GUIDE TO VISITING ISLE ROYALE
One of the more remote and difficult to reach National Parks, Isle Royale is the least visited National Park in the Lower 48. Surrounded by water far out in Lake Superior, this fascinating island is a beautiful place to backpack, hike, boat and see moose and other wildlife.
We visited Isle Royale during August of 2023 and in this guide to Isle Royale, we will share everything we learned in planning and visiting to help you plan your visit. No matter how you plan to get to Isle Royale (see more below) we recommend booking you travel early and giving yourself plenty of time to enjoy this remote island.
Highlights of Visiting Isle Royale National Park
Pristine Wilderness: Isle Royale is known for its untouched wilderness. It’s a designated wilderness area, and there are no roads, cars, or motorized vehicles on the island. This means you can experience true solitude and pristine natural beauty.
Hiking: The island offers over 165 miles of hiking trails, including the famous Greenstone Ridge Trail that runs the length of the island. Hiking here allows you to explore dense forests, rugged shorelines, and stunning vistas. There are day hiking trails from the major ferry docks or you can try backpacking.
Wildlife Viewing: Isle Royale is a great location for wildlife enthusiasts. It’s known for its moose and wolf populations, making it one of the few places in the United States where you might spot both. Additionally, you can see foxes, beavers, otters, and a variety of bird species.
Backcountry Camping: Camping on Isle Royale is a fantastic way to immerse yourself in the wilderness. There are several campgrounds throughout the island, and backcountry camping is allowed with a permit. Enjoying a campfire on the shoreline while listening to the waves is a unique experience. Most people who visit Isle Royale are backpacking for a few day.
Fishing: Lake Superior around Isle Royale offers excellent fishing opportunities. You can catch species like lake trout, salmon, and whitefish. Make sure to check fishing regulations before you go.
Scenic Boat Rides: Many visitors arrive on the island by taking a ferry or seaplane. These rides provide stunning views of the island and the surrounding lake. You can book these tours to the islands or on the islands.
Stargazing: Due to its remote location and limited light pollution, Isle Royale is an exceptional place for stargazing. On clear nights, you can see a dazzling array of stars and maybe even the Northern Lights.
Kayaking and Canoeing: Exploring the island’s shoreline by kayak or canoe is a popular activity. You can paddle along the rugged coastline, explore hidden coves, and have opportunities for wildlife sightings. You can rent boats or bring your own.
Historical Sites: The island has a rich history, with several old mining sites and abandoned cabins to explore. The Edisen Fishery and the Rock Harbor Lighthouse are among the historical attractions.
Tranquility and Solitude: One of the most significant highlights of Isle Royale is the feeling of being completely disconnected from the outside world. It’s a place where you can truly escape the hustle and bustle of modern life and connect with nature.
Essential Isle Royale Guides
Things to Know about Isle Royale National Park
Isle Royale is far out in the middle of Lake Superior and there is limited access to get there. Once you get out to the island, there are basic facilities but overall the island is very remote. While you will find some bathrooms, electricity and a store with basic gear, everything is within the boundary of the National Park.
The island is oriented southwest to northeast and while it is referred to as one island, it is actually a series of islands. This can make hiking interesting as you can no always get from point A to Point B due to the water.
Best Time to Visit Isle Royale
The best time to visit Isle Royale National Park is during the summer months, from mid-June to mid-September.
This window offers the most favorable weather conditions for outdoor activities, with milder temperatures, longer daylight hours, and reduced chances of snowfall or freezing temperatures. hiking trails are fully accessible during the summer, and wildlife is more active, making it an excellent opportunity for wildlife enthusiasts.
This is also the easiest time to visit as the ferry and seaplane services that transport visitors to the island operate on a more consistent schedule during the summer season. However, it’s important to plan and make reservations well in advance, as Isle Royale is a popular destination, and accommodations can fill up quickly during this peak period.
You can see the averate weather throughout the year in the graph below.
How to Get to Isle Royale
There are only a few ways to get to Isle Royale and all of them fill up in advance. You can take a ferry, take a seaplane, or come on your own boat. Below you can see an overview of the different ways to get to Isle Royale.
