Isle Royale: Michigan’s Secret Island

Isle Royale National Park, courtesy

Isle Royale National Park

By Jennifer Daniel Szymanski

In the far northern reaches of Michigan lies a pristine island practically untouched by human life. It remains a virtual secret, so far off the beaten path that some lifelong Michigan residents have never even heard of it.

An otter on the Isle. photo: Dale Austin,
An otter on the Isle. photo: Dale Austin,

This piece of land is known as Isle Royale, and in 1946, it was designated a National Park. 45 miles long and 9 miles wide, Isle Royale is located 55 miles north of Michigan ‘s Keewanaw Peninsula and 22 miles south of Thunder Bay, Ontario: right smack in the middle of Lake Superior.

To get to Isle Royale is an experience in itself. First, you have to drive north to Copper Harbor, the northernmost point of the Keewanaw Peninsula.

As you drive further and further north through Michigan, past the industrial factories and automobile plants, past the snowmobile hot spots and tourist traps, cities become towns and towns become villages. Population becomes sparse, and wildlife becomes more abundant.

There is a bridge that separates the Lower and Upper Peninsulas, and crossing that bridge is like crossing into a different world. You can also get to the Upper Peninsula by plane, then Copper Harbor by rental car (there is an airport in Marquette, 1 ½ hours from Copper Harbor; and Houghton, 45 minutes from Copper Harbor).

But driving through Michigan is a good way to witness the true beauty of the state and to prepare you for the world th at awaits you in the North.

The Upper Peninsula reflects the true, untouched and pristine beauty of Michigan, and Isle Royale is the crown jewel of that beauty. Accessible only by ferryboat or floatplane, Isle Royale is a virtually untouched archipelago of wild abandon.

Located in the middle of Lake Superior, the ferry ride is 4 hours from the shore.
Located in the middle of Lake Superior, the ferry ride is 4 hours from the shore.

For an outdoor lover, it is a unspoiled wonderland waiting to be discovered.

By boat, Isle Royale takes just over four hours to reach. Most of that time is spent with no trace of land in any direction, surrounded by the coldest, deepest freshwater lake in the world.

As the island surfaces on the horizon and the ferryboat draws near, eager hikers are met with miles of rugged shoreline that connect with the crystal clear waters of the great lake.

The island, authorized in 1931 by Congress to “conserve a prime example of North Woods Wilderness,” is home to moose and wolves, eagles and loons, and an array of different tree and wildflower species. No vehicles are allowed on the island, but there are 165 miles of hiking trails branching off in every direction of the ferry dock, inviting a hiker to experience the untamed magnificence of the Isle by foot.

Backwoods rules apply.

Backwoods Rules Apply

For the hiker, the island presents every level of experience. A true die-hard could easily spend weeks with a backpack strapped on their body, hiking deeper and deeper into the interior of the island, exploring new areas and never repeating the same area twice. Once a hiker is off the beaten path, however, they are on their own.

There are no bathrooms, no covered shelters, and no running water. All the backwoods rules apply to this hiker. Opportunities for campfires are limited, and hikers should pack a self-contained fuel stove if cooked meals are planned. Drinking water must be obtained from the lakes, and has to be filtered or boiled before use. The “Leave no Trace” rule applies, and everything you carry in must be carried out.

For the less experienced hiker, a stay at the Rock Harbor Lodge might be more appealing. The lodge is complete with running water and a warm bed in which to sleep – and the beauty of the island can be experienced through day hikes.

The author on the Isle.
The author on the Isle.

In addition to hiking trails, there are 36 campgrounds, inland lakes that boast excellent whitefish and trout fishing, diveable shipwrecks, and historic abandoned copper mines and lighthouses. 98% of the 571,790-acre park is wilderness. It is an island with many rich experiences to offer.

In 2001, Isle Royale attracted nearly 20,000 visitors. Compared to the nearly 3 million who visited Yellowstone National Park and the 9 million who visited the Great Smokey Mountains, Isle Royale is a land yet undiscovered, and a backwoods hiker’s paradise. Better get there soon!

Plan your visit to Isle Royale here!

Jennifer Daniel Syzmanski
, pictured at left, writes from Canton MI.

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