Isle Royale National Park

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Isle Royale National Park
IUCN category Ib (wilderness area)
Isle Royale aerial.jpg
An aerial view of Isle Royale
Map showing the location of Isle Royale National Park
Map showing the location of Isle Royale National Park
Location Keweenaw County, Michigan, USA
Nearest city Thunder Bay, Ontario
Coordinates 48°6′0″N 88°33′0″W / 48.10000°N 88.55000°W / 48.10000; -88.55000Coordinates: 48°6′0″N 88°33′0″W / 48.10000°N 88.55000°W / 48.10000; -88.55000
Area 571,790 acres (2,314.0 km2)[1]
Established April 3, 1940
Visitors 18,684 (in 2015)[2]
Governing body National Park Service
Website Isle Royale National Park
Detailed map of Isle Royale National Park.

Isle Royale National Park is a U.S. National Park on Isle Royale and adjacent islands in Lake Superior, in the state of Michigan. Isle Royale National Park was established on April 3, 1940; designated as a National Wilderness Area in 1976; and made an International Biosphere Reserve in 1980. The park covers 894 square miles (2,320 km2), with 209 square miles (540 km2) above water. At the Canada–US border, it meets the borders of the Canadian Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area.


Isle Royale, the largest island in Lake Superior, is over 45 miles (72 km) in length and 9 miles (14 km) wide at its widest point.[3] The park is made up of Isle Royale itself and approximately 400 smaller islands, along with any submerged lands within 4.5 miles (7.2 km) of the surrounding islands (16USC408g).[4]



In older times, large quantities of copper were mined on Isle Royale and the nearby Keweenaw Peninsula by the indigenous peoples. The region is scarred by ancient mine pits and trenches up to 20 feet (6.1 m) deep. Carbon-14 testing of wood remains found in sockets of copper artifacts indicates that they are at least 5700 years old.

In Prehistoric Copper Mining in the Lake Superior Region, published in 1961, Drier and Du Temple estimated that over 1.5 billion pounds (630,400 t) of copper had been mined from the region. However, David Johnson and Susan Martin contend that their estimate was based on exaggerated and inaccurate assumptions.[5][6]

19th & 20th centuries[edit]

In the mid-1840s, a report by Douglass Houghton, Michigan's first state geologist, set off a copper boom in the state, and the first modern copper mines were opened on the island.[7] Evidence of the earlier mining efforts was everywhere, in the form of many stone hammers, some copper artifacts, and places where copper had been partially worked out of the rock but left in place. The ancient pits and trenches led to the discovery of many of the copper deposits that were mined in the 19th century.[5]

The island was once the site of a resort community. The fishing industry has declined considerably, but continues at Edisen Fishery. Because numerous small islands surround Isle Royale, ships were once guided through the area by lighthouses at Passage Island, Rock Harbor, Rock of Ages, and Isle Royale Lighthouse on Menagerie Island.

Within the waters of Isle Royale National Park are several shipwrecks. The area’s notoriously harsh weather, dramatic underwater topography, the island’s central location on historic shipping routes, and the cold, fresh water have resulted in largely intact, well preserved wrecks throughout the park. These were documented in the 1980s, with follow up occurring in 2009, by the National Park Service Submerged Resources Center.

Natural history[edit]

Tobin Harbor Trail through Laurentian Forest habitat, at sunset.


The predominant floral habitats of Isle Royale are within the Laurentian Mixed Forest Province. The area is a Temperate broadleaf and mixed forests biome transition zone between the true boreal forest to the north and Big Woods to the south, with characteristics of each. It has areas of both broadleaf and conifer forest cover, and bodies of water ranging from conifer bogs to swamps.[8]

Conifers can include: Jack pines (Pinus banksiana); Black and White spruces (Picea mariana and Picea glauca); Balsam firs (Abies balsamea), and EasternRed junipers (Juniperus virginiana).

Deciduous trees can include: Quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides), Red oaks (Quercus rubra), Paper birches (Betula papyrifera), American mountain ash (Sorbus americana), and Red maples (Acer rubrum), Sugar maples (Acer saccharum), and Mountain maples (Acer spicatum).[9][10]


Moose swimming at Isle Royale.

