The Ultimate Guide to Isle Royale National Park

As one of Michigan's five National Parks, Isle Royale is by far the least appreciated. Nestled on Lake Superior, Isle Royale National Park was formed by the world's greatest lava flow and later sculpted by historic glacial movement for millennia, now only accessible by boat or plane.

While many do not get the chance to visit Isle Royale National Park, once they do, they frequently return back to this Michigan wilderness escape for more. Some enjoy this breathtaking national park through Isle Royale backpacking, while others decide to enjoy their stay with more comfort and amenities at the Isle Royale Lodge.

Hiking Isle Royale is fairly accessible for all levels of adventurers, with plenty of Isle Royale wildlife to greet you throughout your trek. Camping Isle Royale National Park is also fairly common with plenty of Isle Royale campsites sprinkled throughout the national park. With the beautiful Isle Royale weather, it is no wonder there are plenty of moose and wolves on Isle Royale.

So make sure to book the Isle Royale Ferry or catch a ride on the Isle Royale Seaplane to see this beautiful Michigan national park. Grab your free travel planner and buckle up, because we are going to go through everything you need to know about Isle Royale National Park.

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how to get to isle royale mi

How to Get to Isle Royale MI

Since Isle Royal is one of the few island national parks in the United States, you cannot simply stop by on your upper Midwest road trip. Isle Royal National Park is a remote island found west of Houghton and Copper Harbor, Michigan.

When embarking on your once-in-a-lifetime National Park adventure, you can choose to arrive by either the Isle Royale ferry, the Isle Royale seaplane, or through a private watercraft. So if you are wondering how to get to Isle Royale, stick around, we are going to go through the top ways to get to this secluded National Park in Michigan.

Isle Royale Ferry

isle royale ferry

The Isle Royale Queen IV passenger ferry runs between Copper Harbor, Michigan and Rock Harbor located on the northeast end of Isle Royale National Park. Since Isle Royale is a remote island, there is no car ferry service, as you will not need your car or any motored vehicle once you arrive.

Reservations for the Isle Royale ferry are simple to make, as you can choose both your ferry service from Copper Harbor to Isle Royale and your Isle Royale ferry from Isle Royale to Copper Harbor separately. You will have to pay to leave your car at Copper Harbor, however, this fee is usually around $10 a night, and well worth the fantastic once-in-a-lifetime opportunities you will experience on Isle Royale MI.

The peak season is from July 1st to September 10th for Isle Royale National Park, and this is when the Isle Royale ferry fares will be the highest. The Isle Royale ferry takes a little over 3 and a half hours one way, typically departing Copper Harbor at 8:00 am EDT and departing Rock Harbor on Isle Royale at 2:45 pm EDT.

If you are leaving from Minnesota, you can find a ferry leaving from Grand Portage and arriving at Windigo, where you will find a visitor's center and campground. The Voyageur II brings visitors via a Isle Royale ferry between May 15th and September 30th every year.

The Voyageur II departs at 7:30 am CDT from Grand Portage and arrives at Windigo at 9:30 am. If you are leaving the island, you can expect to leave Windigo at 1:00 pm CDT and arrive at Grand Portage around 3:00 pm.

Isle Royale Seaplane

isle royale seaplane

If you prefer a quicker and more intimate approach to Isle Royale, consider booking a ride on one of Isle Royale's popular seaplanes. From the air, you can truly get the full scope of the island and Lake Superior surrounding it. 

The Isle Royale seaplane tends to be more on the pricier side, but may make sense if you prefer to leave from Grand Marais or Hancock Portage Canal. A roundtrip flight on a Isle Royal seaplane starts at $300 and can either drop you off at Rock Harbor or Windigo in Isle Royale National Park.

Where to Stay on Isle Royale

isle royale where to stay

Isle Royale MI is a wilderness escape at one of the United States most underrated National Parks. This means, you will not find many options for hotels or luxurious accommodation during your time on this remote island.

Thankfully, the Rock Harbor Lodge was constructed on Isle Royale for those not looking for that rustic experience around the clock. For those willing to venture further into the woods via backpacking Isle Royale, you will be happy to know there are plenty of Isle Royale campsites sprinkled throughout Isle Royale National Park.

