The Least Visited National Park: Isle Royale / by chris miele

Talk to anyone on the island and they'll tell you that Isle Royale is the best kept secret in the National Park system.  When glancing at a map it's easy to see why this extreme northern archipelago gets less visitors in a year than Yellowstone sees in a day.  Tucked against the Canadian border and fortified on all sides by Lake Superior, getting to Isle Royale is a commitment to say the least.  For me in particular it meant nearly a 600 mile, 11 hour drive from Detroit, and that's just to get to Copper Harbor, aka the top of Michigan.  In this tiny tourist supported village your cell phone wont work, but you can grab a craft beer while your wait to board the once a day ferry, The Isle Royale Queen IV.  Just a mere 3.5 hour cruise through the fog and over Lake Superior's icy waters will land you at Rock Harbor, one of just two entry ports to Isle Royale.  Although If you're feeling adventurous you can also take a sea plane in...
 

Riding a ferry first thing in the morning had it's benefits.  Sunrise at Cooper Harbor, MI.

The national park boasts no roads, no development, and limited services.  Unless you're staying in one of the lodge's few rooms, you're camping, and more than likely camping in the backcountry.  It doesn't take but a mile or two on any of the dense forest trails to get a sense of how remote and removed the island sanctuary really is.

Full 360 island views are revealed from the upper deck of the Mt. Ojibway observation tower.  Isle Royale, NP.

Having only backpacked in the Western US certainly had me spoiled in regards to terrain, elevation, and views.  So when I first hit the trail, I had some adjusting to do.  Between acclimating to the narrow footpaths, 100 % humidity, and a 60+ lb backpack, it took until the second day to grasp and understand the landscape that I was engulfed in.  Isle Royale is a boreal forest, and according to local chatter, it's within inches of being a boreal rainforest.  To clarify, that means the place is incredibly lush and boasts varieties of green I never knew existed.  So many greens it created an honest challenge to photograph.  Many of the trails sported walking planks over low lying swamps and bogs.  Vegetation is so protected on the island that at times it nearly engulfs the few paths that do exist.  Overhead raspberry bushes, towering conifers, falling birches, neon lichens, and endless green ground cover emulated scenes more prehistoric and primeval than I'd ever experienced. 

Walk the plank.  Isle Royale, NP.

Go deep enough into the forest and you'll find the universe.  Isle Royale, NP.

Lane Cove was the highlight of my adventure.  Only the distant sound of loons broke the stillness in the air.  Lane Cove Campground, Isle Royale, NP.

Despite ample miles of hiking routes, the island definitely begs for exploration via watercraft.  With forests growing right up to the water's edge, every cove beckons for further, more accessible, and deeper exploration.  Next time I'm making friends with someone who has a boat... 

With a reputation thriving on fog and overcast skies, I felt super lucky to have landed even one sunset show.  Rock Harbor, Isle Royale, NP.

Sunrises have never been easy for me, but hitting the trail at 5:30 AM this morning was invigorating.  Damn I sure did feel alive.  Scoville Point, Isle Royale, NP.

Almost too cozy of accommodations.  Rock Harbor Campground, Isle Royale, NP.

Right on cue, the fog arrives.  The faintest of trees can be seen from a very foggy Rock Harbor.  Isle Royale, NP.

The challenges of reaching, traversing, and photographing Isle Royale were sizable, but well warranted.  From the moment you board the ferry, adventure really is in the air, and the magic of the island doesn't dissipate quickly.  Isle Royale served as a fantastic place to work outside of my normal image and scene palatte.  Somewhere that required a deeper and more engaged vision.  A place to strengthen different creative muscles and continue my quest to tell better stories.  I'd take a ferry back any-day...well maybe not during black fly season, I think I'll wait till that's over.   

Skimming Lake Superior all the way home.  Copper Harbor, MI.