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 for a little island hopping.
Why Visit Isle Royale National Park in an RV?
This is one of those parks where an RV doesn’t quite fit in, unfortunately. You’ll need to park on the mainland in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula or Minnesota and take a boat or seaplane to the island. But Isle Royale National Park is worth leaving your rig behind because it’s unlike any other national park in the United States.
Divers have found treasure in the waters here, as 10 shipwrecks offer up their secrets. Wildlife, such as red squirrels, wolves, moose, and red fox, harbor a mystery here, too, as to how they crossed the depths to arrive here more than 100 years ago.
Because of its remote nature, it’s only of the least-visited national parks, meaning fewer crowds and more undisturbed nature. This park will quench your thirst for adventure and exploration, whether it’s on a day trip or a backpacking expedition into one of the park’s designated wilderness areas.
When to Visit Isle Royale National Park
Isle Royale National Park opens every year from April 16 to October 21. From November 1 to April 15, Isle Royale and its surrounding islands are closed to visitors because of the harsh weather conditions. However, the waters of Lake Superior are open to boaters year-round.
Isle Royale National Park in the Spring
Spring offers breathtaking views as the park comes to life, with daily high temperatures hovering around 65 degrees.
Isle Royale National Park in the Summer
Summer in the park offers many water activities and hiking opportunities, with daily high temperatures reaching 76 degrees.
Isle Royale National Park in the Fall
Fall offers stunning vistas and fall foliage that rivals a movie set with daily high temperatures of around 58 degrees.
Isle Royale National Park in the Winter
The park is closed during the winter season.
Where to Stay
When it comes to staying inside the park, there are over 30 different small campgrounds. They are categorized into group campgrounds (like Rock Harbor Campground), campgrounds accessible by hiking trails, campgrounds accessible via Lake Superior, and campgrounds accessible by inland paddling trails.
The park’s campgrounds offer little to no amenities, and you’ll need a permit to stay. Follow the National Park System’s guidelines on camping in Isle Royale National Park.
Staying Outside the Park
Since you won’t be taking your RV into Isle Royale National Park, it is best to dock it in an RV park (like the one below) in one of the three towns (Houghton, MI; Copper Harbor, MI; Grand Portage, MN) that offer boat access to the islands and use that as your home base.
- Happy Land RV Park: Located in Kakabeka Falls, ON, about an hour away from Grand Portage, MN.
- City of Houghton RV Park: About five minutes from the Houghton visitor center.
- Hancock Campground: About 10 minutes from the Houghton visitor center.
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How to Get Around Isle Royale National Park
There are two ways to get to Isle Royale: by ferry or by seaplane. Both leave from three different ports on the mainland. If you are coming from Minnesota, depart at Grand Portage. 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 on foot or by boat. Several services ferry visitors between islands, and many bring their own kayaks or canoes to enjoy the waters. Rentals are also available at Rock Harbor Lodge.
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 movies, 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 the Rock Harbor area:
- Dockage with Power and Water
- Pump Out Service
- Rock Harbor Trading Post
- Potable Water
- Boat Rentals
Windigo Vistor Center
Located on the southwest end of the park, Windigo has ranger programs, park information, and displays. Backcountry permits are issued here as well. Services available in the Windigo area:
- Pump Out Service
- Windigo Store
- Potable Water
- Windigo Camper Cabins
Things to Do in Isle Royale National Park
With over 8 million acres, there are a lot of activities that can be enjoyed in the park. Here are a few of the most popular ones:
A great way to spend a day at Isle Royale is to hike the many trails. There are trails of varying distances and difficulties, and hikers should be prepared for uneven terrain. Check out trail maps for Rock Harbor and Windigo.
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. Avid backpackers will want to hike the Greenstone Ridge Trail, which runs the entire length of the island.
Catch your fill of lake or brook trout or any of over 40 species of fish when you cast a line in Lake Superior, Tobin Harbor, or one of the many harbors in Isle Royale. Michigan fishing licenses are required to fish in Lake Superior. However, no licenses are needed for fishing on the park’s inland lakes.
Boating, Kayaking, and Canoeing
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 models 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 several 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 have been 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.
What to Bring and How to Prepare
Since Isle Royale National Park is a collection of islands, all visitors have to cross Lake Superior’s cold waters. By seaplane, travel time one-way can range from 35 to 45 minutes. By ferry, travel time one-way ranges from 1.5 hours to seven hours, contingent upon departure and arrival locations.
There are very limited services within the park. Plan to bring everything you will need for the length of your visit, such as:
Cell service is also unreliable. Do not plan your trip dependent on your cellphone. Signals are rare and typically become available on a high ridge and only on rare occasions. Public Wi-Fi is not available.
Brief History of Isle Royale National Park
Sitting in Lake Superior, Isle Royale is part of the state of Michigan, although the park is 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 Meinong. The Chippewa Native Americans lived on the island until the mid-1800s, when it was relinquished to white settlers.
By the turn of the century, the island had become 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 began to grow.
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.
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What do you think of Isle Royale National Park? Leave a comment below!
Is there parking on the mainland where our truck and Airstream trailer will be safe while we are away to the Isle Royale park? Is that something we have to arrange beforehand, or if we have a ferry or seaplane ticket, is there a private or public parking lot designated for travelers that will accommodate our parking needs?
Hey Ben, there should be RV parks and campgrounds nearby. I would definitely call them and make accommodations before you arrive.