When I talk to people about what National Parks they’ve visited, I often hear “We’ve been to almost all of them. Well, except Isle Royale. It’s hard to get to, and too expensive.” And I have to say, I’ve always agreed. When you look at the price tag and travel complications to get from the mainland to the Isle, it can be daunting or off-putting. It’s one of the more exotic of the National Parks, listed up there with the parks in Hawaii and Alaska. You can read more about Isle Royale here.
However, if you only have one day, you can still make the most of it.
We would like to stay on Isle Royale (pronounced “royal” by park rangers) for a few days in the future, camping and hiking, but we decided to just do a day trip to see what it was all about. We were hoping to get our feet wet, and make plans to go back and explore more. One day on Isle Royale may seem like not enough, and it definitely wasn’t. However, if you only have one day, you can still make the most of it.
The Ferry Ride to Isle Royale National Park
After staying in Grand Marais, MN, (World’s Best Donuts, anyone?) we took the Sea Hunter III from Grand Portage to Windigo. This is on the southwestern side of the Island. We wanted to do a hike, and rent a motorboat to explore the island. We really hoped to see some wildlife, too.
The roundtrip ferry cost $87 a person, which is one of the reasons it can be off-putting to some. We found that the ferry ride was actually a journey all of its own.
We booked our tickets through a link on the Isle Royale National Parks website called Grand Portage Isle Royale Transportation Lines. Windigo is only one stop on Isle Royale. There are more stops you can make, depending on the ferry you book. One of the most popular stops for overnighters is Rock Harbour, but that takes longer and you need more time to do it. There are many ferry options for getting to the island, and we chose the one that enabled us to do a day trip.
The signage around town to find the ferry was a little confusing in that it was mostly non-existent. There were a few signs that pointed in the general direction and we had to just drive around until we found it. The town is very small, and there isn’t much around except the water, so if you drive in the direction of the water, you’ll find the ferry. Once we arrived, we pulled in and were greeted by a woman checking names and making sure we all had masks due to Covid-19 protocols. The captain gave a 10 minute safety talk and let us know that although no one had fallen overboard on his watch, it was still a possibility. We were also informed that there was only space for about half of us inside the boat, and the other half would be on the outside deck. This turned out to be information I wished I had before arriving.
Luckily, we each brought our rain jackets because rain was forecasted. What I didn’t realize was whether it was raining or not, the ferry ride was wet. Not just like a few drops here and there. I mean wet. So wet in fact, it felt like someone was dumping buckets of water on me the entire 90-minute ride over. It was chilly too, and some people in the front row were so soaked, they looked like they jumped in a pool. So, plan to bring waterproof gear from head to toe. I would also recommend a poncho on top of it.
Arriving at Isle Royale National Park
Once we arrived ashore, a ranger gave us an overview of what to expect that day. Even though this overview was actually mandatory, it was helpful to us for a general navigation of the island and for their tips on how to make the most of the time. After the talk, you have to either show your National Parks pass to the ranger, or go to the welcome center to pay the fee which is $7 a person. The National Parks provides programs (if interested) and recommends a few short hikes you can do in the time you have on the island.
For a day trip, you’re only there for about four hours. The ferry ride there began at 8:30, and we arrived at 10:00. We had to meet back at the boat at 1:45pm for a 2pm departure back to Grand Portage.
Windigo also has nice bathrooms with flush toilets and a hand dryer. (Why am I mentioning a hand dryer? Well, it was warm and I used it to dry off my soaking wet behind from the insanely wet ferry ride over.)
Our plan was to rent a motorboat at the Windigo Store & Harbour. They rent motorboats, canoes and kayaks. You can view their price list on their website. Prices for a 4 hour rental ranged from $23- $51. Unfortunately for us, they weren’t renting when we were there due to inclement weather. It was raining and the wind was picking up, so they said it was too dangerous for us to rent a boat.
The Windigo Store & Harbor also sells hot drinks, sandwiches, clothing, and other items you may need. After the frigid ferry ride over, we were happy to get a $1.95 hot coffee (or hot tea/chocolate) that offered free refills. (We also got some hand warmers for the ferry ride back! Trust me, these were needed.)
Day Trip Hikes on Isle Royale National Park
Instead, we did a day hike to check out the foliage and hopefully see some animals. Although we personally didn’t see any moose, others on our same trip did. We did see other critters scurrying on the forest floor, but none of the famous moose. The hike was called the Feldtmann Lake Trail, which was about 3 miles roundtrip. There are views of the forest, as well as the lake.
To be honest, one of my favorite parts of a hike is the ending viewpoint. I love being rewarded with a great panoramic view. However, the view at the end of this hike was underwhelming, and was only a small view of the tops of some trees. There was no view of the lake. Personally, the journey to the top (the actual hike itself) was more interesting to me and provided better views.
The forest floor was quiet, and there were a few wooden plank paths. As you walked along the path, you could look to your right (or left on the way back) and there were great views of the lake; little tree cutouts perfectly framing Lake Superior.
There were purple and yellow flowers, various types of trees, birds, and of course different bugs. I enjoyed the serene quiet in the woods. It felt like nature… and nature alone. Hiking in a place like this where people don’t live offers you a rare opportunity to commune with nature alone.
We walked through the Visitor Center as well, which had some interesting historical panels and photographs.
And of course, we wanted to get our souvenir sticker to prove that we actually did make the trek to the least visited National Park in the United States.
I love looking at boats, so we enjoyed walking around the pier and seeing what boats were there. We saw boats with tags from places all over the country.
The ride back was just as windy and rainy. This time, we sat on the side of the boat and enjoyed the rugged nature that was Lake Superior and allowed ourselves to get soaked again. We had dry clothes in the car, right? It was quite the experience.