Isle Royale National Park sits far off in the blue waters of Lake Superior and seldom can be seen from the mainland. On crystal clear days when all atmospheric conditions are perfect, you can see Isle Royale from many different places on the northern hills of Keweenaw, Houghton, and Ontonagon Counties.
The long stretch of land that sits 50 or more miles out from the shoreline lies as a hidden jewel. On these crystal clear days, you can see the Greenstone Ridge, which forms the backbone of Isle Royale. Generally, the Isle lies hidden as a Shangri-La, always mysterious, yet always beckoning to the observer to be visited.
The real magic of the Isle comes when the observer visits something magical happens within that cannot be shaken. Your senses will awaken marked smells of absolute freshness, silence, or, at times, the roaring water of Lake Superior on all sides awes the imagination. A loon's call tends to linger long after in the quietness of the night. The gentleness of orchids in their fragile existence on the brink of cold and mists and destruction reminds a soul of what can be accomplished within one's own spirit in the world in which we live.
Tasting the sweetness of thimbleberries that are abundant along the Isle Royale trails makes each step of the long hike a pleasure. The islets, the inner lakes, the trails, the quietness at night in lonely campgrounds far from civilization - as if time has stopped transports the visitor back into another time. Challenges abound with every mile traveled. Deep appreciation forms for the rigors of our early forefathers who braved themselves into such a wildland.
This Isle is perfect for boaters of all types. Kayaks and canoes are an excellent way to explore the protected waters of the northeast section of the Isle. There are so many different waterways on the Isle, from lakes and bays to islands and inlets. However, you choose to paddle the park, the dangers of Lake Superior are real, and safety should always be practiced.
It is recommended to have a canoe at least 15' long and only use sea kayaks between 15'8" and 19' for all the open waters. There are also many inland lakes that have the ability to Portage. The use of wheeled portage devices on the Isle is prohibited, so plan and prepare wisely.
Trips to Lake Superior need to be carefully planned as the waters are very unpredictable and can be very dangerous. Only the most experienced canoers and kayakers ought to consider such trips. It's also an excellent idea to carry a portable weather radio with you at all times to check what the weather is doing as it can change rapidly.
Rock Harbor itself stretches miles and miles along the southern portion of the Isle and provides great protection from the waters of Lake Superior. The portages between lakes are possible but ought to be attempted only by those in good physical shape as the trails are often slippery and steep.
A favorite paddle is from Moskey Bay to Rock Harbor. This trip offers beautiful sites the entire way and plenty of campsites to stop along the way, including backpacking adventures in Moskey Bay. The majority of the trip is protected from Lake Superior by several islands that shelter from the rougher waters. However, there are open channels that cause turbulent waters to be careful of. The paddle is best in July and August as the water is calmer than in later months. This trip offers plenty to explore, such as Edison Fishery, Rock Harbor Lighthouse, and Rabbit Island.
While the inland lakes may provide good fishing, the truth is that you will need a boat to access the fishing spots as the growth along the lakes is very thick and limits access. While the fishing along Lake Superior has better access, there are only several places where the deep waters can be accessed. If you can portage a boat into the inland lakes, you will most likely think you are in a fishing paradise.
If you are looking to make your way to the park, you cannot simply drive there. A massive body of water called Lake Superior is sure to block your way. That leaves two options to get to the park, boat, and plane. Luckily, these options are both worth the trip and offer great site seeing and adventure before you even get to the park. Boat trips from Houghton, MI, on the famous Ranger III is a classic. The Ranger departs from the Portage Channel with a bang as it passes under the Portage Lift Bridge and makes its way slowly out the North Entry. Eventually, you pass by the North Entry Lighthouse and, for a good while, will cruise up the west side of the Keweenaw Peninsula. This trip can take between 8-10 hours, depending on weather conditions.
The other option is taking the Queen out of Copper Harbor. This is a much shorter trip on a much smaller boat. Thus, you may feel the waves of Lake Superior if it is rough a bit more. However, leaving out of Copper Harbor is a great fun town to visit before you make the trip. It adds a bit of lure to the trip before starting out.
You are allowed to utilize your own boat to make the trip. Make sure to have the proper equipment, know the weather, plan your trip well, and have a good radio. This is a dangerous trip and should not be taken lightly. The United States Coast Guard operates out of the Portage Channel in Hancock. They are still a long way off if trouble happens to go to Isle Royale. The closest Coast Guard Helicopter comes out of Marquette, so don't rely on help coming fast.
The last option is taking a plane. A seaplane flies right out of Houghton on the Portage Channel. This is a fabulous way to get from the mainland to the park quickly.
Isle Royale National Park has committed itself to provide many different campground experiences throughout the park. Many of these campgrounds are only for canoeists or kayakers. Some can be reached only by portage into the various lakes.
