Isle Royale National Park is one of the most remote places in the lower 48 states. Nestled in the ice-cold waters of Lake Superior, the park is buffeted by lake breezes that sometimes result in a cool misty fog even in the heat of summer. You can only arrive by seaplane or ferry from northern Michigan or Minnesota.
Isle Royale is considered one of the most remote and isolated U.S. National Parks in the lower 48. Traveling here is not for the faint of heart nor spirit because what it lacks for comfort it makes up for in its natural beauty and innocence. It’s rugged. That does not mean to say that if you’re over the age of 50 not to venture to this pristine island in the northwestern edge of Lake Superior. In many ways, this island is perfect for those who have had many miles under their boots and paddles. The comfort and amenities can be had for those with moderate means. The air is fresh and the wonderful lake bathes you in cool mists in the height of summer heat. To many, this “Bucket List” adventure is obtainable with a little preparation and knowledge.
It’s not only getting to the island that can be a challenge but getting around it as well. There are no cars or buses, so you can either hike the island’s many trails or canoe or kayak around it. Yet for all its rugged wilderness, it also offers amenities of home for those visitors not bringing their own tent and canoe. With a little planning and insider knowledge, Isle Royale can be a great trip for seniors wanting to have an awesome wilderness experience.
This article offers a travel itinerary is a potential option for the 50-60-70 something year old that wants a taste of the island without the hiking or paddling. It offers the comfort of a rustic modern resort to come back to after a day of adventure. Hopefully, you will find this useful in planning your own adventure.
Where is Isle Royale National Park?
Designated as wilderness, this archipelago offers hiking, kayaking & scuba diving in Lake Superior. It’s considered one of the most remote and least visited National Parks in the United States. Visitors must start from the Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan to hop on a ferry ride of 6 hours from Houghton on the Ranger or 3 hours from Copper Harbor aboard the Queen IV. Ferry service is also available from Grand Portage Minnesota and via Seaplane.
Over 50? – Planning Early Is Key for a Great Trip to Isle Royale
Isle Royale is a camping, hiking and kayaking paradise. However if you have some mobility issues yet still want to get out into the wilderness a little advance planning can make the trip fun, safe and adventurous.
You can make Isle Royale a day trip. But if you really want to see a bit of the island try to stay the weekend. Take a look at the Rock Harbor Lodge or cottages, and reserve early in the year for the short summer season.
The resort management may offer package plans that are worth every dime; transportation to the island, lodging, guided sightseeing trips, and all meals can be included.
Enjoys a morning ferry ride from Copper Harbor, Michigan to Isle Royal National Park on Queen IV.
Relax and explore with and extended weekends stay at Rock Harbor Lodge, Isle Royale’s only full-service lodge, dining and harbor facilities.
3 meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) per person each day.
A half-day sightseeing trip of landmarks in the Rock Harbor area and a half-day rental of a canoe (availability & weather permitting.)
If offered, package dates are typically offered on the weekends.
Getting to Rock Harbor then Isle Royale
Leaving from the Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan will involve a ferry ride of 6 hours from Houghton or 3 hours from Copper Harbor. Ferry service is also available from Grand Portage Minnesota and via Seaplane.
We all met and embarked from Copper Harbor as we all knew that the extra few minutes of car trip would mean less ferry time on the crossover from Copper Harbor. The drive along the Keweenaw Peninsula is something to experience. The history of the mining days and the natural setting are an awesome addition to your trip. We stopped in Houghton for lunch and looked around Michigan Technological University and found the Official Headquarters of Isle Royale National Park located down near the river to pick up maps and information.
Exploring Copper Harbor
The tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula is at Copper Harbor. This is a charming little town. With taverns, craft shops, bakeries and scenic lookouts on Brockway Mountain drive. It has some amazing local restaurants and it is a perfect 1st-day trip. It’s very bike-friendly and the views are amazing.
Traveling to Isle Royale by Ferry Boat
After staying the night in a nearby lodge a short walk from the docks we had an early breakfast and made it to the Queen IV ferry with time to spare. Bring something to read or cards and games if you have a group. Outside. the deck is cool even in mid-summer as the lake temperature hovers around 40F, the coldest of the Great Lakes.
