Is your summer vacation season in full swing? Ours sure is. Park Chasers has trips planned throughout the 2016 centennial year. Our latest was last weekend’s quick visit to Isle Royale National Park, one of the least visited parks in the National Park Service.
Surrounded by the frigid waters of Lake Superior, Isle Royale became a national park in 1940. The park area includes the main island, one of the largest in the lower 48 states (behind Long Island and Padre Island) and more than 450 smaller surrounding islands. While it is technically one of Michigan’s national park units, it is only a short commercial boat ride from the North Shore of Minnesota.
What to Know about Isle Royal National Park
Isle Royale is one of the least visited of the 59 national parks. On average the island sees roughly 15,000 visitors, a tiny fraction of the millions who visit Yellowstone and Yosemite. This number is on the rise though, with more than 18,000 visitors estimated in each of the past few years.
The increase in visitation is in part due to the incredible pristine wilderness of Isle Royale. With no wheeled vehicles (including bikes) allowed in the park, backpackers and water sports enthusiasts travel from all over the United States for a true escape. The 170+ miles of hiking trails (including a popular circumnavigation of the island) offer a challenging wilderness experience without the crowds and noise of the busier parks.
Recommended: Visit all the National Parks in Minnesota
While our trip didn’t include an overnight stay on the island, Park Chasers highly recommends it. As soon as we approached Windigo Harbor we were already planning our next trip back.
For ideas on where to start planning your own Isle Royale National Park adventure, check out our itinerary below:
Getting to Isle Royale National Park
Before you plan your Isle Royale vacation, it’s important to have an idea of how long you have to travel and where you’d like to depart from. There are four ferries and one seaplane outfitter that offer transportation to and from Isle Royale from mid-June to October. Each leave from a different location and travel on different days of the week.
The itinerary below is for a day trip departing from Grand Portage to Windigo Harbor.
Isle Royale in A Day
Arrive at the Grand Portage marina for an 8 AM check-in on Grand Portage Isle Royale Transportation’s Seahunter III. Check the weather and wind conditions before your departure. Lake Superior can be particularly harsh and conditions can change rapidly. It can also be a perfect spot to put on some sunscreen and work on your tan.
Our ride out was quiet and full of bright summer sunshine. Our ride home was more typical Lake Superior with 6-8 foot swells and spray. While the boat has some inside seating and protected overhangs, you’ll want to be prepared for anything. The ride takes about 1 1/2 hours one way.
As you approach the park, watch for Rock of Ages Lighthouse, one of the most famous lighthouse stations in the Great Lakes. Enjoy the pristine shoreline scenery of Windigo Harbor and don’t forget to watch for moose! Once you’re back on land, check in with a ranger to pay your daily user fee, collect your passport stamp in the bookstore, and check out any ranger programs that may be available during the day.
After your orientation to the island, head out for The Grace Creek Overlook. This is one of the more popular day hikes from the Windigo area and at 3.6 miles round trip, it will have you back in time to catch your ride home. The trailhead is near the boat dock and marked for the Feldtmann Lake Trail. The trail follows roughly 1 mile of the shore of Lake Superior before turning inland for a modest uphill climb to the overlook. Find a rock or a shady spot to enjoy a picnic lunch and the stunning views of Grace Harbor and the interior of the island. Depart back towards the dock on the same trail.
When you’re back to Windigo, stop in the Visitor’s Center to see the large Fresnel lens that was removed from Rock of Ages Lighthouse in 1985. You’ll get a closer view of the operating lighthouse on the boat ride home.
Board the Seahunter III and depart for Grand Portage around 1:45 p.m. Expect more views of Rock of Ages Lighthouse on the way home. You’ll arrive back in Minnesota around 3:30 p.m. with time to squeeze in a little more hiking on the North Shore before you head for home.
If you’ll be staying in the Grand Portage area, here are some ideas for stops on the front or back-end of your Isle Royale trip.
- On your way to the Seahunter III boat dock, you will pass Grand Portage National Monument. Collect your passport stamp and visit the historical site after your trip to Isle Royale and you can chase two parks in one day!
- The Canadian border is roughly 20 minutes north of Grand Portage. The Thunder Bay area offers some unique tourist attractions and there are several Provincial Parks (the Canadian equivalent of the NPS) along the way.
- The Minnesota State Park system and the Superior National Forest have well-maintained campgrounds in the area. If you’re not able to stay on Isle Royale, consider staying in one of the area parks. Reservations are highly recommended as this is one of the busier camping areas in the state.