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Isle Royale National Park

Isle Royale National Park has been on my bucket list for years. You see I love seeing moose in the wild and read a long time ago that moose are on the island as well as many other species of wildlife. A national park since 1931, it’s one of the least visited national parks probably because it’s not easy to get to. It takes much planning, but it’s a wilderness paradise and once you go you will want to go back!

Even though it’s one of the most remote national parks, Isle Royale is a hiker’s paradise with spectacular views of the heart of Lake Superior. With no roads on the island, the only way to get around is to hike or boat from one part of the island to the other and the many islands around the main island that make up the park. The main island is 40 miles long by 9 miles wide. The island is open from mid-April to October depending on the weather with peak season from early June to late August. 

The park is made up of small islands surrounding the main island that are also part of the park. Some of the bigger ones are: 

  • Raspberry Island
  •  Tookers Island,
  • Mott Island (park summer headquarters are located here)
  • Caribou Island
  • Amygdaloid Island
  •  Johns Island
  • Washington Island
  •  Grace Island

Getting To Island Royale National Park

Getting there is challenging but that is a big part of the adventure. Since Isle Royale National Park is in the middle of Lake Superior, you can only get there by boat and seaplane. Three ferry services going to the island are the best way of getting there. There are also Isle Royale seaplanes but they are more costly.  

Ferry to Isle Royale National Park

Isle Royale Queen IV

The Queen IV leaves from Copper Harbor MI most days (6 to 7)of the week at 8 am (depending on the season).  The boat then leaves Rock Harbor at 2:45 pm. It’s a 3 ½ hour journey on Lake Superior. This is the way we traveled to the park. It is an affordable way to get to Rock Harbor. 

Houghton MI

The Ranger III leaves from Houghton, MI for a 6-hour journey one way to Rock Harbor. This ship is more limited on the days it goes to and from the island. It heads over to the island twice and week and then leaves the next morning for the return trip.  All supplies for the island are shipped on the Ranger.

Grand Portage MN

The Sea Hunter III leaves from Grand Portage MN for a 1.5-hour trek to the Windigo side of the island. It’s great for backpackers who will be camping and hiking. The Sea Hunter runs from June to August three to four days a week.

The Voyager II leaves Grand Portage, has a drop-off at Windigo than heads to Rock Harbor. It’s almost a 7-hour ride to Rock Harbor. Boats run from May through September several times a week depending on the month. The advantage of the Voyager is if you are backpacking, you can arrange (before departure) for the boat to drop and pick you up at numerous docks on Isle Royale. Prices vary depending on where you are going.

All boats will carry your gear up to 100 lbs. for free. After that, there will be additional charges. Also, canoes and other boats and equipment can be transported for additional fees.

Time of year you travel

If you are looking for a more pleasant voyage make the trip earlier in the season in July or the beginning of August.  The closer you get to September the winds on Superior pick up. On the way there it was stormy and the waves were 10 to 12 ft making for an unpleasant voyage. However, on the trek back to the Upper Peninsula it was a beautiful sunny day and I thought it would be a smooth ride but boy I was wrong. It was not as bad then on our way there but we had waves of 6 to 8 feet waves,  still making it a very rough crossing.  Although I didn’t get sick most passengers did including my husband. 

I guess you have to pick your poison, as we had very rough seas but on the island, we were rewarded with very few bugs. Early in the season, I’m told the black flies can be very unpleasant. 

Visitors Centers

There is a National Parks Visitor Center in Rock Harbor at the dock when you get off the boat as well as one at Windigo. We never made it to Windigo so I can’t tell you about it but in Rock Harbor, there is a small building housed with Park Rangers where you pay your fees and if you were backpacking, get your permits and make your camping reservations as you can only make them when you arrive on the island. They are all on a first-come, first-serve basis.

This visitor center also had maps and hiking information in the area. And if you have a National Parks Passport as we do, don’t forget to get your book stamped there. In addition, they sell passports and passport stamps.

At the dock, there was also a store there where you could purchase food, coffee, and souvenirs. They also carried backpacking supplies.

I should also mention that there is a year-round visitor center on the Upper Peninsula in Hoghton, MI which also is the winter headquarters for the park.

