Isle Royale National Park
Backpack around a rugged island without roads
Bordered only by the vast waters of Lake Superior, Isle Royale (pronounced ROY-al) National Park is a model of what we imagine a national park to be: wild, rugged, without any roads and isolated from anything that resembles the developed world. The park occupies an entire 45-by-six-mile island, along with a surrounding archipelago of nearly 400 smaller islands and outcroppings. Rock Harbor and Windigo, two harbour areas that receive park guests by ferry, seaplane and private boat, are the only dots of development that impinge on this watery wilderness. The rest of the 850-square-mile park is wild backcountry, home to wildlife and precious little else.
Isolation is a large part of Isle Royale’s appeal and uniqueness. It serves as a living laboratory for scientists, who study the predator/prey relationship of wolves and moose, for example, uncompromised by the effects of outside intruders. Isle Royale’s isolation also contributes to its light tourist traffic; more visitors pass through Yosemite’s gates in an average summer day than visit Isle Royale in an entire year.
The majority of visitors arrive by ferry from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to Rock Harbor on the island’s southeast shore. The Rock Harbor Lodge near the ferry dock provides the island’s only lodgings. It’s a simple affair, but its basic motel-style rooms sidle right up against the rocky shoreline with glorious views of nearby islands and the open waters of Lake Superior. It’s a fine base for non-campers who want to enjoy a taste of the park. You can set out on several day hikes and sign up for boat trips to attractions like a restored fishing camp, a lighthouse and an old copper mine—and still enjoy a hot shower at the end of the day.
With 165 miles of foot trails threading across the island and linking a network of 36 campgrounds, Isle Royale is a backpacker’s dream. The 42-mile Greenstone Trail traverses the island across its high basalt backbone, intersecting most of the park’s other trails. Paddlers can portage canoes inland to explore dozens of interior lakes, where fishing and moose sightings are unmatched. Experienced sea kayakers can tackle the ragged Superior shoreline, a maze of rocky islands and secluded coves. No matter how you explore it, this unique national park offers a quintessential Great Lakes wilderness experience.
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Trip idea text ©Patricia Schultz. For contact information about the places mentioned and many more USA trip ideas, see Patricia Schultz's blockbuster book.