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I went to one of the least-visited national parks in the US: Here’s why I already want to return

Sept. 12, 2022
15 min read
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Imagine hiking to the most famous lookout in a national park at sunset during one of the busiest travel seasons of the year only to find no people, no noise and no evidence people had even been there. For most of my life, I thought that was a far-fetched dream.

Then, I discovered Isle Royale National Park.

Isle Royale is one of the least-visited national parks in the U.S., averaging around 20,000 visitors per year, according to the National Park Service website. By comparison, the most-visited park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, received 14.1 million visitors in 2021.

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But the lack of visitors isn’t due to a lack of beauty.

CAPRI WHITELEY/THE POINTS GUY

A quick Google search alone proves the park is stunning. It's miles of pristine wilderness: bright green birch, spruce and pine trees line the rocky shores, and the sunlight glistens across the still water in the harbor. It looks like something out of a fairy tale. But Lake Superior, which makes the park so captivating, is also what makes it so challenging to reach. Isle Royale is 18 miles off the coast of Minnesota and 56 miles from mainland Michigan, with no roads, no bridges, no permanent residences and almost no contact with the rest of civilization.

From the moment I first learned about Isle Royale, it piqued my curiosity. I had to know if this national park was worth the long and complicated journey to get there and if it lived up to all those stunning photos.

Spoiler alert: I’m already planning a trip back.

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Planning a trip to Isle Royale National Park

Isle Royale was established as the nation's 25th national park in 1940 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. More than 99% of the land is designated wilderness, according to the park's website, which also helped it earn its status as a U.S. Biosphere Reserve for global scientific and educational studies.

The chilly waters of Lake Superior act as a barrier that prevents new wildlife from reaching the island, making it the perfect naturally controlled environment for researchers to study the animal and plants that thrive there. The unique archipelago is kept pristine by the limited amount of visitors, as well as the fact that the park is closed from Nov. 1 to April 15 every year due to extreme winter weather conditions.

CAPRI WHITELEY/THE POINTS GUY

The park has no roads and vehicles are forbidden, but it has 165 miles of scenic hiking trails and 36 campgrounds for backpackers and recreational boaters.

One of the reasons Isle Royale National Park is one of the least-visited national parks in the U.S. is its extremely remote location. There are three ways to get to the park: ferry, seaplane or private charter boat. I was unable to find any private charter boats, so unless you already own a boat on Lake Superior you want to take, the third option is likely out of the picture.

Both the ferry and seaplane operate out of northeast Minnesota (Grand Portage or Grand Marais) or the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (Houghton or Copper Harbor) from May through September. Passengers can book a ticket to either of the visitor center locations — in Windigo, on the west side of the park, or Rock Harbor, on the east side of the park.

The ferry is the most affordable way to visit Isle Royale, ranging in price from $92 round trip per person for a day trip from Grand Portage, Minnesota, to Windigo, to $210 round trip per person for an overnight stay on Isle Royale from Grand Portage to Rock Harbor. Depending on where you’re starting from and going, the ride can take anywhere from two to five hours.

In true #AvGeek fashion, I, of course, opted for the seaplane.

A long but scenic journey

My trusty travel partner and I drove 4.5 hours from Minneapolis to the Grand Marais Airport (GRM). While the first half of the trip was what you’d expect from a Midwest highway drive (corn fields, McDonald’s and mom-and-pop gas stations), the last two hours are along one of the most scenic drives in the region: Highway 61, also known as Voyagers Highway.

This stretch of road takes you along the coast of Lake Superior and past over a dozen state parks, nature centers, public beaches and scientific and natural areas.

At Grand Marais Airport travelers enjoy a blissfully easy air travel experience: No waiting in line at security, no checking a bag (although we were limited to 45 pounds for baggage; not that they checked) and a simple living room-style setup to hang out in. The one and only airport employee asked if we were there for the Isle Royale seaplane and didn’t even bother to check our IDs after I said yes. Parking at the airport was free, although if you fly out of Houghton, Michigan, it costs $6 per day for normal vehicles and $12 per day for oversized vehicles.

For $414 you get a round-trip flight from Grand Marais to Rock Harbor on Isle Royale, the location of the island's sole accommodations. The flight is around 45 minutes, depending on the wind, with up to five other passengers plus a pilot. We lucked out on the way there and had the plane to ourselves. Despite some wind coming over the mountains north of Grand Marais, the flight was smooth — and stunning.