Isle Royale National Park is known for its wolf and moose populations which are studied by scientists investigating predator-prey relationships in a closed environment. This is made easier because Isle Royale has been colonized by roughly just one third of the mainland mammal species, because it is so remote.[11] In addition, the environment is unique in that it is the only known place where wolves and moose coexist without the presence of bears.[12]

There are usually around 25 wolves and 1000 moose on the island, but the numbers change greatly year to year. In rare years with very hard winters, animals can travel over the frozen lake from the Canadian mainland. To protect the wolves from canine diseases, dogs are not allowed in any part of the park, including the adjacent waters. In the 2006-2007 winter, 385 moose were counted, as well as 21 wolves, in three packs. In spring 2008, 23 wolves and approximately 650 moose were counted.[13] Due to genetic inbreeding, wolf populations have declined to only 2 in 2016, and the wolves will not survive.[14]

However, in December 2016, the National Park Service (NPS) put forward a plan in which they would add 20 to 30 wolves to the island in order to prevent the pack from disappearing completely.[15]

Rocky shoreline of Isle Royale.


Bedrock on Isle Royale is basalt or sandstone and conglomerates on the 1.1 billion year old Midcontinent Rift. Most of the island is covered with a thin layer of glacial material. A number of small native copper mines were active in the 1800s but mining was never really prosperous. Recent analyses by the USGS of both unmineralized basalt and copper-mineralized rock show that a small amount of naturally occurring mercury is associated with mineralization.

Isle Royale greenstone (chlorastrolite, a form of pumpellyite) is found here, as well as on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It is the official Michigan state gemstone.


The Greenstone Ridge is a high ridge in the center of the island and carries the longest trail in the park, the Greenstone Ridge Trail, which runs 40 miles (64 km) from one end of the island to the other. This is generally done as a 4 or 5 day hike. A boat shuttle can carry hikers back to their starting port. In total there are 165 miles (266 km) of hiking trails. There are also canoe/kayak routes, many involving portages, along coastal bays and inland lakes.


The park has two developed areas:

Windigo, at the southwest end of the island (docking site for the ferries from Minnesota), with a campstore, showers, campsites, rustic camper cabins for those wanting to sleep off of the ground and a boat dock.

Rock Harbor on the south side of the northeast end (docking site for the ferries from Michigan), with a campstore, showers, restaurant, lodge, campsites, and a boat dock. Non-camping sleeping accommodations at the park are limited to the lodge at Rock Harbor and the camper cabins at Windigo.


The park has 36 designated wilderness campgrounds. Some campgrounds in the interior are accessible only by trail or by canoe/kayak on the island lakes. Others campgrounds are accessible only by private boat. The campsites vary in capacity but typically include a few three-sided wood shelters (the fourth wall is screened) with floors and roofs, and several individual sites suitable for pitching a small tent. Some tent sites with space for groups of up to 10 are available, and are used for overflow if all the individual sites are filled.

The only amenities at the campgrounds are pit toilets, picnic tables, and fire-rings at specific areas. Campfires are not permitted at most campgrounds; gas or alcohol camp stoves are recommended. Drinking and cooking water must be drawn from local water sources (Lake Superior and inland lakes) and filtered, treated, or boiled to avoid parasites. Hunting is not permitted, but fishing is, and edible berries (blueberries, thimbleberries) may be picked from the trail.

Floatplane taking off from Windigo on Washington Harbor - Beaver Island can be seen in the background at right


The park is accessible by ferries, floatplanes, and passenger ships during the summer months — from Houghton and Copper Harbor in Michigan; and Grand Portage in Minnesota. Private boats travel to the island from the coasts of Michigan, Minnesota, and Ontario. Isle Royale is quite popular with day-trippers in private boats, and day trip ferry service is provided from Copper Harbor and Grand Portage to and from the park.

Because of the difficulty of travel and the hazards of wilderness survival during the winter months, Isle Royale National Park is the only U. S. National Park to entirely close for the full winter season. Due to the distance across Lake Superior to reach the park, and the winter closing, fewer than 20,000 people a year visit Isle Royale — which is fewer than the number of visitors to the most popular National Parks in a single day. Isle Royale had 15,973 visitors in 2007, making it the least-visited national park in the contiguous United States; and the fifth-least visited in the National Park Service system.[16]


Scheduled ferry service operates from Grand Portage, Copper Harbor and Houghton.

The Grand Portage ferries reach the island in 1 1/2 hours, and stay 4 hours at the island, allowing time for hiking, a guided hike or program by the park staff, and picnics.

The Isle Royale Queen serves park visitors out of Copper Harbor, on the northern Upper Peninsula coast of Michigan. It arrives at Rock Harbor in the park in 3 to 3 1/2 hours, spends 3 1/2 hours before returning to Copper Harbor.

