9 Best Things to Do at Isle Royale National Park

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Isle Royale National Park, Michigan (Photo Credit: Flickr - thumbwind)
Isle Royale National Park, Michigan | Photo Credit: Flickr - thumbwind
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Located on a remote island in Lake Superior north of Michigan’s desolate Keweenaw Peninsula, Isle Royale National Park is home to over 165 miles of hiking trails and a great place to experience nature. From its rugged shorelines to tranquil forests, this often forgotten National Park will bring out your inner adventurer. Visitors can explore the park that protects over 132,000 acres of wilderness including its diverse wildlife. Explore these top things to do during your visit and the best ways to get to this amazing destination. 

*Note: There are only two transportation methods to get to the island: by boat or seaplane.

Seaplane at Isle Royale National Park, Michigan (Photo Credit: Flickr - daveynin)
Seaplane at Isle Royale National Park, Michigan | Photo Credit: Flickr – daveynin

1. Check in at a Visitor Center

Isle Royale has two main visitor centers, Rock Harbor and Windigo, that both offer a wealth of resources to enhance your park experience. At these well-equipped facilities, you can find a variety of informational brochures and exhibits that delve into the island’s intriguing history, geology, and wildlife. Knowledgeable park rangers are on-site at both centers to answer questions and provide recommendations to help you make the most of your visit. Joining one of the ranger-led programs is a great way to gain fascinating insights from experienced staff equipped to educate you on everything from moose behavior to island geology while exploring Isle Royale’s magnificent landscapes and inhabitants firsthand. With helpful amenities, knowledgeable staff, and engaging programs, the Rock Harbor and Windigo Visitor Centers will ensure an enriching and memorable experience.

2. Go Wildlife Watching

Home to moose, wolves, beavers and so much more, Isle Royale National Park is a wilderness paradise offering abundant opportunities to see a wide variety of wildlife in their untouched natural habitats. Majestic moose, with their enormous antlers, can be spotted grazing on aquatic vegetation near the island’s countless pristine lakes. Packs of gray wolves, with their distinctive howls, roam the dense forests hunting for prey. Skillful beavers, with their flat tails, busily construct complex dams and lodges throughout the park’s many winding waterways. In addition to these iconic species, keep an eye out for other animals like fox, otters, martens, and bald eagles that also call this isolated island home. For your best chance at observing these creatures in their natural environments, check in with knowledgeable park rangers before your visit or once you arrive about taking part in ranger-led programs. These immersive programs will provide fascinating insights into the daily lives of Isle Royale’s wild residents. By joining a ranger-led adventure, you’ll learn more about the island’s captivating inhabitants and make unforgettable memories surrounded by breathtaking wilderness.

Moose Swimming at Isle Royale National Park, Michigan (Photo Credit: National Park Service)
Moose Swimming at Isle Royale National Park, Michigan | Photo Credit: National Park Service

3. See Lighthouses

Isle Royale National Park is home to four historic lighthouses that have served as crucial navigational aids for passing ships on the notoriously unpredictable waters of Lake Superior. Due to the island’s treacherous rocky shores and the lake’s frequent dense fog, powerful winds, and violent storms, maritime traffic needs protection that only lighthouses can provide. Of the four lighthouses, three remain in operation today: Isle Royale Light, Rock of Ages Light, and Passage Island Light. Isle Royale Light, first lit in 1874, stands tall on the island’s northeastern tip, its bright beacon and foghorn warning vessels away from hazardous reefs during rough weather. At the southwest end, Rock of Ages Light has guided ships clear of Isle Royale’s rocky western coast since 1908. Meanwhile, Passage Island Light, accessible only by boat, marks a notoriously narrow shipping lane that has been there since 1882. The fourth lighthouse, Rock Harbor Light, was deactivated in 1879 and replaced by a newer tower, but this original landmark still stands watch over scenic Rock Harbor. The stoic endurance of these four sentinels, through the most vicious storms and darkest nights, is a testament to their vital role in protecting sailors on Lake Superior for over a century. Their shining lights continue to provide hope to passing captains and confidence to navigate these unforgiving waters.

