What to Do in Michigan's Isle Royale National Park
Hiking, fishing, kayaking galore!
Once described by a longtime park ranger as “a crown jewel” of the National Parks System, Michigan’s Isle Royale is the remote pocket of beauty that should be on every discerning parks-lover’s bucket list. About 45 miles long by roughly nine miles wide at its widest point, it’s a vehicle-free island just this (American) side of the Canadian border in Lake Superior. Accessible by seaplane or ferry from Minnesota or Michigan from mid-April through the end of October, it’s a place to go when you want to really get off the grid for a bit. And it is stunning. We asked Liz Valencia, Chief of Interpretation and Cultural Resources, to give us the lowdown on what to do at Isle Royale.
Get yourself there
First off, Valencia says, “you can’t visit unless you can get out there!” Cars aren’t permitted on the island, so unless you have a private boat, you’ll be riding a ferry or taking a seaplane. Expect to pay about twice as much for the plane—$310 round trip as of this writing—from Michigan, as opposed to $124-$136 for the ferry, depending on the season. From Minnesota, which is much closer to Isle Royale, you can get a $67 same-day roundtrip boat ride fare, or pay about $140 if you want to spend the night. (And your seafaring trip will be much shorter!) Keep in mind that if you’re coming from the Michigan mainland, you might be facing the longest boat ride of your life—up to six hours!—and the lake’s waves are occasionally a little rough. Both boat and plane schedules depend on the weather, which is famously changeable—there’s a good bit of fog—so be prepared to be flexible.
Bundle, bundle, bundle
There are “dramatically different” temperatures out on the boat and the island as opposed to on the mainland, says Valencia. “Be prepared for rain and cold weather, especially when on the boat. It could be 80 degrees on the mainland, and you get on the boat, and you’re partway across the lake and it’s freezing cold.” This is particularly common early in the season, she says, when she’s experienced a full 40 degrees of difference between the two.
Fishermen and fisherwomen, this is maybe your dream part of the world. Not only can you catch Lake Superior’s famed lake trout—which requires a Michigan fishing license—you might snag salmon or walleye, too, says Valencia. If you’re on the island without a license but have all your fishing gear, not to worry: No permit is needed for fishing inland lakes on the island, including Sisikiwit Lake—where, yes, you can catch those fat trout, too.
Related: A Guide to Glacier Bay National Park
Once you decide what part of the island you want to visit—the Rock Harbor, northeastern end has “lots of rocky, rugged shoreline,” says Valencia, with more spruce, whereas the southwestern part of the island near Windigo is slightly more temperate. Folks who want to hike the whole island should bank on a week to do so, including a day for the ferry—although “avid hikers could do it in less,” says Valencia. And if you like to camp, not to worry; you can get dropped off in the middle of the island and get picked up there, too, using that spot as your home base. And for goodness’s sake, bring a printed map; phones don’t always work out here!
Canoe or kayak
There are many miles of waterways for seasoned canoe and kayak aficionados, as long as they’re large enough—15-foot canoes, and sea as opposed to recreational kayaks. Either rent from the ferry that brings you over or connect with a tour company. Always keep an eye on the weather, and err on the side of caution. (See above regarding changeable weather!)
Spend the night—luxe or low-end
Whether you crash in a cabin near Windigo with an outhouse out back, truly rough it by staying out in a tent in the wild, or go for a cushy room at the Rock Harbor Lodge, it’s worth spending the night once you’re out here. (Note that there are truly options for every budget; cabins with potable water and outdoor grills are only $52 per night.) If you stay at the hotel—and even if you don’t!—it’s got a great sit-down restaurant with plenty of local fish on the menu, says Valencia.
Related: How to Use A National Parks Pass
Take a ranger-guided tour
There are two visitor centers on either end of the island that are open when the island is—and “fully staffed seven days a week” during the high season of July and August, says Valencia. Guided tours are available to Passage Island lighthouse, Lookout Louise, and elsewhere, and rangers might talk about the copper mining or fishing heritage of the region, the natural wonders around you, or whatever their area of expertise inspires.
The one thing Valencia would suggest no one miss? A walk. “I think that if people take the time to hike even just ten minutes away from Windigo or Rock Harbor down the trail, you will just be out on your own on the shoreline looking out at the water at Lake Superior. I think that’s a special, special thing.” Gazing at the rocky rugged shoreline around Rock Harbor, or watching the waves crash in, is one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments you won’t soon forget.