Sunday, October 1, 2017

Where in the World is Isle Royale National Park? And How Do You Get There?

Here it is.  Isle Royale National Park—(black arrow)—
is encompassed and dwarfed by Lake Superior.
Green hatched lines show ferry routes to the park.

         Three things have long intrigued me about Isle Royale National Park:

         1) The entire park is a designated wilderness area.
         2) It’s one of the least-visited national parks, getting fewer people in a year than Yellowstone gets in a day.
         3) Isle Royale is remote.  Surrounded as it is by the vast inland sea that is Lake Superior, it's not easy to get to.

         To visit this national park, you have to really want to go. 
         And I really wanted to go.

         Now, how to get there?   Three different ships sail to Isle Royale and they're all on different schedules.  A seaplane serves the island but its schedule is highly dependent on weather conditions.  Coordinating my itinerary with available transportation to and from the island was like solving a puzzle.  

         The dizzying array of transportation choices are shown and described below.  See the map above to locate the various ports and seaplane bases.   See the map below for island details.

Isle Royale Seaplane

The seaplane can be chartered from Houghton, Michigan or Grand Portage, Minnesota.
Here, the plane lands on the relatively protected waters of Tobin Harbor
on the eastern edge of the island.

Passengers ready to board at the Tobin Harbor "terminal".  No TSA!

The Isle Royale Queen

"The Queen" sails out of Copper Harbor, Michigan and makes its three hour run
every day.  The ride on this ship is described as nausea-inducing.

The Voyageur II

The Voyageur II sails from Grand Portage, Minnesota and typically provides service
around the entire island every two days.  It does not run on Fridays.

The Ranger III

The Ranger III sails into Rock Harbor.  This 165 foot sea-worthy vessel
was built in 1958 and has been serving the national park service ever since.
The Ranger III arrives in Rock Harbor on Tuesdays and Fridays and
departs on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Let's review the options.

         The Seaplane?  Because of the unpredictable weather and my inherent fear of small planes, the seaplane is out.
         The Isle Royale Queen?  Having read the Queen described as "The Barf Wagon of the Sea", I don't think so.
         The Voyageur II?  Its schedule did not fit ours and I wanted to leave from Michigan and not Minnesota.  And besides, just look at it!

         Two other (not practical for us) transportation choices were available.  The Sea Hunter III sails from Grand Portage, Minnesota to Windigo Harbor but does not continue on to Rock Harbor, home to the Visitor Center, lodge and restaurants.
         Also, you may paddle your own kayak or canoe to Isle Royale from the mainland.  This has been done exactly twice since the park was established in 1940.  Lake Superior has recorded 40 foot waves, so this option seems either very brave, or very foolish.

         After careful deliberation I chose the vessel operated by the National Park Service.  The Ranger III—the largest passenger ferry service to the park—is also the largest moving piece of equipment owned and operated by the National Park Service.   Note that large is the operative word here.  Lake Superior is notorious for its storms and rough seas and, as I am prone to extreme motion sickness, a sturdy mode of transport seemed the logical choice.

The Ranger III as seen from our hotel across the street on the morning of
our departure.  The Ranger III sails from Houghton, Michigan and makes
its six-hour trip across Lake Superior twice a week from early June
until early September.

Luggage and kayaks are loaded on the Ranger III before the passengers board.

Please click on this map to enlarge and view details
of Isle Royale.

         The pieces have come together, the puzzle has been solved and Tim and I have arrived at the park.  
         Why the passive construct (Never use the passive voice!) in the previous sentence, and throughout this post?  After researching this trip, my active voice was exhausted.
          Rest assured that voice will return in the next post, where I'll describe what to see and do in Isle Royale National Park.


  1. I can't wait for the return to present tense! I hope it comes without any seasickness. :)

    What an intriguing post - I'm going to ask my Michigan friends if they know about Isle Royale or have been there.

    1. Hi Vickie!

      I took my dramamine and so my active voice will return without seasickness!

      I would imagine, or hope, that most people in Michigan have at least heard of Isle Royale but it is definitely NOT one of the better known or visited national parks.
      Many of my friends here in Utah—all active folks—hadn't heard of it and had no idea where it was.
      I would be interested to know if any of your MI friends have been to Isle Royale.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. A very informative blog posting, Rita!

    Although I have heard of Isle Royale National Park, I’ve never been there. But, I suppose that’s not overly surprising, especially considering the statistic you quoted, i.e. Isle Royale gets fewer visitors in a year than Yellowstone gets in a day! Amazing!

    I very much look forward to your next posting, where you'll describe what to see and do in Isle Royale National Park.


    1. Yes, it is amazing how few people there are in Isle Royale N.P. Of course, that's one of the reasons that I had to go!
      I'm happy to hear that you're looking forward to the next post and I'm hopeful that you'll find it entertaining!
      Thanks, John!

  3. This is so interesting to me, Rita, that I didn't notice the passive voice until you pointed it out, and then I didn't care. (Actually, I probably wouldn't have noticed you'd gone passive even if I'd been uninterested!) I'm impressed with your careful, time-consuming research before you travel. I think it's one of the reasons your trips work out so well for you. It's a skill you have. After examining the options, I think I would have been on the same boat as you, though a six hour trip seems daunting. I'm eager to hear how it went and what you experience on the island. It sounds like a place my husband would love.

  4. Thanks, Janet, for not noticing my breaking of one the "rules for writers". I think I read too many how-to books!
    And thanks for the compliment about my extensive research of vacation destinations. You're right, my trips usually do work out. This one though, was especially challenging and required a lot of logistics.
    After I publish photos and experiences from the island, I'll be interested to hear what you and Joel think of the place.

  5. Hi Rita! Just opened blogger and came across your intriguing preliminaries!
    What was it like in the Ranger III, you must post some of the inside pics and then, main course is still in the oven hmmm

    1. Hi Soumyendu!

      The Ranger III proved to be a good ride across the formidable Lake Superior. We had mostly calm seas and good weather. I'll post a pic from inside the cabin in my next post.

      I like the way you refer to my follow-up piece as being "in the oven". I hope it turns out to be well-done!

      Thanks for commenting!