A Superior Wilderness Isle Royale National Park – stunning beauty, peaceful solitude

Art Weber

        Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior isn’t for everyone.
        It’s wild, remote and the least-visited national park in the lower 48 states, but one of the most beautifully fascinating. No one lives there year-round. Most of the year, there are more wolves and moose than people.
        Over 45 miles long and as much as nine miles wide, it’s the largest island in the world’s largest freshwater lake. Most visitors arrive on the Ranger III, the national park-operated passenger ferry out of Houghton, Michigan. Whether you go by boat or plane, you land in a world that is refreshingly stripped of many of the trappings of modern life.                Visitors can rough it a little easier by staying in the cottages or the lodge at Rock Harbor, which functions as the only real settlement on the island. Windigo, at the other end of the island, offers the only other showers, a small laundromat, and a campers’ store that can’t be counted on to have anything more than basics.
        Yep, if it’s a dramatic change you seek, Isle Royale may be the perfect breakout trip after all those months of COVID confinement.
        It’s a magical place. Really. Prehistoric visitors likely regarded it that way. More recently for the Ojibwe, it was a place to hunt, trap, maple sugar, fish and engage in spiritual practice. Copper in nearly pure form is near the surface of Isle Royale and for several thousand years it’s been mined from ancient surface pits and used for weapon points and ceremonial artifacts.
        The lack of amenities is more than compensated by the scenery. Pristine North Woods; cool, clear wilderness lakes where loons provide the best music on the island and high open rocky ridges with stunning overlooks.
        Climb to the top of the Greenstone Ridge and drink in the view. Walk the Minong Ridge and learn what rugged really looks like, and how scenic a rugged shoreline can be.
        The island lies in a strong southwest to northeast orientation, closer to Minnesota and Ontario than to Michigan. If Lake Superior looks vaguely like a wolf’s head, Isle Royale is its eye. The Greenstone Ridge forms the backbone of the island with other smaller ridges running parallel. Between the ridges are deep troughs dotted with lakes and wetlands. Backpackers learn the lesson that it’s easier to stay on the ridges than to cut back and forth across the island.
        The busiest months on the island are July and August, though busy is a relative term. It can seem like a small crowd sometimes at Rock Harbor after the ranger arrives and hikers gather dockside, prepping to head out the trail to the Daisy Farm Campground, Isle Royale’s equivalent of the main highway out of town. But it thins out rapidly and quiet settles back in. What it has in plentiful supply are solitude, incredible beauty, bountiful wildlife and primitive North Woods habitat.
        Getting there
        It’s a 600-mile mile drive up I-75 to the Mackinac Bridge then across Michigan’s upper peninsula to Isle Royale’s doorstep at Houghton on the Keweenaw Peninsula. From there it’s a 30-minute seaplane ride or a leisurely six-hour cruise on the 165-foot-long Ranger III, the largest piece of moving equipment in the National Park System. Three other boats ferry passengers to Isle Royale but the Ranger is the best choice for anyone squeamish about crossing a finicky Lake Superior.
        For more information, visit the Isle Royale National Park website at www.nps.gov/isro.
        For the best in guidebook information and maps, visit www.MichiganTrailMaps.com. Jim Dufresne, Michigan’s top outdoor adventurer and writer, provides excellent descriptive detailed information that’s invaluable for all visitors, especially those heading into the backcountry.


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