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Explore a remote wonderland by seaplane or ferryExplore a remote wonderland by seaplane or ferry

Isle Royale National Park, MichiganIsle Royale National Park, Michigan

Hop aboard a ferryboat or seaplane—maybe your seaplane—to the least-visited national park in the United States. Visit for the day or spend a week kayaking, hiking, and camping in this remote, forested wonderland of moose, mink, and martens.

  • An Isle Royale Seaplanes Cessna 206 docks at Tobin Harbor, near Rock Harbor. Isle Royale is one of the few national parks you can access directly via seaplane. Photo courtesy Isle Royale Seaplanes.
  • Aerial view of Rock Harbor (for boats only), looking north-northwest. The parallel Tobin Harbor is the water shown in the background (to the north). Tobin Harbor seaplane landings and takeoffs are conducted on the north side of the small islands. The seaplane docks are on the south side, between the two islands at top-center and top-right of the photo. It is just a short walk across the hill from Tobin Harbor to Rock Harbor. Photo courtesy NPS.
  • The 'Isle Royale Queen IV' ferry to Isle Royale provides overnight or day trips between Copper Harbor and Rock Harbor (three hours one way). The largest ferry, the 'Ranger III,' operates between Houghton and Rock Harbor (6 hours one way). The 'Voyageur II' ferry operates between Grand Portage, Minnesota, and a variety of pick-up and drop-off points on the north and south shores of Isle Royale National Park. The 'Seahunter III' ferry offers day trips and overnights between Grand Portage and Windigo (90 minutes one way). Photo courtesy NPS.
  • Tent site No. 6 at the West Chickenbone Campground, Isle Royale National Park. Native Americans mined copper on Isle Royale as early as 4,000 years ago. Although it’s now a forested paradise, Isle Royale was nearly stripped of trees during mining operations in the 18th century. Caribou and lynx were present into the early 20th century but were eventually hunted and trapped out. There are no bears on the island, nor does it appear there have ever been any. Brown bears don’t like to swim far, and during winter when the lake might be frozen, they are hibernating. Photo courtesy NPS.
  • Resting just a few feet under the surface in Washington Harbor is the wreck of the steamship 'America.' The 183-foot package freighter brought people, mail, food, supplies, and news from Minnesota to Isle Royale, returning with loads of fresh-caught fish. Many lost a dear friend when it ran aground on June 7, 1928. Today this sunken vessel is protected as a cultural treasure to be seen at a glance from above by pilots and boaters, or, up close by experienced scuba divers who delve deeper. Although 'Voyageur II' has taken over the steamship's route, this Isle Royale icon is certainly not forgotten. Photo courtesy NPS.
  • Isle Royale National Park hosts 165 miles of trails for visitors to enjoy. The park's trails take you step by step to the next scenic vista, to a surprise encounter with a cow moose and her calf, to your campground-home for the night, and many other adventures, both concrete and abstract. Photo courtesy NPS.
  • The Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights, is one of nature’s most amazing sights. Isle Royale is ranked as one of the top locations to view this stunning natural wonder. Photo courtesy Isle Royale Seaplanes Facebook.
  • This is the Menagerie Island lighthouse, which still has a functioning light. It's not a B & B! Photo courtesy NPS.
  • In July, the antlers of a bull moose may grow half an inch daily. Twenty-five to 30 percent of its calorie intake goes straight into antler growth. Large antlers are a sign of superior fitness and impress the ladies. The old adage is true...size matters. Moose are quiet for much of the year, but in fall, the forest echoes with their love songs. Bulls 'grunt,' but the cows have an especially rich repertoire of vocalizations; to hear their singing (also described as wailing or moaning) is an experience not soon forgotten. Photo by Hagerty Ryan, USF&WS, courtesy NPS.
  • The wolves and moose of Isle Royale are known worldwide, and they are the focus of the longest-running study of a predator-prey system in the wild (over 50 years and ongoing). Moose apparently swam to the island and established a population in the early 1900s, and wolves followed during the winter of 1948 to 1949, traveling over the frozen Lake Superior. Unfortunately, with warmer winters due to climate change, the wolf population became isolated and inbred, declining to only two as of 2018. The moose population has now risen to around 1,700. Over the next few years, 20 to 30 wolves will be released on the island to replenish the population, so the moose don’t eat themselves out of house and home. Photo courtesy NPS.
  • You will likely hear the slap of a beaver’s tail on the water just as it dives below, sounding the alarm to your presence, before you see the animal. Wait quietly and the beaver will likely resurface and continue its business. Interestingly, there are only 19 mammal species in Isle Royale, and seven of them are bats. Be thankful for them—a little brown bat eats about 1,000 mosquitoes per hour each night. Photo courtesy NPS.
  • Some folks say animals don’t play, but if you’ve seen river otters in action you might disagree. If you are lucky you just might see one sunbathing on a dock or a pair playfully bobbing near a riverbank. Powerful tails, webbed feet, and long sleek bodies allow otters to propel through the water in pursuit of a tasty snack of fish or frog. Otters belong to the Mustelid, or weasel, family. Other Mustelids present on the island include the marten, mink, and weasel. Photo courtesy NPS.
  • Isle Royale is home to only two snake species: the eastern garter (shown here) and northern red-bellied snake. Neither is dangerous to humans. Photo courtesy NPS.
  • Twenty-five species of warblers migrate through Isle Royale National Park in spring and fall. The black and white warbler, with its striped crown, is one of the easiest to identify. All warblers are insectivores, but each species has its own niche. Black and white warblers have an extra-long hind toe and sharp claws, allowing them to creep up and down tree trunks in search of insect and spider snacks beneath the bark. Photo courtesy NPS.
  • Sunrise at Chippewa Harbor, an idyllic spot on the south shore of Isle Royale National Park. In 1845, a geologist named James Hall visited the area and named it after the local Native Americans. He was almost marooned in the harbor for the winter but managed to cross to the Michigan mainland in a small, open boat. Prior to this, during the island's fur trading era, the entrance to the harbor was known as Eldridge's Inlet. Photo courtesy NPS.

