Isle Royale National Park

Isle Royale National Park 25 thousand visitors annually

Isle Royale National Park is the largest island in Lake Superior is a place of isolation and wilderness. Along with its many shipwrecks, waterways, and hiking trails, the park also includes over 400 smaller islands within 4.5 miles (7.2 km) of its shores. There are only 20 mammal species on the entire island, though the relationship between its wolf and moose populations is especially unique.


The current land mass of Isle Royale is the result of a geologic syncline that formed the Lake Superior basin

The current land mass of Isle Royale is the result of a geologic syncline (a fold in rock layers) that formed the Lake Superior basin. One end of the fold forms Isle Royale, while the other forms the Keweenaw Peninsula. There are two major bedrock formations on the island: the Portage Lake Lava series, covering about 85% of the island, and the Copper Harbor Conglomerates, covering about 15% of the island. These geologic formations were modified by four glacial periods, with the last ice-advance occurring some 12,000 years ago. This ice-advance altered the ridges and valleys, leaving a relatively thin mantle of glacial deposits, which are only a few inches to about 4 feet in depth. The thinnest deposits are usually located near the present day shorelines of Lake Superior. As the glacier retreated from the Lake Superior basin, its subsequent melt waters began to create many distinct lakes.

Prior to Lake Superior were two major lake levels that influenced the soils on Isle Royale. Evidence of these different lake levels and the landforms they created is found throughout the island, but it is most obvious on the western end. Beach ridges, wave cut terraces, and barrier bars are numerous around Feldtmann Lake, Grace Harbor, and in the Siskiwit River basin.

The soils of Isle Royale are greatly influenced by their parent material (bedrock), climate, vegetation, chemical changes, time, and by the activity of earthworms and other living organisms. Changing lake levels and deposition of soil components by wind are also important factors that modify soils on the island.

Lowland soils comprise about 20% of the island. They are typically over four feet in depth, are generally very poorly drained, and are formed from woody or herbaceous vegetation. Upland soils comprise most of the soil deposits on the island. They are usually well-drained on the ridges, with deeper soils on the more gradual south slopes and shallower soils on the steeper north slopes. Hiking trails often traverse the many places where bedrock is exposed and there is little or no soil horizon.

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Photo courtesy of NPS

Native American History

Home of the Ojibwa, Cree, and Assiniboin peoples

Nineteenth-century documentation clearly indicates that an aboriginal population that included Ojibwa, Cree, and Assiniboin groups was present on the north shore of Lake Superior in the area of the “Great Carrying Place” (Grand Portage) and near the mouth of the Kaministiquia River at Fort William (present day Thunder Bay, Ontario). From the last quarter of the eighteenth century into the first half of the nineteenth century the depots of the North West Company and (after the merger in 1821) the Hudson’s Bay Company at this location served as cultural and economic centers for the surrounding region for Euroamericans and Native Americans alike.

The use of Isle Royale’s resources by native groups was nonintensive, consisting mainly of hunting and fishing by small single or multifamily groups originating from the north shore. The native and Metis population remaining at Grand Portage continued to exploit the island’s resources. After 1836, when the American Fur Company (AFC) expanded its operations to include commercial fishing, were much sought after for their knowledge and expertise in the local fishery (Cochrane n.d.). Ojibwa men and women were employed by the AFC; the men engaged in fishing, and the women processed the catch. Most of the AFC fishing establishments on Isle Royale coincided with prior aboriginal sites and, after the termination of AFC fishing in 1841, these sites were subsequently reoccupied as seasonal sites by native groups. The Treaty of LaPointe (1842 and 1844) ceded Isle Royale to the US. Government, altering but not eliminating native interests in Isle Royale.

There is sketchy evidence for a trading post of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) on the island at Hay Bay although there is no clear documentation in support of this. A.C. Lane’s (1898) geological report, which referred to an HBC establishment at this location, seems to be the basis for the persistence of the tradition. This location could not be further clarified through field survey or by archival research.

