This story appears in the Unplugged issue, in stores February 28 and available here.
I adjusted my pack on my back; the afternoon sun was just starting to creep above the treeline, and I could feel the warmth starting to radiate from my back onto my shoulders. I instinctively reached for my phone, but I hadn’t had service in days, so I reached for the map on my side pocket just to check the distance to Washington Creek. Aside from a couple of campers last night, I hadn’t seen anyone on the trail since yesterday afternoon, and the solitude made it feel like I had the opportunity to witness this precious island wilderness all to myself.
Michigan’s Isle Royale is remote, and that’s the appeal. The reward for arriving is total immersion in nature and no chance to connect with the outside world. Out of the 63 National Parks in the U.S., this island in the middle of Lake Superior receives just over 18,000 visitors a year. Compared to a heavy hitter like 14 million visitors to the Smoky Mountains, Isle Royale feels like a true untouched gem floating in a Great Lake.
While I hiked about 17 miles over the few days on the island, you could hike 40 miles from harbor to harbor, or choose from the 170 miles of trails on the 206-square-mile island. Isle Royale is the fourth-largest lake island in the world.
I had just come from a night at Huginnin Cove campground with plans to set up for the night before taking the ferry back to Grand Portage from Windigo. Arriving at the cove after the five-mile hike was like uncovering a buried treasure. Only accessible by foot or by boat, the 36 campsites available on the island offer campers a true remote experience you can’t find in other more popular parks.
Indigenous peoples had been using these lands for thousands of years before the island became a conservation project in 1940. Known as Minong, or “the good place” in Ojibwe, Isle Royale had archeological remnants of ancient copper mining. The park has begun working with the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa to honor the ancestral lands.
Spending any small amount of time on one of the Great Lakes is an immersion into Midwest summer living. While coastal citizens may flock to our beaches, the Midwest takes full advantage of the window of sunny weather, and they take to the lake. I get the appeal immediately when I see the row of lean-tos that rest just above the creek bed. The only sounds are the rustling of trees as a breeze passes over the water and in the distance, I hear the slight whispers of hikers breaking down their camp.
Rumblings of moose sighting earlier in the week had been around the creek, so I thought some time here may yield a glimpse or two. Despite being in moose territory at previous parks, I had yet to see antlers in the wild. Patience and luck paid off; not even an hour after arriving at my campsite, I saw out of the corner of my eye a moose slowly moving through the shallow waters. It’s the peaceful setting a hiker dreams of; no one around except nature and this majestic animal.
I thought about the short briefing we received the morning we arrived. The ranger emphasized just how “wild” the island can be, and how in the time spent here you’ll have the chance to experience untamed wilderness and a true taste of Midwestern nature. Sitting along the water observing wildlife undisturbed is a fierce and fantastic reminder of the ranger’s orientation.
There is a thriving population on the island, and the animal population has played an integral role in the unique, fragile ecosystem of the island. Moose are not the only wildlife you may come across while you’re here. Wolves are also known to make an appearance, along with foxes, beavers, other small mammals and a variety of birds that all cohabitate on Isle Royale.
You’ll most likely see more wildlife than people on Isle Royale, which is the allure of the destination.
When to go
Because of the location, visiting this island is strictly seasonal. From April 16 until October 31 visitors are welcome on the island.
Getting to the island is half of the adventure. There are four passenger ferry points that come from either Michigan or Minnesota:
- The Ranger III passenger ferry operates between Houghton, Mich., and Rock Harbor, Mich.
- The Isle Royale Queen IV passenger ferry operates between Copper Harbor, Mich., and Rock Harbor.
- The Voyageur II passenger ferry operates from Grand Portage, Minn., to both Windigo, Mich., and Rock Harbor, Mich.
- The Sea Hunter III passenger ferry operates between Grand Portage and Windigo.
Be mindful of the time change if you are coming from Minnesota, from CST to EST. Ferry trips are about three to six hours depending on your final destination. If you have the means, the easiest way is to arrive by seaplane. Book daily flights in advance from either Grand Marais, Minn., or Houghton, Mich.
Where to stay
There are several accommodation options for visitors. If backcountry camping is too intimidating a task, there are other places that offer more creature comforts. The Windigo Marina has two rustic cabins, and the Rock Harbor Lodge is the only option for a more full-service stay. Both facilities are seasonal operations and are typically taking reservations from June through September, so bookings fill swiftly.
Where to eat
Both Rock Harbor and Windigo Marina have stores that offer a small food selection, as well as supplies, shower and laundry facilities. For a full dining experience, the Rock Harbor Lodge has a restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.
While it is possible to see Isle Royale for a day trip via boat, the real magic is taking several days here and experiencing the secluded beauty the island has to offer. Permits are required for campers and boaters, and there is a $7 daily cashless park entrance fee. Card only. You pick up a backcountry camping permit either on the ferry or at the visitor’s center upon arrival.