10 Tips to Visit Isle Royale National Park

Last updated: July 29th, 2023 | Originally published: March 28, 2023
Isle Royale National Park

An island group in the middle of Lake Superior, Isle Royale National Park is about as remote a location as you can find in the United States. The park is open from mid-April through the end of October. 

For hikers, the archipelago boast over 160 miles of trails and dozens of primitive campgrounds. If you’re a nature enthusiast, scientists have studied the interactions between wolves and moose for 65 years — the longest recorded study anywhere on earth. For the rest of us day trippers, the scenery is undeniably pretty, and there’s running water in the restrooms.

This article is going to cover some of the basics you should know before organizing your trip to Isle Royale National Park. Isle Royale is not like other national parks, as you’ll soon learn. There are many nuances to the park, some we wish we would have known before visiting. We hope you enjoy.

1. Isle Royale National Park is Accessible by Plane or Boat

Boats head out for Isle Royale National Park from three primary ports: Houghton, Michigan; Copper Harbor, Michigan; and Grand Portage, Minnesota. All ferries are passenger only. No cars are allowed on Isle Royale National Park.

The Michigan Ports take over 3 hours one-way. Grand Portage is just under 2 hours one-way. The boats have unusual schedules — Here is the primary link for all boat travel (NPS). There are four boats that make the runs — the service both Windigo and Rock Harbor.

We took the Sea Hunter III from Grand Portage Same Day round-trip ferry and it cost $95 per person. The boat held about forty people sitting hip-to-hip on benches inside and outside the boat. It was a friendly lot of similar-minded folk making the trip, and socialization was easy.

Seaplane Travel costs about $250 one-way and $350 round-trip from Houghton, Michigan or Grand Marais, Minnesota. Here’s the link.

Isle Royale National Park
Isle Royale National Park

2. Study the Moose and Wolves

As predator and prey, their lives and deaths are linked in a drama that is timeless and historic. This research project is the longest continuous study of any predator-prey system in the world. The purposes of this project are to better understand the ecology of predation and what that knowledge can teach us about our relationship with nature.

3. Least Visited Park in the Lower-48

25,454 recreation visits in 2022 (mid-April thru October) equals 127 visitors daily. We saw 127 people in a Bryce Canyon parking lot when it was 9 degrees in mid-March.

4. Day Trips are Very Limited

If your plan is to boat to the island and head back the same day, you will have about four hours to explore. In those four hours you have two or three choices and none of them offer substantial payoffs. The above photo shows the payoff of the Grace Creek Overlook. We felt it was the best option with the time we had out of Windigo. If you choose this trail, be sure to push past the first view point. You’ll see a sign — go a little further for a better view. The trail was pleasant.

Isle Royale National Park
Rock of Ages Lighthouse

5. Overnight Stays are Best at Isle Royale National Park

An ideal visit to Isle Royale National Park would include an overnight stay. This opens up several more options. For example, the Feldtmann Lake Trail is 17.5 miles out-and-back. We met some hikers who were returning from an overnight stay at the lake, and they told us the moose were so numerous that it was obnoxious.

Instead of booking a round-trip ticket to the park, book back to back one-way tickets and spend a night fending off moose from your food supply. Sounds like an adventure!

6. Hike the Greenstone Ridge Trail

This is the masters-class hike at Isle Royale National Park. The hike begins and ends in either Windigo or Rock Harbor, the two largest settlements on the island, forty miles apart. Generally considered a challenging route, it takes an average of 15 hours to complete.

However, most folks take their time on the Greenstone. This is the best place to observe the wolf/moose interaction. Consider spending 3-6 days along this route.

Isle Royale National Park

7. Two Primary Ports for Isle Royale National Park

The two main harbors are Winslow in the south and Rock Harbor in the north. Boats and planes arrive and depart the two locations at different times depending on the day of the week.

Rock Harbor has more going on and is more beautiful. Winslow is easier to reach (from Minnesota), passes by the Rock of Ages Lighthouse, and has the USS America shipwreck to explore (very cool).

8. Life on the Boat is Interesting

Imagine this: Forty people sitting in a low-ceiling boat for about two hours with one small restroom and no cell service. The circumstances could make for some awkward silence, right?

We found the group to be exceedingly chatty. The entire way out a group of us swapped info and stories. On the way back six of us sat outside in the front of the boat and carried on like old friends.

Visitors to Isle Royale National Park are like-minded individuals and make the trip that much better.

Isle Royale National Park
Grand Marais, Artist Point

9. Winslow Amenities at Isle Royale National Park

Winslow has a small visitor center, a store with limited food and supplies, a restroom, and an outdoor picnic area. That’s it. If you want anything else you’re hiking to Rock Harbor (40 miles) or hopping back on the ship toward Grand Portage. It’s a good idea to come prepared.

10. Grand Portage and Grand Marais

If you’re traveling from the Minnesota side, you are fortunate to find yourself on the North Shore Scenic Drive. This is one of the most beautiful stretches of highway in the USA.

North of Grand Portage is the below photographed waterfall at the Canadian Border. It’s called High Falls and can be found at Grand Portage State Park.

Thirty-five miles south of Grand Portage is the gorgeous town of Grand Marais. Be sure to explore Artist Point in Grand Marais.

Grand Portage State Park

An Honest Conclusion for Isle Royale National Park

Isle Royale National Park

Compared to other National Parks, Isle Royale is less dramatic. The scenery is beautiful, but not more so than other places that are easier to reach. The remote nature of the park is alluring and contributes to the mystique of the island. There aren’t many places left like this in the country. Add in the wolf and moose observation, an intimate boat ride, lighthouses, and a shipwreck, and Isle Royale will make for a memorable visit.

If we were to do it again, we would stay overnight and hope to meet some moose. Perhaps we would hike the forty-mile trail along the Greenstone — that sounds best. However, we would not put in the effort and money to do another daytrip. There just isn’t enough time on the island.

We are the Hoffmann family, a full-time RV family that has split residence in Seattle, Washington and San Antonio, Texas. We have special needs children that we homeschool, and work travel assignments for the Veteran Affairs Hospital. If you would like to learn more about us, check out our Start Here and Biography pages. In the meantime, God bless and travel happy!

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