Campsites for hikers are identified clearly on the island map that is given to every visitor to the island. These campgrounds are Chickenbone East, Chickenbone West, Chippewa Harbor, Daisey Farm, Feldtmann Lake, Hatchet Lake, Huginnin Cove, Island Mine, Lake Desor North, Lake Desor South, Lake Rickie, Lane Cove, Little Todd, Malone Bay, McCargoe Cove, Moskey Basin, Rock Harbor, Siskiwit Bay, Three Mile, Todd Harbor, and Washington Creek. Larger maps of the island with better trail identification can be purchased from the Island store or from the point of departure.
It is essential in planning your trip to consider at what campgrounds you will wish to camp, how far it will be between campgrounds, the difficulty of the trails that you will need to hike, and just how long you plan on being in the park. Upon arrival to the Isle, you will need to check in with the Ranger and plot out your itinerary so that the Rangers can help avoid overcrowding at specific campgrounds. While they encourage compliance to the itinerary, you will pick, change of plans are allowed on the hike to accommodate the unexpected, which will almost always happen.
Campsites for the canoe and kayak visitors are also clearly identified on the island map. These campgrounds are Beaver Island, Belle Isle, Birch Island, Caribou Island, Duncan Bay, Duncan Narrows, Grace Island, Hay Bay, Intermediate Lake, Lake Rickie, Lake Whittlesey, Merrit Lane, Pickerel Cove, Tookers Island, and Wood Lake. Again the larger maps of the island are beneficial and give a much better idea of the actual distances involved. Venturing out onto Lake Superior in a canoe or kayak ought always to be done by skilled boaters and with a plan in case the Lake turns terrible. Maps and careful planning will make the water experience unforgettable and inspiring.
The camping experience is different along the shores of Lake Superior compared to camping within the interior. Water sources are always a challenge whenever you move away from Lake Superior. You will need to purify the water, either boiling the water or using a water filter. The better the water filter, the more accessible getting water will be. Having a fantastic water filter is one item you do not want to skimp on.
Make sure you examine several water filters before you go and understand how to work them because it will save lots of frustration and wasted time.
There are 165 miles of hiking trails that intersect the 133,782 land acres of Isle Royale. Each path is very different from another and ranges from very easy to very difficult. There are both long and short trails that people can hike. The trails themselves are marked relatively plain on the island map that is provided by the Rangers when you arrive on the island. However, it is essential when you are planning your trip to Isle Royale to consider the difficulty of the different trails as your hike will be significantly altered as the trail's difficulty increases. The degree of difficulty for each route is not on the island map.
There are 7 Long Trails (Feldtmann Ridge Trail, Greenstone Ridge Trail, Indian Portage Trail, Ishpeming Trail, Island Mine Trail, Minong Ridge Trail, and the Rock Harbor Trail). For individual miles for these and, other trails check the mileage chart provided by the Park, which will be in the information package your receive when you get to the Park.
The long trails are difficult to accurately rate as rating often depends on whether you are climbing the steep hills or coming down. The Greenstone Ridge, in many places, is very easy but can quickly change to being very difficult. In prolonged heavy rains, trails that are relatively easy can promptly turn into mud and become treacherous. Trails can also pool up quickly in places making dry feet difficult. What can make the Rock Harbor Trail difficult is the rain and water on all the lakeshore rock over which much of the trail passes. When dry, excellent footing. When wet, slippery, and because the stone is often angled, footing can be tricky. Good boots, patience, and being in good walking shape are necessary ingredients for any of the long trails on Isle Royale.
The 15 Short Trails are Daisy Farm Trail, Chickenbone East Trail, Hatchet Lake Trail, Huginnin Cove East Trail, Huginnin Cove West Trail, Island Mine Trail, Lake Richie Trail, Lane Cove Trail, Mt. Franklin Trail, Mt. Ojibway Trail, Rainbow Cove Trail, Stoll Trail, Tobin Harbor Trail, Washington Creek Trail, and the Windigo Nature Trail. Again consult the mileage chart for the specifics of each of these trails. When the rating on each short trail is given, believe it, as some of these short trails are very difficult and some very easy.
Although Isle Royale has 100+ miles of shoreline, the mainland is relatively narrow, with the Greenstone Ridge running right down its back. Ascending or descending this ridge is what makes the majority of the trails difficult.
Windigo on the western section of the Isle and Rock Harbor on the eastern section are the only two contacts with civilization. Each has a small store with camping supplies and food. Liquid fuel can be purchased. Do not rely on the stores to buy much - variety is minimal. Everything needs to be brought to the Isle by boat. These are also the only place where running water exists, and you can take a 5 minutes shower at Rock Harbor for $3. Washers and dryers also are available - costly, though. Aluminum canoes are available but difficult for portaging - rent one from the mainland or bring your own - cost is minimal on the Ranger III the Queen. Rock Harbor Lodge is open from Memorial Day until Labor Day. Housekeeping cabins are also available. Advanced reservations are required for both the Lodge and the cabins. Contact Rock Harbor Lodge, 800 East Lakeshore Drive, Houghton, MI 49931 (Reservations & Information - Summer: 906-337-4993 or Winter: 270-773-2191). Also available through the Rock Harbor Lodge is a boat taxi service to different parts of the Isle.