A few facts about Isle Royale:
- It is the least visited national park in the continental United States.
- It is one of the only national parks in the US which totally closes in the winter, which explains why it gets so few visitors.
- The average length of stay in the park by visitors is the highest of any US national park: 3.5 days. This is due to the large number of people who go backpacking in the park.
- 99% of the park is considered wilderness area.
- It is one of only a small number of US national parks which you cannot drive to, which contributes to the low visitor numbers.
While Isle Royale isn’t horribly difficult to visit, it does require a bit more planning than most national parks do, as you can’t just drive up to the gate.
You have to travel to Isle Royale by boat or sea plane. Private boats and planes can visit, but the vast majority of visitors arrive via one of the ferries.
The ferries come from three different locations:
- Grand Portage, Minnesota. This is the closest American port to the park. Ferries here take about 90 minutes. The cost for adults is $60 round trip.
- Copper Harbor, Michigan. This is a 3 hour ferry ride from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Round trip is $130.
- Houghton, Michigan. This is a 5-6 hour ferry trip. Fare is $106 round trip for adults.
Once you are on the island, you only have a few options. A day trip, camp out in the woods or get a room at the one hotel on the island at Rock Harbor. A room at Rock Harbor runs about $250/night.
If you take a day trip (which I did) you will be limited to how much of the island you can see and explore. You will be limited to the walking distance from the visitor center for the time you are on the island, which is about 4-5 hours.
One of the features of the island which grabs people’s attention is the population of wolves and moose. Neither animal lived on the island prior to 1900. Both naturally found their way to the island by swimming (moose) and/or walking when Lake Superior froze over.
The population of both species goes up and down in an inverse relationship with each other in classic textbook fashion.
It is a very different sort of park, but one which draws those who love the wilderness and remote places.
Why Isle Royale National Park is One of the Least Visited?
This is one of the biggest mysteries for those who have visited Isle Royale National Park in Michigan. Even though it is one of the least visited national parks, it is also one of the most re-visited. Obviously, only those who have been here are able to fully appreciate it.
The Lake Superior is one of the main features of the park. The island itself has formed out of lava flow that was sculpted by glaciers for thousands of years. Due to the depth, behavior, and the size of the lake, this makes the island highly isolated. It is currently accessible via boat or plane only. The remoteness and wilderness of the park contribute to making it difficult to visit.
Climate is another factor to consider. Isle Royale National Park features the quintessential northern climate. It can be impossible to travel here during winter months. Therefore, it is the only national park managed by the US National Park Services that is closed entirely during winter. When it opens back in May, the national park transforms and comes into life.