A Beginner’s Guide to Isle Royale, America’s Least Visited National Park
Wolves and moose and seaplanes. Oh my.
More than 300 million people visit America’s 60 National Parks each year. Six million went to the Grand Canyon. Eleven million hit the Great Smokies. But only 18,000 of them stepped foot on Isle Royale, the 206-square-mile island off the Upper Peninsula that has the distinction of being America’s least visited Park.
It is the very definition of wilderness: no permanent population, home to moose and wolf populations, and reachable only by boat or floatplane. Luckily, we’ve got the details on how to book one — along with where to stay, what to pack and the best time to go.
When to Go and How to Get There
The best time of year to visit this captivating outdoor playground is, well, now: August through early October. Gnats, mosquitoes and black flies descend on the isle during June and July, making it verboten to pretty much anyone besides a serious entomophile. It’s also closed during winter months. But that’s the secret of its magic: it goes totally undisturbed for months and then comes alive in May when the park opens.
Once you’ve got your gear in tow, you’ve gotta figure out how to get there, and the conventional methods are out, at least for the final leg. No wheeled vehicles of any kind (other than a wheelchair) are permitted on the isle, which is in the heart of Lake Superior. So you’ll need to fly from Chicago to Copper Harbor, Michigan, and then hop on a seaplane to the isle. There is also daily ferry service from Minnesota and the Upper Peninsula, but that route will prove time consuming.
What to Pack
If you plan on tent camping, which is the best way to experience Isle Royale’s nature and serenity, make sure you bring a three-season sleeping bag and tent: the nights can get cool, even during the summer. Other must-haves: a capable pair of hiking boots, wool hiking socks, portable camping stove/cookware/utensils, a headlamp/LED lantern, food supplies and trash bags to carry your garbage out. You can also capitalize on the island’s geography by bringing your own kayak or canoe.
Rock Harbor Lodge (2 images)
Where to Stay
It’s more DIY than you think, which makes it that much more thrilling for a real getaway. Bring an internal frame backpack, tent and camping supplies, but travel on the light side, since you’ll have to backpack to a campsite somewhere along the 165 miles of trails at the park. There are 36 campgrounds on the isle, but we recommend Three Mile Campground along the northeast side of the isle, Huginnin Cove Campground’s south lake shore beauty and the still waters of the Todd Harbor Campground. Prepare for scenic hikes between campgrounds, or use your watercraft or the island’s water taxi to gain access. If roughing it is, well, too rough, then make a reservation at the Rock Harbor Lodge, where you can rent a room, cabin or cottage.
What to Do (2 images)
What to Do
Once you get settled, it’s all about basking in the pure nature of the isle. You can take guided tours of the isle or do solo hikes through the backcountry or along the coastline. Wildlife is plentiful, but you have to explore and be patient. Isle Royale happens to be the home of one of the longest running predator/prey studies in the country, with its ample wolf and moose populations. And do hike the 4.5-mile loop from the lodge to scenic Scoville Point, where you can get stellar views of Lake Superior and Tobin Bay. The trail is mostly flat, but you might get a chance to see bald eagles, moose and otters along the way.
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