Welcome Sign to Isle Royale National Park Michigan

Where is Isle Royale National Park

Located in the northernmost reaches of the state of Michigan, Isle Royale National Park largely contains Isle Royale, hundreds of smaller nearby islands, and the nearby waters of Lake Superior. Though the national park is located within the United States in Michigan’s Keweenaw County, the nearest city to Isle Royale US National Park is Thunder Bay, Ontario. Visitors planning a trip to Isle Royale National Park to experience its acres of temperate forest and breathtaking lake shore will need to fly via seaplane or book passage on one of the many ferries that provides regular trips to the park. Outdoor recreation practiced in the national park is centered around hiking, camping, and wildlife viewing. These recreation opportunities are spread throughout the park but are most concentrated within the park’s two developed areas: Windigo and Rock Harbor. Each of these two areas will provide visitors a great starting point to their Isle Royale adventure complete with a visitor center, camp store, and various campsites. 

How Large is Isle Royale National Park

Isle Royale National Park covers a total area of 571,390 acres. This area is a combination of land acres and service acres of the surrounding waters of Lake Superior which the park also protects. Isle Royale itself, is the largest island in the waters of Lake Superior. The island stretches for 45 miles in length and for nine miles at its widest point. Alongside Isle Royale, the national park also contains about 400 other smaller islands dispersed across the waters of Lake Superior. These islands along with Isle Royale offer a bountiful list of outdoor recreation opportunities. The largest and most popular hiking trail in the park is the Greenstone Ridge Trail. This trail follows the Greenstone Ridge, a high ridge in the center of the island, for 40 miles and about the entire length of the main island. In total, Isle Royale National Park offers its visitors access to about 165 miles of hiking trails.

Sunrise Over Moskey Basin at Isle Royale National Park Michigan

Isle Royale National Park Weather

The climate of Isle Royale National Park, according to the Koppen Climate Classification system, is defined as a humid continental climate. Usually, Isle Royale National Park experiences relatively cool summers and cold to freezing winters. Average summer temperatures in the park range between lows of 45-50 degrees Fahrenheit, whereas summer highs reach temperatures upwards of 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Winters in the national park can be brutal at times. The average low temperatures for the winter are frequently negative or in the single digits. The “warmest” temperatures of December through February are in the high teens to low twenties. Due to the harsh nature of winters on the island, the park is only open from mid April to early November.

When Did Isle Royale Become a National Park

Isle Royale National Park first received its designation as a national park in 1940. After receiving this designation, the park also received protection as a wilderness area in 1976, and then additional protection as it was declared a UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve in 1980. The park protects a dense array of flora and fauna. The temperate broadleaf forests of the island are mainly made up of spruce, fir, and other conifer trees. The most notable fauna species that inhabit the island are moose, Canadian lynx, and timber wolves. The latter species was reintroduced in 2016 to prevent the loss of the pack and to continue the efforts to study the predator prey relationship between the island’s moose and wolf populations. These reintroduction efforts were debated extensively and deemed an act of “unnatural intervention” by a variety of individuals. 

Things to do in Isle Royale National Park

Isle Royale National Park offers its visitors vast opportunities to explore the island, the waters of Lake Superior, and the flora and fauna that inhabit the area. Popular recreation activities practiced on the island include hiking, kayaking, and fishing. Below, our National Park Visitors Guide discusses a sample trip itinerary, you could follow during your trip to the park. 

Start at One of the Three Park Visitor Centers

Starting at a park visitor center is always the perfect way to begin any national park adventure. Isle Royale National Park contains three park visitor centers, one located in Houghton, Rock Harbor and Windigo. Houghton is the national park’s headquarters within the mainland of Michigan. The other two visitors’ centers, located in Rock Harbor and Windigo are both located on Isle Royale. Visitors that have extra time before boarding their ferry or seaplane can stop into the Houghton visitor center to obtain a park map to start planning their trip. The Houghton area is also the home port of the Ranger III ferry vessel. Once on the island, visitors can visit either the Rock Harbor or Windigo visitor centers to orient themselves with the island or ask park rangers particular questions they may have about the park or their trip. Visitors arriving at the visitor centers may also find rangers hosting interpretive programs which will provide additional information about the park and its characteristics.

Determine Where and How You Would Like to Camp

After leaving the visitor center you should probably have a good idea about where and how you would like to camp on the island. Are you looking to occupy one of the front country campsites, or are planning to undergo either a trip into the backcountry or a float trip via kayak or canoe? The park contains several trail accessible campsites located within East Chickenbone Campground, Chippewa Harbor Campground, Daisy Farm Campground, and a few other campgrounds. However, visitors planning a backpacking excursion or float trip will also be able to camp at a variety of lakeside and backcountry campsites. The exact location of these campsites can be found online on the park’s website and inquired about further at the park’s visitor centers. 

Cloudy Day View of Sunset Over Rock Harbor at Isle Royale National Park Michigan

Hit a Trail for a Hike!

