Isle Royale is the least visited but most re-visited park in the national parks system. We can definitely understand why. It only took us one year after our original day trip to return to the island to try out the camping experience. It lived up to every expectation and then some! Camping on Isle Royale takes some logistical expertise but it is a wonderful vacation.
Located in the middle of Lake Superior, owned by Michigan and caught between Canada and Minnesota, Isle Royale is one of the most difficult National Parks to access. It is not impossible, though, and the whole process just adds to the adventure.
There are a few options to get to Isle Royale. Houghton, Michigan offers boat transportation or seaplanes. Copper Harbor, Michigan offers boat transportation. And Grand Portage, Minnesota offers day trip boats and overnight boats. If you would like to find out how to book a day trip (instead of a camping trip) read this post.
We decided to go with Grand Portage Transportation Lines for many reasons. First of all, this is the shortest ferry route to Isle Royale, clocking in at just under 2 hours. Second, Grand Portage is less than an hour away from one of our favorite places to visit, Grand Marais – read more about this charming small town on the coast of Lake Superior here. Third, I originally hail from Minnesota so it is easy to add the North Shore of Lake Superior on to a family visit.
In order to reserve your overnight trip to Isle Royale, you must book the transportation first. The Voyageur II, provided by Grand Portage Transportation Lines, is the boat that provides overnight service to Isle Royale. Book your boat here.
We wanted to stay at the island for just one night (arrive on Monday, leave on Tuesday) but when we tried to book the Voyageur II, the scheduling tool made it look as if the boat only provides service every other day. We thought this meant that we had to stay Monday, Tuesday, and leave on Wednesday. With a little digging, though, we realized we were looking at the schedule incorrectly. See, the Voyageur II provides what Grand Portage Transportation Lines calls “service around Isle Royale in two days.” This means that it does not return to Grand Portage on the same day it leaves. For example, if it leaves Grand Portage on Monday, it makes all of its drop-offs around the island all day Monday. On Tuesday morning, it begins picking up passengers around the island and then returns to Grand Portage on Tuesday afternoon. It will then leave Grand Portage with a new set of passengers on Wednesday and repeat the cycle. So you have to book your trip to the island in 2-day increments. Be careful when booking, though, because occasionally the service schedule does change for various reasons.
A caution to anyone that experiences seasickness – this boat is a doozy. I rarely experience motion sickness but on this trip I was in the back of the boat, fighting nausea the entire ride. My mother-in-law, who frequently experiences seasickness, took a motion sickness pill before leaving the dock and she fared better, but not great. Lake Superior can experience some big waves, making the boat rock a lot. The deckhand does a great job of checking on all the seasick patrons in the back of the boat, though, which I thought was very nice. I was also VERY GLAD that our stop (Windigo) was the first stop to get dropped off, meaning we only had to be on the boat for two hours. It was also the last stop to get picked up the following day, meaning once again that we only had to be on the boat for two hours. The Voyageur II makes many additional drop off / pick up stops around the island and I was so glad we did not have to sit through any of those.
There are quite a few places to stay on Isle Royale, with options ranging from a Lodge on the Rock Harbor side to backpacking camps throughout the island. Our experience put us in Windigo at Washington Creek Campground. You do not need campground reservations for groups of 6 or fewer people. If you have a group of 7 or more, you do need reservations. Learn about reserving a group camping spot here.
Windigo is the closest port to Grand Portage, and has a fantastic campground, allowing us to make the most of the short time we had. Amenities at Windigo include a boat launch, a visitor’s center with a museum, a small store, modern restrooms, and pay showers and laundry. The store acts as a gift shop but also offers basic food items, cold beer, good wine, and hot pizza.
When you arrive on the island, a ranger will be present to give all the campers an orientation. You will then go to the visitors center to check-in and register.
We did not research very much into the campsite itself and it ended up being a very pleasant surprise! Washington Creek Campground is situated along Washington Creek, just as it sounds. Many of the sites have a view of the wide creek. Each site feels remote because an abundance of forest growth isolates one from the next. There are also pit toilets and potable water spigots throughout the campground.
Claim your site early because some of them have small cabin-like structures that serve as shelters from the incessant mosquitoes. You pitch your tent right in the shelter; with some maneuvering, we were able to fit 3 two-person backpacking tents in one shelter. We loved them so much because it was misty the entire time we camped and the shelters kept our tents nice and dry.
Our site had an incredible view of Washington Creek. The best part about this view was the visiting moose. We saw a cow moose go munching through just as we were finishing up dinner.
Then in the morning, a bull moose came crashing down the same path!
Besides camping, Isle Royale has some of the most beautiful, wild hiking opportunities. Trek through overgrown forests, over boardwalks and bridges, and along the wild coast of Lake Superior.
We brought our paddle board along and got it out on Lake Superior. We inflated it on the main dock and just paddled it around the bay. Our paddle board is an inflatable, making it easy to bring it on the ferry and store it at our camp. Find out about this awesome board here.
Learn about doing just a day trip here.