Best Things to Do at Isle Royale National Park
Isle Royale National Park is isolated by the cool waters of the largest freshwater lake on Earth, where richly forested land rises from a bed of volcanic rock. This small island in the middle of Lake Superior is full of diverse wildlife.
Outdoor adventures await the many thousands of visitors each year, and yet here you will not find many crowds. This is not for lack of beauty, but of accessibility – from the Upper Peninsula a five-hour boat ride is the most common way to visit. In fact, Isle Royale has the most repeat visitors of any national park. Those that have been here return to it again and again to appreciate the unspoiled wilderness, incredible hiking trails, epic fishing, and gorgeous shoreline.
The only other way to get to the island is by seaplane. Due to its remote location, it is generally open from mid-April to late October.
Take a Ferry Ride
There are several ferries taking nature lovers to the island.
The Ranger III transports visitors to the island from Houghton’s Portage Canal, and ferry cruises beneath the world’s largest lift bridge and past dramatic shoreline featuring the towering lighthouses of the Keweenaw Peninsula.
The Voyageur II has service at various ports around Isle Royale throughout the summer, providing spectacular views of the island’s wilderness from the water and serves at a key mode of transport for hearty backpackers seeking to travel between Windigo, Daisy Farm, McCargoe Cove, and Rock Harbor.
The Isle Royale Queen IV leaves Copper Harbor for Isle Royale throughout the summer months, and takes visitors from the Keweenaw Peninsula to Rock Harbor in about 3 hours.
Then there is the MV Sandy, guided National Park rangers, and include narration and often the opportunity to disembark on remote islands for ranger-led hikes for those who are interested. These sightseeing tours leave from the Rock Harbor Lodge dock bound for destinations such as Hidden Lake, the Edisen Fishery, Raspberry Island, and Rock Harbor Lighthouse.
Hiking on Isle Royale National Park
The crown jewel of Isle Royale, the Greenstone Ridge Trail runs roughly 43 miles from where Greenstone Ridge lifts up from the depths of Lake Superior to the east at Lookout Louise. The trail then curves west over exposed ridged, through deep woods, past pristine lakes and across swamps. The Ridge then drops back into Lake Superior near Windigo and the island's west end. This epic backpacking trip takes three to five days, although sections of it can be enjoyed in a few hours. A true wilderness hiking experience.
Shorter trails that only take a few minutes to a couple of hours include Tobin Harbor Trail, Stoll Trail, Minong Ridge Overlook – all affording spectacular views of the landscape.
Isle Royale National Park has roughly 165 miles of hiking trails and as there are no roads here, hiking is one of the primary ways to get around.
Tour a Lighthouse
Isle Royale National Park features three lighthouses: Menagerie Island Light, Rock Harbor Light, and Passage Island Light. The beloved white tower and black lantern towering above the rugged shoreline and pine trees of Rock Harbor is a popular one. Isle Royale’s oldest lighthouse with its maritime exhibits are led by the National Park Service and includes a stop at nearby Edisen Fishery.
The Menagerie Island Lighthouse was built in 1875 and features unique rock and red sandstone, where its keeper’s quarters and white octagonal tower make it a striking figure on boat trips around the island. A working lighthouse to this day, it aids in navigation around the national park. The lighthouse itself is not open to the public, but you can walk the grounds, and it’s only accessible via private boat.
The Passage Island Lighthouse was built in 1872 and is located near the eastern end of the island. It is a feature of a popular boat tour out of Rock Harbor. The 8-mile cruise aboard the MV Sandy will take you to Passage Island, and from there, an NPS guide will lead a 2-mile round-trip hike to this stunning stone lighthouse.
Isle Royale's ten major shipwrecks span seventy years and showcase the evolution of Great Lakes maritime transportation - from wooden side-paddle steamers to massive steel freighters. Protected by the National Park Service, these vessels can be explored by experienced divers.
Get to Know the Locals
Since Isle Royale is so remote, the only local visitors run into is wildlife – the majestic moose being the star of the show. They can be found all over the island and some even frequent the campgrounds and lodges.
Affectionately referred to as “hippopotamus of the north country” their affinity for water allows many moose sightings. Wolves have also called the island home since 1948, although they are much less noticeable as they tend to be reclusive creatures, often only making an appearance at night.
Many other species make Isle Royale National Park their home, such as beaver, river otter, red fox, mink, snowshoe hare, snakes, several bird species, and more.
Fishing at Isle Royale National Park
Fishing has a long history here, where Native Americans first fished these waters. With over 100 inland lakes across Isle Royale, no permits are required to fish any of the lakes. Common catches are freshwater coasters, northern pike, trout, walleye, and perch. However, if you want to fish Lake Superior, a permit is required.
Rob Decker is a photographer and graphic artist who had the rare privilege of studying under Ansel Adams in Yosemite National Park when he was just 19 years old. Now, Rob is on a journey to explore and photograph all 63 of America’s National Parks. He’s creating WPA-style posters to help people celebrate their own national park adventures — as well as encourage others to get out and explore!
Join the growing community of 80k+ National Park enthusiasts to receive insider deals and updates.