Isle Royal National Park is a wilderness island protected from humans by Lake Superior's unrelenting icy waters. The nearest Michigan port is in Copper Harbor, a three hour ferry ride In fair seas. Leaving the main land for Isle Royale is an adventure itself. You can travel by air, water or moose. Lake Superior rarely rises above 52 degrees so swimming is unlikely to make your agenda.
I was struck by the powerful feeling of remoteness and peaceful solitude felt on Isle Royale. Rock Harbor Lodge is the only hotel inside the national park but most visitors choose to camp and carry in all of their gear. Many Boy Scouts visit the island every year, camping in groups and hacking life out in the woods and rocky shores.
One surprise was that bikes are not allowed on the island, which is the case at many national parks to limit ecological damage. The short season from May through September requires advance planning because of the limited ferry seating and schedule. Our trip in August was booked in January and we were only able to get on a ferry because a Boy Scout troop had cancelled.
Moose are plentiful but elusive. Meghann and I were tracking a moose by following a boardwalk trail surrounded with wet hoof prints. My emotions were a mix of excitement at seeing a wild moose up close and the fear of aggravating the very same moose. Adult moose are giants who will charge if threatened. We never spotted a moose but my sister and her husband were hiking a short trail and came up one of the two twin moose that were born a few months earlier. The family of moose were grazing less than 500 yards from the Rock Harbor Lodge! They could hear the mother in the woods but could not see her. Wolves live on the island and help keep the moose population under control.
Reaching this secluded island destination requires more time than a weekend trip. The drive from Detroit to Houghton is ten hours. Ferry travelers can leave on a five hour ferry from Houghton on the Ranger III which is the largest boat owned by the National Parks Service. The Ranger III was designed specifically for transit between the mainland and Isle Royale, with icebreaker capabilities. You can drive another 50 miles to Copper Harbor to board a three hour ferry, the Isle Royale Queen IV. The Queen IV is smaller than the Ranger 3 and it is owned by a privately held ferry company. If you take the ferry from Copper Harbor and need to spend the night then stay at the King Copper Waterfront Motel and eat the Harbor Haus restaurant. There are no fine lodging accommodations in Copper Harbor or Isle Royale.
Expect a number of off pitch renditions of the Gilligan's Island theme song on the docks and first hour of the ferry trip. Take Dramamine before the boat leaves the harbor. Save time and see incredible views of Isle Royale and the Upper Peninsula by chartering the sea plane out of Houghton. A 35 minute plane ride takes you to the island where you land safely on the water in one of the long, narrow inlet bays shielded from the big lake. Planes arrive at the dock and you can begin the second part of your adventure, exploring the island. Schedule your trip at least a month in advance. We booked the ferry and the rooms in January for August.
A round trip adult ferry ticket is about $130. There is only one airline to Isle Royale and a plane ticket costs about $300.
The Mount Franklin hike nearly killed my dad. The five hour hike to 705 feet above sea level is takes you through woods, boulders and marsh until reaching the peak of Mt. Franklin with a panoramic view of Canada, Minnesota and the many islands that comprise Isle Royale National Park.
Bring kayaks on the ferry or rent them by the day when you arrive at Rock Harbor marina. The lodge has kayak rentals and canoes for about $30 per day. Rent a 15 horsepower outboard boat and cruise the protected "finger lakes", which are long, narrow protected bays that stretch miles inland from Lake Superior.
The water is frigid, even in late summer so be prepared with cold weather clothing and life jackets. You do not want to fall into Lake Superior without a life preserver on!
Bald eagles feed on the most diverse lake trout population in Michigan. Fish for lake trout and salmon, using Rapala floating F7 and F9 lures with two or three split shot weights on 18 inches above the lure. I caught this nice lake trout with a perch colored lure casting into Lake Superior from the black boulders on shore directly behind the lodge restaurant and outdoor deck. There is a fish cleaning station available in Rock Harbor.
The Lake Superior water was so clear. Everything felt as if it was preserved for a thousand years. At night there is almost no light pollution and milky way was perfectly visible behind the brightest moon I have ever seen.
On my next visit I will plan to try some of the following activities we didn't have time for on our first Isle Royale journey:
Isle Royale Park Photos and Guide
Isle Royale Camping Information