Hunts' Guide to The Upper Peninsula


Region 2:

Isle Royale

isle royale


THIS ROADLESS WILDERNESS ISLAND is a very special place. While not as dramatic as some other top Upper Peninsula destinations, it has a powerful mystique for those who spend enough time here to allow its natural qualities to emerge. Protected as a national park, it offers one of the Midwest's premier away-from-it-all experiences. Although Isle Royale kayaking is increasingly popular, most come to hike the 45-mile-long island, which is over 99% wilderness. There are short loops for day hikes, and 165 miles of trails with 36 campsites along the way that allow even well-prepared novices to traverse the entire island.

Solitude is Isle Royale's chief attraction. There's no TV, and the only showers are at Windigo (the southwest "port" for ferries from Grand Marais, Minnesota) and at Rock Harbor, the island's most developed port and visitor base, near the northeast tip. A satellite pay phone at Rock Harbor is the island's only phone. Forget about cell phones.

Backpacking Isle Royale
Planet Backpacker

It's possible to enjoy the island's unusual natural features while lodging in Rock Harbor and visiting the many interpretive programs and guided tours. But for most the big lure is the adventure and physical challenge in extended hiking or paddling trips.

The island is actually part of an archipelago of over 400 smaller islands. It's about 14 miles from the Canadian mainland, near the Canadian port and industrial center of Thunder Bay (population 113,000, up 4,000 since 2000).

Ferries take visitors to Isle Royale from Grand Portage, Minnesota, 22 miles away, or from Houghton and Copper Harbor in the Upper Peninsula. From Copper Harbor the 56-mile trip now takes only three hours, permitting day trips for a 3-hour stay on the island. At Rock Harbor are a hotel, housekeeping cabins, one of many campgrounds, boat rentals and charters, and sightseeing cruises. Interesting free evening programs on the island's natural and human history are held most evenings at Rock Harbor and some evenings at Windigo and at Daisy Farm, a large campground on the east side.

The national park's Greenstone tabloid has a big island map with trails, campsites, and natural features; programs; ferry schedules; fishing and other regulations; news; and more. Get it and much more info at the park's official site.

Island creatures. About 1,000 moose live on Isle Royale. The numbers expand and crash depending on ticks, wolf predation, and the severity of winter. Especially near dawn or dusk, visitors may see moose, browsing shrubs or wading to eat submerged aquatic plants. The 1,200-pound adults are fascinating to watch, with their huge heads and antlers and thin legs. They can be dangerous, so keep a safe distance. For a closer look at the fascinating interactions over the years of the island's wolf and moose populations, take a look at Michigan Tech Professor Rolf Peterson's long-term study.

IR moose
Ben Kilpela
Seeing a moose is one of the thrills of an Isle Royale visit. It's more likely near dawn and dusk, when they browse in low, wet places. Browsing by moose has limited the varieties of plants on the main island, making the outer islands the places to see wildflowers, including orchids.

Isle Royale's wolves arrived over ice in 1949. Moose are thought to have swum over around 1900. No bears are on the island. Neither are porcupines, whitetail deer, coyote, bobcats, and fishers. Foxes are the island's scavengers. They feed off moose carcasses and hang around campgrounds and docks, hoping for a handout. Don't encourage them, and keep your food in your tent.

The calls of loons reinforce the atmosphere of solitude. Motorboats along the shore are the island's biggest noise generator. You might here the howl of a wolf, but what sounds like a wolf call is probably a loon. Isle Royale's waters are home to naturally reproducing coaster brook trout and lake trout.

Lay of the land.The island has long, rocky, protected bays and seven inland lakes. Bogs and wetlands are home to orchids and other unusual plants that have escaped browsing by moose. High ridges extend the length of the island. The island's backbone and longest hiking trail is Greenstone Ridge. Inland lakes and a deep cove make it possible for very fit people to canoe or kayak from one side of the island to another. This requires six portages. There are a few vistas, which descend to Lake Superior at the dramatic Five Fingers area on the island's northeastern end.

Ten shipwrecks around the island are attractions for divers today because Lake Superior's cold water preserves them well. Of the four lighthouses, the Rock Harbor and Passage Island lights can be viewed via the M.V. Sandy sightseeing boat.

