Isle Royale National Park

Located in the state of Michigan, Isle Royale National Park resides in the heart of Lake Superior – the largest of the five Great Lakes, which together form the largest body of fresh water in the world.

Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario- jointly referred to as the Great Lakes, together form an area of 94250 square miles and contain roughly 20% of the earth’s fresh water. The lakes border the states of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, as well as the Canadian province of Ontario. The Lakes were formed 14,000 years ago, at the end of last Ice Age. Retreating glacial sheets exposed great basins formerly carved by the glaciers themselves. These in turn filled with water from the melted ice, thus becoming bodies of water. The lakes form a flowing water system. Water flows from Lake Superior to Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, from there to Lake Erie, and from there via the famous Niagara Falls to Lake Ontario. The Saint Lawrence River drains Lake Ontario, and thus the five lakes, into the Atlantic Ocean. The lakes and their connecting canals form a major shipping route, and large cities adorn their banks, namely Toronto, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, and Milwaukee.

Not only the largest of the five lakes, Lake Superior is also the wildest and less inhabited, as only 2% of the 40,000,000 inhabitants of the Great Lakes area reside on its shores. Lake Superior is also the cleanest when it comes to water quality, leading to great visibility when looking to the deep. At the heart of the lake lies Isle Royale – a remote island covered in lush forests, with lakes, rivers and hidden coves. Isle Royale National Park consists of Isle Royale itself as well as roughly 400 adjacent islands and their surrounding waters. At 45 miles long and 9 miles wide, there are no roads or settlements on Isle Royale – only two visitor centers  (Rock Harbor Visitor Center in the island’s north and Windigo Visitor Center in the south west), many campgrounds, and two lodges (Rock Harbor Lodge in the north and Windigo Camper Cabins, which are basic cabins, in the south).

Some travellers arrive at the island for a short, or even a day’s long, visit and some spend a night in the lodge at the island’s northwest. Most travellers arrive at the island for multi-day hiking trips and sleep at one of the parks 36 campgrounds, spread across the island’s shores and its interior. As the islands trail and camping system is well maintained, the park is a great hiking destination for beginner backpackers.

When To Visit Isle Royale National Park:

The park is open to visitors from mid-April until late October. The park is close for the rest of the year due to harsh winter conditions in the region. The ferry lines shipping to the park, however, are active from May till September only, and some lines only start their season in June. To enjoy warm weather, it is best to arrive from June to August. Be advised as even in the summer months temperatures are not very high (77°F at day, 60°F at night) and rain is common.

Location and Arrival directions:

Ferry lines ship to the park from Grand Portage Minnesota, and from the towns Copper Harbor and Houghton Michigan.

מקומות מהם אפשר לשוט למקום - פארק אייל רויאל

The ferry Isle Royale Queen IV will take you from Copper Harbor to Rock Harbor (where the island’s lodge is located). The sail is 3.5 hours long. The ferry is operated by an external operator and not by the US National Park Service. for reservations click here.

From Houghton you can board the Ranger III, operated by the USNPS, which will take you to Rock Harbor (6.5 hours) or Windigo (5.5 hours). For Information and reservations click here.

From Grand Portage you can sail to Windigo (1.5-2 hours) on two small USNPS operated ferries – Sea Hunter III which sails from Grand Portage to Windigo and Voyageur II. The latter continues after Windigo and circles the island from the north all the way to Rock Harbor while stopping at all the small campgrounds on the way. After a night’s stop in Rock Harbor the ship circles the island from the south to Windigo and the returns to Grand Portage. For information and reservations click here.

Sailing to the park is not cheap (50$-100$ a person each way, depending on the line). It is required to reserve a ticket in advance and some of the ferry lines do not depart on a day-to-day basis, hence planning ahead is recommended. Take into account that sailing on the smaller ferries (especially those leaving Grand Portage) can be bumpy and tough on those prone to seasickness.

נתיבי שיט פארק אייל רויאל

You can also fly to the island from Hancock, Michigan and Grand Marais, Minnesota. For more information click here.

For how long to visit and where to go in Isle Royale National Park:

As Isle Royale is not a typical national park, and the visit’s character greatly differs from visitor to visitor, I decided to write my family’s and my own experience from our visit to the park.

As a child I had a dream of visiting Lake Superior. I saw a beautiful nature film about the lake and since then I marked the map and knew I would go there. Hence a long trip in the region was planned to include this massive lake. We started the trip in Chicago, and then, via Badlands NP and Theodore Roosevelt NP, continued to northern Canada (to the small town of Churchill – Canada’s Polar Bear capital). The trip concluded with a drive south to Lake Superior where we spent a few days (in August) before heading east to Niagara Falls where we finished the trip.

