These Cozy New Cabins Are the Perfect Gateway to Michigan's Isle Royale National Park
Come for the Lake Superior views and hygge-filled cabins; stay for the invaluable Isle Royale backpacking expertise.
Hugging guests who've spent five days backpacking 40 wild and rugged miles, sans showers, is a bold move — but I guess bold is fitting. Lynn and Jason Makela, owners of the new Fresh Coast Cabins in Copper Harbor, Michigan, bought a collection of 10 cabins on the far-flung Keweenaw peninsula in May 2020. Yes, when travel and hospitality came to a standstill. And yes, despite the dated, musty digs and quirky renovation hiccups the property would inevitably require.
But the Makelas were on to something. The now-transformed property, a splash of renovated blue cabins on the shore of Lake Superior, has a special appeal: It's a hip and spirited gateway to Michigan's only national park: Isle Royale. And with nearly 10 Isle Royale visits between them, the Makelas, longtime residents of Michigan's Upper Peninsula (U.P.), know the park better than most.
Isle Royale, a remote Lake Superior archipelago, is the least-visited national park in the lower 48 states — a superlative due largely to its inaccessibility. Visitors arrive on ferry or seaplane via Michigan's Keweenaw peninsula, from Houghton or Copper Harbor, or Grand Portage, Minnesota. Ferries take between two to six hours, with travelers at the mercy of Lake Superior's notoriously sporadic mood.
But the odyssey of getting there pays off. Isle Royale is a backcountry maze of 165 trail miles ripe for backpacking, moose spotting, paddling, and stargazing, with the possibility for one of my favorite upper Midwest experiences: a chance to see the northern lights.
Isle Royale is also to blame for the wafts of sweat my husband, Frank, and I bring back to Fresh Coast Cabins — the smell Lynn pretends to ignore mid-hug. She hands us two cold Fresh Coast-branded beers, a collaboration with the U.P.'s Barrel + Beam farmhouse brewery, then nods to the bonfire, where two generations of Makelas — Jason and his parents, also helping with cabin renovations — wait to hear about our trip.
"OK, tell us everything," Lynn says as we settle back in by the fire. At this point, the Makelas feel like family, and the bonfire very much our home. We bookended our grungy Isle Royale backpacking trip with a week of rest and relaxation here at Fresh Coast. Our days leading up to the ferry departure from Copper Harbor were the perfect blend of pampering and preparation: hiking local Keweenaw trails, sipping coffee on our cabin's waterfront patio, and studying Isle Royal trail maps beside a fireplace that radiated heat and hygge.
Each night's bonfire was a balance of local beer tasting and trip planning, with Lynn, Jason, and Jason's parents sharing invaluable insights from their own Isle Royale excursions to prepare us for our first visit.
Now that we've returned, they're bursting at the seams for our trip report.
"Well," I sigh, not happy about my forthcoming sentence: "You were right. That 11-mile day up and over the ridge just about killed us." In the months leading up to our trip, I plotted campsites along an Isle Royale route that included the best odds of seeing wildlife and the aurora borealis, with a stop at one of the island's most scenic waterfront campgrounds, Moskey Basin.
It was a dream itinerary, but it came with a catch: an 11-mile day trekking from the bottom of Isle Royale to the highest point, and down again. Lynn, and just about every Isle Royale guidebook on the planet, recommended no more than eight miles for an average backpacker. (And, ahem, yes, I'm an average backpacker.)
"Most people aren't used to carrying 40 pounds on their back, and the terrain out there is super varied and challenging," Lynn had warned us. "The rocky terrain isn't like anything I've experienced in the Midwest."
This advice went in one ear and out the other — and I paid for my stubborn ways some 72 hours later. But we did listen to the Makelas' other tips, from Lynn's calculation that we might need more fuel, which we purchased at Keweenaw gear shop Down Wind Sports in Houghton, to Jason's dad, Mike, sharing wildlife-spotting advice earned from his years of solo fishing and hunting across the U.P. One simple tip — don't make a peep — came in handy the evening a female moose grazed beside our Moskey Basin campsite.
But perhaps the Makelas' greatest piece of advice came before we even booked our trip: Build in time to experience the Keweenaw.
"You're traveling so far to get to the island, and you have this incredible national park experience on the island itself, but Isle Royale and the Keweenaw are connected," Lynn told me, noting the Keweenaw has its own Isle Royale subculture, such as the staff from Copper Harbor's Harbor Haus Restaurant performing a welcome-home dock dance as the Isle Royale Queen IV ferry totes travelers back to the mainland. "The island, and the movement from Copper Harbor to Isle Royale, has built this connection you won't experience anywhere else."
As we swap stories by the fire, a beer away from the shower I've spent five days dreaming about, I can't imagine leaving this oasis any earlier. Fresh Coast Cabins was integral to our successful Isle Royale trip, and three days of clean accommodations and hot showers, while still in the rugged Lake Superior wilderness, are just as important as we reacclimate to reality. Although, with the chance to see auroras from Fresh Coast Cabins' shores this very night, I'm tempted to never leave.