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Why Isle Royale should be your National Park vacation this summer

Andy Witchger

Andy Witchger

Eighteen miles off the coast of Grand Portage, Minnesota, sits a paradisiacal island covered in backcountry wilderness. Waves crash on rugged shores, loons call in the early morning mist, and moose lumber through boreal forests. Designated a National Park in 1940, Isle Royale remains a pristine example of the northwoods and Lake Superior ecosystem.

Isle Royale is one of the most accessible National Parks for Minnesotans, yet very few people visit. Around 25,000 people set foot on the island each year, but sometimes that number drops to around 15,000. To put that in perspective, over 10 million people visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park last year, and the Grand Canyon just eclipsed 6 million annual visitors for the first time. More people visit Yellowstone in a single day than Isle Royale sees in a year. Even staggeringly remote options -- like the National Park of American Samoa, which is closer to New Zealand than the continental U.S. -- outdraw Isle Royale.

Anyone who’s sat in a "bear jam" on their way to Old Faithful, or waited in scorching heat for a crowded shuttle bus in Zion National Park, should see the appeal of a park that allows an escape from crowds. 

While Isle Royale is staggeringly beautiful, it’s not for everyone. There are no convenient driving loops or historic lodges; you won’t find gourmet meals in a restaurant named after Teddy Roosevelt; glitzy gift shops hocking knick-knacks don't exist here. This is a good thing. The lack of distractions allows an immediate entrance into a rare experience of unadulterated nature.

That doesn’t mean you need a familiarity with backcountry survival skills. Most visitors come on a day trip, arriving by boat at either the Windigo or Rock Harbor entry points, both of which have general stores, showers, campsites, and rustic camper-cabins. Over 160 miles of hiking trails branch off from each site, and guided hikes and programing are available daily. Even a brief trip to Isle Royale offers solitude and unique recreational options without too much effort.

Here's how to start planning your Isle Royale adventure: 

How to get there

If you’re coming from Minnesota, the easiest crossing is on the Sea Hunter out of Grand Portage. The service offers round-trips and day-trips throughout the summer months. They’ll even accommodate your kayaks or canoes if you want to explore the coastline or stunning inland lakes.

When to go

Due to the treacherous conditions on Lake Superior, Isle Royale is the only National Park that completely shuts down in winter, so summer is the time to visit. Boat service is most consistent from late June through September, which, conveniently, is also when wildflowers and blueberries are at their peak.

What to do

The island offers a wide array of opportunities. The surrounding shoreline contains the National Park Service's largest collection of shipwrecks, so snorkeling or scuba-diving in the crystal-clear waters makes for an exceptional experience.

Through-hikers frequent the Greenstone Ridge Trail, which stretches 40 miles along the entire coast of the island, but day-hiking options are plentiful from the Windigo Visitor Center. The Huginnin Cove Trail and the Feldtmann Lake Loop Trail are perfect for shorter visits.

Canoeing or kayaking the coast of the park is highly recommended. There are also inland canoeing routes for those seeking remote lakes with mirror-calm water.

Lake Superior and the inland waters provide opportunities for fisherman of all kinds. Depending on your preference, you could hook anything from lake sturgeon and pink salmon to brown trout and walleye. If you plan on fly-fishing, make sure to check in with rangers regarding current brook trout restrictions, since the species' numbers have become perilously low.

Isle Royale is also a photographer’s paradise, with abundant wildflowers, breathtaking coastlines, and diverse wildlife. Chartered boat tours are available too, allowing exploration of over 200 islets surrounding the main island.

What you might see

A huge draw for many visitors is the moose population. In fact, moose have become so numerous they’ve begun to damage the ecosystem. In an effort to combat this destruction, about 30 wolves are being reintroduced to the park to restore the traditional balance between species. The chance to see two of our most striking animals in such a wild environment should pique the curiosity of even the most casual nature observer.

The park is also home to over 600 flowering plants, including about 40 endangered or threatened species. Isle Royale also boasts rare arctic disjuncts, flowers whose typical range is significantly farther north. Healthy populations of birds, otters, beavers, and many other animals means there’s nearly always something eye-catching around the corner.

What to bring

If you’re the average visitor making a day trip, your usual hiking supplies (water, bug spray, snacks, camera, etc.) should do the trick. If you plan on a longer trip, a water decontamination system is a must. Potable water is only available at Windigo and Rock Harbor, so venturing deeper into the island means procuring your own. Rangers recommend boiling drinking water for at least a minute or using an approved water filter.

Oh, and bring some friends to enjoy the adventure -- just not too many. 

All photos by Andy Witchger