Isle Royale National Park contains over 165 miles of hiking trails. The largest trail at Isle Royale is the Greenstone Ridge Trail. This trail follows a ridge in the center of the island for 40 miles and is the perfect trail for an overnight backpacking trip. However, the park also contains several smaller hiking trails in the Windigo and Rock Harbor areas of the park. These hiking trails are perfect for short day trips and for individuals looking to camp elsewhere in the park. Several ferries also provide day trips to the park and will drop visitors off in either the Rock Harbor or Windigio areas of the park. Visitors only at the park for a few hours should take advantage of the short trails around their portage area to explore the dense forest and coastline of Isle Royale.

Cast Your Line into the Waters of Lake Superior

The waters of Lake Superior are an angler’s paradise. These waters provide a home to a number of sportfish including brook trout, lake trout, whitefish, muskie, northern pike, and a number of others. In addition to the waters of Lake Superior, Isle Royale National Park also contains several other inland lakes where anglers can fish for a number of species. Anglers wishing to fish in either the waters of Lake Superior or the inland lakes of Isle Royale must first obtain a valid Michigan state fishing license. These anglers should also be familiar with and follow all state freshwater fishing rules and regulations.

Paddle Your Kayak or Canoe

A canoe or kayak is the perfect way to explore the waters of Lake Superior and gain an additional perspective on the beauty and uniqueness of Isle Royale National Park. Visitors hoping to kayak or canoe the waters of Isle Royale can either transport their own watercraft via ferry for a small fee or rent a kayak or canoe from the ferry service. Either way once you have your watercraft on the island, you can start planning your trip. Not only does Isle Royale mark and maintain several portages across the island to help kayakers and canoers navigate the backcountry, but the park also contains several lakeside campsites designated for visitors on overnight kayak and canoe trips. These campsites and particular float routes can be explored further at the park’s visitor center. Park rangers are a good resource when planning such a trip.

Wildlife Viewing in Isle Royale National Park

Visitors interested in the wildlife of Isle Royale National Park stand a good chance of seeing a variety of mammals and other species. Mammals such as timber wolves, moose, coyotes, rabbits, squirrels, beavers, red foxes, and otters all inhabit the island. Visitors may also spot avian species such as migrating ducks and waterfowl and a variety of woodland songbirds. Isle Royale National Park also provides a home to a number of amphibian and reptilian species including the American toad and the western painted turtle. 

When to Visit Isle Royale National Park

Individuals interested in planning a trip to Isle Royale National Park can do so throughout the park’s open season which begins in mid-April and ends in early November. The best time to visit the park is in late July when temperatures are the most conducive to outdoor recreation and the mosquitoes have died off. Rain and thunderstorms are common throughout the year in Isle Royale National Park, but visitors deciding to visit the park in August or September will most likely experience the most rain. Wildlife in the park is the most active during late April and the month of May when temperatures are beginning to warm.

Sunrise View of Coast of Isle Royale National Park Michigan

Must Have Items to Bring to the Park

Every national park adventure requires a specialized set of equipment and supplies. However, a trip to Isle Royale National Park must be prepared for differently. Since visitors can only arrive on the island via seaplane or ferry, space is limited, and all of their supplies will need to be carried with them. Below, List of Parks highlights equipment and supplies you should consider bringing with you to the national park. 

Water and High Energy Snacks

Water is always a necessity. High energy snacks are an important supply to consider bringing with you to the national park. These snacks will come in handy after a long day on the trail or otherwise recreating throughout the park.

Rain Gear

All visitors arriving at Isle Royale should be equipped and prepared for rainy, cold, and wet conditions. A lightweight rain jacket and rain pants are a great addition to anyone's backpack.

Layers of Clothing

The temperatures of Isle Royale National Park can change suddenly throughout the day. Visitors arriving on the island should be equipped with several layers to combat a variety of temperatures and conditions.

Sturdy Hiking Boots

A strong and sturdy pair of hiking boots will be your best friend during your trip to Isle Royale National Park. Walking and hiking are the main forms of transportation on the island, and a sturdy pair of hiking boots will help you be comfortable and safe during your entire trip.

Recreation Equipment

Are you planning to camp, fish, or kayak while at the park? If so, you will want to pack all of this equipment and bring it along with you on the ferry or seaplane you are using to reach the island.

Lighthouse at Isle Royale National Park

Where to Stay in Isle Royale National Park

Isle Royale National Park contains a variety of campsites suited for visitors planning to stay within the front country, and visitors planning to complete a longer backpacking excursion or float trip. All overnight stays in Isle Royale National Park require visitors to obtain a free camping permit from the park's visitor centers.

Food Near Isle Royale National Park

Isle Royale National Park contains a few camp stores which carry cold sandwiches, snacks, drinks, and other supplies. The park also manages a restaurant within the Rock Harbor Lodge. The Greenstone Dining Room contains a full menu.

Airports Near Isle Royale National Park

The closest airport to Isle Royale National Park is the Houghton County Memorial Airport. The closest international airport is located in Duluth, Michigan about a five-hour drive away from Houghton.

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