Things to do in Isle Royale National Park: All the Details on the Least Visited Park in the Lower 48

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First, we must answer the burning question. Is Isle Royale National Park worth visiting? Let me tell you… We would absolutely recommend a visit to Isle Royale, but you must be prepared for what you’ll experience on the island.

Those who come unprepared to this remote terrain will most likely not have a positive experience. It could even turn dangerous. Well-prepared visitors, however, should prepare for a wonderful time unplugged with no cell phone service, modern amenities, or distractions.

Although Isle Royale is one of the more difficult parks to reach in the lower 48, it is 100% worth the visit. Your visit will require some effort, as there is no major airport close by. You’ll most likely be driving for a few hours to reach the ferry or seaplane docks in Houghton, Copper Harbor, or Grand Portage.

This park is also the least visited National Park in the lower 48. Part of this may be due to the shortened visiting season. Isle Royale closes down to visitors during the winter because of dangerous conditions out on Lake Superior.

Isle Royale National Park Packing List

When planning a visit to this national park, you’ll need to plan to be self-sufficient for your stay. While there is a lodge and a visitor center, you should not rely on them for your every need. The lodge does have a restaurant on-site, but it is only open during peak summer months.

While backpackers and campers will have more gear than day hikers, you should come prepared with an extra day’s worth of food and gear. While every effort is made to ensure that each trip, whether by ferry or seaplane, goes without delay, sometimes Lake Superior weather changes plans.

In a worst-case scenario, it is possible that you may have to spend an extra night on the island.

There are a few specific things we’d recommend having in your pack on your visit to Isle Royale. These include:

Things to do in Isle Royale National Park

There aren’t many creature comforts in Isle Royale, so this park may not be one that every person visits for long stretches of time. There are options for those who wish to only visit for the day, and there is a lodge in Rock Harbor if you need a solid roof over your head at night.

The island is an untouched and unspoiled natural getaway for those willing to immerse themselves in the beauty. It’s also a science experiment, in the interaction between the resident moose and wolves. Whether you’re looking for solace or adventure, you’ll find it here at Isle Royale National Park.

The rocky shoreline against Lake Superior on Isle Royale

Hiking in the national park

Hiking is the main activity on the island. There are certainly day hiking options for those staying at the Rock Harbor Lodge, but the best way to see the island is to backpack into the backcountry.

A great option for a day hike is to head out to Scoville Point. Also known as the Stoll Memorial Trail, you’ll find interpretive signs dotted along the way where you can learn about the history, geology, and wildlife of Isle Royale. When planning the distance for this trail, there are 3 options, including 1.9, 3.2, or 4.2-mile loops.

Heading in the opposite direction, you can also hike to Suzy’s Cave along the Rock Harbor Trail and Tobin Harbor Trail. The distance of this hike is 3.8 miles, and you’ll get to enjoy up close and personal views of Lake Superior for a good part of the hike.

You can combine Suzy’s Cave with a loop on a stretch of the Greenstone Ridge Trail. This trail is the most common one used to travel from Windigo to Rock Harbor, and the views from the top are stunning. This is certainly a longer and more strenuous option, so you’ll want to make sure you are physically prepared to tackle this one.

If you are only on the island for one day on the Windigo side, you can hike to the Minong Ridge or Grace Creek Overlook. The Minong Ridge Trail is the more rugged of the two thru-hike options, but both of these overlooks also provide stunning views.

Fall hiking among the changing leaves on Isle Royale

Check out old mine entrances

Isle Royale National Park has a rich copper mining history, so if you do much hiking around the island, you will most likely come across deep pits in the ground that used to be mining entrances.

While what is left at these sites is a little less exciting than the historical enterprise, there are informational boards near some of the more commonly visited. The boards provide a look into the hustle and bustle during the peak of the mining industry on the island.

Now, the areas are marked off with rustic wooden fencing. The entrances are deep! You wouldn’t want to wander into one of those pits!

While these can be quick stops along the trail, you can imagine the conditions those miners were working under out on unpredictable Lake Superior.

You can find these along the Stoll Memorial Trail, near Suzy’s Cave, and also over on the Windigo side of the island.

Old mine entrances are surrounded by wooden fences to help prevent mishaps

Wildlife watching

While the wildlife residing in Isle Royale might not be as diverse as some of the other national parks, you have the chance to see some elusive creatures, large and small.

Moose and wolves are the two headliner creatures in the park, and their interactions have been studied for many years in the contained island environment. Don’t get your hopes up, though, on seeing a wolf.

They typically stay far, far away from areas where people visit. You might, however, cross paths with some of the island’s resident moose population.

Catch them roaming in the woods, wading in the water, or even just grazing near campgrounds.

Other animals you may come across while exploring Isle Royale include beavers, foxes, other small mammals & rodents, numerous bird species, turtles, and others.

A moose wading in an inland lake on Isle Royale

Canoeing & kayaking

While hiking and backpacking are very popular on the island, there are plenty of campsites that can’t be reached by a trail. Some are only reachable by water!

