This Michigan bucket list item is brought to you by Keweenaw Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Surrounded by Lake Superior, Isle Royale National Park is an archipelago that consists of a large island and more than 200 smaller islands. It’s located northwest of the Upper Peninsula and offers a range of activities and unparalleled solitude. Since it’s a wilderness and protected land, the park has an array of wildlife and stunning scenery.
Planning Your Park Visit
Isle Royale National Park and the surrounding islands are only open between April 16 and October 31 every year. The peak season for visitors is July through August because this is when temperatures are the warmest. If you want to avoid crowds, May and September are good months to visit because temperatures are still warm. However, the weather can change quickly because of Lake Superior, so you should take warmer clothes and rain gear just in case.
Keep in mind that there’s a $7 daily entrance fee for the park for adults ages 16 and older. If you have a Federal Recreation Pass — access, annual, military, senior, or volunteer — this fee is waived for you and up to three other adults. You purchase an annual pass, which is available to anyone, for $80. All of the collected fees go toward preserving and maintaining the park and its facilities.
How to Experience Isle Royale in One Day
According to National Geographic, Isle Royale National Park is one of the most beautiful places to explore in the world. Although there are only two ways to reach it — ferry and seaplane — it’s possible to have a grand adventure in one day. The day may be long because of the ferry rides, but you don’t have to stay overnight on the island to have a terrific experience.
If you choose to get to Isle Royale via ferry, the Isle Royale Queen IV operates between Copper Harbor, MI, and Rock Harbor on the northeast side of Isle Royale. With service between early May and the end of September, the journey is only about 3.5 hours in one direction. It’s the shortest ferry ride, so you’ll have more time to explore the park during daylight hours. Until June 29, 2021, round-trip fares are $110 for kids and $135 for adults. From July 1 through August 2021, round-trip fares are $115 for kids and $150 for adults. One-way fares are half price.
For an even faster and more scenic journey to Isle Royale National Park, you can book a flight with Isle Royale Seaplanes. The flights depart from Hancock Portage Canal near Houghton, land in your choice of Rock Harbor or Windigo, and take less than one hour. One-way fares are $238 per person, while round-trip fares are $342 per person.
Other Transportation Options
The Ranger III ferry offers passenger services between Houghton, MI, and Rock Harbor on Isle Royale from the end of May through early September. Generally, the 73-mile journey involves navigating the Keweenaw Waterway before getting to the lake and takes about 6 hours in one direction. Until July 6, 2021, one-way fares are $55 for adults. After that, the price increases to $70 for adults through most of August. Children’s one-way fares are $35 for the whole summer.
If you’re coming from Minnesota, transportation to Isle Royale National Park is available from Grand Portage. Grand Portage Isle Royale Transportation Lines has two vessels that each have a USCG-licensed captain and trained crew. The Voyageur II was built to serve on the Great Lakes and transports U.S. mail and passengers from Grand Portage to several points along the island’s coastline. The Sea Hunter III is another 65-foot aluminum vessel, but it was built to serve on the North Atlantic. It operates between Grand Portage and Windigo.
Things to Do in Isle Royale National Park
At just over 206 square miles large, Isle Royale National Park has plenty of things to do. There are more than 166 miles of hiking trails, which are an excellent way to experience the wilderness. Keep in mind that the terrain is rough and uneven, so you’ll need sturdy shoes.
From Rock Harbor, you can explore the 3.8-mile loop trail to Suzy’s Cave, an inland sea arch and wave-washed cliff that was formed some 4,000 years ago. The 4.2-mile trail loop to Stoll Memorial Trail (Scoville Point) winds through forest and shoreline communities. Another option is the 5-mile trek to Mount Franklin, which is a scenic overlook named in honor of Benjamin Franklin. The Edisen Fishery and Rock Harbor Lighthouse are located nearby too.
From Windigo, you can visit the Rock of Ages Lighthouse, a 117-foot tower that rests on a rocky outcrop just outside of Washington Harbor. There’s a 1.8-mile scenic trail to Grace Creek Overlook that runs along the shoreline and then cuts inland, where you’ll climb through forests to access the open ridge. The Windigo Nature Trail is a short, 1.2-mile loop that traverses cedar lowlands and hardwood forests. To get to Minong Ridge Overlook, you’ll hike a challenging 3-mile trail that involves climbing a rocky path through pine forests.
Aside from day hiking, there are many opportunities to explore Isle Royale National Park on the water. You can canoe or kayak for about 20 minutes from Rock Harbor to the Lookout Louise Trail, which stretches for about 1 mile. Raspberry Island is just a short paddle across from the Rock Harbor Channel. If you’re in Windigo, the Washington Harbor is ideally calm for a leisure paddle. The waters throughout Isle Royale National Park are great for fishing and scuba diving as well.
