Isle Royale National Park

National Park Number: 23 of 59

This park was logistically tricky for us, and because of the season and our route, we ended up giving Isle Royale the least amount of time we’ve given any park. This info. will probably only be interesting to someone trying to plan a trip here, but here’s the rundown: Isle Royale is very isolated, surrounded by Lake Superior and only accessible by ferry boat from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan or the very Northeasterly tip of Minnesota. The park is open through October, but boat service to get there becomes much less frequent after early September. We knew this and made sure we’d be there before the boats stopped running, but we didn’t plan exact dates or buy tickets months ago because our schedule is always a little up in the air. Still, I worried about it a bit, and as soon as we knew when we were going to be there, we called to get tickets. And found out they were sold out. And had been for months.

That was for the boat leaving from Minnesota, which was much more convenient to our route, but not now a possibility. The ferry out of Houghton, Michigan was done for the season, which left us with one ferry option: the Queen IV out of Copper Harbor, MI. Very luckily, they had tickets, but they only run the ferry on Monday’s and Friday’s (and the week we were there was their last week running.) This meant we could either go out on Monday and come back on Friday, or do a day trip. The weather was forecast to be terrible for most of the week—cold, rainy, lightning storms, etc.—so we opted for a day trip.

In our case, a day trip meant 7 hours on the ferry and about 3 hours on the island. It wasn’t ideal at all. We would have loved to spend more time there—really, truly, because it turned out to be insanely gorgeous—but alas, it was not to be this time. Still, we really fell in love with the upper Midwest and we really want to return, especially to spend longer at Isle Royale. 

In any event, we had 3 hours. Not long at all, but we honestly enjoyed the heck out of them.

The night before, we slept at a boat launch nearby and watched the sun go down over the water and, later, the stars coming out.

The next morning the boat left early, which meant we got to watch the sunrise from

We hopped off the boat at Rock Harbor, had a little orientation with the ranger, paid our entrance fee (because we forgot our annual pass! Blergh!) and got Graham sworn in as a Junior Ranger (he did his booklet beforehand, because he is super responsible.) Then we took off to explore the Stoll Trail. 

Isle Royale is made up off more than 400 little islands, all of them ridges of basalt layers that cracked and thrust upward millions of years ago. This little archipelago is super isolated, which means the plants and animals here are unique, having evolved separately from their mainland counterparts. The red squirrels, for example, are smaller and make different sounds than other red squirrels, and their genetic distinctions mean they are now considered a subspecies. 

Moose arrived in Isle Royale in the early 1900s and wolves walked over on ice bridges in the late 1940s. Because the ecosystem is so limited (and because the animals can’t walk away), scientists are really into studying the behavior of living things here, and we heard about several ongoing studies on the moose and wolf populations.

We did not, however, see a moose, even though the ranger told us 3 of them had been hanging around the Stoll Trail. None of the day trippers that day saw one, but every single person who’d spent the weekend had. Another reason to go back and stay a while!

We did see lots of birds, squirrels, berries, and red-capped mushrooms, plus fall colors and a stunning rocky coastline. We hunted for round things and raced to be the first moose-spotter and just generally enjoyed ourselves immensely.

And then it was time to return to the boat. So quickly that I hardly have anything to write about, except to say that before we came here, we’d heard very little about it and what we did hear wasn’t very thrilling. Combined with its logistical trickiness, I can say we were probably less excited about this park than any other (which may not be saying a lot, because we do get absurdly excited about almost everything.) Now that we’ve been there, however briefly, I think I can fairly say this place is very special. It feels timeless there in its isolation, quiet and distant and pure. We are dying to take a couple of kayaks back there to explore the islands better and we’d love to do a longer backpacking trip.

But for now, we’re coming away from this place enchanted and wanting more, and all in all that’s not a bad way to leave things.

  1. You’ll just have to come back. I’m VERY surprised that most people you talked to didn’t have good things to say about it. That doesn’t jive from all I’ve read and heard about it. I think it still is the most re-visited park. That has to be for a reason right?

    1. We absolutely loved it, so that totally makes sense! We didn’t hear anything negative about it, we just didn’t hear a lot of raving. But we also didn’t do enough research; next time, we’ll come more prepared and have a longer visit and we can’t wait!

  2. Your pictures are awesome. Do you guys have any videos on YouTube? I’d love to watch and follow your travels. I’m learning so much more about my country then I have in the 50 years I’ve been alive.

    1. Oh, we’re so glad to have you following along! We are just starting to post more to YouTube; if you click on the videos tab at the top of this page, there’s a link to our YouTube channel. We have had so much fun learning more about America’s history and natural world—we love traveling close to home!

  3. As a Michigan native, a visit to Isle Royale has been on my Bucket List for far too long. Need to tackle that sooner rather than later! BTW, the park is not "only" accessible by ferry boat; you can also take a seaplane, although that option is obviously more cost-prohibitive. Just discovered your site and am looking forward to traveling with you!

    1. Definitely give Isle Royale a visit—we can’t wait to get back! I should have mentioned seaplane; we didn’t even look into it beyond discovering how expensive it is, haha!

  4. My daughter saw your van in Houghon in the Fall and told me to gooogle it. I have been thoroughly enjoying all of your park visits. I do hope that you will be able to make another trip to Isle Royale for a longer stay and also get to enjoy the Kewwenaw Peninsula. We have probably gotten around 80 " of snow here so far this winter.

    1. Holy moly, that is a ton of snow! We heard there was a reason Michigan is shaped like a mitten ;). We can’t wait for a return visit to Isle Royale, and this time we will stay much longer!

  5. I totally understand this feeling! We spent maybe two hours in Biscayne (though this was less our fault and more due to the fact that my parents are more of your "checklist" type of national park visitors- nothing wrong with that, just not really our style) after a trip to Orlando. We have all of like… three photos. So, you did way better than we did at least! 🙂 I think you did a great job making the best of what you had. I’ve been excessively planning our IR trip for years, but that’s much more easily said than done in the situation you guys are in. I think you did great!

  6. Was this park fairly kid-friendly for a longer stay? We have three little ones (4, 2, and baby) and are wondering if we could stay here a few nights next year. We’re not tent campers but I’ve read there’s cabins/lodges. Are there enough family hikes to do?

    1. We didn’t have any experience with the cabins, but they looked great! I’d say there’s definitely enough to do—but we kind of feel that way about every park :). There are several shorter hikes close to the lodge that you could do, and if you’re up for it, just paddling around would be a wonderful way to spend a few days. There’s lots of forest to explore, rocks to climb, and waterfront to play on, and it’s all unbeatably beautiful :).

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