Friday, April 9, 2010

Isle Royale National Park

Only people who really want to go to Isle Royale National Park in Michigan go there. As an island in Lake Superior, it is one of the more isolated National Parks. It is often said that more people visit Yellowstone in a day than visit Isle Royale in a year.  It takes quite a bit of time and money to get there, even if you are already in the area. For the boat ride and one night in the lodge, we spent $500. Moreover, if you do not want to hike, there is not much point in going. There is no single “must-see” sight in the park, but rather it is a place of quiet wilderness. Other than the lodge and a few facilities at Rock Harbor, the island consists of trees, rocks, water, moose, wolves, and backpacking trails. The Greenstone Trail, traversing the length of the island, is well-known among backpackers, and Isle Royale is something of a backpacker’s paradise.  Backpackers, of course, do not have to worry about the cost of the lodge. Money and time aside, it is a thrill to take a boat across Lake Superior, the greatest of the Great Lakes. It is an even bigger thrill to be on a wilderness island in the lake.

The usual way to get to Isle Royale is by boat, though you can also take a seaplane. From Michigan, you can start in either Houghton or Copper Harbor. The trip from Copper Harbor to Rock Harbor on a commercial boat takes three and a half hours. The trip from Houghton on a park service boat is noticeably longer, though the drive is shorter. I like Copper Harbor and I really did not want to spend six hours in the boat each way, so the decision to leave from Copper Harbor was quite easy for me. Additionally, on the way there you pass by the Jampot, where monks sell muffins that must weigh five pounds each. On the subject of food, another attraction of Copper Harbor is the Harbor Haus Restaurant. You can also get to Isle Royale from Grand Portage, Minnesota. The trip is only about two and a half hours, but it goes to Windigo on the western tip of the island. If you want to get to Rock Harbor, you have to sail the length of the island, and the trip takes seven hours.

After arriving in Rock Harbor, orienting ourselves, and eating lunch, we started hiking the Tobin Harbor Trail to the Mount Franklin Trail, a ten-mile round trip. For a while, the hike was not so great. The trees on Isle Royale are not very good looking, and frankly, the trail was ugly. However, we came upon a pretty little beaver pond, which improved things considerably. All grumbling was dispelled upon reaching the top of Mount Franklin. It is perhaps the best view this side of Glacier National Park, and it opens up suddenly. We could see the island below us, Lake Superior beyond that, and then on the Ontario coast was the Sleeping Giant. The Sleeping Giant was a particular thrill for me, since I had seen the other side of it when I was up in Thunder Bay several years before. To top things off, we saw a moose standing offshore in Tobin Harbor on the way back.

The Rock Harbor Lodge is right on the edge of the water, and we could hear the water through our window as we went to sleep. The reflection of the moon on the water was beautiful.  It is not the nicest lodge we have stayed in, but it probably has the best location. The next morning we hiked to Scovill Point, a five-mile round trip. It is the end of the spit that separates Rock Harbor and Tobin Harbor. This was a nice walk in the woods with good views of Lake Superior. Fresh dew covered many of the plants. The point itself is pretty much solid rock with very little soil. If you have ever been to the coast of Maine, you will feel right at home on Isle Royale. After a final lunch at the lodge, we took the boat back to Copper Harbor. As we approached the town, the anticipation mounted; the Harbor Haus staff traditionally does a can-can for the returning boat. Sure enough, they all ran out and danced for us - a fun way to return to civilization.

One last thing - Royale is pronounced as Royal, not Roy-AL.

My visit: August 2008

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