Isle Royale National Park is the least visited National Park in the continental US and the most revisited, percentage-wise, at least according to the ranger giving us our welcome briefing. It didn’t take long for us to see why.
While a day trip to the island park is possible, I’d suggest an overnight stay on Isle Royale at a minimum. Getting to Isle Royale (pronounced “royal”) isn’t easy. At a bare minimum, you are looking at a several hour drive just to get from the nearest major airport to a port where you can catch a ferry to the island. The ports are small and lack a lot. Once you get on the ferry, it takes about 2-3 hours at a minimum to cross 50+ miles of Lake Superior.
We chose to take the ferry out of Copper Harbor, get in a couple of day hikes, stay the night in the lodge and head back the next day. The lodge is costly and the restaurants aren’t exactly cheap either.
The reward? One of the most remote and pristine national parks we have ever seen and we just got to see the small peninsula where the lodge is.
We are already itching to plan a return visit to spend more time hiking the island. We might even decide to backpack the length of the island. The whole area is gorgeous and we loved every minute of our visit.
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Rock Harbor is the hub of activity for the eastern end of the island. It is here you will find the lodge, which is the only hotel on the island. You will also find a couple of restaurants, a convenience store with snacks, a very small visitor center, an amphitheater for ranger programs, a few boat slips for private boats and that’s about it.
It’s refreshing. While you will occasionally hear an outboard engine or the whine of the floatplane landing in Tobin Harbor on the other side of the peninsula, most of the time you will hear quiet.
We spent most of our time in Rock Harbor smiling. It was really easy to enjoy sitting out in the cool sun, sipping on a beer and listening to the ebb of the lake.
Day Hiking From Rock Harbor
There are three-day hikes from Rock Harbor, two covering about 4 miles and one about 10 miles. We opted to hike both of the shorter hikes but, in hindsight, I think we easily could have taken the longer hike to Mount Franklin on the afternoon we arrived. If you do that hike right, it will cover everything the Suzy’s Cave hike covers.
A note on hiking in Isle Royale: be prepared. Lake Superior surrounds Isle Royale. As has been impressed upon us numerous times, Lake Superior is basically an inland sea. The weather can change quickly and without much warning.
“Those who have never seen Superior get an inadequate, even inaccurate idea by hearing of it spoken as a lake… though its waters are fresh and crystal, Superior is a sea. It breeds storms and rain and fog like the sea… It is wild, masterful and dreaded…”-Rev George Grant, Sanford Fleming Expedition
While the day hikes we took are relatively short, we have seen the fog roll in off Lake Superior quickly and thickly even with a bright blue sky above.
Also, like the rest of this area, make sure you bring Deep Woods Off, or some other sort of bug spray, with you for the mosquitos. They are particularly voracious. There are no ticks on the island, though.
The hike out to Scoville Point along the Stoll Memorial Trail is relatively easy. The Park Service advertises this as a 4.2-mile hike. My Apple Watch said the hike is 4.95 miles. Still, we spent a bit more than two hours hiking this trail.
In terms of both views and wildlife, this hike was easily our favorite. The rocky coast is gorgeous and there are plenty of views on your way. We saw a large number of moose tracks and droppings along the way, indicating to us that this is prime moose habitat. Sadly, we didn’t spot any moose on the trail.
We did see a fox along the way. Our presence did not bother the fox at all. While he didn’t particularly want to pose for the camera, he seemed relaxed around us. The ranger had warned us some of the foxes on the island could be a bit mischievous and would steal from campers.
Alas, our search for moose was not in vain. On the way back into Rock Harbor, we encountered a bull moose hanging out right by the path to the bathrooms! Bonnie was thrilled! Seeing a moose was one of her big goals for this trip. This guy was completely content to munch on greens while we snapped quite a few pictures.
Pro Tip: Take the Tobin Harbor section (left side from the lodge) out and return on the lakeside to end with more spectacular views.
The Park Service bills the hike to Suzy’s Cave as a 3.8-mile loop. Since we got up early and had plenty of time, even after a hearty breakfast, we extended our hike out to Three Mile Camp. The extension made it a 6.7-mile loop. It took us just shy of 3 hours.
