Last year 18,684 people visited Isle Royale. Lets put that into perspective:
- Yosemite National Park = 4,150,217
- Yellowstone National Park = 4,097,710
- Rocky Mountain National Park = 4,155,916
If my math is right, that’s more people ( ( 4,150,217 / 365 = 11,370 * 2 ) visiting Yosemite National Park in 2 days than Isle Royale’s total annual visitors. That’s pretty crazy. Considering that Isle Royale is in the contiguous 48 states, that makes it the least visited National Park in the lower 48. Even then, it’s the 5th least visited National Park of all.
Needless to say, it’s isolated.
Why is this place so special to Michiganders?
To most people, Isle Royale is an unknown island but to those of us living in the Midwest and more importantly Michigan, Isle Royale is a bit of a legendary destination and more so a legendary backpacking destination. I suspect this is for 2 reasons:
1: People in Michigan love their Great Lakes. I think it’s safe to say most people in the state would go to war for these lakes. They’re part of our lives and our culture. So when you pull out a map and gaze over the lakes, you’ll see how vast they truly are and may even spot several islands. The most interesting of the islands is this tiny piece of land (Isle Royale literally looks like a sliver on the map) perched in the north part of Lake Superior. This sliver simply begs the question: what’s there? This island is so isolated from most of the population (and requires some unique forms of transportation) which creates the feeling of exploring uncharted territory in our own state.
2: Believe it or not, Michigan is massive. With its two peninsulas, Michigan has the longest coastline in the contiguous US of 3,288 miles. It also has some very dense forests. This breeds outdoor enthusiasts, so naturally, people love to go out and explore the many recreational resources. Despite Isle Royale being cherished by its visitors, its location and distance from most of the MI population makes it somewhat of a hidden gem and adds to its appeal.
When I was a boy…
I remember taking a Michigan history class in 4th grade and seeing a picture of Isle Royale for the first time: I dreamed of making the 9 hour journey to the UP and then the 3.5 hour boat trip to the island. I also remember hearing about how Boy Scout troops would take trips up there and wanting nothing more than to graduate from Cub Scouts and go straight to Boy Scouts, solely so I could go on the trip to Isle Royale. However, the day didn’t come for another 15 years when I was in my early 20s.
How I planned my trip:
If you’re thinking about doing Isle Royale and staying for more than a day or two, you’re going to need to get serious and shell out the cash for the gear (luckily, we have a product for you… – sorry for this plug!). You’re also going to have to plan how you do it. Unlike most parks where you can kind of wing some portions of the trip, Isle Royale is a remote island with no vehicles and not very many people venture out past certain campgrounds. If you want to see as much as you can, it’s best to plan by doing the following:
- Factor how many days you can actually trek on the island and then tack on 2 days for travel to and from the island.
- Buy this book: Isle Royale National Park: Foot Trails & Water Routes
- This book gives unbelievable detail on what to expect as well as an excellent history on the island. Plan to bring it with you with you.
- Boat or plane?
- I strongly recommend the plane over the boat. It’ll save you almost 8 hours of travel time, which means 8 more hours to travel and explore. It’s also fun landing in the water (See video below)! If you decide to fly, be sure to book your flight in advance but be weary of weather conditions, which can delay your flight like ours.
- If you’re looking for cheaper options, the boat is a great choice. But you’re looking at 3.5 hours each way. Choose wisely my friend.
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Choosing Duration and Location
If you’re going all the way up to Isle Royale, I highly recommended planning to explore for 4+ days. We did 6 days and 7 nights and also picked traveling up on Labor Day Weekend so we had the time to get up, an extra day off work on Monday and little to no crowds going to or from the island.
After picking the duration and location, then it’s time to plan for the north or south part of the island. There are two main ports to the gaining entry to the island. Rock Harbor is the biggest port of the two and is located in the north. The second is Windigo, which is located in the south of the island. It’s important to note that the plane makes very specific runs on specific days so you have to coordinate this with your trip when heading there.
Mapping it Out
The ferry that runs from Copper Harbor will circle the island when it’s scheduled and will make two main pick ups: one at Rock Harbor and then one at Windigo. There is a lodge in Rock Harbor where you can rent rooms and get accommodations with running water, showers, etc. and a restaurant where you can order alcohol and the like after you’re done with your trip (Also, be nice to wait staff, they’re super rad and kind!).
Both main ports have a store where you can stock up on freeze dried meals, camping supplies and the like. I also suggest you fill up on water because you’re going to have to filter everything you drink while on the island. Might as well save ya some work.
Aside from your typical setup, one of the surprising things I found was how many lean-to structures there were at the various sites. I think we only used our tent maybe 2 times. For this, if you determine the route correctly, you may not have to use your tent hardly at all. However, I advise bringing it but if you like to live dangerously, you might be OK.
If there is one thing you must bring it is this. You should never drink the water without filtering. If you do, there is a high likelihood that you will get sick. You’re going to need a micron filter, and we recommend going with our friends over at Sawyer.
Since the park is in the middle of Lake Superior, weather can change day by day. Because of this, make sure you have a very solid rain shell. You don’t need a 3 layer Gore-Tex or anything but you’re going to want a step up from the cheapo ones.
While traveling from site to site, it can get pretty warm on the ridge of the middle of the island. However, when you get closer to the shoreline, the weather changes pretty radically and can drop 15-20 degrees. Plan accordingly, check the weather before your trip, and you should be fine.
Leave them at home. No fires on the island unless in specific designated rings, which there are very few of.
If you’re hoping to clean up before heading back, you’re in luck. There are quarter showers available for like $5. After 6 days romping around, I felt pretty bad for the family we came across that had drifted a mile outside of Rock Harbor to spot some moose. Fairly confident that my buddy I and were pretty rank, especially given the fact we all were huddled down trying to stay out of sight from a Momma moose and her calf. The family did their best to hold their noses and be good sports!
This trip was easily one of the best I’ve ever been on. Half of the adventure to Isle Royale is getting there and planning. I also recommend that you only go with a group of 2-3. This makes it easier for accommodating travel to the island as well as planning out your gear. Also, bite the bullet and take the plane. It’s beyond cool landing in the water and it’s much faster getting to the island.
As you can see, this place is very special to us as a company. We named our company after the island and are constantly reminded of how awesome Isle Royale National Park is along with all of the National Parks. We hope, as is our company mission, that this post empowers you to get out there and to explore nature around you, especially the National Parks. You don’t need to be an expert and you certainly do not need the best gear.
Simply put, do your research, plan accordingly, and remember to have fun.
Thanks a lot and feel free to reach out to us if you’re thinking about heading the island or if you need any advice you didn’t find here!