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.