Isle Royale

Isle Royale National Park is one of many in Michigan. Encompassing over 200 sq. miles, it is by far the largest island in Lake Superior. At 56 miles off the Keweenaw peninsula, it is also the most remote. It is this remoteness that makes the island such a destination for casual day trippers and more experienced backpackers alike. It has many different aspects that cater to many different tastes. It may be popular, but before deciding to make the journey, there are some things you may want to know.

Isle Royale has all the things you expect to see at a national park. It is incredibly scenic; the island is nothing but rocky hills and boreal forests. A few ridges of greenstone are exposed and visible from most parts of the island. There are countless bays and inlets around the coast to explore. As far as wildlife goes, it has one of the highest concentrations of moose in the States. While they are usually reclusive, just the sheer volume makes it likely you will see one or two during your stay. The island has no permanent residents, but its beauty has attracted many artists to rent out some of the more reclusive cabins. Many have wrote about their experiences and I think it helps some up the island quite nicely. Judith Corning, an American artist, had this to say:

“Acquiring reference material during the trip was incredibly easy. Isle Royale is a beautiful national park of considerable variety; everywhere you look you can find something lovely and/or interesting. I suppose one of our major problems was to be sure to ration our film so it would last our whole trip. That’s certainly a great problem to have!”

Loading the ferry in Copper Harbor and getting ready for the 4-hour ride to Isle Royale

While the remoteness can be intimidating for some people, others may find it one of its best qualities. It’s a 4-hour ferry ride from Copper Harbor on the mainland to Rock Harbor; the only accessible harbor from our side. While the ferry is well stocked and large enough, Lake Superior is rarely calm and that can be a deterrent for some. Once arriving on the island you encounter one of its best features, the village. It is just a small grouping of the few remaining buildings from when there was a settlement 100 or so years ago. Most are just staff housing and rentable apartments, but it also boasts a surprisingly good restaurant that offers seasonal dishes and fish caught right off the coast. It also has a relatively well stocked camp store containing most of the basic things every other one would, what sets this one apart is the impressive selection of beer including many brewed right in Keweenaw. Most of the buildings are available to the public. On rainy days, the lounge is often packed with would be hikers who crowd around the fire and share stories and play games.

While it definitely has greater appeal to those who favor the more rustic approach to camping, it does offer fully furnished cabins with running water and electricity. It was actually a little surprising just how comfortable they were. Many are placed right along the ridge with a beautiful view of Tobin Harbor. The other side of the harbor is also one of the best places to spot a moose or two on this side of the island. Even casual campers will find some easy trails and things to explore without having to spend an entire day of walking. Kayaks can be rented at a dock on Tobin Harbor, less than a mile from the cabins. Some of the more heavily used trails are paved or at least well kept, and honestly the village is nice enough that you could spend most of the day just lounging around or eating at the diner and be completely content.

One of the many trails along the coast
Part of the Greenstone Trail?

For the more adventurous types, it offers some very remote trails that are nothing more than animal trails across the ridges. We did a 10-mile stretch of the Greenstone Ridge trail, and had trouble knowing if we were even still on it at some points. None of the island is off limits, so when renting a kayak, you can paddle out to any of the islands or parts of the bay you can reach. There’s a good chance you’ll encounter some of the more reclusive wildlife. We got within 10 yards of a mother moose and her calf right on the edge of the water. There are many interesting things to check out if you’re willing to put in the time.

Some things definitely could have been better. For one, from the U.S. side, there is only one harbor you can get to. While Rock Harbor is nice and in a very scenic area, it is cut off from the rest of the island. If you are only there for day hiking or maybe a night or two, this really is not a problem. But for those who stay a little longer or maybe hope to come back, there are really only three to four trails that are easily accessible. Without coming prepared to backpack through the more difficult interior, there are not a lot of options to see the rest of the island. They offer a ferry up to the north harbor. But it is very difficult to rent a cabin up there, as the Canadian harbor is usually pretty well booked. The water taxi that takes you there and back is almost a full day trip, so you most likely will not have enough time to explore more than the village and maybe the coastal trail. Honestly though, this is a very small setback to an otherwise fantastic park system.

The biggest deterrent for some would-be adventurers, is the presence of wolves on the island. With a little research however, you will find that the pack has been reduced to around 4 members. Because their numbers have been so low for so long, another major problem is inbreeding. They have severely abnormal spinal structure and are not nearly as good at hunting as their mainland counterparts. They usually stick to small game and do their best to avoid contact with people. There has not been an incident there in almost a decade.

Overall, Isle Royale is one of the best parks I have been to. It offers many different options for many different types of explorers. From the most rustic backwoods backpacking, to comfortable cabins just a short walk from the village, it has the whole spectrum of options for people who just want to get away. One anonymous backpacker, who documented his journey, summed it up well, if a little blandly, on what you can expect:

“Camp on sandy beaches, explore untouched forests, and listen to gray wolves howl on this 16.2-mile hike on an isolated island in Lake Superior.”

If that sounds like it could be interesting to you, Isle Royale is the perfect destination.

Works Cited

(All images by author)

“Isle Royale NP: McCargoe Cove to Rock Harbor.” Backpacker, Nov.-Dec. 2005. Academic OneFile, Accessed 14 Nov. 2016.

Corning, Judith. “Notes from an artist in residence.” American Artist, Oct. 1996, p. 62+. Academic OneFile, Accessed 14 Nov. 2016.