Hiking Trails in the Rock Harbor Area

Scoville Point

This 4.2-mile loop goes through the forest and along the shore of Lake Superior. The forest area has many swamps around it. Towards the end of the loop, there is an interpretive sign explaining the copper mining in the area and you get to see a remaining copper pit. We saw many birds along the way including two large pilated woodpeckers and three Sand Cranes. 

Suzy's Cave

Suzy’s Cave

This 4.2-mile loop goes through the forest and along the shore of Lake Superior. The forest area has many swamps around it. Towards the end of the loop, there is an interpretive sign explaining the copper mining in the area and you get to see a remaining copper pit. We saw many birds along the way including two large pilated woodpeckers and three Sand Cranes. 

canoeing Island Royal National Park

Greenstone Ridge Trail (across the island)

The Greenstone Ridge Trail is a popular backpacking trail located on Isle Royale, a rugged island in Lake Superior that is part of Michigan. The trail runs along the ridge of the island, offering hikers stunning views of the lake and surrounding wilderness. Here are some key highlights of the Greenstone Ridge Trail:

  1. Length: The Greenstone Ridge Trail spans approximately 40 miles (64 km) across Isle Royale, making it one of the longest trails in the region.
  2. Trailheads: The trail has two main trailheads: Windigo on the western side of the island and Rock Harbor on the eastern side. Hikers can start from either end.
  3. Difficulty: The trail is rated as difficult, primarily due to its length and the rugged terrain. However, there are sections suitable for less experienced hikers.
  4. Scenery: The trail offers diverse landscapes, including dense forests, rocky ridges, and serene lakes. The elevated position provides spectacular views, particularly from Mount Ojibway and Mount Franklin.
  5. Wildlife: Isle Royale is known for its population of moose and wolves, as well as other wildlife like foxes, beavers, and various bird species.
  6. Camping: There are multiple campsites along the trail, providing options for multi-day hikes. Some of the popular campsites include Lane Cove, Daisy Farm, and West Chickenbone Lake.
  7. Logistics: Access to Isle Royale is by ferry, seaplane, or private boat, and the island has limited services. Hikers should come prepared with sufficient supplies.
  8. Season: The best time to hike the Greenstone Ridge Trail is from late spring to early fall. The island’s facilities are usually open from mid-April to late September or early October.

The trail offers a unique wilderness experience, and hikers should be prepared for varying weather conditions and potential encounters with wildlife.

Canoe or Boating in the Rock Harbor Area

Lookout Louise

After a 20-minute canoe ride, you can hike 2 miles roundtrip to Lookout Louise, which is a magnificent overlook. The trail goes by Hidden Lake, a small pond, and a natural spring where you can get a chance to see moose if you’re lucky.

Raspberry Island

Raspberry Island

You can see Raspberry Island across from the American dock in Rock Harbor. You can paddle across the channel to the island and hike 2 miles roundtrip through the dense forest and see a bog where moose tend to hang out and the rocky shore of Lake Superior.

Tobin Harbor

A great place to paddle is in Tobin Harbor as the waters are much calmer than on Superior. Many places to explore and little islands in the harbor. Many birds nest in this area so keep your distance from them from early spring to late July. This is an area where the Common Loons have their young.

Rock Harbor Lodge

Rock Harbor Lodge

Rock Harbor Lodge is made up of  60 rooms and  20 housekeeping cottages. It’s open from Memorial Day to late September. The lodge and restaurants are run by  Forever Resorts, a certified concessioner of the National Park Service. 

The lodge’s season is short from the second Tuesday in June to the second weekend after Labor Day. There is a short preseason (1.5 weeks before opening) that housekeeping cottages are available however no other services except the store and marina are opened with limited hours.

Reservations must be made by phone as the staff makes sure that your transportation of choice will be available for your arrival and departure since all boats don’t run on all days.

The best part is that you didn’t have to worry about your luggage as it was handled by hotel personnel. Once you put it on the boat the next time you saw it was in your room. Also when leaving all we had to do is leave it in our room and then we got it when we returned to Copper Harbor.