You’ll need to have a route planned ahead of time and plan to stay in the interior waters rather than venturing out on Lake Superior, especially in a smaller vessel. Lake Superior conditions can change quite quickly and become treacherous.

Rentals are available at both Rock Harbor and Windigo, and service is provided by the Rock Harbor Lodge.


Fishing is an extremely popular Isle Royale activity both recreationally and as a source of dinner!

Both Lake Superior and the many inland lakes are options for fishing. Be sure to check current water advisories prior to your trip, or check with the visitor center upon arrival for current conditions.

Even though Isle Royale is protected as a national park, water contamination issues can sometimes be an issue. Mercury levels and cyanobacteria algae blooms can both pose risks making consumption dangerous in certain areas.

If you do plan to do any fishing in Lake Superior, a Michigan fishing license is required. If staying in the inland waterways to fish, no permit is required.

Take a boat tour to a lighthouse

From the Rock Harbor Lodge office, you can take a guided tour aboard the MV Sandy to visit various locations on Isle Royale. The tour you are able to take depends on the day of your visit.

On certain days, tours travel to the Passage Island Lighthouse and on opposite days to the Rock Harbor Lighthouse.

There is some hiking involved in these tours, too. To the Passage Island Lighthouse, you’ll have to cover 2 miles, while it is only 1/4 mile to the Rock Harbor Lighthouse.

There is a surcharge for these tours. If you wish to take a particular tour, be sure to check the days on which the tours are offered prior to finalizing your dates!

Scuba Diving

While this is not an activity for the inexperienced, Isle Royale is a destination for experienced divers who enjoy exploring shipwrecks. There are 10 known major shipwrecks in these waters, and this park is home to the most intact shipwreck sites in the entire national parks system.

You will certainly need to be prepared if planning to dive in Lake Superior. The waters are extremely cold compared to other lakes, with the surface temperatures rarely going above 55 degrees Fahrenheit and even colder at greater depths.

Isle Royale is remote, so any medical facilities are very far away, should you need life-saving care. Know your limits and abilities, and come prepared with all of the gear and equipment you may need.

Isle Royale Charters offers dive trips, but you must be certified and experienced ahead of time, and you must also bring your own equipment.

How to Get to Isle Royale

sea plane dock at Rock Harbor, Isle Royale National Park

There are three options for transportation across Lake Superior. These options include:

  • Ferry
  • Seaplane
  • Private boat

We recommend booking early to secure your spot on any of these transportation options, as there are a limited number of seats and a limited number of trips to the island.

Ferry Transportation

There are three spots where you can pick up a ferry to get to Isle Royale. Two can be found in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and one on the North Shore of Minnesota. The ride times from the Michigan spots are longer, but all ferries do book up quickly.

You’ll want to book your visit as soon as possible to secure your seats. Otherwise, you may not have a ride to the island. Take note of gear limitations. Extra charges may apply for extra baggage weight, kayaks, canoes, or other boats.

Certain ferry routes, along the Ranger III and Voyageur II, can make stops at some of the other campgrounds on the island if you’d prefer to begin your adventures at a different location. With over 150 miles of hiking trails on the island, there is so much to explore.

Ferry NameDeparture
Destination(s)Travel Time
(One Way)
Cost (Adults)Bag WeightBoat Transport?
Ranger IIIHoughton,
Rock Harbor or Windigo6 hrs$70 one way100 lbsYes (up to 20′)
Queen IVCopper Harbor,
Rock Harbor3.5-4 hrs$135-
$150 RT
70 lbsOnly canoe/kayak
Voyageur IIGrand Portage,
Rock Harbor or Windigo2 hrs (W)
7-8 hrs (RH)
$81 (W)
one way
40 lbsOnly canoe/kayak
Seahunter IIIGrand Portage,
Windigo1.5 hrs$81 one way40 lbsOnly canoe/kayak
Ferry Transportation Details (2022 Season)

Ranger III departing from Houghton, Michigan

The ride aboard the Ranger III is the longest ferry ride of any option to get to Isle Royale. It is also the cheapest!

If you’d like to take a small boat, up to 20 feet in length, on the ferry, this is the one you’ll have to take. It is the only ferry to offer this transport service of boats larger than those canoes or kayaks.

Typically, trips go out from Houghton every other day and return on odd days. The trip is just too long to make in one day.

When preparing for this trek to the island, you’ll want to be prepared with motion sickness remedies. The Lake Superior waters can be quite rough, and motion sickness can come on quickly. This is a long ride! Prepare ahead of time so that you don’t have to spend the majority of the 6-hour ride miserable.

Over-the-counter remedies include things like sea-bands, natural ginger, and Dramamine. If you are more prone to motion sickness, you may want to talk to your doctor ahead of your travels to discuss prescription remedies.

Queen IV departing from Copper Harbor, Michigan

Departing from the northernmost part of the upper peninsula of Michigan, the Keweenaw Peninsula, the Queen IV offers trips most days from Copper Harbor.

There are peak and off-peak seasons, and the days on which service is offered depend on the time of year. Don’t hesitate to contact the ferry provider directly to confirm the operating dates. You don’t want to be stranded!

