Isle Royale National Park
Stranded in the vast waters of Lake Superior, Isle Royale is perhaps the model of what a national park is supposed to be—wild, rugged, and remote. No roads touch the 45-mile-long island, and its only contact with the outside world remains ship-to-shore radio. One of the least-visited parks in the National Park Service system, Isle Royale’s yearly attendance is less than a single weekend’s worth at Yellowstone.
Civilization on Isle Royale (ROY-al) is concentrated in two small developments at opposite ends of the island. Windigo, on the southwest end, includes an information center, a grocery, and a marina. Rock Harbor, near the northeast end, offers the same, plus a no-frills lodge and restaurant across from the ferry dock, and a handful of cabins overlooking fingerlike Tobin Harbor. The rest of the island is backcountry, 210 square miles of forested foot trails, rocky bluffs, quiet lakes, and wilderness campsites.
Those who make the trek by boat or seaplane to Isle Royale come primarily to hike its 165 miles of trails, fish its 46 inland lakes, and paddle its saw-toothed shoreline. Wildlife viewing is popular, too, especially for the moose that swam across from Ontario several decades back, and the eastern timber wolves that later followed their prey across on the pack ice. Though the wolves are notoriously elusive, you can pretty much bet that your wildlife sightings will outnumber your human ones on Isle Royale.
While many national parks struggle with their fate as islands of wilderness surrounded by a more developed world, Isle Royale has the advantage of a much larger buffer zone protecting it from outside encroachment and influence. As a result, it is one of the most closely managed holdings in the national park system. That’s good or bad depending on your opinion of the Park Service, but it does present some unique opportunities for protecting the wilderness. For starters, it is one of the few parks that already regulates the number of visitors who pass through its “gates.” Though logistics have done a sufficient job of keeping numbers down thus far, the National Park Service only has to cut back on ferry service or campsites to slow the flow.
Limited access also allows the Park Service to enforce rules more effectively. Dogs, for example, are not allowed on the island for fear they might bring rabies and other diseases to the island’s wolf pack. Arrive with a poodle on your powerboat—even if it never sets paw on the dock—and you will be quickly waved off the island. Thumbs-down also to wheeled vehicles like mountain bikes or canoe carts. (Exceptions are made for wheelchairs.) The Park Service also takes great pains to preserve its backcountry solitude, with a park brochure reminding hikers to “refrain from loud conversation,” “avoid songfests,” and “select equipment of subtle natural tones rather than conspicuous colorful gear.”
Getting to Isle Royale National Park
Your options to Isle Royale are seaplane, ferry, or personal boat. The National Park Service operates the largest ferry, the 165-foot Ranger III. It departs from Houghton twice a week from the start of June through mid-September for the six-hour passage to Rock Harbor (same-day round-trip $75 adults, $40 children 7–12, children under 7 free). Canoes and kayaks are an additional $40. Make reservations through the national park (906/482-0984, www.nps.gov/isro).
A faster but more expensive boat, the 63-foot Voyageur II travels to Windigo in two hours, then continues on to Rock Harbor. On its way to Rock Harbor, it circumnavigates the island, offering drop-off and pick-up service along the way. (This makes for a slow but interesting trip.) The round-trip cost to Windigo is $118 adults, $78 children under 12; call for prices to other locations. It also can carry canoes and kayaks for additional fees. Make arrangements through Grand Portage-Isle Royale Transportation Line (218/475-0024 May–Oct. or 651/653-5872 Nov.–Apr., www.isleroyaleboats.com).
Seaplane service from Houghton is the most expensive but quickest way to the island—usually. The 45-minute flight is often delayed by wind and fog. From mid-May to mid-September, the plane flies on scheduled trips between Houghton County Memorial Airport and the protected bays at Windigo and Rock Harbor. The plane can carry up to five passengers for $269 round-trip per person ($185 one-way). While you won’t be able to bring stove fuel on board, you can purchase it at one of the park stores on the island. Reservations are required. For more information, contact Royale Air Service (877/359-4753, www.royaleairservice.com, children under two free).
Isle Royale was one of the first national parks to charge a “park user fee.” Daily fees are $4 per person per day. If you’re traveling to the island by ferry or seaplane, the concessionaire will collect your fee. If you’re traveling by private boat, you can pay at the ranger station at Windigo or Rock Harbor, or at the Houghton Visitor Center (800 E. Lakeshore Dr., 8 a.m.–6 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 11 a.m.–6 p.m. Sat. June–July, shorter hours Aug.–May) prior to your departure.
Also, remember that Isle Royale is one of the few national parks to close during the winter, from November through mid-April. This is due, of course, to extreme weather conditions, wildlife protection, and visitor safety.
For general information about the park, including camping and transportation options, contact Isle Royale National Park (906/482-0984, www.nps.gov/isro). You’ll find few services (and probably no cell phone reception) on the islands, so be sure to stock up on supplies in Houghton or Copper Harbor before heading to Isle Royale.
by Laura Martone from Moon Michigan, 3rd Edition, © Avalon Travel