On the Wilderness Threshold ~ Isle Royale National Park

Grand Portage RV Park

The final stop on our North Shore adventure was Grand Portage Lodge and Casino (and RV Park), seven miles south of the Canadian border.  This quiet little campground, carpeted in golden wildflowers, was our gateway to a wilderness archipelago, Isle Royale National Park.  The forecast was for cloudy skies and chance of rain when we headed out across Lake Superior for the 1.5 hour boat ride to the park.  Thankfully the waters were calm.

Isle Royale National Park, the largest island in the largest Great Lake and the least visited national park (only 17,000 annual visitors), comprises the island we visitors see and another 400 smaller islands, some submerged.  This wilderness archipelago covers just shy of 900 square miles, with only 200 miles of this being above ground, a full 80% of this park exists below the frigid waters of Lake Superior…pretty interesting. 😉


There are two visitors centers on the island and for day-trippers like ourselves, versus backpackers or those with more sophisticated tastes who stay at the lodge, Windigo Visitor Center at the west end of the island is the drop-off point.  With only four hours on the island, we opted for a short hike to give us a feel for the backcountry.

As we walked along the rocky trail, through forests of maple, birch, and fir, on this cool cloudy day, listening to the frigid Minnesota_140725-6191waters of Lake Superior lap the shore, I visualized rounding the bend to find an imposing bull moose munching on a balsam fir.  The rangers believe there are about 1000 on the island and one was not too much to wish for, was it?  Unfortunately our paths did not cross, which was not surprising, given that we lived in Yellowstone National Park for two years and I never saw one in the park until we took a trip to the Grand Tetons.

In the bone-chilling winter of 1948-49 an ice bridge formed between Canada and Isle Royale and a small pack of Eastern timber wolves crossed over.  Today only nine exist on the island, the numbers down from an average of 20-25 due to disease and inbreeding.  Trophic cascade, a term we learned years ago in Yellowstone, is reflected here in the relationship between wolf and moose.  But with the wolf population at an all-time low, the moose population is much larger than is healthy for the island.  The result is devastation of the balsam firs, a tasty moose treat.  The conundrum for the park is whether to intercede and introduce another lineage of wolf to bring down the number of moose or not interfere with the rhythm of the island.  It will be interesting to see what unfolds.

The best way to see this wild island, imho, is backpacking.  With only 4 hours to visit, there is not much to be done besides explore the small visitor center, get your passport stamped and take in a short hike.

On our trip back the rains came and the fog rolled in, just as we approached a lone sentinel emerging through the mist.

Rock of Ages Lighthouse emerges through the mist.
Rock of Ages Lighthouse emerges through the mist.

Rock of Ages Lighthouse, one of the most remote on the continent, sitting two miles off the south end of Isle Royale, was built in 1908.  It would seem that even a sea-hardened sailor could be brought to his knees in despair over the assignment to care for this station, given the acute isolation.  Manned until 1977 and automated in 1985, the original 2nd-order Fresnel lens now sits in the Windigo Visitor Center.

One final sight I wanted to see before we left the North Shore was the High Falls on the Pigeon River, Minnesota’s highest waterfall at 120 feet.  Located in the Grand Portage State Park, one-half mile walk from the visitor center, she did not disappoint, but then few waterfalls ever do for me if there is water flowing over them. 🙂


Grand Portage has a rich history dating back to the 1700’s in what was the beginning of the international fur trade.  For those interested in learning more about “The Great Carrying Place”, you can read about it here.  We did visit the Grand Portage National Monument and found the background most educational.

53 thoughts on “On the Wilderness Threshold ~ Isle Royale National Park

  • I do believe we will need to return to this area of the country again and spend time visiting all that we have missed. This is a beautiful area. Now if they would just find a way to move the bugs out. I would love to visit further north in MN. Glad the rain held off til you left Isle Royale NP. I can’t imagine being the lighthouse keeper out there. I guess you would really get in touch with yourself:)

    • I agree with you Pam that the North Shore is an area begging to be explored further. I think it would be great to see the fall colors, but then you would have to high-tail it south.

