Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior Visited: May 26, 2004 NPS Site Visited: 49 of 353 Local Website
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WHAT IS IT? The largest Island in the world’s largest freshwater lake. Isle Royale NP is a World Heritage Biosphere. Isle Royale is an incredible 99% wilderness. The 1% includes only the Rangers’ living quarters, a small lodge, two Visitor Centers and the campgrounds. The 45-mile long by 9-mile wide island boasts hundreds of moose and three wolf packs.
BEAUTY (9/10) Spring came while we were on the Island. Wildflowers bloomed in front of our eyes; trees became a luminescent, full lime green. We thought that we had seen a newborn moose calf, but closer inspection revealed a yearling. Much of the hiking goes along the ridge and through the dense boreal forest. When the forest opens, you remember that you are in the middle of Lake Superior. Clear skies enabled us to make out the skyline of Thunder Bay, Canada, 35 miles away to the north. Nothing spoils the serene beauty here on Isle Royale. No cars, no buildings and no unnatural sounds.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (4/10) Isle Royale has mildly interesting stories of unsuccessful mining operations and dramatic shipwrecks. We found the Island to be compelling because of its veritable lack of human history. Few people have ever lived here and the forests are still virgin. Moose first migrated here in the 1900’s by swimming! A few wolves crossed the extremely rare frozen Lake Superior to get here in the 40’s. That’s cool stuff.
CROWDS (9/10) We found solitude at Isle Royale NP. There were very few people even on the most popular hikes. The people that we did see shared with us the same sense of personal accomplishment, detachment and amazement. There was a strong kindred spirit among all visitors to the Island.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (1/5) Perhaps the most remote National Park in the continental United States. You need to take a sturdy sea-worthy boat or a seaplane to get here. Once you are at Isle Royale you must use either its moderately difficult trails or travel by kayak or canoe through its harbors and lakes. Only one rustic hotel exists and even if you are staying there, you need to get out into the backcountry to see anything. You must hike (or paddle) and stay in a tent. There is no other way. This Site appeals to a very small and specific crowd, the willing outdoorsman.
That being said, most visitors come to Isle Royale NP for the isolation and the solitude. They would say the Park’s lack of access is its strongest asset. After a day of seeing zero people and six moose, we agree. But our rating system is not perfect and for continuity's sake the score must be a 1.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (3/5) Both the bookstore and the lone open food store on the Island had ample selections of merchandise but very little that we wanted. The weather effectively holed us in our shelter. There were no cheap paperbacks and no selection of games/puzzles. We wanted a memento from our trip but the T-Shirts, stickers and patches all suffered from a design deficiency. We wanted a pre-packaged meal but had to settle on the salt-drenched Zatarain’s red beans and rice. So yes there is a large selection of stuff, but nothing in that group appealed to us.
COSTS (1/5) The requisite boat to the Island is not cheap at $100 or more round trip. Staying on Isle Royale costs an additional $4 per day per person. Proper gear and preparation for the whims of Lake Superior will cost even more. Because of the steep transportation fee, most visitors spend at least 5 days on the Island. In fact, among National Parks Isle Royale enjoys the longest average stay per guest.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (2/5) Plenty of Rangers at the Isle Royale’s two Visitor Centers. No Rangers anywhere else.
TOURS/CLASSES (5/10) Immediately after stepping off the boat, a lovely Park Ranger gave us an instructive and necessary 20-minute orientation that focused on the Leave No Trace philosophy. Everything you bring on must leave with you. She also answered all of our questions about the Isle Royale. Everyone listened intently to her “What do we do when we see a moose?” answer.
After the orientation, the Ranger issued the backcountry permits inside the Windigo Visitor Center. All hikers had to specify which campground they were to stay at on each night of their visit. We were not yet sure of our plans so the Ranger cheerfully indicated which campgrounds were the best and which vistas we should not miss. Our 10-minute talk with her was more helpful than the 175-page Isle Royale Hiking Trails book.
After leaving the Visitor Center, we felt confident in our journey. We were no longer petrified about what we were about to do. Thank you, Ranger.
FUN (8/10) Anticipation for this particular park has been mounting for nearly a year even though we weren’t really sure what to expect. We spent over two days in Duluth and a day in Grand Marais, Minnesota preparing ourselves mentally and physically for the challenge of our first real hiking adventure of the two-year trip. This anticipation and build-up added to our fun and sense of accomplishment.
Seven days and seven nights is the longest we have ever been backcountry camping. In many ways, this was a test. Can our sedentary bodies still balance a pack? Will the novelty of pitching the tent wear out within a week? Will we get bored? Sick of each other? Answers: Yes. No. Only on a very rainy and cold day 6 and... hmm... well ... No. In that order.
We felt a range of emotions on the island. Excitement, fatigue, awe, hunger (after Gab dropped the tortellini dinner), pride. It was quite an emotional roller coaster, but we laughed and smiled and dropped our mouths in wonder a lot. We nearly shed tears of joy when the sun came out on day seven and Captain Ryan arrived with the Voyageur II. Later that day we were both misty eyed as the boat sped away and we lost sight of Isle Royale.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (8/10) We had a great time and were not the least bit disappointed. The beauty of the National Park was well worth the planning, the time dedication and the expense. Still, Isle Royale NP is not for everybody and Lake Superior can be a monster. You need to camp. Transportation must be done via hiking or paddling. Transportation to the Island is available only mid-April through October. Each season provides its own obstacle. If you are not fighting inclement weather, you will be fighting biting flies and mosquitoes. Our trip to Isle Royale NP was well worth it.
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