Isle Royale National Park


National Parks Image Gallery Wary and largely nocturnal, red foxes are seldom seen by hikers. Once hunted for their fur, the animals are now protected within park boundaries. See more pictures of national parks.
©2006 National Park Services

Isle Royale National Park

800 East Lakeshore Drive

Houghton, MI 49931-1895

906-482-0984

www.nps.gov/isro

Isle Royale National Park, which consists of Isle Royale and hundreds of smaller islands in Lake Superior, is a pristine wilderness that's perfect for hiking, camping, kayaking, and observing nature. With no roads and very few structures, Isle Royale is very nearly in its natural state. Visitors to the island must take a ferry or seaplane to get there, but the wilderness that awaits makes the journey worthwhile.

Entrance fees: $4/person for each day

Visitor centers: Houghton Visitor Center is open year-round Monday-Friday (and Saturday during the summer). Rock Harbor Visitor Center and Windigo Visitor Center are open from mid-June through August.

Other services: Three visitor centers, one lodge, and two backcountry campsites

Accommodations: More than 35 campgrounds are available from mid-April through October on a first-come, first-served basis. Rock Harbor Lodge (270-773-2191) is open from late May to mid-September.

Visiting Isle Royale

The 45-mile-long, nine-mile-wide Isle Royale rises out of the vastness of Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes. This unusual national park consists of Isle Royale and another 200 smaller islands that surround it.

©2006 Publications International, Ltd.

Although seaplane flights are available from Houghton, Michigan, most visitors reach Isle Royale on boats operated by the Park Service. The ride takes three hours from either Grand Portage, Minnesota, or Copper Harbor, Michigan, or approximately six hours from Houghton, Michigan.

Separated from mainland Michigan, which claims it, by 56 miles of rough water (and from the shores of Minnesota by only 20 miles), Isle Royale is pure wilderness, with no roads and almost no development. The island's isolation has helped to keep it pristine, looking much as it did more than two centuries ago when European explorers first stepped on its shores. Isle Royale shelters paper birches, balsam fir, wild orchids, violets, mallards, mergansers, loons, herons, wolves, moose, deer, and bobcats.

This is the only place in the United States outside of Alaska and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem where wolves roam free. Moose, the wolf's main prey, also inhabit the island. While the wolves are elusive, you frequently see moose in the meadows alongside woodland trails.

Isle Royale is a haven for both the wildlife it harbors and those who wish to observe it. On the next page, read more about the flora and fauna you'll see on this remote island.

Sightseeing at Isle Royale National Park

©2006 National Park Services Moose are the primary prey of the island's gray wolves, which keep the moose population in check by culling young, old, or debilitated members of the herd.

Visitors to Isle Royale National Park can look forward to kayaking among the fjordlike coves, picking raspberries and blueberries, hiking on more than 160 miles of trails, or listening to the distant howls of northern gray wolves on moon-filled autumn nights.

Most everyone agrees that autumn is the best time to visit the park, with the sugar maples and yellow birch aflame in color, the wild berries thick underfoot, and the moose appearing in the ridges to the valleys.

Isle Royale National Park Photo Opportunities

The wildlife steals the show on Isle Royale. In this protected environment, you might just be lucky enough to have a moose or a wolf posing for your photograph.

  • Isle Royale wildlife: The wolves are elusive, so you're much more likely to see moose, eagles, and osprey on Isle Royale.
  • Greenstone Ridge: This ridge forms the backbone of Isle Royale. Geologists think it could be a portion of the largest lava flow on earth.
  • Rock Harbor: Located on the northeastern shore of Isle Royale, Rock Harbor's hiking trails give visitors access to scenic overlooks and secluded coves.
©2006 National Park ServicesBoaters can explore some 200 small islands within park boundaries. These are treacherous waters, however. Ten major shipwrecks, some dating to the late 1800s, may be explored by experienced scuba divers.

Island Wolves Perhaps drawn by a large and growing moose herd, a few wolves crossed ice-covered Lake Superior to Isle Royale in 1949. For two decades the wolves fed on old, young, or weak moose. Both the moose herd and the wolf pack benefited from the relationship. The wolves prevented the moose from overpopulating the island and eating themselves out of house and home. The wolf pack itself leveled out at about 50 members, which was appropriate for the size of the moose herd.

By about 1980 the symbiosis was no longer working. There were fewer moose upon which the wolves could prey, and the wolf population was falling. By 1989 the moose population had again increased, but there were only 11 wolves left. Since that time, the wolves have made something of a comeback and currently number about 30.

Isle Royale has long been a destination for visitors, from early Native Americans seeking copper to modern-day hikers and kayakers. On the next page, learn about the formation and early habitation of Isle Royale.

History: How Isle Royale Was Formed

©2006 National Park Services Exposed bedrock at Pickerel Cove was laid bare by receding glaciers, which left  parallel ridges across the island.

In Isle Royale National Park, you are truly in the forest primeval. A long ridge extends along the length of the island; its landscape has been complicated by eons of geological upheaval and sculpting by glaciers.

Isle Royale was born as glacial ice withdrew during the last Pleistocene ice age 10,000 years ago. The island's high ridges rose above the great basin that eventually would become Lake Superior, and glacier-scoured gouges in the barren rock became the island's lakes. 

Wind and water forged a lovely coastline punctuated by numerous inlets and quiet little coves. Soon the first migrants, including mosses, lichens, and wind- and bird-borne seeds, arrived and found little nooks and crannies in which to begin the arduous work of building soil and vegetation.

Animals also found their way to the island, and a unique ecosystem began evolving. Moose, the island's largest inhabitants, are believed to have swam over from the mainland or were perhaps brought by humans. Wolves, the island's most famous residents, crossed the ice in the 1940s during a particularly cold winter when lake ice permitted such a passage.

History of Isle Royale: Inhabitants and Exploration

Humans probably came to Isle Royale about 4,500 years ago. There are more than 1,000 small copper mining pits scattered around the island, some of them dating to around 2500 B.C. Canadian and American Indians would canoe to this remote island of woods, lakes, streams, and ponds to dig for copper from which they made tools, jewelry, and cookware.

European explorers first visited Isle Royale more than 200 years ago. Since the late 1950s, scientists have used the island's isolated ecosystem as a natural laboratory in which to study the relationship between wolf as predator and moose as prey. In recent years, however, the wolf population has dropped significantly, and scientists are not sure why.

With its hiking, kayaking, camping, historical sites, and access to unspoiled wilderness, Isle Royale National Park offers diversions aplenty for the outdoors enthusiast.

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