We made a point to hike out on the Tobin Harbor side and hike back on the Lake Superior side, which made for a little bit of rockiness on the way back. Still, it wasn’t bad and we had a good pace. The views on the way back more than made up for the rockiness.
If we had a bit more time, we might have just turned right and headed up to Mount Franklin instead of looping toward Three Mile Camp. It would have added about 3.2 miles and a 1,000-foot elevation gain to the hike.
On the way back, we stopped at Suzy’s Cave, an inland sea arch leftover from a time when Lake Superior was much higher. The cave was interesting but nothing spectacular. The real thing to get excited about on this hike are the views and the chance to spot some wildlife.
While we didn’t see any moose, we did see some tracks and droppings, though not as much as the trail out to Scoville Point. We did see a loon with a chick out in Tobin Harbor, which was cool. Other folks who had hiked the trail the day before did see a moose out in Tobin Harbor.
Were I to only do one of the two hikes, I would definitely choose the hike out to Scoville Point. While Suzy’s Cave was cool, the views on the Scoville Point hike were a lot better. Still, both are worth your time and you never know what critters you might spot on any given day.
Staying in the Rock Harbor Lodge
When we arrived at Rock Harbor, we grabbed our bags and headed to the Rock Harbor Lodge office. The lodge did not have our room ready. So, we dropped off our overnight bags at the office and headed out to hike.
When we got back from Scoville Point, our room was ready. We headed over to the Chippewa Building for our room. The room was spartan but comfy. The room had two full beds, a dresser and a desk, along with a couple of chairs and a small table.
A radiator sat in the corner which did provide heat but rattled like a pack of energetic toddlers armed with pots and pans. There is no air conditioning and one of the couples we met on the trip said their room was pretty stuffy when they got in. Ours was not but we still opened the windows to let in the breeze off the lake.
The bathroom was cramped by modern hotel standards but was perfectly adequate.
The real winning feature of the room was the balcony. Oh, wow, what a view! The lodge buildings are right on the lake, meaning you are looking right out on the water.
We were more than content following our hike to just sit out on the balcony and read, enjoying a tasty Nolan the Wanderer IPA.
If you are with a group or need a quiet place to hang out outside of your room, the lodge does have a guest lounge with a nice deck overlooking the lake.
When we parked the truck and camper, the guy collecting money for parking said sleeping at the lodge would be the best night’s sleep we ever had. He was not wrong. Leaving the windows open to the sound of the lake lapping against the shore just outside plus the fresh air made for one of the best night’s sleep I have had in years.
Isle Royale Restaurants
The two restaurants, the Lighthouse Restaurant and the Greenstone Grill are located in the same building, separated by a door. The Lighthouse is intended to be more fine dining and the Greenstone Grill is more of a tavern. That said, there is not a significant difference other than the menu.
We ate dinner at the Lighthouse and it was quite good and reasonably priced for the location. That’s not to say it was cheap but it was comparable to other restaurants we have eaten at in other national parks and island towns. I had pork tenderloins and Bonnie had the Lake Trout fillet. Both were tasty, as was the blueberry cobbler we had for dessert.
We ate breakfast at the Greenstone Grill and were not impressed. While the omelets we had were ok, I actually ordered a skillet. The restaurant seemed horribly understaffed and our meals took quite a while to get. A couple of Park Service volunteers had to pay and get their breakfast to go because it was taking too long.
We returned to the Greenstone Grill for a couple of beers after our hike. We found the service out on the patio remained poor later in the day, so we decided to grab a couple of drinks and hearty snacks from the convenience store for lunch.
Pro tip: the convenience store had cheap pints of beer in cans plus some hearty snacks.
We were glad to grab a $2 pint of Leinenkugel Summer Shandy and a bag of meat sticks for a cheap lunch on the guest lounge patio. What a perfect way to spend the last couple of hours on the island.
Getting to Isle Royale National Park
There are three harbors you can sail from to get to Rock Harbor: Copper Harbor and Houghton on the Keweenaw Peninsula on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan or Grand Portage in the far northeast corner of Minnesota. You can also fly a floatplane from either Houghton or Grand Marais, MN. Where you should catch the ferry really depends on where you are going on Isle Royale.