We reached Isle Royale from Grand Portage, Minnesota onboard the Voyageur II which runs from Grand Portage to Windigo and then encircles the island, stopping at all the small coves and campgrounds on the way. We enjoy cruises like this which enable you to enjoy the views as well as have conversations with other passengers. We arrived at Rock Harbor and set up our tent in the area’s charming campground. The kids even had time to take a swim in the lake (the jump is documented in a picture at the end of the page).

The following morning, we folded our tent and got on the same boat as it continued its compass of the island. On the way many backpackers boarded and deboarded the boat. We arrived at Windigo around noon and set up in the nearby campground. We rented kayaks (which we towed all the way to our tent via a small creek flowing to the lake) and stayed at the campground for three days, in which we kayaked on the lake, swam (the water was cold but inviting), explored the island by foot, and rested.

The island’s views are not breathtaking, but the place is certainly charming. Nevertheless, I am not sure the fuss of arriving here, as well as the high cost of the boat ride are worth it. We were hoping to see wolves and moose, which the island is supposedly known for, but were not lucky in that. The only wildlife we saw were squirrels and some water birds. So far so good, but then came the sail back across the lake. We were told the way might be bumpy, but it was much, much more. (While the kids quite enjoyed the ordeal, I was busy visualising stories of shipwrecked vessels lying in the lakes deep waters.)

To summarize, we certainly enjoyed our visit. We didn’t experience the island in the standard way of a backpacking trip (one of our kids had a knee injury which prevented him from hiking long distances), yet still had a great time. Still, the island is not a ‘must see’ destination and visiting it does not fit everyone.

Camping and Lodging at Isle Royale National Park:

Visitors of the park can stay at the nice lodge at the island’s north-eastern part (Rock Harbor Lodge) as well as at the basic cabins in the island’s south-west (Windigo Camper Cabins). For reservations click here, and for additional information click here. For those wanting to camp, see information regarding the island’s campgrounds here. If you are planning on camping but are not backpacking, the campground at Rock Harbor, as well as Washington Creek Campground are both only a few minutes’ walk away from Rock Harbor and Windigo docks, respectively.

Backpacking in Isle Royale National Park

For those planning on a multi day hike on the island, the park offers a large trail network as well as many developed campgrounds with running water (see map of the park at the bottom of the article). It is required to issue a free permit at Rock Harbor or Windigo (for groups of 7 or more it is required to issue your permit in advance). It is also possible to camp cross-country (not in a campground) in most areas of the park with certain limitations you can read about here. For more information on backpacking in Isle Royale click here.

Other recommended places around Lake Superior:

After visiting Isle Royale we drove around the lake’s northern shore, where we discovered some other great locations (in the province of Ontario, Canada). The first is Pukaskwa National Park, a gorgeous park with moss clad forests, beautiful beaches, and areas of volcanic rocks. The park offers great hiking trails as well as a charming campground. We combined several trails into the one marked here in yellow (the trail begins in the visitor center marked in red).

Another place worth visiting in the area is Lake Superior Provincial Park which has a beautiful beach (Old Woman Bay) as well as a towering cliff rising high above the lake, evidence of glacial activity which shaped the land years ago. The park has a river flowing into the lake with sand dunes alongside it, offering a chance to roll into the water.
Pukaskwa National Park (marked in red), Lake Superior Provincial Park (marked in black), and Isle Royale National Park (marked in yellow).

מיקום אתרים סמוכים פארק אייל רויאל
In the lake’s western side (in the state of Minnesota), I recommend visiting Temperance River State Park which has a great swimming hole, as well as Judge C. R. Magney State Park which has beautiful waterfalls, one of which’s water mysteriously ‘disappears’. The latter park also has a nice campground in a dense forest. See the two parks’ location (marked in blue and red):

For a map of Isle Royale National Park click here

For more destinations in the western United States click here.

For all 50 National Parks in the lower 48 –  ranked click here.

Boat on Lake SuperiorThe Voyageur II, which sails from Grand Portage to the park

Canoeing on Lake SuperiorCanoeing in Lake Superior near Windigo

Canoeing in Isle Royale National ParkThe creek through which we sailed all the way to our tent in Washington Creek Campground

Hiking in Isle Royale National ParkA hiking trail on the island

Moose in Isle Royale National ParkThe island is supposedly a great place to spot moose, we saw only antlers

Camping in Isle Royale National ParkCamping near Rock Harbor on the island’s north-eastern side

Swimming in Lake Superiorand to conclude – jumping into the cold clear waters of Lake Superior

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