Isle Royale is the least-visited national park in the lower 48 states, averaging around 17,000 visitors per year. It’s also a designated wilderness, so there are no motor vehicles. It therefore offers deep solitude for backpackers, kayakers and canoeists, hikers, and scuba divers. Part of the reason for the low number of visitors is that the park is an island (with many tiny islets around it) in the northwest section of Lake Superior, near the Canadian border, so the only access is via boat or seaplane. Furthermore, the park is only open from April 16 to Oct. 31. The park is closed to all visitors Nov. 1 through April 15.

The two closest airports to Isle Royale are Grand Marais/Cook County in Minnesota and Houghton County Memorial in the Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan. (Read "From copper country to paddling paradise" to learn about visiting Keweenaw.) The park’s two main access points are Rock Harbor, near the island’s northeast end, and Windigo, near the southwest end. Both sites have a visitor’s center, plus canoe and kayak rentals. Ferries offer both overnight and day trips to the island and are 90 minutes to six hours one-way, depending on route and ship chosen (see photos for details).

Airports for land planes are in Grand Marais, Minnesota, and Houghton, Michigan. Grand Marais also has a public seaplane base. Commercial seaplane flights depart from Grand Marais airport or a private seaplane base at Houghton. Ferries depart from Houghton and Copper Harbor in Michigan and Grand Portage, Minnesota. Ferries dock at Windigo and Rock Harbor. Seaplanes dock at Windigo or Tobin Harbor, which is adjacent to Rock Harbor. Map courtesy Canoeing.com.

Rock Harbor offers a full-service lodge with 60 rooms and two restaurants. Each room provides a view of Lake Superior and a private bath, for up to four. Twenty duplex cottages each accommodate six with a private bath and kitchenette. A grocery store stocks camping food and supplies, fishing supplies, and sundries. Amenities are sparser at Windigo: a pair of camper cabins—each with electricity, a barbecue grill, and bunk beds (linens and cooking sets can be rented for a nominal fee)—and a general store. The island also has 36 campgrounds across its 40-mile length. Pets are not allowed in the park.

You can fly your own seaplane to the park (see below) or board a Cessna 206 or de Havilland Beaver with Isle Royale Seaplanes, which provides direct flights from either Grand Marais airport (not the seaplane base) or its private Hancock Portage Canal Seaplane Base. The Hancock location is seven miles southwest of Houghton Memorial, on the Keweenaw Waterway. The company now offers a one-bedroom cabin at its Hancock facility where you can spend the night before your departure to Isle Royale. Destinations include either Windigo or Rock Harbor. They also offer intra-island flights between Windigo and Rock Harbor. Flights are typically 30 to 45 minutes.

Pull up to a pristine beach like this one. Camp and depart the next morning, but 'leave no trace,' please. Photo by Carl TerHaar, courtesy NPS.

Seaplanes may land and dock at three sites in Isle Royale National Park. The locations are shown on the sectional with asterisks but are not named: They are at Windigo (at the southwest end), Tobin Harbor (near Rock Harbor at the northeast end), and Mott Island (3.5 nautical miles southwest of Rock Harbor). Although you may dock at Mott Island, it is a park service administrative base and has no visitor services. Remember that 99 percent of Isle Royale is federally designated wilderness. The park requests that pilots attempt to conduct flight operations over the lake rather than over the land, to minimize noise disruptions to wildlife and wilderness users.

Before departure, pull up Isle Royale on Google Earth to get a better look at the island. Call the park at 906-482-0984 to let them know you’re flying in. This way they can expect you and can let the commercial seaplane pilot know to keep an eye out for you, and you can clarify exactly where to tie up. The Windigo docks are at the far northeast end of Washington Harbor, with Beaver Island in the center. If winds are strong out of the south, you might want to come around to the north side of Beaver Island. Rock Harbor has a large marina that is designed for the ferries and other boating activity, not seaplanes. Tobin Harbor lies just north of Rock Harbor and is sheltered from waves, and that’s where you’ll land. It’s only about a 700-foot walk across the narrow spit of land from Tobin to Rock Harbor. After docking, check in with a ranger at the visitor’s center. Pay the low day-use fee and arrange for your free overnight permit, if you’re staying overnight. There are no fuel services.

What can you see in this beautiful and remote park? Check the photos; if you like what you see, make reservations soon!

The Isle Royale Seaplanes de Havilland Beaver turns base-to-final for Tobin Harbor, the strip of water shown on the right, or north. This will be a landing toward the west. The aircraft is currently over Scoville Point, about 1.5 nautical miles from the landing zone in Tobin Harbor. Rock Harbor is the water on the left. The seaplane will dock on the south side of Tobin Harbor. Photo courtesy Isle Royale Seaplanes.

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Crista Worthy

Crista Videriksen Worthy

Crista Videriksen Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association. To suggest future destination articles, send an email to [email protected]
Topics: US Travel

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