Isle Royale Lodge

isle royale lodge rock harbor lodge isle royale

Since Isle Royale is so remote, there is only one form of accommodation on land that is not the typical camping experience. The only Isle Royale lodge is the Rock Harbor Lodge, and is nestled in the area the Isle Royale ferry drops passengers off.

The Rock Harbor Lodge offers rooms with private bathrooms, housekeeping cottages, and plenty of on-site services. These include a dining room, gift shop, snack bar, marina, dockside store, rental kayaks, canoes, and motor boats, and guided sightseeing and fishing tours.

Staying at this Isle Royale Rock Harbor lodge is the best way to set up camp for short day trips into the vast wilderness of Isle Royale. From here you can explore Passage Island and the neighboring Rock Harbor Lighthouses via a sightseeing boat, hike Isle Royale's scenic trails, or visit the historic site of an ancient copper mine.

When booking your stay at the Rock Harbor Lodge Isle Royale, you have the option to choose between the Lakeside Lodge Rooms, Cottages, and Windigo Camper Cabins

Isle Royale Camping

isle royale camping

Isle Royale camping is completely free, however there is an entrance fee to explore Isle Royale National Park. The park charges a $7 per person daily fee to enter and remain within the park per calendar day. Further permits are required for all overnight stays for parties more than six members at the Isle Royale campsites, cross country sites, docks, and at anchor. 

Isle Royal backpacking participants typically hike from one campground to another, traveling from six to eight miles a day. For those looking for a more rustic and adventurous experience, cross-country camping is allowed on Isle Royale with an additional permit.

Isle Royale Campsites

isle royale campsites

 Isle Royale MI is home to 36 different campgrounds located around the island. All of these Isle Royale campsites are only accessible by foot or watercraft. Thankfully, once you pay the entrance fee, staying at these campgrounds is completely free.

All of the Isle Royale campsites offer tent spots, a water source, and on-site outhouses. Make sure to head over to some of the Isle Royale campsites along Lake Superior that offer shelters and picnic tables. If you are keen on staying in one of these shelters, make sure to arrive earlier in the day, as these spots are first come first serve and typically fill up fast.

You will notice that several of these Isle Royale campsites found along Lake Superior offer docks for power and sail boaters. These are also a couple of canoe and kayak campsites on Isle Royale located inland. If you are traveling with a group, there are a couple Isle Royale campsites offering group sites. 

Todd Harbor Campground is located on the quieter, no wake Todd Harbor. This Isle Royale campsite is perfect for campers and backpackers who was to portage their canoes or hike towards the north end of Isle Royal. Tookers Island campground is another beautiful spot, which is only accessible by canoe or kayak.

For those looking to backpack or hike without the use of canoes or kayaks, head over to the Chippewa Harbor campground. This Isle Royale campsite is nestled along the southern side of the island, perfect for those who would love to enjoy a night under the stars. For a low-traffic Isle Royale campsite, head over to Lane Cove campground, a doable day's hike from Rock Harbor.

Isle Royale Backpacking

isle royale backpacking

Most visitors to Isle Royale National Park end up backpacking across this remote island. Isle Royale backpacking can either be the experience of a lifetime or take a lifetime to forget. Make sure to plan your backpacking Isle Royale trip well in advanced, to make sure you stay fully comfortable.

There are a combination of factors that contribute to how your backpacking trip will go, including essential equipment, route plan, and efficiently packing your backpack.

Some essential gear include broken-in hiking shoes, a quality backpack (that fits!), a waterproof backpacking tent, a sleeping bag, raingear, and a water filter. There are countless other items to pack for Isle Royale backpacking, but those are ones you will not want to forget when you leave for Isle Royale MI.

Make sure to obtain a map of Isle Royale and make a plan for your Isle Royale backpacking route. This should include doable day hikes between various Isle Royale campsites, with 5-8 miles between each night (can be greater if you are more experienced).