If you are headed to Rock Harbor, where the lodge is located, you’ll likely want to sail from Copper Harbor. The ferry from Copper Harbor to Rock Harbor is shorter than from Houghton or Grand Portage. This gave us the most possible time on the island for a one night stay.
For those going to Windigo, on the west end of the island, your best option is to take the ferry from Grand Portage. This is best for backpackers and those only doing a day trip since services are extremely limited at Windigo. From Windigo, you could hike the length of the island to Rock Harbor then take the return trip back to Grand Portage, since that ferry docks at both harbors. Of course, you can also just do a round trip between Grand Portage and Windigo.
I would not use Grand Portage to an overnight trip to Rock Harbor. While the ferry takes about 3 hours to get to Windigo, it takes another 5 hours to get to Rock Harbor, chewing up a lot of time your time on the island. And I really don’t understand why anyone would take the 6-hour ferry from Houghton but it is the largest ferry and sounds like it’s probably the nicest. The ferry from Houghton can transport small boats, allowing you to take your own kayak.
Regardless of where you catch the ferry, there are other national park sites nearby that you can visit before or after your visit to Isle Royale NP.
Keweenaw National Historical Park
The Keweenaw Peninsula is where you will find Houghton and Copper Harbor. People have been mining copper on the peninsula for 7,000 years. By the 1870s, this area was one of the top producers of copper in the world. The Keweenaw National Historical Park helps preserved this legacy.
Partner organizations run the park for the most part. There are two units, the Calumet Unit and the Quincy Unit. The Calumet Unit preserves a few buildings in downtown Calumet. Sadly, the visitor center was closed on our Sunday visit.
The Quincy Unit preserves part of the Quincy Mine, which we visited. The mine was operational until 1945. When the company shut the mine down, the No. 2 shaft was the longest mine shaft in the world. Investors called the mine “Old Reliable” because it consistently produced a dividend every year for 52 years.
The Keweenaw Heritage Area has dozens of additional sites, like the Central Mine, which preserves the remains of a company town.
You could easily spend a couple of days visiting all of the sites along the peninsula but many are spread out and require their own admission fees. Honestly, this park suffers from not having more National Park Service presence.
Plan on spending a few hours at the Quincy Unit and the Calumet Unit.
Where to Stay on the Keweenaw Peninsula
We stayed at two campgrounds on the Keweenaw Peninsula: Sunset Bay Campground near Mohawk and Lake Fanny Hooe Campground and Resort in Copper Harbor.
We chose the Sunset Bay Campground because it was relatively close to the sites for the Keweenaw National Historical Park and we couldn’t get space at a better campground. It certainly wasn’t the worst campground we have ever seen but it wasn’t great either.
Our campsite was basically a grassy patch of uneven ground with water and electric connections spread in two different directions. The funky connections required the use of a 50-foot water hose and a power cable extension.
The facilities at the campground were rustic at best. While there was a dump station, it was right by two tent sites and we really didn’t want to be those guys to pull up at 5:45 a.m. (we had to leave by 6 a.m. to get to Copper Harbor) in a camper to dump our tanks, so we didn’t use it.
All that said, it did have spectacular sunset views.
The ferry from Isle Royale arrived back in Copper Harbor about 6:30 pm. Originally, we planned to use the remaining 3+ hours of daylight to start driving south. Honestly, though, after a couple of days of hiking and a 3-hour ferry ride in the blazing sun, we were exhausted.
So, we decided to look for a campground with last-minute availability in Copper Harbor and found Lake Fanny Hooe Resort and Campground. We were lucky (week of 4th of July) to find a place to stay that night and were thrilled we didn’t end up driving several hours after our day in the park.
The campground was certainly nicer than Sunset Bay, had decent wifi and was spacious. That said, the connections were in the wrong spot, requiring the use of the longer hose and nearly the longer power cable.
The site was not level at all but that was also due to my insistence that we leave it connected to the truck for the night. If we were staying there longer, we could have gotten the camper into a more level spot.
