If you love remote wilderness, a trip to Isle Royale National Park is like a dream come true. After all, the park is known for wolf and moose populations, the deep North Woods forest, ever-changing cool weather, and the rugged shoreline of Lake Superior.
Here’s why Isle Royale is so remote and wild. The park actually is a freshwater archipelago that includes Isle Royale – the largest island in Lake Superior – and more than 400 smaller islands as well. Isle Royale, which is only accessible by ferry, seaplane, or private boat, has 165 miles of scenic hiking trails and 36 campgrounds used by backpackers and paddlers.
That remote location preserves the wilderness and also minimizes crowds. The flip side of the coin, however, is that the remoteness adds a level of complexity to trip planning.
Fortunately, the National Park Service (NPS) staff understands the situation and is here to help. Indeed, it recently released “Plan Like A Park Ranger – Top 10 Tips for Visiting Isle Royale National Park” to make planning your vacation easier.
“Plan like a park ranger and use these insider tips to have a great Isle Royale visit,” NPS explains. “Advanced trip planning is essential and will ensure that your only surprises are happy ones.”
So, let’s get to it. Here are the top tips for visiting Isle Royale — from the rangers who know Isle Royale best.
1. Start Planning Early
Isle Royale is remote, so planning a trip there requires a lot of time — time to do research, time to confirm reservations, even time to travel to the island, rangers explain. Consequently, the more you’re able to plan in advance, the more likely a trip will happen, they explain.
When you do start planning a trip, remember that Isle Royale is an island in Lake Superior. You’ll travel to the island by ferry, seaplane, or private boat — and your vehicle remains on the mainland. You can learn more about traveling to Isle Royale here.
Pro-Tip: Dogs, cats, and other mammals are not allowed on the island. That practice prevents the inadvertent transmission of disease or parasites into the isolated Isle Royale ecosystem, which could potentially have a devastating effect on wildlife populations.
2. Take Time On-Island
Since it takes so much time to plan a trip and then to travel to the park, be sure to allocate enough time to really enjoy your trip. Rangers say visitors typically stay three to five days on the island, but they often see people returning for longer experiences.
3. Make The Most Of One Day
It is possible to visit the park for one day. If you plan to visit Rock Harbor, rangers suggest hiking the Stoll Trail to Scoville Point. This 4.2-mile trail with interconnected loops will take hikers along the iconic Isle Royale shoreline. If you plan to visit Windigo, rangers suggest hiking to Grace Creek Overlook along the Feldtmann Lake Trail. This 3.6-mile round trip hike offers views of both Isle Royale’s interior and Lake Superior’s Grace Harbor.
You can learn more about how to make the most of one day on the island here.
4. Add Time To Backpacking Itineraries
If you’re planning a backpacking trip on Isle Royale and have not been there before, rangers suggest adding an extra day — or two — to your schedule. That’s because many first-time backpackers overcommit when planning their daily hiking mileage. When that happens, “what should be an enjoyable immersion into Isle Royale’s wilderness becomes a forced march to make ferry connections,” rangers explain.
You can learn more about backpacking and camping on Isle Royale here.
Pro-Tip: Isle Royale has 36 campgrounds located across the island. Campsites are accessible only by foot, canoe, or kayak. Backpackers hike from one campground to another – typically hiking 6 to 8 miles per day.
5. Test Drive New Gear
Here’s some advice from the rangers that many people, unfortunately, learn the hard way. Whether it’s a new pair of hiking boots or a water filter you borrowed from a friend, it’s best to try out all new gear before you’re isolated in the wilderness of Isle Royale. Rangers strongly suggest planning a practice trip at a nearby park or forest to prepare and “refresh your memory on how that tent goes up.”
You can find backpacking checklists as well as backpacking guidelines here.
6. Food = Mood
Even though they have all the nutrients you need, “eating nothing but trail-mix for six straight days might leave you with a bad taste in your mouth,” rangers explain.
“As much as you can, plan your meals to be compact, nutritious, and varied,” rangers say. “The extra few ounces from your favorite snack won’t weigh you down that much, and they can give you a great mid-trip lift.”
7. Watch The Weather
Isle Royale’s weather is strongly influenced by Lake Superior because it is an island archipelago. Keep in mind that rough waters or low visibility may cause transportation delays. What’s more, getting soaked by rain while you’re on the trail can lead to a miserable experience. Rangers remind all visitors to pack rain gear and extra dry clothes and plan for possible travel delays.
8. Know The Risks
Much of Isle Royale’s appeal is that the park includes remote wilderness. By its nature, that setting provides both challenges and opportunities.
Rangers remind visitors to always make safety their first priority. That means packing a first-aid kit, warm clothing/rain gear, and a map and compass you know how to use. It’s also important to pack plenty of food — see Food = Mood above.
Secondly, keep in mind that potable (treated) water is only available seasonally in Rock Harbor and Windigo from spigots or faucets. Water in the backcountry is readily available but it should always be considered contaminated with pathogens, so it will need to be treated.
You can learn how to treat water in the backcountry here.
Pro-Tip: Only overnight guests of Rock Harbor Lodge have access to Wi-Fi while on the island. Public Wi-Fi or cellular service is not available anywhere on Isle Royale.
9. Embrace The Unexpected
“After planning and preparing for weeks or months, you’ll finally set out for the island,” rangers note. “All that planning is important, but things will change on your trip — and it’s ok to change with them. Pause a hike if you find an excellent view, or sleep in late if you stayed up all night stargazing.”
10. Bring Some Relaxation With You
Hiking, paddling, and boating in the North Woods are fantastic ways to spend the day. Don’t forget, however, that Isle Royale’s remote setting also offers perfect opportunities to relax by reading, fishing, or listening to music with headphones, rangers explain. It’s important to remember to pack those materials. The rangers also note that writing in a journal is a great way to reflect on your trip, so they recommend packing a journal or other materials.