Lastly, make sure to pack your backpack with attention to detail before leaving for Isle Royale MI. This means that you should be able to pack everything you could ever need (ideally with a little extra space) efficiently. The figure to the right displays the ideal way to pack your backpack depending on the type of backpack you are using. Make sure to utilize this guide in order to prevent any injuries during your Isle Royale backpacking adventure.

isle royale backpacking distribution

What to Do in Isle Royale National Park

isle royale mi

Isle Royale MI, as one of the smaller islands of Lake Superior, is filled with diverse wildlife and adventurous experiences. With roughly 17,000 visitors a year, you will not find many crowds during your stay. After your boat ride or Isle Royale seaplane, you will have countless opportunities to explore all of what Isle Royale National Park has to offer. Isle Royale's secluded destination in the upper Midwest is the exact reason why visitors flock here, to connect with the natural beauty.

Isle Royale Weather

isle royale weather

If you are visiting Isle Royale National Park during the peak season, you can expect fairly high temperatures during the day, with chillier temperatures during the night. There can also be frequent rain and thunderstorms depending on the time of year you are visiting, so make sure to double check the weather before you leave to make sure you have all the necessary supplies.

Isle Royale Weather in May: As the last month of Spring for Isle Royale, May is one of the more mild months marking the beginning of Isle Royale's peak time. You can expect temperatures ranging between 32 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit. This means that you should definitely pack warmer outfits and an insulated sleeping bag for your Isle Royale backpacking adventure. 

Isle Royale Weather in June: While June is the first month of summer for Michigan, you can still see temperatures as low as 32 degrees. However, with the intense summer sun brings the warmer daytime air, so you can expect highs around 60 degrees Fahrenheit. This means that you should bring a fair mix of warmer and cooler clothing as layers that you can remove throughout a day of hiking Isle Royale.

Isle Royale Weather in July: This month welcomes the warmest temperatures Isle Royale National Park experiences, with highs around the mid 70s. Since Isle Royale is located so far North, you can still experience colder temperatures during the night. Therefore, it is, again, important to pack in layers and bring an insulated sleeping bag.

Isle Royale Weather in August: As the last month of summer, you will notice the temperatures decreasing to a high in the low 70s throughout August. This Isle Royale weather in August is still fairly comfortable, especially when you consider the 50-pound backpack many will be carrying around this Michigan National Park.

Isle Royale Weather in September: As the last month for peak season in Isle Royale MI, September welcomes overall lower temperatures compared to the previous summer months. This means you can expect a high in the low 60s with lows around freezing (32 degrees). 

Hiking Isle Royale MI

hiking isle royale mi

Surrounded by the remarkable waters of Lake Superior, the most popular way to get around the island (and most efficient) is via foot. Hiking Isle Royale through the 165 miles of trails is the best way to explore the scenic coastline and the archipelago's numerous bays.

The Isle Royale hiking trails greatly vary in length, between 0.4 and 42 miles. Consequently, the difficulty also varies, depending on the specific hike, between easy and challenging. The average visit to Isle Royale National Park is four days, with plenty of time to visit the park's most popular, remote, short, and long hikes.

Greenstone Ridge Trail is the longest trail in Isle Royale MI, also claiming the title as one of Michigan's classic treks. This is a five-day walk from one side of the island to the other. Another long trail you can embark on is the Minong Ridge Trail. This is the toughest trail to complete in Michigan, a six-day trek along the rocky crest of Isle Royale's ridge and across numerous beaver dams.

If you prefer to stick to the shorter Isle Royale hiking trails, you will be happy departing on trails from the island's east (Rock Harbor) or west (Windigo) end. Keep an eye out for the Rock Harbor and Lake Richie Trails, Hatchet Lake Trail, Mount Franklin Trail, Island Mine Trail, ad the Indian Portage Trail.

Isle Royale Lighthouses

isle royale lighthouses

Isle Royale National Park is home to three lighthouses: the Menagerie Island Light, the Passage Island Light, and the Rock Harbor Light.

The Menagerie Island Light was built in 1875 as the unique red sandstone and rock keeper's sleeping quarters. This octagonal tower features a white exterior, and truly makes the Menagerie Lighthouse stand out during Isle Royale boating trips. While public visits to this Isle Royale lighthouse are not permitted, you can walk around the grounds. Access to this specific spot in Isle Royale National Park is only via private boat.

Located near the eastern end of Isle Royale National Park, the Passage Island Lighthouse was built in 1872. This spot is another popular attraction during boat tours departing from Rock Harbor. To see this Isle Royale lighthouse, make sure to board the MV Sandy for a 8-mile ride to Passage Island. From these, you will follow a NPS guide on a 2-mile round-trip hike to this stone lighthouse in Isle Royale MI.

