The water is frigid and evenings cool, even in late summer, so pack long sleeves. Temps can also vary widely from shore to inland, layering is suggested.

  • The waters of Lake Superior are notoriously unpredictable and access to emergency services are incredibly limited. Pack extras of any medications you may need.

  • There are several invasive species in Lake Superior that conservationists are trying to keep from getting into the inland waters. Make sure to empty any residual water and wipe down the outsides of all crafts that are portaged.

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