The old saying getting there is half the fun applies. We were blessed with an extremely calm day on Lake Superior. The lake was like glass. The water was crystal clear and you could see the bottom for a long way. On the way, we managed to cross the path of a freighter heading out of Duluth. An amazing sight.
Crossing the Path of a Freighter on the way to Isle Royale
Day One – The Afternoon at Isle Royale
When you arrive on the island, you will be greeted by a National Park Service ranger. The ranger will give two forms of orientation; one for those who will hike into the interior of Isle Royale right away and another for those staying at the lodge. If your staying at the lodge feel free to listen in, but a better tactic is to orient yourself with Rock Harbor.
To your right of the docks and the Ranger Station is the dining hall and grill of the Rock Harbor Lodge. Get to know it well. To your immediate front and left is the Outfitter Shop where you can obtain everything from white gas, rain jackets and properly chilled Bell’s Two Hearted Ale. Your bags will be taken right to your room so look around and relax.
The Queen IV tends to arrive just after lunch is served in the main dining, however, you can still grab a sandwich at the Grill. You will also get the chance to see hikers coming in off the islands many trails.
Comforts of Home in the Wild of Isle Royale
If you are not a hiker or canoe paddler, you can still enjoy the park at the extreme northern tip of the island’s Rock Harbor. Here, the Rock Harbor Lodge is a bit of civilization in this pristine wilderness area. The rooms remind you of a roadside inn. They are a little small and somewhat dated, but they offer a million-dollar view of Lake Superior.
If you have a chilly start to the day walk over to the main lodge. Bring a favorite book and sit by the fire or watch the loons dive for their breakfast in the clear icy water on the extensive deck in front of the lodge.
If its a bit chilly walk down from your room into the old Lodge and see is there is firewood to build your own fire. We did this and soon we had warm glowing embers that was inviting. Folks came in and we chatted waiting for the ferry to come to pick us up. Great experience.
Hint: Ask for a room on the first floor so you can have a balcony. Also, bring your favorite bath towel as theirs tend to be a bit small.
Isle Royale’s Rock Harbor Lodge Offers Million Dollar Views
We found the accommodations rustic, charming, comfortable and cozy. There are also 20 private cottages available that are nestled in the woods and overlook Tobin Harbor where the daily seaplane lands. Rock Harbor is the disembarkation dock for the island ferries Ranger and Queen IV. This is a starting point for many hikers and paddlers that visit the island each year its one of the busiest places on the island. There is also a nearby snack bar, gift shop, dockside store, and marina.
A short walk away is a Wilderness Lighthouse Restaurant and Greenhouse Grill that offers a varied menu of tasty entrees, burgers, pasta, and sandwiches. You will find the ubiquitous Lake Trout and Whitefish available on the menu each evening. They also have a limited selection of beer and wine.
There are numerous trails around the Rock Harbor lodge. They range from stroll to the old ship dock to ones taking half a day along the shore. They offer a perfect opportunity to stretch your legs or walk off a large meal.
Take an Afternoon Paddle on Rock Harbor
If you bought the lodge package, your fee may include a half-day canoe rental. If you have pent up energy from the long ferry crossing and the weather is calm consider taking a paddle up Tobin Harbor to Scoville Point. Bring along a small dry pack with sunscreen, snacks, and water. (We brought water everywhere we went). Walk back to the main dock where you came in on the ferry and check-in at the fuel dock. You receive life jackets, paddles, and a canoe number. Take a short hike up over the rise and down to Tobin Harbor to pick up your canoe.
Paddle north in Tobin Harbor to the tip of the island. Do not go out into Lake Superior. There is much to see and you will notice old cabins still around that have been grandfathered by families who built them before the island was a National Park.
Isle Royale National Park Map – Rock Harbor Area
One of your best investments in deciding what to do on your day or weekend at Isle Royale National Park is to take and study a map. From Rock Harbor Lodge plan a day hike or a picnic on Mount Franklin or up to the tip of Scoville Point. Isle Royale National Park Maps can be found at key intersections of heavily trafficked trails.
