Water is the main star at Isle Royale National Park. With over 400 islands inside the park boundaries, visitors traverse the waters of Lake Superior to then navigate channels and waterways by kayak or canoe, sailboat or fishing vessel, all to do a little island hopping. SCUBA divers find treasure in the waters here as 10 shipwrecks offer up their secrets.
Wildlife on Isle Royale harbor a mystery as to how they crossed the depths to arrive here more than 100 years ago. This park, it seems, will quench your thirst for adventure and exploration.
History of Isle Royale National Park
Sitting in Lake Superior, Isle Royale is part of the state of Michigan, although the park is actually closer to Canada and Minnesota. None of those designations existed when copper was first found here thousands of years ago.
Several copper implements were discovered in Indian settlements, dating back to 3000 BC. The copper for these items was mined on Isle Royale, which was called Menong by these indigenous peoples. But it was the Chippewa who lived here until the mid-1800s when they relinquished the island to white settlers.
By the turn of the century, the island became a vacation destination for the wealthy. Walter Singer built a hotel and cabins along the shore at Washington Harbor, purchasing a boat to bring guests to “Island House Resort.” Soon competition appeared on the island and tourism grew a bit. By 1912 the Washington Harbor Club, a group of wealthy businessmen who owned railroads through northwestern Minnesota, evidently transported moose from there to the island, creating their own private hunting club.
The moose remain, but the hunting club was gone by the time the region came under the protection of the national park service, becoming Isle Royale National park in 1940.
Why Visit Isle Royale National Park?
This is one of those parks where an RV doesn’t quite fit in. Visitors will be relegated to parking it on the mainland in Michigan or Minnesota and taking a boat or seaplane to the island. Don’t worry, it will be there when you get back. The Isle Royale National Park is worth leaving your rig behind becuase it’s so wild and so special. It’s unlike any other national park in the country.
Places to Go
The islands of Isle Royale National Park provide a variety of sections to visit. Here are the three regions with a list of services available in each:
Houghton Visitor Center
Located on the mainland of Michigan, Houghton is the home to the park’s ferry, Ranger III. The visitor center has a bookstore, park movie, restrooms and information about Isle Royale. Boating permits can be obtained here, as well.
Rock Harbor Visitor Center
Located on the northeast end of the park, this visitor center has area displays, park information and backcountry permits available. Services available in Rock Harbor area:
- Dockage with Power and Water
- Pump Out Service
- Rock Harbor Trading Post
- Potable Water
- Boat Rentals
Windigo Visitor Center
Located on the southwest end of the park, Windigo has ranger programs, park information, and displays. Backcountry permits are issued here. Services available in Windigo area:
- Pump Out Service
- Windigo Store
- Potable Water
- Windigo Camper Cabins
Things to Do
With over 8 million acres, there are a lot of activities that can be enjoyed. Here are just a few of the most popular ones:
A great way to spend a day at Isle Royale is hiking the many trails here. There are trails of varying distances and difficulties, and hikers should be prepared for uneven terrain. Check out trail maps from Rock Harbor here and trail maps from Windigo here.
Spend several days exploring the islands of Isle Royale National Park by backpacking and canoeing through the region. A permit is required, but there are numerous small campgrounds for just this purpose. Be sure to look at which campsites are accessible by water and which are accessible by land.
The islands have several small campgrounds scattered throughout for campers, providing overnight stays along waterways and off hiking trails. Permits are required and there are limits to the number of nights allowed.
Catch your fill of lake or brook trout in Lake Superior, or any of over 40 species of fish when you cast a line at Isle Royale. Michigan fishing licenses are required to fish in Lake Superior. However, no licenses are needed for inland fishing.
The most efficient and enjoyable way to experience the park is by water. If traveling by canoe or kayak, your boat must be at least 15 feet long to handle rough water and not swamp. Only sea kayaks are useful here, as recreational ones are not appropriate for the marine environment. Canoe routes and portages are located on the eastern half of the island.
Sailboats and motorized boats have a number of docks where they can tie up. Boats with motors are not allowed on lakes, and no personal motorized vehicles are allowed within the park.
Because of the harsh weather and difficult navigation on Lake Superior, many ships were lost here. There are ten shipwrecks within the park boundaries, preserved for SCUBA diving enthusiasts and photographers. Divers must register at one of the visitor centers before diving, and mark dive spots with a flag. Isle Royale Charters is the only company licensed to guide SCUBA trips within the park.
When to Visit Isle Royale National Park
From November 1 to April 15 Isle Royale and its surrounding islands are closed to visitors because of harsh weather conditions. However, the waters of Lake Superior are open to boaters year-round. Spring, summer, and fall offer stunning vistas in a more temperate climate, and a plethora of water activities and hiking on the islands are available for travelers to Isle Royale National Park.
Where You Can Stay
Since you won’t be taking your RV into Isle Royale National Park, it is best to dock it in an RV park in one of the three towns that offer boat access to the islands and use that as your home base.
Copper Harbor, Michigan:
Grand Portage, Minnesota:
As far as staying in the park, there are over 30 different small campgrounds in the park. They offer little to no amenities and you’ll need a permit as discussed above. Here’s the National Park System’s guidelines on camping in Isle Royale National Park.
Getting to and Around Isle Royale National Park
There are two ways to get to Isle Royale: by boat or by seaplane. Both leave from three different ports on the mainland. So, if you are coming from Minnesota, depart at Grand Marais. If Michigan is your departure state, you can leave from Houghton or Copper Harbor.
Once in the national park, there are no motorized or wheeled vehicles allowed except wheelchairs. Travel is by foot or by boat. There are several services that ferry visitors between islands, and many bring their own kayaks or canoes to enjoy the waters. Rentals are also available at Rock Harbor.
Water has a way of soothing the soul, giving way to tranquility. At Isle Royale National Park, there is room for visitors to explore the depths or skim across the surface of its current. Dip a paddle or let the wind take the sails to lead you into port, escaping the intensity of the outside world, if only for a few days. This unique wilderness is an interesting place to be, and it comes highly recommended.
What do you think of Isle Royale National Park? Leave a comment below!