We spent most of the time taking photographs and videos while chatting with the pilot, Billy, over our headsets. A commercial seaplane pilot who has flown at many national parks from Maine to Alaska, he claims the flight into Isle Royale is the most beautiful he's ever seen. You can see the rocky coast of Minnesota behind you, the Canadian coast to the north, a bright blue Lake Superior below you and Isle Royale on the horizon.

CAPRI WHITELEY/THE POINTS GUY

We landed in Tobin Harbor and pulled up to the dock, eager to officially set foot in the national park. Since we were staying at Rock Harbor Lodge, an employee from the lodge met us on the dock and offered to take our bags to our room.

From there, we walked an eighth of a mile up a not very accessible hill trail from the dock to a white tent next to the Rock Harbor Visitors Center. We grabbed a map of the area and confirmed we had paid our National Park fee, which is typical $7 per person per day, but was covered by my America The Beautiful Annual Pass, which provides access to all national parks and federal recreation lands at a price of $80 for 12 months.

Once signed in, we walked another 100 yards to the Rock Harbor Lodge office to check in for our two-night stay.

Checking in to the island's only lodge

CAPRI WHITELEY/THE POINTS GUY

The only lodge in Isle Royale comprises four large cabin buildings with 15 rooms each, all looking out over Lake Superior. There are also 10 “Housekeeping Cabins” available for rent away from the main lodge area that trade the Lake Superior view for some wooded privacy along with a kitchenette, refrigerator and the ability to house up to six people.

Booking for the Housekeeping Cabins and Lakeside Lodge rooms is available online or by phone, ranging in price per night before taxes from $252 for a cabin to $379 for a suite. If you are opting for a more rugged nature experience, there are 36 campgrounds throughout the park and plenty of spots for backpackers to set up camp along the longer trails. As long as you're traveling in a group of fewer than seven people, no special permits are required.

I opted for a Lakeside Lodge double room at $258 per night, as that was the only option available when booking and was perfect for two people. Travelers are encouraged to book a room at least two months in advance, although you can book up to a year in advance and often need to if you’re looking to book a specific week — next summer, for example, is already starting to sell out. Luck was on my side as I booked the only room available for the rest of the summer in mid-July.

CAPRI WHITELEY/THE POINTS GUY

Check-in was at the office right at the marina, where they quickly jotted down my information and handed me my room key, which was a literal key with my cabin number taped to it. Not necessarily high security, but with such a small number of visitors and few ways to reach the island, it wasn't surprising.

I expected to feel like I was roughing it while at Isle Royale, but I was incredibly pleased to find out that would not be the case.

While you shouldn’t expect the Four Seasons, the room was incredibly clean and well maintained.

The decor had a simple but fitting log cabin vibe considering the National Park’s location and had everything to make our stay comfortable — plus a stunning view to make it unforgettable. I was especially impressed with the eight perfectly fluffy pillows we were supplied – something that, for me, can make or break a hotel experience.

The bathroom had a vintage feel but had all the space we needed. It felt especially luxurious when you consider that most people visiting the park either use the public camping showers or don’t shower at all. There was no hair dryer and only a small space to put any toiletries, but it was fine for two people. I hadn’t expected any complimentary toiletries but was impressed to find some luxurious looking, albeit mismatched, O2 oxygen collection and PAYA body lotion, body wash, shampoo and conditioner waiting for us. The shower pressure was strong and the water was hot, which was all we needed after our long outdoor days.

CAPRI WHITELEY/THE POINTS GUY

The only missing things were a minifridge, a microwave and air conditioning, which would’ve been nice but weren't necessary. The temperature never rose above 75 degrees Fahrenheit (it rarely does all year) and the windows had screens that allowed the breeze to come in while keeping the bugs out. The lodge had an ice machine, so you could make a mini cooler if you needed it. And if you were hungry, you could head to the Greenstone Grill next door.

Related: Exploring national parks in 2022: Where to stay using points

Dining

CAPRI WHITELEY/THE POINTS GUY

Isle Royale has only one restaurant, Greenstone Grill, and beneath the name on the front windows are the words “brews, burgers, bliss.” I am happy to report it delivered on that promise.

My mother always told me, you “get what you get and don’t throw a fit.” After all, having a hot meal you don’t have to cook yourself after a day of outdoor activities is already a treat.

But Greenstone Grill delivered some of the best food I've ever eaten at a state or national park.

The menu ranged from pizza and burgers to fried fish sandwiches made with fish caught in Lake Superior. It even had my personal favorite, pasties. A historically British dish that looks like a calzone and tastes like a pot pie, you can typically only find this Midwestern staple in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula — filled with ground beef, vegetables and potatoes, and wrapped in a puff pastry-style baked dough.