We stayed at the lodge. Like many other national parks, the lodge rooms are simple with just basically a bed and bathroom. No real amenities like a TV or a refrigerator. It was perfect and what a view we had, overlooking Lake Superior. From our room, we saw 3 loons swimming around. We fell asleep listening to the sound of the water hitting the rocks directly beneath our room.

​There are several campgrounds on the island and Windigo camper cabins that need to be reserved.

Restaurants in Rock Harbor

This is the smallest location of any national parks I’ve been to. There were two different ones but were attached to the same building. The Greenstone Grill served casual food and had about 10 tables and a very small bar. You could also take out food. They serve pizza, burgers, whitefish sandwiches, and pasties (yes the UP’s famous meat and potatoes pies). 

The main restaurant, The Lighthouse Restaurant, had about 20 tables and served steak, chicken, fish, and pasta. Both restaurants served breakfast lunch and dinner and had different menus. The food was ok but that’s what I find with most national park restaurants, not bad but the food is nothing special.

The main difference between these restaurants and most other national parks was the atmosphere. There is nothing special about this location while I found other park lodges and restaurants to be grand (Old Faithful, as an example) but one must consider the location too.

Sand Cranes on Royal Island National Park
Cranes by Scoville Point

The Sandy

Sandy is the boat that is available for sightseeing tours on the island. It offers 4-day excursions to different areas of the island. You can’t make prior reservations for the excursions until you are on the island. We didn’t go on any on this trip, which is one of my regrets. We didn’t have the time and needed to choose between this and hiking. There were no evening trips during our stay and I wished I would have figured these trips into our itinerary and stayed longer.

Passage Island

This is a cruise to a rugged island with no moose on it. It has the rare, devil’s club shrub and a lighthouse built in 1881. You can hike on the island but there are several steep rocky inclines.

Hidden Lake/Lookout Louise

This 3-hour boat ride and hike take you with a guide to see Isle Royale’s north side and Ontario’s Sleeping Giant.

Raspberry Island/Sunset Cruise

On Raspberry Island, you can walk the boardwalk to a spruce bog and look for moose. This also goes past a shipwreck and views a Superior sunset.

This tour is also given during the daytime on certain days giving you time to hike the island.

Edison Fishery/Rock Harbor Lighthouse

This trip goes to the historic fishery. You can also take a guided tour to see the oldest lighthouse on Island Royale built in 1855.

Moose Population

  1. Introduction:
    • Moose first arrived on Isle Royale in the early 20th century, possibly by swimming across Lake Superior from the mainland.
  2. Population Dynamics:
    • The moose population has fluctuated significantly over the years, primarily influenced by food availability, predation by wolves, and environmental conditions.
    • Without wolves, the moose population can grow rapidly, leading to overbrowsing and habitat degradation.
  3. Diet:
    • Moose are herbivores and feed on a variety of vegetation, including leaves, twigs, and aquatic plants.
    • The abundance of balsam fir on Isle Royale provides a major food source, especially during winter.
  4. Predation:
    • Wolves are the primary predators of moose on Isle Royale.
    • The interaction between the two species has been a subject of long-term ecological study, highlighting the importance of predator-prey relationships in maintaining ecological balance.
  5. Health:
    • The moose population on Isle Royale has faced challenges from parasites, particularly winter ticks, which can lead to significant health issues and even mortality.
  6. Research:
    • The Isle Royale wolf-moose study, conducted by researchers from Michigan Technological University, is one of the longest-running predator-prey studies in the world.
    • This study has provided valuable insights into how populations of large mammals interact and affect their environment.
  7. Viewing:
    • Moose are commonly spotted on Isle Royale, particularly around water sources where they often feed or cool off.
    • Popular areas for moose sightings include Daisy Farm, Siskiwit Bay, and the Greenstone Ridge Trail.
  8. Seasonality:
    • Moose are active throughout the year but may be more visible during the spring and summer when they feed more actively.

