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. As it takes much planning, but it’s a wilderness paradise and once you go you will want to go back!
Isle Royale National Park is a hiker’s paradise. 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 to the many islands around the main island that make up the park. The main island is 45 miles long by 9 miles wide. The island is open from mid-April to October depending on the weather.
There are also numerous 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, the only way you can get there is by boat and seaplane. There are three ferry boats going to the island and they are the most common way of getting there since seaplane is much more expensive.
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. It’s $136 roundtrip and $100 for children 15 and under.
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. Cost is around $70 for adults and $35.00 for children depending on when you go. All supplies for the island is 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 then heads to Rock Harbor. It’s almost a 7-hour ride to Rock Harbor. Boats run May through September several times a week depending on the month. The advantage of the Voyager is if you are backpacking, you can arrange (prior to 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 really 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. Not as bad then on our way there, 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 bugs can be very unpleasant.
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 Rangers where you pay your fees and if you 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.
Day Hikes in the Rock Harbor Area
This 4.2-mile loop goes through the forest and along the shore of Lake Superior. The forest area has many swamps around them. Towards the end of the loop here is an interpretive sign explaining the copper in the area and you get to see a remaining copper pit. We saw many birds along the way including two large woodpeckers and three Sand Cranes.
West of the Rock Harbor Campground, there is the Rock Harbor Trail that takes you to Suzy’s Cave along Lake Superior. Enjoy the beauty and the power of Lake Superior offers. This cave was formed by waves from mighty Superior some 4000 years ago when water levels were much higher than they are today. When you are done exploring the area around the cave you can continue the 3.2-mile loop by returning to Rock Harbor by the easier Tobin Harbor Trail. This trail goes through a dense forest. Watch for wildlife as well as the sky for seaplanes as the trail ends near the seaplane dock.
Canoe or Boating in the Rock Harbor Area
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.
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.
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 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 prior to 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 and 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.
Restaurants in Rock Harbor
This is the smallest location of any of the 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 really 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.
The Sandy is the boat that is available for sightseeing tours when 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 just 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.
This is a cruise to a rugged island with no moose on it. It has the rare, devil’s club shrub and a lighthouse build 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 which was built in 1855.
There are 1500-2000 moose on all the islands that make up Isle Royale National Park. As this is a large population of moose in a small area, unfortunately, we weren’t lucky enough to see any. They were around as many visitors showed us pictures of a bull moose that was around the Rock Harbor Lodge and campground. We did look at dawn and dusk, but after all, that is why they call it wildlife, even though I was a little disappointed. You can read more about the growing moose population here.
Wolf originally got to the island when Lake Superior froze over. Once there was a population of around 50 wolves. Since then the population has been decreasing mainly due to interbreeding among themselves. A few years ago (2016) they were only 2 remaining wolves on the island.
Since wolves are the only thing that keeps the moose population under control, the moose number on the island started to skyrocket so in 2019 the parks service transported 12 wolves from Canada to the island. Within the week we came back from Isle Royale I read that the parks service caught a wolf from the Upper Peninsula and released it on the island. This is the first of many to come according to the article I read.
There is other wildlife on the island but the most popular is the chatty red squirrel.
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 given us the opportunity to take some day excursion 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 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.
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 differently worth the time and effect to experience the wilderness and peacefulness that Isle Royale brings.
For more information on this incredible national park click here.
Find your Adventure, Kathy xoxo
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