The isolation here is palpable. Walking on a narrow path, I hear only the birds, insects, Lake Superior’s minor waves, and my own footsteps. Plants block my path occasionally – this is, after all, designated wilderness and I am intruding on their space.
I gaze around, amazed at just how many shades of green can exist in a single location. The olive green of lichens sits next to the brighter colors of trees and wildflowers, green upon green upon green. It is no wonder Isle Royale National Park is called America’s Emerald Isle.
How many shades of green can you see?
Isle Royale is one of the least visited national parks in the lower 48 states, seeing fewer than 20,000 visitors per year. The reasons for this are simple. First off, with 99% of the Park being wilderness, there is but a single lodge and a number of campsites. Secondly, and more importantly, Isle Royale is hard to reach, sitting in the north of Lake Superior, 58 miles north of Copper Harbor, Michigan.
Copper Harbor is one of two spots on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula from which a ferry runs to the island. Leaving at 8am from the mainland, the 3.5 hour journey can get a bit rough due to the small size of the boat. A return trip departs Isle Royale’s Rock Harbor Lodge at 2:45pm, meaning it is possible to take a day trip out and spend approximately three hours on the island. That isn’t possible on the other ferry, leaving from the bigger city of Houghton, Michigan. This is a significantly larger boat, making for a smoother crossing, but a six hour journey each way. Alternatively, some visitors choose to fly on seaplanes from Houghton to the island, especially those beginning a backpacking trip on the western side. (The lodge sits at the southeastern tip.) Thank you to a reader who reminds me there is also a ferry from Grand Portage, Minnesota!
Note: I took the ferry from Copper Harbor. The town is tiny, a few motels and restaurants and pretty much zero cell reception. Just be aware.
This is worth the ferry ride over!
Once on the island, visitors are greeted by pristine forests, incredible lakefront vistas, and a feeling of being basically alone in a vast wilderness. Even the Rock Harbor Lodge is fairly small, with fewer than 80 rooms, and WiFi only in a single public area. This is a place to detach from the world around.
The view from Rock Harbor Lodge’s paths is stunning!
Isle Royale National Park was created in 1940, putting an end to an era of copper mining and vacation homes on the island, and setting it aside both for visitors to enjoy and for scientists to study. The island is unique, as it is accessible for land mammals during cold winters (Lake Superior can completely freeze over), and isolated during warmer months and years. As a result, it offers the chance to observe the evolution of species removed from many of their potential predators. The American toad, for instance, can reach sizes on Isle Royale not seen on the mainland since their primary predators (skunks, raccoons, and similar mammals) are not present here. It is the wolf and moose populations, though, that are most fascinating.
Isle Royale is home to roughly 2,100 moose, a concentration that has led to smaller animals. The island has relied on a small population of wolves to keep the moose in check, but a bout of disease introduced to the island by a pet dog nearly wiped the wolves out. In fact, the island was down to two, an inbred father-daughter/brother-sister pair. Other wolves made the winter crossing to the island but never stayed. So this past year, twelve more wolves were re-introduced to Isle Royale, and so far results are promising.
Visitors will likely never see a wolf, but most see moose on a number of occasions. (I was unlucky and didn’t meet one during my short island stay.) Some even venture onto the grounds of the lodge. Upon arriving on the island, visitors will receive instructions of what to do when encountering aggressive animals, as well as a briefing on keeping the wilderness pristine.
Pristine wilderness is the primary draw.
While many choose Isle Royale National Park for its incredible wilderness backpacking opportunities, the island makes a pleasant excursion even for those of us, myself included, who prefer to sleep in a bed and do day hikes. A few trails originate at Rock Harbor Lodge for hikes from two hours to a full day, and the lodge even offers additional day trips aboard its boat, the Sandy. Trails are narrow so as not to encroach on the wilderness, and we are reminded not to move anything, even if it blocks our way. As a result, outside of the immediate lodge area there are no ADA accessible trails, or even those that anyone with remote mobility issues should take. While not steep, they are certainly not even ground, and require traversing rock outcrops and more.
Trails are rough, but views like this make it worthwhile.
I finish my hike at Scoville Point, roughly 2.5 miles from the lodge, and gaze out at the deep blue of Lake Superior. The wind sweeps my hair back, cool and refreshing on a beautiful day. Sitting on a rock, I look around at the trees, bright and green and beautiful, and I am thankful for places like this. Isle Royale National Park, America’s Emerald Isle, is stunning, enchanting, and for the briefest of moments, all mine.
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