Skip to main content

Boreal Community Media

A Day In The Park: Isle Royale National Park

Dec 27, 2018 11:30AM ● By Editor

Moskey Basin, Isle Royale National Park.  Photo:  Rich Perry via Pure Michigan

By Kurt Repanshek of National Parks Traveler on December 26th, 2018

Isle Royale is a 571,800-acre, heavily forested island in tempestuous Lake Superior that under the National Park Service captures a snapshot of northwoods past, one that has been manipulated by succeeding generations of visitors. Yet it's a place where one can disappear into a vestige of wilderness, cast for a rare species of trout, or relax in a cabin or lodge room and enjoy the placid surroundings.

It's not an easy national park to reach, and the hard winters close Isle Royale from November 1 to April 15 each year. But for the comparative few who manage to spend time at Isle Royale --2017 visitation was just 28,196, up from 18,684 in 2015-- it can be a rewarding destination that can replicate the experience of early 19th century traders or provide you with modern-day comforts.

Accessible only by seaplane, boat, or paddling, Isle Royale spans 850 square miles, some of which is underwater, as the park's boundaries extend four-and-a-half miles out into the lake. On this heavily forested preserve scientists have been watching the interplay between wolves and moose for half-a-century, a remarkable, unmatched-for-its-longevity study of predator and prey.

Those who are lured to the island park and its more than 132,000 acres of congressionally designated wilderness come to paddle around it and its many islands or perhaps on one of its inland lakes, to dive into its waters onto wrecks, or simply to walk through the meadows and into the forests.

Many of those who visit Isle Royale come away struck by the wilderness beauty, and the chance of listening to a howling wolf. The latter, of course, can truly be a chance encounter, as until the fall of 2018 there were only two wolves left on the island, and they were in old age. But a recovery program arranged by the Park Service brought four wolves to Isle Royale, and there will be ongoing efforts to boost the population until there are about 30.

Four wolves were released at Isle Royale in fall 2018NPS Jim Peaco

Four wolves were released at Isle Royale in fall 2018.  Photo NPS -  Jim Peaco

As Traveler contributors David and Kay Scott wrote two years ago, "(N)early every visitor to Isle Royale is there to experience the best of nature in a quiet and solitary way. They visit this out-of-the-way park to hike, boat, read, and converse with other visitors who have similar interests. In a triumph of nature over technology, the island has no cell phone service and a woeful Wi-Fi system."

How do you reach Isle Royale? The most common way is to buy a ticket on The Ranger III, a 165-foot-long Park Service ferry that runs from Houghton, Michigan, to the island. Adult tickets range from $55 to $70, one-way, depending on whether it's the low season (before July 10 and after August 25), or the high season. Kids 15 and younger cost $35 for a one-way trip.  It's an operation that makes it easy to bring your sea kayak or canoe with you for an extra cost ($100 for vessels less than 18 feet, 1 inch, $150 for longer boats). The ferry typically runs from late May into early September, with 9 a.m. departures from Houghton on Tuesdays and Fridays.

Other boats head to Isle Royale from Copper Harbor, Michigan, and Grand Portage, Minnesota. Each departure point offers a different experience and the boats typically operate only certain days of the week, so be sure to check the schedule when making lodge reservations. There also are float planes that will take you to the island, though tickets for those seats go past $300, round-trip.

For those who don't like sleeping in a tent, more visitor facilities are being proposed for the park, where the Park Service says weary existing facilities and an increase in visitation have created a need for the improvements at the Windigo area on the western end of the island in Lake Superior. Under the park's preferred alternative in the draft Windigo Development Concept Plan/Environmental Assessment, a new road, buildings, cabins (up to four additional Camper Cabins), and concessionaire housing would be built within the developed area's 400-acre footprint. There also would be new interpretive areas and exhibits, and a new septic field might be developed.

Starry night over Isle RoyaleDave Bryan via Pure Michigan

Starry night over Isle Royale.  Photo: Dave Bryan via Pure Michigan

The existing concessionaire offers a mix of rooms. You can choose from 60 motel-style rooms at Rock Harbor Lodge or 20 "housekeeping" rooms in a condominium setup that offers space for six, a bathroom, and kitchenette. There also are two rustic Windigo Camper Cabins; each offers two bunks and electricity, but no running water or inside cooking facilities. The cabins also are 45 miles from Rock Harbor, accessible from Grand Portage, Minnesota via The Voyageur II and the Seahunter or from Hancock, Michigan, or Grand Marias, Minnesota, via Isle Royale Seaplanes

Those looking for an adventure, but with some assistance, might consider the Kayak Eco-tour offered by the folks at Rock Harbor Lodge. It offers wildlife viewing, a visit to the Peterson wolf research station, and, among other things, a look at what's billed as the largest moose skull collection in the world. This trek (~$1,629/single, $2,995/couple) includes transportation, meals, kayaks and accessories, maps, permits and fees and ecologist/kayak guide, and four nights' lodging at Rock Harbor.

If you plan to camp in the park either in a tent, by docking your boat or even by anchoring your boat in park waters, you'll need a backcountry permit. Permits are issued on board the Ranger III and at the Rock Harbor and Windigo visitor centers. Camping for parties of six or less is on a first-come, first-served basis and sites cannot be reserved. Canoe-only sites are limited to two nights stay, for parties of six or less. The entire shore of Lake Whittlesey, Wood Lake, Intermediate Lake and Siskiwit Lake, and designated zones along Lake Superior, are open to camping with a one-night stay limit per location. Camping on offshore islands is limited to designated campsites. Groups (7-10 people) must stay at designated “group campsites,” and must get backcountry permits in advance. Shoreline camping is not open to groups.

There is rich history on the island to go along with the northwoods flavor. Prehistoric peoples came to mine the copper deposits on the island, the American Fur Company spent a few years here in the early 1800s fishing commercially, and mining was revisted in the mid-1800s and lasted into the 20th century. Commercial fishing also returned in the early 20th century. (For more of the island's history, see the attached NPS document).

Staying on shore isn't the only thing visitors to Isle Royale do. For those skilled at diving, some treasures otherwise lost to history can be found in the waters surrounding the park; a number of wrecks that date back to the late 1800s. There's even the skeleton of a freighter that went down with a "load of iron ore," though it's not the SS Edmund Fitzgerald made famous by the Gordon Lightfoot song.

Skin Diver once listed Isle Royale as one of the top seven diving sites in the world. Lake Superior's extremely cold water has well preserved the ten major ship wrecks in the waters adjacent to the park. All diving in the park is concentrated on these ghosts of the past. Diving inland in the park is prohibited; the many inlets and coves often have artifacts that the park is protecting for future archaeological documentation.

Isle Royale is not a park you happen upon without planning. But it's certainly one that deserves your consideration

To read the original article and read more about our National Parks, follow this link the NPS Traveler website.

Boreal Ship Spotter - larger view here