A Brief History of Isle Royale: The Evolution of the Least-Visited National Park
Once you’ve been there, you never quite leave
By Ren Brabenec | May 20, 2023
Isle Royale is the least-visited but most re-visited national park in the lower 48. How is it that a spot that receives as many visitors in a year as Yellowstone gets in a day is the most popular park to return to out of the hundreds in the country?
As with any park, visitors to Isle Royale are asked to leave no trace. But when they step off the boat or seaplane, they’re also told the park will absolutely leave its mark on them. Or, as the National Park Service says in its introduction to the island, “Become a part of this island, and let it become a part of you.”
A Good Place
Perhaps the rich human history entombed within the soil and rock of the island plays a role in the song it sings into the hearts and minds of those who travel to it. According to Liz Valencia, manager of interpretation and cultural resources for the park, humans have been coming to the island for at least 5,000 years.
“Isle Royale and the waters around it are a part of the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa’s (Ojibwe) ancestral lands,” says Valencia. “To us, it’s Isle Royale. But to them, it’s Minong or ‘A Good Place.’”
Prior to contact with Europeans in the 1600s, indigenous peoples excavated copper from Minong to fashion tools. They left behind copper pits that, where pointed out by NPS signage, can be viewed by modern-day visitors. Indigenous peoples also fished on and around the island, a tradition observed today.
Following the first contact of French fur traders with Ojibwe peoples near Isle Royale, it didn’t take long for the island to attract mining and lumbering interests. “The 1840s, 1860s, and 1890s were the major copper booms on the island,” says Valencia. “During that time, swaths of the island were also timbered, and the waters around the island attracted commercial and small-time fishing vessels.”
Becoming a National Park
When commercial activity entered a new stage of development in the early 20th century, people who enjoyed the island for its natural beauty became concerned about its future.
“To be honest, people were afraid,” Valencia tells us. “Private interests, particularly logging and mining companies, owned much of the island. There was a concern that the island would be clear cut. And even if that didn’t occur, people were worried the island would become overdeveloped, that it would lose its wild nature.”
So those who loved the island demanded wilderness protections for it.
“Local Michiganders and people from across the country pressured Congress to make it a national park,” says Valencia. “Folks like Albert Stoll, Jr., a reporter at the Detroit News, came to the island in the 1920s to write stories about it. Archeologists and naturalists came to study the island. They left with troves of information and compelling evidence for why the island should be a national park. Some even phoned the White House demanding it.”
In the end, Congress and President Hoover authorized the creation of Isle Royale National Park in 1931, and President Roosevelt officially established the park on April 3, 1940.
Caring for the Island Now and Forever
Now, more than 80 years later, the park remains mostly undeveloped, and Isle Royale’s 24,000 to 28,000 annual visitors seems like a small figure compared to visitation in other national parks.
But all of those visitors arrive between April and October, and they’re visiting an island just 206 square miles in size. That’s why park rangers say their No. 1 challenge is providing a pleasant visitor experience that does not hamper the island’s wild characteristics.
“More campers are having to share campsites,” Valencia tells us.
But it’s not just the humans Isle Royale experts are monitoring. Once upon a time, the northern winters were cold enough to create an ice bridge between Isle Royale and mainland Canada, some 15 miles north.
“The ice bridge [was] critical to the biodiversity of the island,” says Erin Parker, former national park ranger and biological sciences technician. The ice bridge Parker refers to allowed species to travel to the island, where they adapted and created what Parker calls “a living laboratory” in their new home.
Those peculiar ecosystems have made the island unique and rife with opportunities for scientific study. The long-term wolf and moose study that began in 1958 is perhaps the most well-known, but it’s certainly not the only ecosystem of interest. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the waters around Isle Royale contain the most productive native fishery and genetically diverse trout populations in Lake Superior.
Now, that fishery may be in danger. “And as the climate warms, habitats and species are changing,” says Valencia. “Certain types of fish can’t survive in inland lakes anymore, which affects the island’s biodiversity. Algae blooms are also occurring in those lakes, which make it tricky for campers who are relying on the lakes for a water source. Thankfully, we’ve launched numerous research projects to understand our changing island, and we’re implementing new programs to help improve the visitor experience.”
Not Your Average Camping Trip
Another part of the visitor experience? “Expect the unexpected.” It’s a rule of thumb for those adventuring into any wilderness area, but such words ring with far greater resonance in the case of Isle Royale.
“The unpredictability of Lake Superior dictates everything that happens out there,” Valencia cautions. “Schedules may change, and there’s nothing you can do about it. When you’re there, you’re at the mercy of the lake and the island.”
Valencia refers us to the National Park Service website for Isle Royale, which advises visitors to bring extra food, pack for cold weather and rain no matter the season, and arrange schedules so that if you’re stuck on the island an extra day or two, folks back home won’t start to worry.
According to Isle Royale’s park rangers, “plan ahead” and “be ready for change” are the two most important rules when traveling to the island. Every visitor receives a face-to-face orientation from an NPS ranger who coaches them on how to enjoy the island safely and ethically. Park rangers even compiled a First Timer’s Guide to Isle Royale, available on the NPS website.
So what is there to do on the island? “If you asked 12 people what their favorite places were on the island, you’d get 12 different responses,” says Valencia. “There is no single, iconic ‘Aha!’ spot in the park that everyone talks about. It’s more of an immersive experience.”
Valencia says hiking is the most common activity, referencing Lookout Louise, Lane Cove, Scoville Point, the Rock Island Lighthouse, the Greenstone Ridge, Siskiwit Lake, Suzy’s Cave, the Feldtmann Ridge Lookout Tower, and the Minong Mine as popular attractions. Paddling is another draw, as Isle Royale is technically an archipelago with over 400 islands throughout the park.
But perhaps the biggest perk is simply leaving technology, internet, cell service, city lights, traffic, electricity, and television behind for a few days and just letting yourself fall into a more natural state of being. And as you fall, the island catches you, inviting you to make the forests, fields, and waterways feel more like home than any four walls ever could.
An unimposing sign placed carefully on the Stoll Trail on the island’s southeastern side perhaps best describes Isle Royale. The sign has a quote from Albert Stoll, Jr., an excerpt from the journalism that compelled the federal government to designate the island as a National Park. “Isle Royale is a part of an entirely different world than the one in which we labor daily,” wrote Stoll. “It knows nothing and cares less of the triumphs of modern civilization.”
What can we say? It’s a royal island in a superior lake. Of course it’s going to be legendary.
To learn more about Isle Royale and plan your visit, head to nps.gov/isro.
Photo by Paul Brown, provided by the National Park Service.