Day Hikes and Tours of Isle Royale
Day hikes are a great way to see the island. Two notable hikes are Scoville Point and Suzy’s Cave. Scoville Point is a trail that hugs the shore to the extreme tip of the harbor area. While not overly rugged, you should still have a good footgear. To the south, you can take the trail that runs along the harbor to Suzy’s Cave. Legend tells that a small girl found and took refuge in the cave after becoming lost.
If you’re adventurous and can handle an outboard motor equipped open boat, you can rent one near the ranger station for a half or a whole day. The full-length sheltered harbor is 10 miles with much to explore.
Sightseeing Tours Offered on Isle Royale
Sightseeing tours are available from Rock Harbor each day. One of the top sites includes a tour of the Edisen Fishery. This home and business were frozen in time and kept just has the original owners left it in the mid-1900s. Later on, you can climb to the top of the Rock Harbor Lighthouse for spectacular views of Lake Superior and the eastern edge of Isle Royale. In the lightkeepers home there is a museum highlighting the history of resorts, residents and industry on the island.
The most interesting site is the Peterson Cabin, which is a 15-minute walk from the lighthouse. Here you can visit with Rolf and Candy Peterson. These researchers have studied the wolf and moose populations on the island since the 1970s. There is also a one-of-a-kind collection of moose skeletons.
See Isle Royale with Canoe or Outboard
If you have some basic paddling skills consider renting a canoe or a boat and outboard for a 1/2 a day. This will allow you to see areas away from Rock Harbor and off the beaten path. Explore the old cabins of residents from long ago that are being allowed to return to the wild. Bring some lunch and water and have a picnic on the many out islands.
Paddling is not strenuous but balancing is. You will quickly find that you can cover a lot of ground very quickly via canoe. At the end of Scovile Point point, you will see some of the last private cottages still allowed on the island. These have been passed down from generation to generation but are slowly being phased out. We went all the way around the point. This is not advisable to novice paddlers. The big lake can change quickly and did on us as late afternoon fog rolled in.
Hint: Be careful not to go out into the big lake. Weather and afternoon fog can come in quickly. Wear your life jacket and consider bringing a marine radio if you have one. Cell service is non-existent.
What to Bring to Isle Royale
If you going to come and stay at the lodge or cottages for a few days there are must-haves to bring with you. Even an afternoon hike can be strenuous, and keeping weight to a minimum is key. Here is our list:
What to Bring
- Camera and Power Supply (Consider Solar)
- Nalgene (for water)
- Layered Clothing
- Hiking Boots
- Small Backpack
- First Aid Kit
- Trail Mix
- NOAA or Marine Radio (weather info)
What to Leave Home
- Electronics (No Wi-Fi or Internet, No TV/Cable)
Fun Facts about Isle Royale
- Isle Royale is Michigan’s only national park.
- The average surface temperature of Lake Superior normally does not exceed 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
- The park is one of the least visited National Parks in the US.
- The island is accessible only by boat or floatplane.
- The two largest animals on the island are moose and wolves.
- The natural isolation provided by Lake Superior allows scientists to get a rare look at the interaction of the moose and wolf population.
Isle Royale FAQs
You stated that Isle Royale is Michigan’s only National Park, but what about Pictured Rocks and Ottawa?
- Isle Royale National Park was designated by Congress in 1940.
- Congress designated Pictured Rocks the first National Lakeshore in the United States in 1966.
- The Ottawa National Forest is a national forest that covers 993,010 acres in the Upper Peninsula from Lake Superior to the Wisconsin border.
- The National Park Services has over 11 designations in the NPS system. All have equal legal standing.
Seeing a moose in the wild is a “bucket list” wish. Would I see one at Isle Royale if I stay for one night?
Seeing a moose in the Rock Harbor area is possible but rare. Even those who work at the lodge all season have told me that they have yet to see a moose near the lodge or harbor.
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