Let me start by saying that Isle Royale National Park ranks as one of the least visited national parks in the United States. However, Isle Royale also ranks as the highest re-visit rate of United States National Parks. This tells me that there is a hidden gem in the middle of Lake Superior that is so good it keeps calling people back!
There’s a problem with Isle Royale, though: It’s an island in the middle of the biggest freshwater lake in the world. This makes transportation to Isle Royale difficult and often expensive. Lake Superior is known for its sudden changes in weather, its inaccessibility during storms, and over-all difficulty in navigation. Finding a good outfitter to get you safely across is crucial to your trip plans. You also need a plan B in case the weather changes and your trip gets cancelled.
We went with Grand Portage Isle Royale Transportation Lines out of Grand Portage, MN. We booked a spot on the Sea Hunter III. Find the website here. We did this for two reasons: we were already in Minnesota and this is the shortest ferry ride provided to Isle Royale National Park. There is another one in Copper Harbor, Michigan but this is three hours compared to the one-and-a-half hours from Grand Portage. The Sea Hunter III also makes some stops along the way. On the way there you get to see the Witch Tree (an over 400-year-old site for trading) and a shallow ship wreck.
If you decide to launch from Grand Portage, there is a sweet little campground less then a mile from the boat dock. There are about six tent sights, along with RV full hook-up sites, right on the marina. The campground is new and yet unpopular so it is fairly easy to get a site. There is a bathroom with showers near the tent sites. The best part – it is owned by the neighboring casino, Grand Portage Casino. This means that for only $20 a night you also receive access to the casino pool!
As for a Plan B in case the weather cancels your trip, Grand Marais is only a 40-minute drive south of Grand Portage. Grand Marais was voted “The Coolest Small Town in America” and for good reason! It boasts a gorgeous marina, beautiful views, plenty of delicious food options, The World’s Greatest Donuts (really!), and a lot more. Even if you do not need a Plan B, make this town a stop on your visit.
On the Island:
There are three options of how to see the island: A day trip, a camping trip, and a backpacking trip. I would recommend at least making your stay a camping trip. The backpacking trip seems to be the most popular option and the best way to really take in the island. This is a wild and overgrown National Park. The trails are narrow and the undergrowth is thick. Being able to experience a place like this is becoming more and more rare. It will be well worth your time to stay for a few days.
If you only do a day trip, you have only about 4 hours to explore the island. If this is all you can do, it is still worth going! You can visit the Windigo Store, the Visitor’s Center, and sneak in a quick hike or go on a ranger-led nature walk. You will not be able to see very much but what you do get to experience will be fulfilling.
We only had time for the day trip but are already making plans to go back some day and backpack. We saw kids as young as 10 years old geared up for a backpacking trip with their dads. For more information on these options visit here.
On the way back from this island, the Sea Hunter III makes a stop at the Rock of Ages Lighthouse. This imposing structure is the tallest lighthouse still in use on Lake Superior.
- The ferry ride is FREEZING and I cannot exaggerate this enough to make you believe me. I was wearing hiking pants, a light jacket, my rain jacket and a hat and I was so cold the entire time. The temperature on Lake Superior is generally 20 degrees colder than that of the mainland, and this is amplified by the draft created by the moving boat. The temperature on the island is comparable to the mainland.
- There are bathrooms and drinking fountains on the island.
- Bring plenty of bug repellant. If you are camping or backpacking, consider bringing a Mosquito net.