Ives reported the location of an Indian maple sugaring camp on Red Oak Ridge or Sugar Mountain near the Island Mine. Sarah Barr Christian’s diary relates a trip she made to a sugaring camp “on the north side of the island” (Christian 1932). The identification of historic period aboriginal sites poses special problems. The almost wholesale adoption of goods of non- native manufacture renders the occupation and resource, utilization sites of Native Americans nearly invisible archeologically. Differences in fish processing techniques, where heads and tails are left with the body, may be a clue to an aboriginal site. But in most instances this distinction will be very difficult to support empirically.

With the legal cession of land to the United States Government in 1842, Isle Royale underwent the surveying necessary for its ultimate disposition to various mining concerns (e.g., Ives 1847). As Ives was gridding out the island, prospecting and mine openings were already underway. The first rush for copper began in 1846 but was nearly played out by 1850, the Siskowit Mine closing in 1855. Following the Civil War an increase in the price of copper caused a second rush, beginning in 1871.

It was during this period that the Minong and Island mines were opened. But the rush was, like the first, short lived, with most mines closed by 1879. A final attempt to extract a profit in copper was made in 1889-1890 by the Wendigo Company, but it too was forced to abandon its operations by 1892 (Rakestraw l967a).

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Park History

How Isle Royale became a National Park

Is the Rock Harbor Lighthouse just a big, empty stone building? How about the Kemmer cottage in Tobin Harbor? Is it just another old Cabin along the shore? The smell of coffee and bread may not waft from the cabin as it did when Elizabeth Kemmer (EK) lived there and the Rock Harbor lighthouse may not be bustling with the activity of the Johnson fishing family anymore, but the stories are still there. Cabins aren’t just wood and shingles nailed together. They are the remnants of an important history that help us find out about Isle Royale and possibly also about ourselves.

There are stories everywhere. If you stand at the top of the cliffs at Passage Island lighthouse, you stand in the footsteps of 100 years of lightkeepers and assistant lightkeepers, watching the lake and trying to keep ships safe. If you stood with the Passage lightkeepers on a stormy December night in 1906, you would have shared their concern and wonder as they saw something near Blake’s Point. “Is it a fire? It’s December, how can there be a fire over there? As soon as these waves calm down a bit, I’ll take the rowboat and check it out.” Two days later, you might have joined the assistant keeper as he set out to find the answer to their questions. You might have been with him when he discovered the wrecked ship, Monarch, and helped initiate the rescue of her passengers and crew.

Why do we need to keep these places? Can’t we just write down the stories and leave it at that? The sites provide the tangible resources that can link us to the stories and history of the island. The memory of EK remains because her cabin is still here, otherwise we might forget about her. The Passage Island lighthouse stands strong as a reminder of the thousands of mariners who have passed by the island and those who are still passing by. We have to do our best to preserve the sites so we can also preserve the stories and memories of a way of life that came before us. Nothing can compare to standing on the dock at Wright Island, feeling the fresh lake air, watching a moose across the harbor, and hearing the distant call of a loon. We can’t just write down that Ingeborg Holte used to stand here and watch the sun rise. We need to be able to stand here too so we can feel at least a little what it was like for her. Being able to stand in the same spot connects us to the past in a way that words simply cannot.

Without the visible – cabins, docks, landscapes – we might forget about the history and those who were here before us. We need these tangible reminders to link us to the past. We need these places because they can take us away from our lives for awhile, for a few minutes or a few days, and let us connect to a different time, away from modern distractions – a place where we can go for peace of mind and memories.

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Photo courtesy of NPS


The best things to do in Isle Royale National Park

There are three main points of entry to Isle Royale National Park:

Houghton, Michigan
(park’s mainland headquarters)

Rock Harbor
(on the northeast end of the island)

(on the southwest end of the island)

Each has a visitor center and numerous services and amenities it offers. From Rock Harbor or Windigo, Isle Royale’s backcountry trails, campgrounds, docks, and anchorages can be reached.

