Michigan is known for all different kinds of natural beauty, from rock formations to sprawling forests to its famous Great Lakes, but Lake Superior is far and away considered one of its most picturesque features. And while there are all manner of incredible sights to be seen along Lake Superior’s shores, one of its grand jewels is nestled further out in the lake: Isle Royale National Park! This national park is perfect for a unique camping experience unlike any other. Read on to take advantage of our ultimate guide to Isle Royale National Park camping!
History of the Park
Isle Royale isn’t the only island in Lake Superior, but it is the largest. As a national park, it was established in April of 1940. Despite its incredible splendor and potential for adventure, it’s visited the least out of all the national parks within the continental US! If you decide to take a trek out to this park, you’ll join the privileged few who have taken the leap to plan a camping expedition on this Canada-adjacent island.
What to Expect While Camping on Isle Royale
Access to the island is closed November 1-April 15, so there won’t be any winter camping here, but you’re perfectly welcome to visit during the spring, summer, or autumn months. This island is extremely remote, and it’s not a destination you can easily leave, so it’s best to come as prepared as you possibly can.
Keep in mind that there are no showers or flush toilets available on Isle Royale; pit toilets/outhouses are accessible around the island, but running water can only be found at Rock Harbor and Windigo. You’ll want to bring plenty of drinking water along with you no matter which campsite you choose!
Some types of camping (including cross-country) require permits. Be sure to research what kind of permissions you’ll need for camping on Isle Royale.
Campsites for groups of fewer than six people are first-come-first-served. Those camping in a group (seven individuals or more) will be required to make reservations in advance and will have to pay an extra fee.
Camping on Isle Royale
When it comes to Isle Royale National Park camping, you’ll have your pick of 36 campgrounds, but don’t expect to see any vehicles there. Camping on Isle Royale is decidedly in the primitive category; you can only hike or boat/kayak/canoe to the campsites, so come prepared to backpack or kayak camp if you choose a campground further inland! Motorized boats can only reach campgrounds on the shoreline. There is no RV camping or pop-up camping on Isle Royale, though you can likely find some campgrounds on the mainland to stay in if you’re set on staying in your RV while still getting to enjoy the rugged beauty of the island.
Things to Do While Camping on Isle Royale
While there are plenty of intermediate trails for hikers to adventure across the island (some favorites being West Hugginin Trail and Mount Ojibway Trail) but truly ambitious backpackers can attempt to tackle the forty-mile Greenstone Ridge trail, which will take you all the way across the island. The trails are your best bet to catch a glimpse of the local wildlife, as well; though many are well-hidden and extremely wary of humans, you could get lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a wolf or moose. You can also bring along some binoculars to keep an eye out for the many birds that call this island home!
Many Isle Royale National Park camping sites can be reached via kayak or canoe, and Lake Superior also offers many opportunities to take your kayak or canoe out for some lakeside fun. You can even fish from your kayak if you like!
Speaking of fishing, you are able to fish around Isle Royale, but make sure you have an up-to-date Michigan fishing permit! It is still required to fish in this area. Double-check to see how you can obtain a license before you arrive for your trip.
Isle Royale boasts a bounty of wildlife to view and photograph, so be sure to bring your camera! While camping on Isle Royale, you’ll have the chance to spot red foxes, timber wolves, otters, beavers, and even moose! There’s also an assortment of amphibians and birds to keep an eye out for, such as red-tailed hawks, bald eagles, newts, salamanders, frogs, and more! With that said, you’ll want to make sure you follow the Leave No Trace principles while on the island, and make sure you keep your food safely stored and out of reach of the local wildlife.
You’ll see plenty of trees and shrubs on Isle Royale. Trees you’re likely to spot include maple, spruce, ash, and birch; shrubs include juniper, prickly rose, mountain ash, and others. There are also numerous flowering plants to please the eye! Just be sure to respect the nature around you; don’t leave trash behind while you hike, and don’t intentionally destroy or damage the trees and bushes as you go by.
Make Sure to Bring
Michigan’s weather is notoriously fickle, and can change on a dime no matter what season you choose to visit! Even if you camp on Isle Royale in the middle of summer, make sure you bring clothing for all types of weather, including jackets, rain gear, etcetera. In addition to the unpredictability of Michigan weather, the Upper Peninsula tends to be colder no matter what, so you can expect at least one or two cold nights during your trip to Isle Royale. Remember also that while you’re allowed to bring camp stoves along, fires are not allowed at most campgrounds on the island.
That said, Michigan weather can also dip in the other direction; sometimes colder months can see very warm days! Make sure you bring your sunscreen along, and don’t forget to apply it every few hours, especially if you’re engaging in water activities or camping on/near the shore. Even in the fall, the sun can get intense when reflecting off the water, and you could end up with a sunburn even if it’s a bit chilly.
Camping on Isle Royale requires a lot of hiking, so make sure you bring good-quality hiking boots along with you. Most campsites are only accessible through hiking if you don’t have a canoe, kayak, or boat, and if you’re backpacking between sites, you could see travel of up to eight miles. The last thing you need is to twist an ankle or sprain something between campsites and end up stuck!
Warm sleeping bag/Hammocking Gear
As mentioned above, the weather can get cold on Isle Royale even in the summer, and fires are not allowed in most areas, so you need to come prepared with whatever you need to stay warm! Make sure you bring a proper sleeping bag to keep yourself warm and dry; if you’re hammocking, make sure you bring along a tarp or rainfly in case of inclement weather.
Insect Repellant/Insect Prevention Gear
The heat of the summer months always brings bugs along with it, and proximity to the water certainly doesn’t help matters. Be sure to arm yourselves with plenty of bug spray, and if you’re hammock camping, be sure to bring along a mosquito net to keep yourself from being eaten up during the night! Though the bugs are particularly bad in the depths of summer, that doesn’t mean you’re home-free in the spring or fall. Michigan’s seasons are a bit interchangeable in terms of bug populace, so come prepared no matter when you choose to camp here.
Reviews for Camping on Isle Royale
Despite its lack of visitor numbers, Isle Royale comes highly praised by campers. It’s lauded for its proximity to the glory of Lake Superior, its rustic camping opportunities, and the myriad of options for outdoor activities. Its remote location allows campers to truly immerse themselves in nature without access to the distractions of modern life, and it makes for the perfect place to take a break from all the screens and noise and busyness.
Wrapping Up Isle Royale National Park Camping
While Isle Royal National Park camping certainly isn’t for the faint of heart, nor for the novice camper, it’s absolutely a must-visit for those who are confident in their ability to truly rough it for a few days. Hardcore backpackers won’t be disappointed by the challenge camping on Isle Royale offers, and it’s a surefire way to test your skills against the Michigan wilderness.
Did we miss any of your favorite things about Isle Royale? When do you plan to take your first trip here? Let us know in the comments!
Looking for more Michigan camping adventures? Check out our recommendations for 33 of the Best Places to Go Camping in Michigan!