Canoe and kayak rentals are available in Rock Harbor and Windigo. At the Rock Harbor Marina, canoe rentals are $23 for half a day and $40 for a full day. Kayak rentals are $33 for half a day and $58 for a full day. The prices don’t vary much at the Windigo Store & Marina. Canoe rentals are $23.50 for four hours and $40 for eight hours; while kayak rentals are $33 for half a day and $59 for a full day.
In addition to exploring the island on your own, guided tours are available. MV Sandy Tours offers four walking and boat tours — Hidden Lake and Lookout Louise tour, Passage Island tour, Edison Fishery and Rock Harbor Lighthouse tour, and Raspberry Island and Sunset Cruise tour. Also, you can take a Keweenaw Waterway Cruise on the Ranger III ferry.
Take Your Isle Royale Adventure to the Extreme
If you really want to be adventurous at Isle Royale National Park, you can backpack the entire Greenstone Ridge Trail. This trail is difficult and is the longest trail on the island at nearly 42 miles long and 18 inches wide. You’ll need to pack a compass, map, water filter, and enough food to backpack for multiple days.
Connecting the southwest and northeast ends of the island, the Greenstone Ridge Trail has two trailheads — one in Windigo and another at Hidden Lake, the latter of which requires a private boat or water taxi to gain access. It goes through forested wilderness, over exposed rocky ridges and wooden plank bridges, up steep inclines, and past inland lakes and swamps with views of various wildlife and Lake Superior.
On the northeast side of the Greenstone Ridge Trail is Mount Ojibway. Getting to the bald top requires climbing to an elevation of 1,152 feet where you can see Lake Superior, the white tip of Rock Harbor Lighthouse, and Rock Harbor Lodge at the end of the trail. If you’re not satisfied with that view, you can climb about 50 steps to midway up Ojibway Tower, which is the highest point on the island’s eastern end. The former fire watch station houses telecommunication equipment that supports park operations.
However, the highest peak on the island is Mount Desor on the southwest side. If you start from the Windigo trailhead, it’s an 8.5-mile hike on the Greenstone Ridge Trail to the summit, which rests at an elevation of 1,394 feet. The peak is heavily wooded, so views of the surrounding terrain are limited. Despite that, you can get some great photos.
Where to Eat on Isle Royale
There are two restaurants within Isle Royale National Park. Both are located on the northeast side of the island at Rock Harbor Lodge. The Lighthouse Restaurant menu has freshly made burgers, sandwiches, trout, soups, and salads. The Greenstone Grill menu has burgers, sandwiches, pizza, and a large selection of beer and wine.
Also, you can stop by the Rock Harbor Lodge’s Dockside Store for basic supplies. It even has freeze-dried foods and accessories for hiking, boating, and camping. On the southwest side of the island, you can find groceries, camping supplies, and boating necessities at the Windigo Store & Marina.
You have the option to eat before you arrive at Isle Royale National Park too. In Copper Harbor, Harbor Haus Restaurant serves fresh local fish, seafood, steaks, and other dishes featuring local vegetables and berries. In Houghton, Milly’s makes awesome pizzas and sandwiches with gluten-free options.
Hotels in the Area
There’s only one hotel on Isle Royale — Rock Harbor Lodge. It has lakeside rooms and suites with the basics and cottages with kitchenettes. On the opposite end of the island, the lodge offers rustic Windigo Camper Cabins that are a quaint alternative to camping in a tent. Additionally, there are conveniently located lodging options for day trips to the island.
Copper Harbor Hotels
- Minnetonka Resort
- Bella Vista Motel
- King Copper Motel
- The Pines Resort
- Keweenaw Mountain Lodge
- Lake Fannie Hooe Resort
Throughout Isle Royale National Park, there are 36 campgrounds, which is perfect if you plan to backpack the Greenstone Ridge Trail. Most of the camping areas only have a few sites each, but all of them are suitable for tents and have outhouses and water sources. Some of them even have picnic tables and shelters. Near the bottom of this page, you’ll find links and more information about the different types of campgrounds.
If you prefer to make Isle Royale National Park a day visit, you could camp in the Upper Peninsula instead. Lake Fanny Hooe Resort & Campground in Copper Harbor has a lakefront motel, cottages, and full-service campsites. Camping is available at Fort Wilkins State Historic Park as well. In Houghton, the Hancock Recreational Boating & Camping Facility has 72 sites with restrooms and showers, while the City of Houghton RV Park has 22 sites with electric and sewer hookups.