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Photo courtesy of NPS


Balsam fir, white spruce, paper birch, aspen, and mountain ash are typical boreal forest trees that grow along Isle Royale’s rugged shoreline

Lake Superior has shaped Isle Royale National Park’s rugged rocky shore and created its isolation. Balsam fir, white spruce, paper birch, aspen, and mountain ash are typical boreal forest trees that grow along Isle Royale’s rugged shoreline. Common Isle Royale shrubs include bearberry, prickly rose, juniper, and mountain ash, all of which grow in drier rocky areas. You can find leatherleaf, bog laurel, bog rosemary, and labrador tea thriving in boggy areas, while tag alder and sweet gale dominate other wetlands. Isle Royale is home to over 600 flowering plants which range in size from tiny duckweeds floating in inland ponds to majestic white pines reigning on its ridges.

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Photo courtesy of NPS

Animal Life

The island’s isolation makes immigration difficult for most animals, creating simple ecosystems

As we paddle through the mist of Lake Ritchie, a loon calls, or was it a wolf? Some loon calls sounds similar to a wolf’s howl. There is an abrupt splash behind us. The boat rocks as we turn to look. Perhaps we startled a beaver, a duck or an otter. We stop paddling but the canoe continues to drift.

The tops of conifers and paper birch are barely discernable through the quiet morning fog. The sloshing we hear on the far shore can only be a moose. Yes, we see it now, climbing from the boggy marsh near the Indian Portage Trail. It is a cow, with a calf in tow, now tromping through the abundant thimbleberry that covers the ground. The moose sometimes threaten to strain their own limited food supply. A walk along most trails will reveal evidence of this in the form of “moose browse” – trees and shrubs pruned into odd or stunted shapes by years of feeding.

Later, the mist clears and an osprey circles high above, its eyes keenly scanning for fish in the waters below. It soars ever higher, over the Greenstone Ridge toward Canada and the northern shores of Lake Superior. The day warms and insects take flight along with the songbirds that feed on them. While traversing the portage trail into Siskiwit Lake we see a small, copper-brown figure retreat across the forest floor – a red-bellied snake; then at the lakeshore we watch as painted turtles bask on a log in the sunshine. At the end of the day, while watching stars rise and circle above, bats begin their evening flights.

Isle Royale’s wilderness provides habitat for many creatures. The island’s isolation makes immigration difficult for most animals, creating simple ecosystems. All of Isle Royale’s creatures create their own natural survival/extinction saga. As recent as 1927, caribou and coyote dotted the landscape. The island is now devoid of these creatures, having given way to other species such as moose and wolves.

The island was once called Minong by past cultures, which means “a good place.” However, humans have rarely called the island home, and even now the park is closed during winter months due to harsh and dangerous conditions on Lake Superior. Although direct human intrusions are limited even in the busy summer months, from October to April the animals reign at Isle Royale. So step inside for a closer view; Minong awaits.

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Photo courtesy of NPS

Hiking Trails

The best places to hike in Isle Royale National Park

Day hiking is an excellent way to explore Isle Royale National Park. There are a number of short and long hikes available in both the Rock Harbor and Windigo areas. Be sure to bring a daypack with water, snacks, rain gear, and a first aid kit. The terrain at Isle Royale is rough and uneven; be sure to wear sturdy boots or tennis shoes that are broken in. Safety always come first when exploring Isle Royale’s backcountry..

Day Trip

Don’t have enough time for an overnight visit to Isle Royale National Park? Visit for the day! Some ferries offer day trips to Rock Harbor on the northeast end of the island, and Windigo on the southwest end.

Rock Harbor Day Trip
The Isle Royale Queen IV offers day trips to Rock Harbor on the northeast end of Isle Royale National Park. After arriving on the ferry, visitors spend three hours exploring the island. Isle Royale Seaplanes also offers day trip service to Rock Harbor.

The Rock Harbor area offers many services and activities for those on the day trip.

Windigo Day Trip
The Seahunter III offers day trips to Windigo on the southwest end of Isle Royale National Park. After arriving on the ferry, visitors spend four hours exploring the island. Isle Royale Seaplanes also offers day trip service to Windigo.

The Windigo area offers many services and activities for those on the day trip.

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Photo courtesy of NPS

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