Wolf Population on Isle Royale

  1. History:
    • The wolves are believed to have migrated to Isle Royale across an ice bridge from mainland Minnesota or Canada in the late 1940s.
    • Their population has fluctuated over the years, influenced by disease, genetic factors, and prey availability.
  2. Current Population:
    • The wolf population on Isle Royale has seen dramatic changes over the past few decades.
    • In recent years, efforts have been made to introduce new wolves to the island to bolster the population and increase genetic diversity.
  3. Ecological Role:
    • Wolves play a crucial role in controlling the moose population on the island, affecting vegetation and overall ecosystem health.
    • The predator-prey relationship between wolves and moose has been studied extensively by researchers from Michigan Technological University.
  4. Challenges:
    • The wolf population has faced challenges due to inbreeding, disease, and harsh winters.
    • In recent years, there have been efforts to relocate wolves to Isle Royale to prevent extinction and restore ecological balance.
  5. Reintroduction Program:
    • In response to the declining wolf population, the National Park Service initiated a wolf relocation program, bringing in wolves from the mainland to boost the population.
    • The goal of the program is to restore the ecological balance and maintain the health of Isle Royale’s ecosystems.
  6. Observations:
    • Visitors to Isle Royale can occasionally observe wolves, though sightings are rare given the animals’ elusive nature.
    • The best way to learn about the wolves is through guided ranger programs or by exploring the island’s trails and hoping for a chance encounter.

The wolf and moose populations on Isle Royale offer a fascinating case study of ecological dynamics in an isolated environment, highlighting the importance of conservation efforts to maintain biodiversity.

My regrets and some tips

My main regret about our trip to Isle Royale National Park was not staying longer. We only stayed one night and although we did get to hike around the Rock Harbor area, we would have liked to explore the island more. We should have stayed at least two to three nights, which would have allowed us to take some day excursions on the Sandy to see other sections of the island that I would have loved to explore. 

Another regret was scheduling the trip, You see I scheduled it based on our timetable of where we would be but I should have looked at what excursions were happening on the different days of the week since they don’t run all the trips every day since there is only one boat. I would have loved to have taken the Sandy Sunset cruise to Raspberry Island to hike and explore there but it only runs certain days of the week. So, when you are planning to go, make sure you check that schedule before you book your lodging.

The time of year that we went to is the wrong time of year to go. Lake Superior gets very windy in late August and September making the passage a very rough ride. In addition, it’s the rainy season here, and yes we did get rain almost every day we were in the Upper Peninsula and one of the two days we were at Isle Royale National Park.

Views of Lake Superior from the main island of Isle Royale


Although you may think with so many regrets, we didn’t enjoy the trip. On the contrary, we loved our visit to Isle Royale National Park and would recommend it to anyone who loves nature and enjoys visiting our national parks. It is probably the most unique and stunning park we’ve visited and was worth the time and effort to experience the wilderness and peacefulness that Isle Royale brings.

Combine this with a visit to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and you will have a vacation of a lifetime!

For more information on this incredible national park visit the national park recreation website.

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View of Lake Superior and Isle Royale National park

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11 thoughts on “Isle Royale National Park”

  1. Hi Kathy! I love our national parks and this one looks amazing. Absolutely beautiful! Great tips for a visit and thank you for sharing it with all of us.

    1. It was stunning if you love our national parks put in on your bucket list. It is hard to get to but totally worth it!

  2. A wonderful review with very useful information! I especially like that you outline your regrets, as that is what I always find most helpful when I am thinking about planning a trip.

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks, I get what you’re saying I wish I read before I went that 1 night and 2 days just wasn’t long enough!

    2. As a California gal, I’d never heard of Isle Royale until reading this post. Now, it’s on my list of National Parks I must check out! Great article with beautiful pics – I hope you’re able to return someday.

      1. You’re lucky to live on the west coast where most of the national parks are! I would love to return one day but also have so many other places on our bucket list to get to first!

  3. Today I learned about a new national park . I am National Park lover and I love doing hiking with my family. Isle Royale National park trip looks very adventurous. Right from taking a Ferry to the island and then exploring the National Park. Rock Harbor Area looks great for hiking. Adding to my travel list. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Thanks for this info on Isle Royale. We will be in the area this summer and this was helpful. We would be coming from the Minnesota side which is different. I have to admit being super confused in your post when you mentioned Grand Portage, MS as MS is the abbreviation for Mississippi.

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