Isle Royale National Park is a United States National Park comprising Isle Royale and the surrounding waters and small islands, a wilderness preserve in northwest Lake Superior. It’s easily identified on maps of the Great Lakes: Lake Superior resembles the profile of a snarling wolf; Isle Royale is the eye. Although it’s closer to Ontario, Canada, or even Minnesota, USA, it’s part of the state of Michigan. Its French name might lead you to pronounce it “eel roy-AL”, but the common pronunciation is the anglicized version, “ile ROY-ul”.
Isle Royale is a wilderness preserve first, a sanctuary for those seeking to experience it second, and a travel destination third. Although it accommodates all of these uses, that’s the order of priority they take. So wildlife gets the run of the island, and human visitors are generally restricted to established trails and accessible lakes, with leave-no-trace camping protocols in effect. Modern conveniences and comforts are very limited; away from the small ports on either end of the island, “running water” means “a creek”, and only “outhouse” pit toilets are available. (Many of the more accessible ones are stocked with toilet paper, but bring your own or be prepared to improvise.)
Lake Superior winters close the park from November through mid-April, with limited access before Memorial Day and after Labor Day; Isle Royale is the only U.S. National Park to shut down altogether for the winter. Because of this, along with its geographic isolation and challenging ruggedness, it receives fewer visitors in a year (17,500 in 2005) than many national parks endure in a day. Those visitors stay a remarkable average of 4-5 days each (even counting day-trippers), but it still has one of the lowest visitors-per-square-mile figures outside of the huge Alaskan parks. Which is, of course, a large part of its appeal. And it leaves these visitors wanting more, with the NPS’s highest return-visit rate.
Over four millennia ago, Native Americans began visiting Isle Royale to dig for copper, to tap maple trees for sugar, and to fish. Since Europeans came to the area, it’s been host to whitefish fisheries, a series of unprofitable copper mining efforts, and a resort community around 1900. In the 1920s, Detroit News journalist Albert Stoll Jr. visited Isle Royale, saw what commercial exploitation was beginning to do to undermine the wilderness, and campaigned for its protection; a plaque in his honor was later placed near the tip of Scoville Point. Isle Royale National Park was established by Congress in 1931, and the last of the land de-privatized in 1940 (with a few of the land owners given lifetime leases). The archipelago was designated a Wilderness Area in 1976, and named an International Biosphere Reserve in 1980.
The archipelago (consisting of Isle Royale itself and dozens of smaller islands) is the edge of a geologic fault which pushed up from the lake floor and was scoured by ice-age glaciers into a long, ridged island, with lakes and inlets of Lake Superior filling in low points between some of the ridges. The south sides of these ridges and the south lakeshore tend to be more gently sloped; the north sides and lakeshore more steep. Crossing from one side of the island to the other isn’t usually a great distance, but because of the ridges can involve a lot of climbing and descending.
The island and its ridges run roughly WSW-to-ENE end to end, but for informal navigational purposes they’re usually described as if they ran directly west-to-east (a notion reinforced by the orientation of the park service’s official map). When using a compass, keep in mind the island’s true orientation. The Greenstone Ridge runs the length of the island, with a trail along most of its crest. Isle Royale itself is 45 miles (74 km) long and 9 miles (14 km) at its widest, with an area of about 205 mi² (530 km²). The highest point on the island is Mount Desor at 1394 feet (425 m) above sea level – about 800 feet (245 m) above lake level – with several other spots along the Greenstone above 1200 feet (365 m) in elevation.