The most notable lighthouse in Isle Royale MI is the Rock Harbor Light, which boasts a brick and stone lighthouse with a white tower and black lantern. This beautiful Isle Royale lighthouse rises above the island's rugged coastline and surrounding green pine trees. The Rock Harbor Light is also the oldest lighthouse on Isle Royale island.

Isle Royale Canoeing and Kayaking

canoeing isle royale

The best way to explore Isle Royale National Park on the water is through the Keweenaw Adventure Company. They offer multi-day guided trips to Isle Royale MI allowing you to choose between sing and tandem kayaks. These will be equipped with any gear and equipment you could ever need, including a wetsuit.

If you prefer to canoe, there are plenty of canoe routes and portages throughout the eastern half of Isle Royale. Canoes should be at least 15' long to safely navigate the waters in the large bays and not swamp in Lake Superior's rough waters. 

You will also want to leave your recreational kayaks at home as they will not be suitable or appropriate for the water conditions at Isle Royale National Park. Sea kayaks are highly recommended and offered by many tour companies for rent around the area.

Fishing on Isle Royale

fishing on isle royale

Fishermen from all over head onto Isle Royale National Park for a fishing experience. Isle Royale fishing is exceptional whether you are fishing Lake Superior or the inland lakes. The most popular methods of Isle Royale fishing are by boat, canoe, or kayak, but you can easily spend your time fishing Isle Royal on foot.

If you are visiting Isle Royal National Park as an angler, you are in luck. Here, you will find lake trout, brook trout, lake whitefish, northern pike, yellow perch, and potentially walleye! 

The park actively works to preserve and restore the native fisheries at Isle Royale National Park through the management of fish and other aquatic environments. This provides excellent fishing opportunities to the curious visitors to Isle Royale MI.

Isle Royale Wildlife

isle royale wildlife

While moose and wolves have made Isle Royale MI rise to fame, this Michigan National Park is also home to plenty of other friendly critters.

There are 18 mammal species found across Isle Royale National Park, the most prevalent being red fox, wolves, moose, otters, and beavers. You can also find various bird species like Sandhill Cranes and Sharp-tailed Grouse. It is not uncommon to spot a few frogs, toads, and salamanders across the wetland areas of Isle Royale MI.

You can find two species of snakes on this remote island-- the northern red-bellied snake and the common garter snake. Finally, keep your eye out for the western painted turtle (the only turtle present on Isle Royale) during your visit.

Moose on Isle Royale

moose on isle royale

Many who look into the history of Isle Royale National Park will quickly learn about the single predator-single prey relationship between moose and wolves on the island. As the subject of diligent study for over 50 years, the population of moose can be explained by the presence of wolves in Isle Royale MI.

Moose first arrived on Isle Royale island in the early 1900s, and since then, have become one of the sole reasons eager backpackers visit this Michigan National Park. As the largest member of the deer family, many of these beasts stand at over six-feet tall and weigh over 1,000 pounds. 

Like I mentioned earlier, the population of moose on Isle Royale varies greatly. Since the 1980s, the moose population has been as few as 500 to as many as 2,400.

If you are looking to spot moose during your Isle Royale backpacking adventure, make sure to head over to the inland lakes and beaver ponds where they like to stay cool in the heat of summer. Some notable moose sighting areas in Isle Royale National Park are Ojibway Lake, Feldtmann Lake, Hidden Lake, and Washington Creek.

Wolves on Isle Royale

wolves on isle royale

The gray wolf (also referred to as the timber wolf), arriving on Isle Royale in the late 1940s, has been the prevailing predator of the island. Named for its thick, gray coat, the gray wolf's coat can range in color from red to black.

On average, adult wolves on Isle Royale National Park are around five to six feet long, with females weighing 50-85 pounds and males weighing 70-110 pounds. Wolves on Isle Royale help to stability the moose herd on the island by preying on the old, weak, and young. 

Wolves in Isle Royale MI can be found throughout the park, however, they can be scared and timid around humans. They are also very elusive, so your best chance of spotting one is along a lakeshore, in open areas, or near the Isle Royale hiking trails.

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