- Ferry: Ferries are the most common mode of transportation to Isle Royale. They depart from various mainland locations in Michigan and Minnesota. Popular departure points include Houghton and Copper Harbor in Michigan, as well as Grand Portage in Minnesota. You can find an overview of the ferry service on the National Park Website.
- Seaplane: Seaplane services are available from several locations on the mainland, including Houghton and Grand Marais in Michigan, and even from some nearby resorts. These flights offer stunning aerial views of the island.
- Private Boat: If you have access to a private boat, you can sail or motor to Isle Royale. There are several marinas and docks on the island where you can dock your boat. Be sure to check regulations and permits for private boating.
- Kayak or Canoe: Adventurous paddlers can kayak or canoe to Isle Royale. This is a physically demanding but rewarding way to reach the island. Be prepared for challenging open-water crossings.
- Chartered Tours: Some outfitters offer chartered tours to Isle Royale, which can include transportation, guided tours, and equipment rental for activities like hiking and kayaking.
- Multi-Day Guided Tours: Various companies provide multi-day guided tours to Isle Royale. These tours often include transportation, accommodations, meals, and guided activities, making them a convenient way to experience the island.
How Much Time do you need in Isle Royale
While Isle Royale is the least visited park in the lower 48 states in the US, it also has the longest average visit time. Most people who come to Isle Royale are there to backpack, hike, boat or escape the modern world for a while.
It is possible to visit Isle Royale for a few hours by taking the ferry out to the island and back but you will spend the majority of the day on a ferry. Depending on the ferry, it can take 2-6 hours to get to Isle Royale on the ferry.
In general you should plan to spend 2-4 days on the island, and if you are backpacking across the island, you may want to spend up to a week on Isle Royale.
Where to Stay in Isle Royale
You don’t have many option of where to stay in Isle Royale. Many people bring their own tent and find a campground for the night. The other option is to spend the night at Rock Harbor Lodge that has rooms to rent as well as a restaurant.
Windigo on the west side also offers camper cabins that sleep 6 people.
Campsites on the island are first come/first served. This can be a little stressful as you can’t know for sure where you will stay for the night. Once you arrive on the island, you will check in and get a backcountry permit with your proposed hiking plan.
We stayed at the Rock Harbor Campground but took backpacking gear with us in case we weren’t able to get a camping space. We have no problem securing a campsite in mid-summer and we spent the first night in a lean-to. There were also plenty of open sites in this campground.
Need to Know: Guide to Indiana Dunes National Park
Below is a summary of the things you need to know about visiting Isle Royale.
- Isle Royale National Park: Isle Royale is a designated national park. Make sure you know the park regulations, including camping permits, fire restrictions, and Leave No Trace principles.
- Seasonal Access: The park is typically open from mid-April to the end of September. The specific dates can vary, so check with the National Park Service for current information.
- Reservations: Make reservations for ferry or seaplane transportation. You also need a National Park PAss or Isle Royale pass to get on the island. You can get your permit for camping once you arrive on the island.
- Weather: The weather on Isle Royale can be unpredictable, so pack appropriate clothing and gear for varying conditions. Rain, fog, and cool temperatures are common, even in summer.
- Wildlife: Isle Royale is known for its wildlife, including moose and wolves. Be prepared to encounter these animals and follow safety guidelines to avoid conflicts.
- Hiking Trails: The island offers an extensive network of hiking trails. You can find suggestions for hiking route on the island.
- Leave No Trace: Practice Leave No Trace principles to minimize your impact on the environment. This includes packing out all trash and waste and respecting wildlife and natural features.
- Safety: Carry essential safety gear, including a map, compass or GPS, first-aid kit, and adequate food and water. Cell phone reception is limited on the island. It can often be hours or even days until you can access medical care if needed. Have a plan in place.
- Permits: If you plan to fish or collect natural resources, such as rocks or plants, check for the necessary permits and regulations.
- Park Facilities: Services and facilities are limited on the island. Plan to bring most of what you’ll need, including food, water purification, and camping equipment. There is a small camping store in Rock Harbor.
- Park Rangers: Park rangers are available on the island and can provide valuable information, assistance, and emergency response if needed.