There was also a range of grab-and-go food with salads, sandwiches and desserts including what my travel companion claimed was the “best chocolate cake in the world.”

Yes, that is a direct, unedited quote.

My favorite spot to eat was on the outdoor patio, and though there wasn't a full bar, it did offer three different beer and wine choices — you could even order wine bottles to go and bring back to your room or campsite.

Activities

Most visitors come to Isle Royale mainly to be immersed in nature. While I wasn’t quite adventurous enough to backpack the 42.2-mile iconic Greenstone Ridge trail, there were still plenty of hikes around the lodge.

After check-in and an early dinner, we set off on Stoll Memorial Trail to Scoville Point. As the most popular trail in Rock Harbor, the scenic 4.2-mile journey takes you along Lake Superior and out to a point with gorgeous views and tons of opportunities to see wildlife. I didn’t spot any of the island's well-known moose residents, but I did find moose footprints along with a fox and dozens of bird and bug species (and yes, bug spray is recommended.)

Perhaps the best part of the hike was the lack of other people. During the entire two-hour hike, we only passed three other people, which is unheard of on a popular trail at a national park.

The following morning we had tickets for The Sandy, Rock Harbor’s vintage sightseeing boat, for $37.85 round trip, to take a ride around the peninsula over to an area across the harbor called Hidden Lake.

The lake is a favorite hangout spot for moose, and also marks the start of a 2.2-mile out-and-back hike up to Lookout Louise. The approximate 300 feet of elevation gain was rewarded with views of the island’s north side along with Canada’s Sleeping Giant Provincial Park.

We then enjoyed a leisurely boat ride back as the captain pointed out bald eagle nests on the shoreline and told us stories of Isle Royale’s ancient copper mining days. We were told that mining began on the island more than 4,500 years ago by indigenous peoples. The most recent mining period came when European immigrants arrived between 1843 to 1855, and you can see evidence of their presence along multiple hikes in the park.

That afternoon we embarked on a half-day canoe trip. We walked down to the marina dock attendant’s office and paid $23 for a four-hour rental. After precariously getting our canoe off the rack and dropping it in the water, we paddled eight miles along the scenic shoreline of Tobin Harbor, watching loons dive for fish and stopping at rocky beaches to search for the famous green stones that inspired the name of our new favorite restaurant.

The dock attendant also offers kayak and fishing boat rentals for full and half days, though you are restricted to Tobin Harbor.

CAPRI WHITELEY/THE POINTS GUY

Once the sun went down, the stars came out. There was a glowing full moon during my stay, which was stunning but overpowered the shine of the stars. Even more stunning were the sunrises and sunsets we watched through our cabin window.

Related: The 20 national parks every traveler needs to see at least once

Overall experience

Isle Royale is the most remote national park I've ever visited. So much of the park was completely untouched, and the few park visitors have shown care in keeping it that way.

While the hikes were incredible and the views were stunning, it was, ironically, the people that made the trip so memorable. Both the staff members we met as well as the other visitors were so passionate about the park. Everyone was always happy to offer tips and suggestions and nearly every person I met said they were repeat visitors.

Some even claimed to spend 30 to 45 days at the park each summer soaking in all of its natural beauty.

While this park is not easy to get to, it was well worth the journey, which was, in itself, beautiful. The seaplane ride was one of the coolest experiences I've ever had and I'd love to experience it again, although I might try out the ferry next time just to see how it compares. And while I'm sure camping and backpacking would be an incredible time, I'll stick to the basic but comfortable Rock Harbor Lodge. I would love to stay longer during my next trip to explore the more remote ends of the island — and maybe I'll finally find the local moose population grazing next to Beaver Island in Windigo.

Either way, I already can’t wait to go back next time I’m in the Midwest.

Featured image by CAPRI WHITELEY/THE POINTS GUY
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
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    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

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The Citi Premier’s 3 points per dollar spent across a wide range of popular categories is one of the more lucrative offerings in the world of points and miles. The Citi Premier comes with a $95 annual fee and is currently offering a solid sign up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months. It also has some valuable transfer partners to make the most of your rewards. Add in access to Citi Entertainment plus a $100 hotel credit for any single-stay hotel booking that exceeds $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through the Citi travel website, there are few reasons why the Citi Premier should not be in every traveler’s wallet.

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  • Points transfer to 16 airline programs, from JetBlue to Virgin Atlantic.
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  • Lacks travel protections that other travel rewards cards come with
  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
  • No expiration and no limit to the amount of points you can earn with this card
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases