Travel: Islands of the Great Lakes
(page 4 of 5)
A 1914 travel brochure calls the Great Lakes’ second-largest island, Isle Royale, “The Playground of the Middle West.” Back then, the “Summertime ‘Bermuda’ Paradise in the Beautiful Superior Sea” was home to a number of summer resorts, where hay-fever sufferers sought relief.
Today, Isle Royale is one of the most secluded and least visited of the United States’ National Parks. According to Islands: Great Lakes Stories, by former Free Press travel writer Gerry Volgenau, fewer than 20,000 visitors come during Isle Royale’s four-month-long season — about the same number Yellowstone receives on a single summer day. That, of course, is part of the island’s appeal, and likely a main reason that Isle Royale also holds the National Park Service’s highest visitor return-visit rate.
While humans have maintained a relationship with the island for thousands of years, dating back to some of the earliest Native American copper-mining efforts, no people call the island home. Rather, Isle Royale is the territory of two relative newcomers: the moose that swam over from Canada in the beginning of the last century, and the gray wolves that followed shortly thereafter by crossing frozen Lake Superior during the extremely cold winter of 1948-49, though fewer than 10 of the latter are reported to be left on the island.
There are no roads on Isle Royale or on any of the nearby islands that together make up Isle Royale National Park. In fact, there are only two ways to see this secluded outpost: by foot or water vessel. Make no mistake, Isle Royale is a wilderness preserve first and a travel destination second. Human visitors are expected to mostly fend for themselves, and leave no trace behind.
A picture-postcard scene of Isle Royale.
Hiking, fishing, boating, kayaking, camping, scuba diving, wildlife and nature observation.
Most visitors to Isle Royale take one of the four ferries that leave from Houghton, Copper Harbor, and Grand Portage, Minn. Info: nps.gov/isro. A seaplane is also available from Houghton through the Royale Air Service (royaleairservice.com).
WHERE TO STAY:
Camping is the most convenient and most common lodging option on the island. A number of organized campsites scattered across the island provide outhouses, screened-in shelters, and designated campfire pits.
The Rock Harbor Lodge, on the northeast corner of the island, is the last remaining Isle Royale resort. Sixty rooms and 20 cottages are available, as well as a water taxi, fishing charters, sightseeing tours, and the island’s only dining options. More: isleroyaleresort.com.
LEFT: Canoeing off Isle Royale. RIGHT: Scuba divers explore a shipwreck.
For the most part, Isle Royale’s main appeal is its expansive and untouched wilderness and wildlife. Because the park is closed to
people two-thirds of the year, the animals act as if they own the place; moose sightings are not uncommon, and foxes have been known to
walk alongside hikers. Beware, though, as foxes are also known for committing most acts of larceny on the island.
Four lighthouses are on Isle Royale: Rock Harbor Lighthouse, the Rock of Ages Light, Passage Island Lighthouse, and Isle Royale Lighthouse. With the exception of the Rock Harbor, all are on nearby islands and require a boat to visit.
On clear nights, Isle Royale offers majestic views of the Northern Lights.
Abandoned copper mines can be found near McCargoe Cove and Windigo. Ancient mines, some estimated to be more than 4,000 years old, also abound on the island.
Near Rock Harbor, at the end of the Greenstone Ridge Trail, is Lookout Louise, which offers a view of the island’s many bays and surrounding islands. Nearby, the century-old Edisen Fishery, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is still operational and open to the public.
LEFT: A bull moose takes a dip. Moose crossed over from Canada in the early 20th century. RIGHT: A wild hare is among copious wildlife on the island.
Advanced scuba divers have the chance to explore a number of shipwrecks, including the America and Glenlyon, beneath the surrounding waters.
Beachcombers can often find Isle Royale greenstones (chlorastrolite), a semi-precious gemstone and Michigan’s official state gem.
Visitors are required to pay a daily $4 user fee, which can be paid ahead of time online (nps.gov) or at the Houghton, Rock Harbor, or Windigo Visitor Centers upon arrival to the island.
There are two small supply stores, one at Snug Harbor and one at Windigo. Both are useful for forgotten necessities, but
are not to be relied on for essential camping needs. Pack plenty of food, water, and bug-repellant (the mosquito and blackfly season peaks in midsummer).
Other Lake Superior Islands:
(49 square miles) This rustic isle is known for sandy beaches, hiking, biking, kayaking, 300-foot sandstone cliffs, fishing, and camping.
Apostle Islands, Wis.
(21 islands) Home to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, where visitors can camp, kayak, fish, scuba-dive, sail, and gather wild berries.