The trip is about 55 miles in length, and it does not take quite as much time as the other Michigan departure ferry.

Canoes and kayaks can be transported on the Queen IV with advance reservations to ensure there is space.

Voyageur II or Seahunter III departing from Grand Portage, Minnesota

When departing from the Minnesota docks, the main thing to keep in mind is that both the Seahunter and Voyageur ferries run on Central Time. The island of Isle Royale runs on Eastern Time. The best way to keep on track is to just keep yourself on central time while on the island.

Really, the exact time in the backcountry doesn’t matter anyway!

Trips from Grand Portage to Windigo are the shortest way to reach Isle Royale by ferry and are typically 2 hours or less, weather depending. These smaller ferries can’t accommodate as much baggage, though.

If you’re planning to bring along a kayak or canoe, both of these can be transported on these ferries. Advanced reservations are recommended to ensure they have enough space for all of your gear, and surcharges do apply.

To the Windigo side of the island, taking the Seahunter III makes a day trip possible.

The Voyageur II, though, takes a route the entire way around the island. If you want to see all sides, this is one way to do it.

Isle Royale Seaplanes

A quicker but more expensive option for transportation to and from the island is via seaplane from Houghton, Michigan, or Grand Marais, Minnesota.

Isle Royale Seaplanes offers daily flights, weather permitting.

No matter your origin or final destination, the trip from the mainland to the island is typically less than an hour long.

The views upon arrival to Isle Royale are breathtaking. If you have the chance to take in this view, it is definitely worth the extra cash. Multiple trips are made per day from each location, but weather can be a factor.

Plan to have an extra day’s worth of food just in case there is inclement weather and the seaplanes are not able to fly. There is a 50 lb. baggage limit per person on the seaplanes.

Transportation of fuel canisters for your camping stoves is not permitted on seaplanes. You will need to arrange to get these ahead of time with the seaplane provider, and they can be ready and waiting for you upon arrival on the island. Just let them know when you book if you’ll need fuel.

view of Isle Royale National Park from sea plane

Private Boat Transportation

The final option to reach the island is via a private boat. There are docks around the island for you to park and campgrounds where you can do this, too.

Be sure to obtain all of your permits ahead of time.

This can be the most expensive option, but it does allow you to arrive when you want and make your own itinerary. While this is only an option for some visitors, it is an option, nonetheless.

Camping in Isle Royale: What You Need to Know

If you’re not staying in the Rock Harbor Lodge or the Windigo Cabins, then camping is your only other option! There are plenty of campgrounds to choose from, all with their benefits and drawbacks.

If you’re planning to backpack the island, you’ll probably get to see at least a few of the campgrounds and decide for yourself.

Some campgrounds have shelters available, but the number of shelters is varied at each campground. You’re more likely to find shelters at the larger, more frequently used campgrounds like Rock Harbor and Daisy Farm. Try to arrive earlier in the day to secure one for your use for the night!

A wooden sided camp shelter in Isle Royale National Park
Shelter #10, Daisy Farm Campground

When you arrive on the island, you’ll want to have a rough idea of your planned itinerary. You will be required to inform the rangers at the visitor center prior to your departure. While this itinerary is not set in stone, park staff uses this information in case of emergency as well as to keep track of overall park usage.

One great thing about camping on Isle Royale is that you won’t need to worry about bears. There aren’t any on the island! You won’t need to haul around a bear canister. However, there are smaller animals who are not afraid to scavenge for food, including squirrels and foxes. Do not leave your food out or unattended!

The most important thing to remember when camping or recreating in national parks and any other public (or private, for that matter) lands is to LEAVE NO TRACE! Be respectful. If you pack it in, pack it out. 

Naturehike Cloudup 2 Backpacking tent at a campsite on Isle Royale National Park without the rainfly

We loved backpacking on Isle Royale and summarized one of our experiences previously.
Read about one of our experiences backpacking at Isle Royale National Park.

Best Time to Visit Isle Royale

There are a few things you should know when planning your trip and considering which time of year you’ll travel.

First, the park is not open during the winter months, typically from November through mid-April. The conditions can be very dangerous out in the middle of Lake Superior, so routine visits are not permitted.

Spring brings snowmelt and with that plenty of mud. Everything greens up, but rain is also frequent. While Lake Superior is always cold, it feels absolutely freezing in the springtime. You won’t be taking any dips in the lake during springtime.

July and August are the busiest months on the island because the weather is at its best.

Early fall can be unpredictable. Some days bring cold temperatures, stormy skies, and strong winds. Others feel just like those warm summer days in July and August. Come prepared for any weather during these months, and you will be rewarded with less crowded trails.

In conclusion, Isle Royale National Park is a beautiful place where you can enjoy nature where you can unplug, and get away from huge crowds.

There are many activities available for visitors, from hiking to fishing to canoeing. Catch a glimpse of the park’s resident moose population or watch a beaver out for its morning swim.

Whether you’re looking for solitude or adventure, Isle Royale has it all.