    • The waterfall was really great Sue, but we were rather underwhelmed by the hike on the island, which is why I think backpacking would be the way to get into some rugged country, and perhaps see a moose. 🙂

  • Another great post, LuAnn, AND beautiful pix. I’ve always wanted to go to Isle Royale. I have a friend who used to go there to work, during the summers, so have heard much about it. I hope the NPS can get the moose overpopulation decided upon, before it’s too late. How come we see so many pictures of Terry’s back, (and his good looking legs) but not so many of you?

    • Well, there are a few reasons for so few photos of me.
      1) I am not thrilled about being photographed.
      2) I am the one usually taking the photos.
      3) When Terry takes photos, he likes close-ups and I remind him that I am of an age where close-ups are not my friend.
      Having said all this, that is my photo on the trail from behind, and if I had more material to work with from the island, you would not be seeing this one either. 😉

  • I would love to see waterfalls like that. I don’t think I would ever stop photographing it at different shutter speeds.

    It’s a beautiful area, thank you for sharing with us LuAnn

  • Thanks for another great tour. Unusual weather has been thwarting our explorations lately so you’re not alone when it comes to cloud cover and rain. Love that waterfall 🙂

    • It seems that rain blows through here in MN almost daily. That waterfall was one of the highlights of our trip to Grand Portage. 🙂

  • Sorry, didn’t mean to hit post.

    Boy did you two hit the jackpot with this spot. I love that water falls. Gorgeous.

    I am a push over for lighthouses. They are all so unique.

  • Another gorgeous header photo, LuAnn — it’s so painterly! Looks like you had a great day for the boat trip to the island. Interesting (but not surprising) that it’s the least visited NP (and I thought Great Basin got few visitors!). I’m adding it to our list of places we want to go — especially because I’m now set on getting a National Parks passport book of my very own. 🙂

    • Given your interests I think you will enjoy the Passport book. We are glad that we got to Isle Royale (got our stamp) but wish we had the opportunity to get further into the wilderness. Oh well, other hikes will do just that for us.

  • Some fascinating information here, makes me want to see it…but I am glad to get to see it through your eyes! It would be very interesting to know the outcome of the moose/wolf decision. Nope, could never get tired of seeing waterfalls! Any size!

    • I think it would be worth going if you had more time to really explore. It will be interesting to see what decision is made on the wolf/moose balance. Thanks for stopping by Lisa.

  • Thanks for giving us a peek at this lovely, less discovered park. I believe I was really close to it from the Canadian side when I drove through Thunder Bay. Lake Superior is pretty impressive. I’ve always been a sucker for waterfalls… actually, water of any sort. I’m glad you shared these lovely images with us. Pity about the moose. (meese?)

    • You were close when you were in Thunder Bay. You can also get to Isle Royale from Houghton, MI, although it is a 5-hour boat trip. Lake Superior is really amazing, one day very calm, the next whipped up in a frenzy. Thinking of you Gunta.

  • You lived in Yellowstone for 2 years? Wow! What an experience. It’s my favorite National Park. I guess you got to see every inch of it. Except for the mooses. Meese? You’re straining my intellect with trophic cascade. I think I get it. Love the waterfall.

    • Thanks Carol! Yes, we did live and work there for two years while we were stepping back from stressful corporate America. Although winter is not my favorite season, I did love Yellowstone in winter when you felt like you had the park to yourself. It was a wonderful experience. 🙂

  • Ooo another lighthouse, I love those and the accompanying stories, maybe the lighthouse keepers needed a few more books to distract them. You really do justice to what is a great area to appreciate life and nature, the waterfall looks absolutely mesmerising.

  • Fabulous LuAnn! Even I haven’t been there (as a Minnesotan you think I would have). I just love the North Shore and Boundary Waters. It is amazing, isn’t it. So pristine and pure.

    • Wish we would have had the opportunity to backpack there for a few days. We are going to tick off a few more NP’s in the upcoming weeks. Stay tuned! 🙂

  • This trip is on our list for 2017. The moose/wolf situation has been of interest to me for awhile. We plan on staying overnight in one of the Windigo cabins. In the car on the way to Amnicon falls as we speak!

    • Doing something besides just a day trip to Isle Royale is what I would do next time we are in the area. Thanks for stopping by. I am heading over to your blog next. 🙂

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