Ditch your car to experience Isle Royale, the least-visited national park in the contiguous U.S.

It's not easy to get to the Michigan park, which is located on an island in Lake Superior and accessible only by seaplane or ferry

Greenery and solitude at Isle Royale National Park. | Photo: Alisha McDarris

I’m standing on the rocky shore of Lake Superior, soaking in the sun and the impossible blue of the sky reflected in the water below. The soles of my boots teeter on the uneven stones, shy ripples tiptoe onto the shore, and the wind chatters through the trees. All the leaves in the forest whisper quietly together at once as the scent of pine ebbs and flows on the breeze. 

And, besides my husband and parents, there isn’t another person lined up to enjoy the view. In fact, we haven’t had to share a lookout or a campsite the entire 7 days we’ve been on the island. I breathe deeply and smile, because I’ve managed to discover at least one national park where you can still find solace in nature—you just have to ditch your car to experience it. This is Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park.

In the last few years my feet have trod trails in many national parks, including Yosemite, Glacier, Arches, Big Bend, and Denali. All of them are majestic destinations brimming with unique wildlife and stunning vistas, wondrous opportunities and magical experiences. But they’re also overflowing with visitors. Campgrounds are booked months in advance, reservations are required at many of the more popular parks, and roads are lined with minivans and traffic jams.

But not at Isle Royale National Park. The least-visited park in the contiguous U.S. still offers a true escape from social media, business calls, and emails, plus miles of natural and unpopulated landscape to explore—partly because visitors can’t just cruise up to the entrance, take a loop around the park, and be on their way. On the contrary, no vehicles are allowed on the island (save for a few maintenance trucks and tractors), which has no roads—it’s accessible by ferry, seaplane, or private boat. Isle Royale is the least-visited park for a reason: It’s not impossible to get there, but it’s not exactly easy either.

entrance sign to Isle Royale national park
Isle Royale is one of the country’s least-visited national parks. | Photo: Shutterstock

The good place

Excited and cold on a brisk June morning, I park my car in a grassy lot in Copper Harbor, Michigan, and board the Isle Royale Queen IV with my husband and parents. After the 3-hour crossing to the island’s Rock Harbor, we try to recover from the rolling motion still rattling our bodies and the Dramamine hangover stifling our brains. We stand in line to register our backcountry plans—the last crowd of people we will see for the next week. And as we leave the port for the Rock Harbor Trail, the beauty and seclusion of the island slowly reveals itself.

Gray skies lend a lush beauty to the green landscape; lichen-covered rocks, a mossy forest floor, black soil, and knotty pines seem to bask and revel in the haze. They come alive in the mist, singing and swaying in weather we might have otherwise wished away.

When the sun finally appears, illuminating the lake in the same vivid blues of the cloudless sky, we stretch out on rocks along the shore. A breeze—one we feel less than we hear—blows and the pines shiver along the shore. The heart-shaped leaves of an Aspen tremble overhead in a sort of silent applause, a quiet appreciation of the lakes, wildlife, and wildflowers below their branches and the birds above.

From high on the Greenstone Ridge Trail that runs the length of the island, at the top of Mount Ojibway (named for the land’s original inhabitants), we stare wide-eyed at miles of undeveloped scenery. This area was originally called Minong, or “the good place.” We gaze at the cerulean expanse that stretches toward Lake Superior’s shores and inhale the smell of pine.

three backpackers hiking through a green wooded forest
The park is full of hiking opportunities. | Photo: Alisha McDarris

A partnership

The first people who lived, hunted, and explored on and around this island were well aware of its beauty, one that the local tribes still help protect. About 10 years ago, the National Park Service (NPS) reached out to the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, acknowledging and designating the island as ancestral land. Now, the care of the island is entrusted to a partnership: The Grand Portage Band assists with natural resource monitoring like moose collaring, wolf introduction, on-the-ground research, and trail maintenance.

“They were the stewards of Isle Royale for generations before we (the NPS) came on the scene, so now it’s time to work with them on stewardship instead of thinking we always know what’s best,” says Liz Valencia, Manager of the Interpretation and Cultural Resources Division for the park.

Together, the two groups have protected a park set so apart that there are only a few times a day—at trail junctions and campgrounds— that we exchange smiles and “hellos” with another hiking party. There’s no cell service or WiFi on the island, offering a true chance to escape.

“It’s a special kind of experience, getting to the island, getting away from your car,” says Valencia. “Isle Royale is more special than a lot of other parks. It takes a lot of work to get there.”

a lake surrounded by green pine trees and a blue sky
The island is only accessible by seaplane or ferry. | Photo: Alisha McDarris

Repeat visitors

The difficulty in arriving is part of what makes Isle Royale so enchanting; because far fewer people are willing to put in the effort to make the trip, even those who prefer to stay in one of the lodges or cabins near the island’s ports instead of backcountry campsites will feel like they have the park to themselves. It requires planning, careful scheduling, and booking tickets on seaplanes or ferries from any of several ports in Michigan and Wisconsin that are, more often than not, sold out months in advance.

Especially since, according to Miranda Kilpela Davis, office manager at the Isle Royale Line that operates out of Copper Harbor, the ferry is only operating at 75 percent capacity this summer due to COVID-19 restrictions (up from 50 percent earlier in the season). As a result, every crossing has been nearly fully-booked all summer long. 

The summer of 2021 is the line’s 50th season, and since it’s a family-run business, Davis has witnessed the uptick in visitors first-hand during the 24 years she’s been actively involved in running it. “Every time a seat opens up, they are just snapped up immediately,” Davis says.

a woman with a backpack stands on a rock surrounded by greenery
Isle Royale sees many return visitors. | Photo: Alisha McDarris

Visitor numbers were lower in 2020 due to park closures and the absence of ferry services; private boats and seaplanes were the only way to get to the island from June to October last year and the park was closed entirely between April and May. But visitor numbers for this June still exceeded 2019. It’s perhaps not surprising, considering the park has seen a steady increase in June visitors since 2014, a trend that more or less carries across all of the country’s national parks.

Davis says there’s a simple reason why: “It’s an amazing place.” And while Isle Royale is one of the least visited national parks, it also claims the most repeat visitors—a testament to its allure and its power to draw people back.

As I board the Isle Royale Queen IV and return to Copper Harbor a week after arriving, my cell phone is still buried somewhere deep in my pack. The warm summer breeze blows through my unwashed hair and the island recedes into the distance. I know it won’t be long before the island calls me back, too.

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