Isle Royale: An isolated paradise

Story highlights

Isle Royale is one of the few island national parks in the United States

The park offers 850 square miles of backcountry hiking and camping

It's accessible by boat or seaplane from points in Michigan and Minnesota

CNN  — 

Talk about a vast, isolated island wilderness.

Michigan’s Isle Royale, one of the few island national parks in the United States, is nestled in the northwest corner of Lake Superior, encompassing 850 square miles of road-less backcountry and water accessible only by a three-hour ferry ride or seaplane.

It’s so big it has its own lake, Siskiwit Lake. The lake also has its own island, Ryan Island. That makes Ryan Island the largest island on the largest lake on the largest island on the largest freshwater lake in the world.

In other words, Isle Royale is a destination. It’s not on the way to anything, which makes for special kinds of visitors, park ranger Lucas Westcott said.

The average stay is three to four days, compared with just a few hours in other national parks, Westcott said. Repeat visitors return each season to explore the park’s 165 miles of hiking trails, coastlines, bays and inlets, red sand beaches and rocky shores.

The people who visit Isle Royale really want to be there. “When people come here, it’s deeply personal to them,” Westcott said. “For most people who come here, it gets in your blood and you can’t stop, and that’s a remarkable environment for me to do what I do.”

Park stats: Isle Royale was established as a national park in April 1940. The yearly number of visitors to Isle Royale is around 16,500.

Location: Isle Royale is in the northwest corner of Lake Superior. It’s accessible by boat or seaplane from points in Michigan and Minnesota.

If you go: There is a user fee of $4 per day for park visitors ages 12 and older. There are also fees for the four ferries and one seaplane service and other services at the park. Also required: a backcountry/camping permit if you stay overnight in the campgrounds, at dock or anchor out. The park closes for the winter.

Meet our ranger: Westcott is no stranger to geographic isolation. He spent part of his childhood in a home his parents built on a mountain in Stephentown, New York, before moving around the rural environs of western Massachusetts. His run with the National Park Service began with a 2001 college internship at South Dakota’s Badlands National Park museum, cataloging fossils and museum artifacts.

After completing a master’s degree in forestry, he was volunteering at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site when a fellow ranger showed him pictures of other parks where he had worked. One was Isle Royale. Its size and location instantly intrigued Westcott. A few years later, he’s living his dream of working there.

For a day trip, don’t miss: Stoll Trail. Named for journalist Albert Stoll, who campaigned to get the island’s preserved status, the 4.3-mile loop begins at Rock Harbor on the eastern side of the island and brings visitors to Scoville Point and back. The trail winds back and forth between forest and shoreline, offering stunning views of Scoville Lake, craggy bluffs and barrier islands.

Favorite less-traveled spot: Malone Bay, mainly because of the effort it takes to get there. There’s only one nine-mile trail that takes visitors there and back, but it’s worth the journey for the gorgeous views of Siskiwit Lake, Westcott said. There are also nice campgrounds and a dock for fishing.

Favorite spot to view wildlife: Spotting wildlife throughout the park seems to be by luck, not design, Westcott said. For example, no one had seen the pine marten weasel for decades when it suddenly appeared a few years ago. “If you’re quiet while hiking, it might happen,” he said. “It’s part of what makes it really personal for visitors.”

Most magical moment in the park: The first day he arrived, Westcott sat on the dock by Ranger III, the largest ferry servicing Isle Royale, and realized just how quiet it was. “You become more attuned to what’s going on around you,” he said.

Ranger’s favorite other park to visit: Wilson’s Creek Battlefield National Battlefield in Missouri, the site of the first major Civil War battle west of the Mississippi River and one of the best preserved battlefields in the country. Visitors can follow a loop trail to see how the battle unfolded, Westcott said.