A visit to Isle Royale National Park is on the bucket list for most people who love national parks. Unlike most of the national parks, you can’t get to Isle Royale by road. Instead, you have to travel by ferry or seaplane, both of which are expensive. There is only one place to stay on Isle Royale if you want to stay in a hotel (Rock Harbor) and only one restaurant. Consequently the hotel is often completely booked a year in advance.
Because it is so hard to get to Isle Royale, the average stay is among the longest in the national park system. The average stay is four days, compared to an average visit of four hours at the other national parks. Backpackers and kayakers love the park because visitation is so low, and once away from Rock Harbor, you may not see any other people until you stop for the night at a campground.
Tom and I wanted to go to Isle Royale and figured that this was our best chance. We have four days off per week and we are living at the marina from which the ferry departs. One ferry does day trips while the other ferry circumnavigates the island in a two-day journey. I figured that the hardest thing would be getting reservations at the Rock Harbor Lodge. As soon as our work schedule was set, I called them (you can’t make any of these reservations online). After lots of conversation, we found ONE three night section where we could arrive on a Monday and leave on a Thursday, fitting in to the ferry schedule. This was the only Monday – Thursday time available the rest of the summer. I made the reservation and paid a one night deposit (not refundable).
Then I walked down to the ferry office to make my reservations for that. They told me there was no availability on the Monday I needed, but I could get a ride on the Wednesday ferry. I told them that my reservations were for Monday – Thursday and surely they could find room for two people on the ferry. They were unmoved by my pleas and suggested I drive to Houghton, Michigan where there were still seats available on the ferry. Houghton is 361 miles away.
The ferry from Grand Portage arrives in Rock Harbor at 5 p.m. and leaves at 7 a.m., so going for one night wasn’t worth the money in my opinion. Tom and I talked about it, then I called the Rock Harbor Lodge back and they said they would cancel my reservation (which had not been processed yet) at no charge. Yay!
Tom and I decided to take the ferry out to the island for a day trip. This ferry runs most days and deposits you in Windigo for four hours before heading back to Grand Portage. We could have taken our backpacks and camped for a few nights, but the idea wasn’t very appealing. So we booked two seats on the ferry for last Wednesday and invited Val and Johnny, our fellow adventurers, to join us.
We had a wonderful trip on an absolutely gorgeous day. The ride out was smooth and we arrived at the dock at Windigo on Isle Royale at the promised time. We listened to a ranger talk orienting us to the island, went to the Visitors Center (after visiting the restrooms, of course) so I could get my passport stamp, and then headed out to the Grace Creek Overlook.
There were plenty of other people on the trail – half of the people on the ferry were headed the same place. It was the only trail (four miles) that was an appropriate length for the four hour visit. The Grace Creek overlook trail was a pleasant walk along the shore and then up into the woods. We reached the overlook and decided to sit and eat our packed lunches. We could see the creek, Feldtmann Lake, and Lake Superior. I wanted to hike to the lake but Tom reminded me that the distance was more than it looked from the overlook and we didn’t want to miss the ferry.
We walked back to the Visitors Center, stopping to watch a seaplane land and take off, checked out the Windigo store, and read everything in the small museum at the Visitors Center. Then it was time to leave.
As soon as the boat started out of the harbor, we were completely fogged in. We couldn’t see anything and the temperature dropped about 15 degrees. Fortunately the captain knew where he was going and, with lots of sounding of the ship’s foghorn, we made it back to Grand Portage safely. Turns out the whole day had been foggy and wet at Grand Portage.
We enjoyed our visit to Isle Royale very much. Four hours was plenty at Windigo. I think I would have enjoyed Rock Harbor (I wanted to spend some time kayaking) but I wanted a couple of days there, not just a few hours. Maybe we will do that another time from the Michigan side. There is always more to see.