4. Spend the Night

Rock Harbor Lighthouse, Isle Royale National Park, Michigan (Photo Credit: Flickr - Midwest National Parks)
Rock Harbor Lighthouse, Isle Royale National Park, Michigan | Photo Credit: Flickr – Midwest National Parks

Given its remote island location and wealth of wilderness to explore, Isle Royale National Park offers several accommodations so visitors can fully experience its magic for more than a day. Outdoor enthusiasts can pitch a tent at one of the park’s secluded campgrounds and sleep under the stars, lulled by loon calls. Or unwind after a long hike in the cozy, rustic Windigo Camper Cabins, perfect for a back-to-nature overnight stay. For more amenities, Rock Harbor Lodge provides exceptional lakeside lodging. After a delicious meal at the lodge, guests can relax on the expansive porch overlooking scenic Rock Harbor. With 165 miles of trails to trek and abundant wildlife to witness in Isle Royale’s pristine environment, one day is simply not enough. Camping out under the island’s dark night skies or staying at the lodges allows you to experience Isle Royale to the fullest, creating memories to last a lifetime. As the ferries depart each evening, the island’s crowds dissipate, leaving behind just a handful of lucky overnight visitors. If you have the time, spending a night (or two, or three!) immersed in this national park paradise is an ideal way to discover the magic of Isle Royale.

5. Go Fishing

With its abundance of pristine waters teeming with fish, Isle Royale National Park is a premier destination for anglers in search of a trophy catch. Skilled fishermen flock to the island’s countless inland lakes and ponds, which offer outstanding opportunities to reel in plentiful species like northern pike, brook trout, and yellow perch. No fishing license is required for these small bodies of water, though certain regulations on size limits and catch numbers help maintain healthy fish populations. For the ultimate fishing challenge, avid anglers head out onto the big waters of vast Lake Superior to try their luck at hooking mighty lake trout, coho salmon, and steelhead. A valid Michigan fishing license is mandatory when casting lines off the park’s rocky coastline or from a boat on Lake Superior. But the reward is well worth the extra license fee, as this expansive freshwater sea can yield monster fish reaching over 30 pounds! Whether fishing the protected coves of Rock Harbor, trolling open water, or fly fishing along gurgling creeks, Isle Royale serves up endless ways to land the catch of a lifetime. After filleting the day’s bounty, grill up a fresh shoreline dinner under the stars – the perfect ending to a day of fishing in paradise.

6. Go Diving to Some of the 10 Shipwrecks

Beneath the frigid waves of Lake Superior surrounding Isle Royale, divers can explore 10 historic shipwrecks spanning over 70 years of maritime disasters. These sunken vessels now provide unique diving opportunities for intrepid adventurers willing to brave the lake’s dangerously cold waters. However, these advanced dives are only for experienced divers equipped with specialized gear to safely descend well below the lake’s surface, where temperatures hover between 34-50 degrees Fahrenheit. The remote island location allows little margin for error or chance of emergency assistance. The dangerous conditions demand proper training, equipment, preparation and caution. For those bold enough to take the plunge, diving Isle Royale’s shipwrecks offers the opportunity to explore these time capsules of Great Lakes maritime history. While risky and requiring expertise, facing the challenge yields immense rewards through once-in-a-lifetime encounters with Superior’s sunken stories and ghosts from the past.