Island history.For thousands of years, Isle Royale was used for hunting, fishing, and mining copper from surface deposits. The Treaty of Paris of 1783 gave Isle Royale to the United States. An erroneous legend has it that Benjamin Franklin secured Isle Royale for the U.S. in negotiations with the British because he thought its copper would be useful in electrical experiments. However, it's more likely that when the treaty was drawn up, it used inaccurate maps of Lake Superior that made Isle Royale look as if it was in the lake's center.

Commercial copper mining occurred in the 1840s, again in the Civil War era, and later during the 1880s. Mines with adjacent settlements were near McCargoe Cove, Windigo, and Siskiwit Bay. Many trees were cut for use underground and above ground. Isle Royale is not a place to see big old trees, due to mining activities, forest fires, and rocky soil. Maples and yellow birch do well in the better soil at the island's southwest end.

Isle Royale fishermen
Fishermen came to Isle Royale from their homes on the North Shore—Two Harbors, Grand Marais, or Duluth—as early as possible in the spring, but generally by April 15th. The first fishing in the spring was done with gangs of hook lines, baited with herring and set in deep water. Then in July or August gill nets were set in the harbors or off the reefs. Nets were from 350 to 400 feet long, the size of the mesh varying according to the type of fish sought. By November 15th most fishermen would again leave for their homes on the Minnesota shore. Some fishermen wintered on the island, carrying in supplies to last them from late November to April, staying in such areas as Chippewa Harbor, Rock Harbor or Hay Bay.
—from Commercial Fishing on Isle Royale

Isle Royale first became a resort destination in the 1860s when schooners and steamers brought wealthy families to the resorts situated beside the island's many harbors. In the early 1900s steamship companies built resort hotels on Isle Royale and its western neighbor, Washington Island. They were part of the Northwoods resort boom fueled by well-to-do Midwestern city people seeking a cool, pollen-free climate and rustic fishing retreats. Individual families built cottages at Tobin Harbor, close to Rock Harbor and on the island's west end. As the American upper middle class grew and gained wealth, more families could afford summer vacations, Isle Royale vacationers increased through the 1920s.

The outstanding fishery for lake trout led up to a hundred commercial fishermen and families to live here from spring through fall. Fishing peaked in the 1920s. In the 1930s falling prices triggered the gradual demise of Isle Royale commercial fishing. The lives of island fishing families are depicted in books of historical photographs and in the wonderful watercolors of fisherman's son Howard Sivertson, who spent his boyhood here. His memorable, large-format Once Upon an Isle ($21 list) features facing pages of written recollections and scenes based on memories of being out in a fishing tug, for instance, or hanging out the wash and shooing away a moose.

Resorters' descendants still form the core of the Isle Royale Natural History Association ( It has published nine books about the island currently in print and produced various maps, posters, and gifts about the island and its natural history. These and many related books are at the IRNHA's island shops and at the park's Houghton visitor center. Each summer the association's artist-in-residence program invites five artists or writers to spend time on the island. Artists then give presentations at Rock Harbor.

Three-fourths of the island's visitors are backpackers or paddlers who stay in the more remote backcountry. For those in search of personal challenge, the steep ups and downs of the island's trail system and the long portages can be more of a challenge than expected. Bugs usually don't clear out until the end of July.

Divers are in their own fascinating world, accurately described in mystery writer Nevada Barr's Superior Death. It features detective Anna Pigeon. Barr's perceptive view of Isle Royale National Park Service personnel and visitors is considered on-target. She herself has been an NPS ranger. Winter Study (2008) is set on Isle Royale in winter, Anna Pigeon joins the team of the famous wolf-moose study. Things go horribly amiss when a suspicious Homeland Security officer comes along.

Surveys of Isle Royale visitors show that most want solitude. That turns out to be not all so easy to find between July 4 through mid August, when most of the 17,000 annual visitors come. The average stay is four days, far longer than more widely visited national parks.
Ferries from Grand Portage, Minnesota, arrive near the island's southwestern tip at Windigo. It has a visitor center, a store, and a place for occasional presentations, but not many other developed attractions.

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