Established: April 3, 1940
Size: 571,790 acres
Out of the vastness of Lake Superior rises an island known more for its immigrant wolves and moose than for its splendors as a park. But the people who discover Isle Royale treat this isolated realm like no other park: Isle Royale visitors typically stay there 3.5 days, while the average visit to a national park is about 4 hours.
Most people get to the 45-mile-long island aboard a commercial or Park Service boat. As soon as they touch land in this wilderness park, they are on their own. They must pack in what they need and carry out their refuse.
This is rough, untamed country. Waterways may be fogbound and trails muddy. Blackflies and mosquitoes may descend upon hikers in swarms. And, because campsites cannot be reserved, a backpacker is never certain where the day's trek may end.
"It's not like deciding to drive into Yellowstone, see Old Faithful, and drive out," a ranger says. In an entire year Isle Royale gets fewer people than Yellowstone sees in a day.
Everyone who lands on Isle Royale—even day-trippers—must stop near dockside to hear a ranger talk about low-impact hiking and camping. For example, water must be boiled for two minutes or filtered; chemical purifiers will not wipe out tapeworm cysts.
Human hikers share trails with wolves and moose. They are descendants of the mainlanders that made Isle Royale an unexpected ark—moose presumably by swimming to it in the early 1900s; wolves likely by walking across the frozen lake between 1945 and 1950. Scientists have been studying the interplay of predator and prey since 1958.
On the trails, all you can expect to see are the animals' tracks and droppings, although quietly grazing moose do surprise hikers, particularly in swamps or dense forest. On beaver ponds you may spot the rippling Vs of the ponds' creators. At campsites watch for foxes looking for a hand-out. Remember: Feeding the animals is illegal. It is not healthy for them and increases the likelihood that they will scavenge for people's food and damage equipment.
How to Get There
Make reservations well in advance for passenger boats from Houghton or Copper Harbor, Michigan, or Grand Portage, Minnesota. Interpretive programs are held aboard the Ranger III between Houghton and Isle Royale. Isle Royale is 56 miles from the Michigan mainland, 18 miles from Minnesota's shore, 2 hours or 22 miles from Grand Portage. Airports: Houghton, Michigan and Duluth, Minnesota.
When to Go
Late June to September; park closes from November to mid-April. Mosquitoes, blackflies, gnats are most pesky in June and July. Summer can be cool (40°F at night). Blueberries and thimbleberries ripen in late July and August.
How to Visit
Although one-day visits are feasible at Rock Harbor or Windigo, you need a longer stay to appreciate the wild beauty of Isle Royale. A one-day visitor must sandwich a couple of hours of sight-seeing between boat arrival and departure. Voyages take two to six hours, depending on the starting point. The best way to see the park is to backpack to campsites strung along the park's 165 miles of trails. Noncampers who plan well ahead can reserve lodgings at Rock Harbor and explore on tour boats and on foot.
Isle Royale National Park is the only national park in the United States that completely closes in the off-season. The park is typically closed November through mid-April due to extreme weather conditions.