Park History: Isle Royale National Park

Sunrise on Tobin Harbor, Isle Royale National Park. Photo by Templarion via flickr.

Journeying to Isle Royale National Park is almost as difficult as visiting a foreign country, perhaps more so, due to its remote location. An island fortress in Lake Superior, the national park has endured so magnificently in large part thanks to its remoteness.

More than a few national parks see more visits in a single month than Isle Royale does in a year. According to National Park Service statistics, just 15,973 folks headed to the island last year for some R&R. The high water mark -- 31,760 -- was recorded in 1987. But that shouldn't be viewed as a slight, for those who manage to make it to Isle Royale, which was created on this date on 1940, enjoy a wilderness vista that's hard to find these days in the Lower 48.

Accessible only by seaplane, boat, or paddling (unless you come in winter, when you can walk across the ice if it's thick enough), 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.

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 6 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 one lodge on the island, Rock Harbor Lodge. Here you'll find rooms with private baths, housekeeping cottages, a dining room, snack bar, gift shop, dockside store, marina, rental motor boats, kayaks and canoes, guided fishing and sightseeing tours. That said, the season is relatively short, running from late May to just after Labor Day.


I would love to go to this park, and one day hope to go. Living in TX means it is quite a distance even to reach the park. Has anyone been there, hiking? how was it?

I am from Michigan and I know people who have been there, but I have not. From what they tell me it is absolutely pristine, wild, rugged, FAR, but there are great opportunities to see lots of wildlife, like moose, and you will hear the wolves, but probably won't see them. There really isn't another place like it. The Great Lakes themselves that far north are amazing -- clean and immense bodies of fresh water that are very cold to take a dip in but you will feel clean and reborn if you take the plunge. It's a beautiful place.

Two of Nevada Barr’s mystery novels, “A Superior Death” and “Winter Study,” are set in Isle Royale National Park. A Superior Death (“who killed the diver?”) was the second of the 14 books in the park-based series featuring fictional ranger Anna Pigeon. Winter Study, which involves scientists studying Isle Royale’s wolves and the moose they prey on, was just released a few days ago. Barr is in Michigan doing the book tour thing (Ann Arbor on Saturday, Okemus on Sunday) even as we speak. Early reviews of Winter Study have been very complimentary. I’m really looking forward to reading this book, not least because I’m a Michigander born and raised. I hope to visit Isle Royale some day, though you may rest assured I will not be doing any ice walking to get there. I don't know about ice conditions on the U.S. side of the lake, but there's been no safe "ice bridge" from the Canadian shore to the island for at least 30 years.

I have hiked this park for two weeks right after it opened for the season back in 1996. It was one of the best experience I've had yet in my 40 years. Somehow I lucked out and had perfect weather which I hear is unheard of for that time of year. I hiked the east side for one week and the west side the next. I took the boat from the MN side with 4 other people, and as it was our captain's first trip of the season he took his time and pointed out some very cool shipwrecks just under the surface near the island itself. VERY cool. Needless to say with only four of us on the MN boat, (the MI boat had not yet begun trips that early in the season) I never saw one person the entire two weeks. Lots of moose, fox, and yes wolves, and too early and cold for bugs. Had a wolf visitor on a beach on the east side of the park one night. He/she sat on the opposite side of the beach and just watched me as I watched him/her for nearly 15 minutes. Heard several packs howling during my time there. Nightly and daily moose encounters. Even the fishing was pretty good for that time of year (and yes I was licensed). I would HIGHLY recommend this park to anyone, however go early in the season as I was told it gets busy with recreational boaters and the good campgrounds on the beaches get filled quickly. There were no vehicles on the island when I was there, I have no idea if they have a few now, especially on the busier east end where most of the travelers end up landing from the MI side. The trails were incredible when I was there. Well marked and in very good condition. Who knows what 10+ years has done to this beautiful place though. I didn't take a camera with me but every single inch of the island that I traveled is embedded in my memory as if it were only yesterday. It was a trip of a lifetime and if hiking is your passion you owe it to yourself to visit this park. Don't sweat the price of the boat ride, or the logistics of how to get's all part of the experience. Do your homework and you will be greatly rewarded with an incredible trip.

Lakeside camping sounds wonderful. I love being able to camp in the woods in the remotest of locations. Too bad it's so far away.

Find time and visit this enchanting and wild Isle. You will never see a more spectacular shade of blue than you will witness from Look- out- Louise as you view Lake Superior. Raspberry Island with its wildflowers and bogs makes one imagine that's how the earth would might have smelled on the first day of creation........clean healthy earthy! The boat ride from Copper Harbor in the cool breezes of Superior is the ride of a lifetime. Please visit and cherish this gift that belongs to Michigan!

Paul Gruchow included a beautiful essay in his collection "Boundary Waters: Grace of the Wild" about hiking Isle Royale. I would highly recommend it, whether or not you have visited or wish to visit the National Park.