Things to Do at Isle Royale National Park: The Ultimate Pure Michigan Guide

Things to Do at Isle Royale National Park: The Ultimate Pure Michigan Guide

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Isle Royale is one of Michigan’s five national parks, where roughly 17,000 visitors fall in love with Michigan every year. The small island in the middle of Lake Superior is filled with diverse wildlife and outdoor adventure. And although it is a national park, you won’t find many crowds. Isle Royale is one of the least visited national parks in the country, but not for lack of beauty, but lack of accessibility. A five-hour boat ride from the Upper Peninsula is the most common way to get to the island. Its secluded environment makes it the perfect location for visitors to connect with the beauty around it. So pack up your backpack, lace up your hiking boots, and don’t forget to bring your binoculars.


1. Enjoy a Ferry Ride

Ferry boat docked at Isle Royale
Ferry boat docked at Isle Royale | Photo Courtesy of Pure Michigan

There are several ways to enjoy Isle Royale’s beauty by boat. The Ranger III travels to the island from Houghton. On the departure from Houghton’s Portage Canal, the ferry cruises beneath the world’s largest lift bridge, linking Houghton and Hancock, and past the dramatic shoreline and towering lighthouses of the Keweenaw Peninsula before leaving the Upper Peninsula for Rock Harbor, a trip that takes about 6 hours.

The Isle Royale Queen IV departs Copper Harbor for Isle Royale all summer long, making the journey from the Keweenaw Peninsula to Rock Harbor in just over 3 hours before returning to the U.P. the same day.

The Voyageur II offers Lake Superior ferry service at various ports around Isle Royale all summer long. The ship provides spectacular views of Isle Royale’s wilderness from the water and also serves as a key mode of transport for backpackers looking to speed travel between the island’s Windigo, Daisy Farm, McCargoe Cove and Rock Harbor docks. 


Leisurely sightseeing cruises of the Isle Royale Lake Superior shoreline are the specialty of the MV Sandy. Guided by National Park Service rangers, the cruises include narration and frequently allow the opportunity to disembark on remote islands for ranger-led hikes. The sightseeing tours depart from the Rock Harbor Lodge dock and head to destinations like Hidden Lake, Raspberry Island, the Edisen Fishery and Rock Harbor Lighthouse.


2. Take a Hike

Backpacking on Isle Royale
Backpacking on Isle Royale | Photo Courtesy of Pure Michigan

The Greenstone Ridge Trail is the crown jewel of Isle Royale National Park. The trail runs about 43 miles from where the Greenstone Ridge rises out of Lake Superior in the east at Lookout Louise. The trail then heads west over the Greenstone’s exposed ridges, through deep woods, across swamps, and past pristine lakes. The Greenstone Ridge drops back into Lake Superior not far from Windigo at the islands west end. Most hikers make the journey in 3 to 5 days, enjoying a true wilderness hiking experience along the way.


3. Tour a Lighthouse

Rock Harbor Light on Isle Royale
Rock Harbor Light on Isle Royale | Photo Courtesy of Instagram fan girlwcamera

Isle Royale is home to 3 lighthouses: Rock Harbor Light, Menagerie Island Light, and Passage Island Light. The brick and stone lighthouse on Isle Royale’s Rock Harbor forms a beloved landmark, its white tower and black lantern rising above the rugged shoreline and surrounding pine trees. Visit Isle Royale’s oldest lighthouse and its maritime exhibits on a guided NPS tour that includes a stop at the nearby Edisen Fishery.


Built in 1875, the unique rock and red sandstone keeper’s quarters and its white octagonal tower make the Menagerie Island Lighthouse a standout on boat trips around Isle Royale. In fact, the light continues to aid in navigation around the national park. Public visits to the lighthouse are not permitted, although you can walk the grounds. Access is only via private boat.


Built in 1872 near the eastern end of Isle Royale, the Passage Island Lighthouse is part of a popular boat tour out of Rock Harbor. Board the MV Sandy for an 8-mile cruise to Passage Island. From there, an NPS guide leads a 2-mile round-trip hike out to the stone lighthouse.


4. Paddle the Day Away

Canoeing on Isle Royale
Canoeing on Isle Royale | Photo Courtesy of Pure Michigan

Explore the island by water with Keweenaw Adventure Company! They offer guided, multi-day trips to Isle Royale with a choice between state-of-the-art single and tandem (two-people) kayaks and are equipped with all gear and equipment, including the use of a wetsuit, which is an essential piece of safety gear that not all outfitters require. Can you canoe? Absolutely! Canoe routes and portages are on the eastern half of the island.


5. Get to Know the Locals

Moose wading in lake on Isle Royale
Moose wading in lake on Isle Royale | Photo Courtesy of Pure Michigan

The majestic moose can be found all over the island and some even frequent the lodges and campgrounds. Did you know moose are known as the "hippopotamus of the north country" because of their affinity for water?! Though these marvelous creatures may look harmless, it is important to remember they are not tame animals and to tread carefully when venturing out into their home. Wolves have also called Isle Royale home since 1948, though visitors are highly unlikely to encounter one as they are typically reclusive creatures. Many other creatures call the island home such as many bird species, beaver, otter, snakes and more.


6. Room with a View

Entrance to Rock Harbor Lodge on Isle Royale
Entrance to Rock Harbor Lodge on Isle Royale | Photo Courtesy of Pure Michigan

At the end of a long day exploring slip off your hiking boots at Rock Harbor Lodge, located on the northwest side of Isle Royale. Offering cozy hotel accommodations and self-catering cabins an easy walk from the dock at Rock Harbor, Rock Harbor Lodge is an ideal destination for those looking for a rustic vibe with the comforts of home. All rooms in the hotel overlook the grandeur of Lake Superior and the hotel’s dining room dishes up plates of locally-caught whitefish and Michigan blueberry pancakes.