Isle Royale National Park, Michigan (Photo Credit: Wikipedia - MDuchek)
Isle Royale National Park, Michigan | Photo Credit: Wikipedia – MDuchek

7. Hike the Island

Isle Royale National Park is a hiking paradise, with dozens of wilderness trails winding through its lush forests and along its rugged shorelines. The most renowned of these footpaths is the breathtaking 40-mile Greenstone Ridge Trail, which traverses the entire length of the island from Windigo to Rock Harbor. This demanding multi-day trek follows the rocky spine of Isle Royale, allowing hikers to immerse themselves in the island’s remote interior. The trail meanders through spectacular terrain, from exposed ridgelines with panoramic views of Lake Superior to verdant valleys dotted with mirror-like lakes and ponds. Along the way, established backcountry campsites offer spots to pitch a tent and spend the night under the stars after a long day’s hike. The payoff comes when completing the final steep ascent to the summit of Mount Desor, the island’s highest peak rising 1,394 feet above sea level. Witnessing sunrise or sunset from this unforgettable vantage point is for many the crowning moment of their Greenstone Ridge journey. For those seeking Isle Royale’s ultimate wilderness experience, conquering the entire Greenstone Ridge Trail over 5-8 days provides an adventure of a lifetime and memories that will last far longer than sore muscles.

8. Bring Out Your Inner Photographer

This breathtaking island has been specially dedicated to be a natural preserve, offering amazing and unique opportunities for spectacular photography. Capturing a one-of-a-kind snapshot of the island’s raw, untouched beauty is a photographer’s dream. As the sun slowly sinks towards Lake Superior’s glittering horizon each evening, brilliant hues of orange, pink, and purple fill the sky, creating the perfect backdrop for an iconic sunset photo. If wildlife is your subject, stealthy moose can be spotted meandering through woodland meadows, their impressive antlers towering above the tall grass. And if you’re lucky, you may hear the haunting howls of gray wolves echoing through the island’s dense forests as they communicate with their pack. With its diversity of landscapes from rocky ridges to secluded bays, Isle Royale provides no shortage of picture-perfect scenes. So bring your best camera gear and get ready to capture once-in-a-lifetime images of this national park’s breathtaking vistas and fascinating creatures in their natural habitat. Those looking for unique photographic opportunities will find them in abundance on this island sanctuary.

9. Explore the Lost Edisen Fishery

Nestled along the shores of Isle Royale National Park stands a unique historic site known as the Edisen Fishery, which remains as a glimpse into the island’s past. From 1910 to 1975, this small family-run fishing operation was a humble yet productive business. The Edisens, a hardy clan that lived on the island year-round, constructed a number of simple wooden buildings to support their livelihood. At the heart of the fishery was the weathered fish house, where catches of whitefish, trout, and herring were cleaned and prepared to ship to mainland markets. Nearby stand a few small cabins, once cozy homes for the fishing family during long cold winters. Even a miniature chicken coop remains, which provided eggs and poultry for the isolated island inhabitants. The historic buildings sit amid serene surroundings, with the gentle lap of Lake Superior against the rocky shoreline. Today, hikers exploring the island’s inland trails can take a short scenic detour to the Edisen Fishery, stepping back in time to envision what daily life was like for this hardworking family carving out an existence through fishing Isle Royale’s bountiful waters. The fishery serves as a living monument to a bygone era.

Edisen Fishery at Isle Royale National Park, Michigan (Photo Credit Wikipedia - William Wadas)
Edisen Fishery at Isle Royale National Park, Michigan | Photo Credit: Wikipedia – William Wadas

Conclusion

With its remote location in the cold waters of Lake Superior, Isle Royale National Park offers opportunities for adventure, solitude, and connecting with nature that are increasingly rare in today’s hectic world. A visit to this national park jewel truly feels like an escape to another world – a world of winding forest trails, mysterious shipwrecks, hardy wildlife, and scenic lakeside shelters. The island provides endless possibilities for wilderness exploration, whether hiking the breathtaking Greenstone Ridge trail, fishing for salmon in secluded coves, or photographing the island’s many creatures in their natural habitat. Camping under the stars or staying in the historic lodges allows you to fully immerse yourself in Isle Royale’s magic. Though the remote island has limited access, those who make the effort will be rewarded with memories to last a lifetime. If you crave simplicity, beauty, and adventure, Isle Royale National Park deserves a spot at the top of your travel bucket list. Once there, you may never want to leave this island paradise.

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