The campground facilities were nice and well taken care of. My biggest grumble? Absolutely no Verizon cell phone service for the whole of Copper Harbor.
Still, given the choice, we would stay in Copper Harbor either here or at the nearby state park. The rates were $15 more than the parking fee, so it would be worth it just use this campground for the night we were on the island. It might be a bit of a drive back down the peninsula to see the sites of the national historical park, but the drive would be worth it.
Grand Portage National Monument
I don’t know what I was expecting when I got to Grand Portage National Monument. I certainly wasn’t expecting what I got.
Start your visit at the Heritage Center, which does a great job explaining why Grand Portage was so important to the fur trade and the Ojibwe people. Indeed, the Park Service and the Grand Portage Reservation jointly fund the park.
Grand Portage was a fur trade outpost for the North West Company at the northwest corner of Lake Superior. Fur Traders, called voyageurs, would spend the winter north in the Canadian wilderness trading for furs and then row to the Pigeon River.
Once they got to Fort Charlotte, they would leave their canoes behind to carry their pelts 8 miles overland to Grand Portage. Waterfalls forced the traders to make the overland trek to the lake rather than by canoe.
At Grand Portage, the Europeans and Ojibwe traded at the stockade. Traders bundled beaver fur and other pelts for transport. Large canoes with 16 paddlers would transport the goods through the rough waters of Lake Superior. The trip took 8 weeks.
The traders would take trade goods back across the 8-mile trek to their canoes at Fort Charlotte.
From the Heritage Center, we walked the 1.2-mile trail to the overlook on Mount Rose. The trail had a bit of an uphill to it but nothing too bad. Just be sure to hit the bug spray first. The mosquitos ate me alive.
The view overlooks the bay and the stockade. It would have been a gorgeous view were it not for the smoke coming in from nearby wildfires in Canada during our visit.
The walk down to the stockade was easy and the whole trail took about 30 minutes.
Once you get to the stockade, be sure to head into the Great Hall. The hall served many purposes, including feeding the top 100 men by company rank at the post. The exhibits in the Great Hall really demonstrate how the folks lived here. A living historian explained many of the functions of the Great Hall plus how the fur trade worked in this area.
In the attached kitchen, we found another excellent living historian. He went into great detail on the meals prepared and who actually got fed by this kitchen. There is also a warehouse where another living historian demonstrated the birch bark canoes developed by the Ojibwe and how this technology was incredibly important to the traders.
Next to the canoe house is a reconstructed Ojibwe lodge. The lodge offers a bit of insight into how the Ojibwe lived and utilized birch bark coverings for their lodges, as well as their canoes.
What impressed me most about this site was the positive relationship the traders had with the Ojibwe people. It was very much an exchange of ideas and goods here.
The Grand Portage Trail remains open and you can hike the 16-mile round trip out to Fort Charlotte as well.
Where to Stay in Grand Portage
There is not much to Grand Portage itself. It is an Indian reservation with a lodge and casino with an attached campground, where we stayed.
There was nothing spectacular about the campground and the bathrooms needed work, but the sites were good. Additionally, there was no Verizon cell service for miles and the WiFi was down for our entire stay. Still, we would stay here again. You can easily walk to the casino, store or to the national monument.
That said, it is a bit more expensive than Fanny Hooe Campground but the parking at the ferry dock was only $4 per day, so there is no need to keep your campsite unless you just don’t want to set up when you get back.
Were I taking the ferry from Grand Portage to Isle Royale National Park, I would either stay at the RV park or the lodge. The drive to the ferry is quick and Grand Portage National Monument is right there.
Final Thoughts on Isle Royale National Park
We can certainly understand why Isle Royale NP is the least visited of the parks in the Continental US. It is a lot harder and more expensive to reach than Dry Tortugas NP and easily more remote than Great Basin NP.
I can also see why it has the highest percentage of folks revisiting the park. It is gorgeous. There are a lot of hiking trails, and you can only see so much in a one night stay.
We REALLY enjoyed our stay at Rock Harbor. We are even talking about getting packs to through-hike the Greenstone Ridge Trail, which runs the length of the island.
This was easily our favorite stop of this trip.