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Park of the Week: Lakes and Islands at Isle Royale National Park

Our National Park System is full of glorious places, and of ways to reach them. Many are easy to visit, a few difficult. Isle Royale National Park, located in the northwest corner of Lake Superior, is definitely one of the latter.

Our National Park System is full of glorious places, and of ways to reach them. Many are easy to visit, a few difficult. Isle Royale National Park, located in the northwest corner of Lake Superior, is definitely one of the latter. Isle Royale can be reached only by boat or plane (seaplane, to be exact). There are also no roads. The main island is about 45 miles long and nine wide at its thickest, but the park area is 850 square miles, including submerged land, though only about 210 square miles are above water. Teeming with various wildlife, it is best known for its moose and wolves.

You get to the isle by boat (five hours) from Houghton ($50 to $60 each way) or Copper Harbor ($54 to $62 each way) in Michigan or by boat from Grand Portage in Minnesota ($59 to $69 each way), or by plane from Houghton ($185 one way). You can fly into Houghton on Northwest Airlines, or drive there, even take a Greyhound bus. The park is one of the few (some say only) in the National Park Service system that closes in winter, from November 1 through April 16, in fact, due to the bad weather that makes getting on and off the island difficult in that season. In winter, the park headquarters is in Houghton, while the summer office is at Mott Island in the park. The island became a National Park in 1940 and was designated a Wilderness Area in 1976, as well as an International Biosphere Reserve in 1980.



Before going to the island, check out the Main Visitor Center, at Houghton on the mainland, at 800 East Lakeshore Drive (Closed in winter). The two Visitor Centers on the Isle itself are at Rock Harbor and Windigo, respectively at the northeast and southwest corners of Isle Royale.

The Isle itself has inland lakes. In fact, the park people like to boast that Ryan Island in Isle Royale's Siskiwit Lake is the largest island on the largest lake on the largest island on the largest freshwater lake in the world, and say that was once a question on Jeopardy. The main island has about 400 smaller satellite islands. To add to the superlatives, the rangers also point out that the ecological study of wolves on Isle Royale is the longest running large mammal predator-prey study on earth, now in its 46th year

Moose and wolves top the list of animals here, but there are also beaver and otter, but no bears or raccoons. Among birds, the osprey is notable.



Once on the island, you can indulge in several outdoor activities, include canoeing, kayaking, boating, scuba diving and day hiking. There are more than 160 miles of trails.


Rangers lead guided interpretive programs and hikes, as well as lectures, offered most nights in July and August, limited schedule in June and September. A favorite activity is Rock Harbor Reflections, a leisurely afternoon hike with a ranger to discover the area's special places. There is also the Daisy Farm Program at the site of an historic settlement.



There are several guided tours by boat from Rock Harbor, including some to Lookout Louise, Hidden Lake, Passage Island, the Minong Mine and Raspberry Island. If you want to visit Isle Royal for just one day, you will need to take the boat from Grand Portage or the one from Copper Harbor, but either would give you a layover of from 2.5 to 3.75 hours, not much time for more than a short nature walk. Or you could fly in and out, too.


The Rock Harbor Lodge, located on the isle's northeast corner, is the only lodging facility in the park. There are 60 rooms, each with bath and a lake view, as well as 20 duplex cottages. Other facilities include a gift shop that also sells groceries, fishing licenses, tackle, stove fuel, and camping, hiking and boating accessories. The dining room of the lodge is open daily, as is the Grill. The lodge also has a marina, where charters can be arranged. Be aware of the mosquitoes and black flies here, usually at their worst in late June and early July. (I am still bearing the wound of a black fly bite from my visit to the Maine woods over ten weeks ago.)



There were only about 16,000 visitors in 2007. They like to say here that more people visit Yellowstone National Park in a day than visit Isle Royale in a year.


It will cost you $4 a day to visit Isle Royale, though there are season passes and season boat rider passes. All of the user fee stays on Isle Royale, used for trail and dock maintenance and the like.


The official website of the park is

The Isle Royale Natural History Association supports the park. Its website is


A good commercial site is

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