The Sea Hunter operates round-trips and offers day trips to the Windigo visitor center through much of the season, less frequently in early summer and autumn, it will transport kayaks and canoes for visitors wanting to explore the park from the water. It is the fastest ferry serving the island and arrives in 1 1/2 hours including some sightseeing points along the way out and back. Because of the relatively short boat ride day visitors are able to get 4 hours on the island, more than any others, and get back to the mainland earlier in the afternoon. This gives visitors on a tight schedule time to visit the Grand Portage National Monument or other attractions in the same day.

The Ranger III is a 165-foot (50 m) ship that serves park visitors from Houghton, Michigan to Rock Harbor. It is operated by the National Park Service, and said to be the largest piece of equipment in the National Park system. It carries 125 passengers, and canoes, kayaks, and even small powerboats. It is a six-hour voyage from Houghton to the park. The ship overnights at Rock Harbor before returning the next day, making two round trips each week, June to mid-September. Briefly in the 2008 season, the Ranger III carried visitors to/from Windigo. This was not continued after 4 trips, due to low interest and long crossing times. In 2012 Park Superintendent Phyllis Green required the Ranger III to purify its ballast water.[17]

The Voyageur II, out of Grand Portage, crosses up to three times a week, overnighting at Rock Harbor and providing transportation between popular lakeside campgrounds. In the fall season in addition to carrying campers and hikers it provides day trip service to Windigo on weekends. The Voyageur transports kayaks and canoes for visitors wanting to explore the island from the water. The Voyageur II and other boat taxi services ferry hikers to points along the island, allowing a one-way hike back to Rock Harbor or Windigo. Visitors may land at Rock Harbor and depart from Windigo several days later, or vice versa. Hikers will frequently ride it in one direction to do a cross-island hike and be picked up at the other end when they finish.

An abandoned copper mine shaft, on one of the park's outer islands.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Listing of acreage as of December 31, 2011". Land Resource Division, National Park Service. Retrieved 2012-03-07. 
  2. ^ "NPS Annual Recreation Visits Report". National Park Service. Retrieved 2016-11-28. 
  3. ^ "Isle Royale National Park". National Park Service. Retrieved October 13, 2005. 
  4. ^ "Isle Royale National Park - Nature & Science (U.S. National Park Service)". National Park Service. Retrieved August 20, 2009. 
  5. ^ a b Johnson, David (9 November 2009). "North America's First Metal Miners & Metal Artisans". The Old Copper Complex. Retrieved 17 November 2009. 
  6. ^ Susan R. Martin (1995). "The State of Our Knowledge About Ancient Copper Mining in Michigan". The Michigan Archaeologist. 41 (2-3): 119–138. 
  7. ^ Ann G. Harris (2004). Geology of National Parks (6th ed.). Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co. p. 308. ISBN 0-7872-9970-7. 
  8. ^ "Laurentian Mixed Forest Province". Ecological Classification System. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. 2007. Retrieved 2007-09-21. 
  9. ^ Gibbon, Guy E.; Johnson, Craig M.; Hobbes, Elizabeth (2000). "Chapter 3: Minnesota's Environment and Native American Culture History". A Predictive Model of Precontact Archaeological Site Location for The State of Minnesota. Minnesota Department of Transportation. Retrieved 2007-08-22. 
  10. ^ Heinselman, Miron (1996), The Boundary Waters Wilderness ecosystem, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 16–31, ISBN 0-8166-2804-1 .
  11. ^ "A chronology of some events in the history of Isle Royale". The Wolves and Moose of Isle Royale. Retrieved 2011-08-22. 
  12. ^ "Isle Royale: Mammals" (PDF). National Park Service. Retrieved 2011-08-22. 
  13. ^ Lydersen, Kari. "Warming Alters Predator-Prey Balance." Washington Post, 21 July 2008
  14. ^ "Annual Reports | The Wolves and Moose of Isle Royale". Michigan Tech. Retrieved 2016-08-14. 
  15. ^ "Isle Royale may add 20-30 wolves to keep pack from disappearing". Freep. December 16, 2016. Retrieved January 14, 2017. 
  16. ^
  17. ^ Dan Egan. "Park chief put foot down on invasive species. Can others follow suit?". Houghton, Michigan: Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Retrieved 2016-10-20. That's when the brainstorming started. Green sat down with the captain, the ship's engineer and a professor at Michigan Technological University who had worked on water purification systems for the International Space Station to try to figure out how to make the Ranger III safe to sail. 

Further reading[edit]

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