Isle Royale & Voyageurs National Park


When Dave, my National Parks-obsessed husband, and I started planning our summer vacation, we originally planned to go to Isle Royale National Park, stay on the island, and do some hiking. Isle Royale is an island in Lake Superior that’s part of the state of Michigan but closer to Minnesota. It’s a big island – 45 miles long and 9 miles wide – and is actually part of an archipelago of more than 400 small islands, all part of the National Park. It’s one of the least-visited of all the national parks. And it’s so close to Iowa! We were excited to explore it for a few days.

But then we started doing research – and doing math – and when we hit $1,400 (not including food, gasoline, and miscellaneous stuff) for six days, we began to rethink our plan.

The ferry to the Rock Harbor (eastern) side of the island, where the one-and-only lodge is located, costs $85 per person each way (total: $340) and takes close to eight hours to get there from Grand Portage, Minn. That’s a long time on a ferry, and it only runs every couple of days. So, you could get there one night, spend the night, and go back the very next morning (meaning, you’d spend way more time on the ferry than exploring the island, which would be stupid), or stay three nights at the lodge at the low, low price of $256 per night for a total of $768. Add in a couple of nights in Minnesota coming and going, and you have a pretty expensive 6-day vacation.

We started to reconsider. We just weren’t sure we wanted to commit that much money to seeing a national park we knew so little about. So, we ended up taking a less-expensive ferry to the Windigo (west) side of the island for a quick day trip and added Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota to our itinerary – in just five days. Here is how it went:



Driving north to Grand Portage is a familiar route. In fact, I’d just driven most of it a month earlier when I did some hiking on the Superior Hiking Trail. The drive from Iowa consists of going north on I-35 until it ends in Duluth, Minn., and then taking U.S. Hwy. 61 all the way northeast along the shore of Lake Superior to Canada. It’s a delightful drive; I never get tired of it no matter how many times I do it.


We stopped in Two Harbors, about 20 miles north of Duluth. I wanted to go to the Superior Hiking Trail store to buy the latest version of the trail guide (my old one is about 12 years out of date); I ended up also buying a cute T-shirt and bandana. Then we decided to try to find the Two Harbors lighthouse. I’d seen signs for it for years but never bothered to go far enough off the main highway to find it. We not only found it in Two Harbors’ picturesque Agate Bay, but we learned it is now the Lighthouse Bed & Breakfast, and it’s just as cute as it can be. According to the website, the Two Harbors Light Station is the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on Minnesota’s North Shore. We parked near the lighthouse and walked down a cool and windy pier for a terrific view of the lake and the town.


IMG_7041And then we found something else I’d never seen in Two Harbors: A brewery! I have no idea how long the Castle Danger Brewery has been there, but I’d never heard of it. We tried a few tasters – I liked the Castle Cream Ale; Dave went with the seasonal Summer Crush – and settled out on the sunny patio to enjoy a pint. The cream ale is good enough that I went out of my way later on our drive to pick up a six-pack in a Minnesota liquor store. I don’t think it’s available in any other state, so of course that makes it taste even better – forbidden fruit and all.


Moving on, we continued to drive north to Grand Marais for dinner at Sven & Ole’s Pizza, and then on to Grand Portage. The state park of the same name is directly on the border with Canada – you can literally see the border-guard station from the park entrance. We took a short walk to the high falls, and they were in spectacular form. We got drenched by the heavy spray!

We spent the night at the Grand Portage Lodge & Casino for one reason and one reason only: It’s very close to the dock where our ferry would leave the next morning. Besides, it’s pretty much the only game in town. It’s part of the Grand Portage Reservation and also close to the Grand Portage National Monument that tells the history of the native American culture in the area.



As it turns out, the Grand Portage Lodge & Casino is not a terrible place to stay, if you can ignore the casino part. We had a big breakfast in the morning and drove to the dock.

Our ferry, the Seahunter III, was very popular that morning with day-trippers like us as well as hearty backpackers who planned to camp on the island for multiple days. It was a warm day, so Dave and I decided to sit outside for the boat ride so we could enjoy views of the lake. I wasn’t at all prepared for the 40-degree water creating a very cold wind, so after about 45 minutes sitting outside without a coat, I fled the cold and moved inside for a cup of coffee and a warmer, much more crowded place to spend the rest of the time it took to travel to the island (about an hour and a half total).


Once we arrived on Isle Royale (pronounced “royal”), one of the National Park rangers gave us a quick orientation to the area, told us our options for activities for the four-hour duration of our visit, and pointed us in the direction of the bathrooms.


We set out on the Feldtman Lake Trail, a 3.6-mile hike to the Grace Creek Overlook. I’m not sure what I expected – maybe a lot of pine trees and views of the lake? – but this hiking trail was lush and green, with more diversity than you can imagine. Yes, there were pines and lake views and a bit of mud, but also birches and wild flowers and a million other things and just incredibly beautiful.



I was so intent on watching the trail so I didn’t trip on rocks or roots that I nearly missed seeing the lady slippers. Once I spotted one – I’ve never seen these flowers before; they’re part of the orchid family – I couldn’t STOP seeing them, or stopping to take pictures of them. Every one I spotted seemed to be more beautiful than the previous one, just crying out for a portrait to be taken.


We got to the overlook and determined it was a good place to sit and eat the lunch we’d packed before leaving the hotel: cheese, almonds, and a protein bar. We hiked back along the same path to get back to the Windigo visitors area in time to use the bathroom again and buy Dave a hat in the gift shop. We also heard the tail end of a ranger-led talk about the moose and wolves on the island. There are something like 1,600 moose and only two wolves currently in residence. (We saw only squirrels.) The unique plants and animals on the island make it sort of a living laboratory, and it’s been studied by scientists for many years, even before it became a national park. It’s a place where the animals they’re studying can’t wander away!



We boarded the Seahunter III for our return to the Minnesota mainland. Once again, I started with an outside seat because I wanted to get better views of the island (and the park rangers waving goodbye), but once we passed the picturesque Rock of Ages Lighthouse, I went back inside and perched on a piece of bench so narrow and precarious that I was afraid one random bump would toss me off into the trashcan that was pressed up against my right leg. Fun times.



Dave and I enthusiastically agreed that Isle Royale was a place we’d like to return to again so we could spend more time exploring. Next time we’d like to take the three-hour-long ferry from Copper Harbor (in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula) to Rock Harbor via Isla Royale Queen IV. The drive to Copper Harbor is a bit further from Ames than the other option, Houghton, Mich., but that ferry takes six hours to reach Rock Harbor. We’d like to spend three nights on the island. Bonus: We’ll get to explore the UP again!

After we got back to Grand Portage, we took Hwy. 61 southwest through Grand Marais and down to Hwy. 1, which took us to Ely, Minn. – about three hours total.  That was our overnight location. If you ever do this, be prepared for one hilly, curvy drive! We were happy to get into town and walk to a restaurant for dinner and a beer in Ely’s terrific downtown area.


We spent the night at the A Stay Inn Ely, a small inn that appeared to have been a converted house, right in the business district. This is a place that would be ideal for a large group of friends or a family reunion, but for just the two of us, our little wood-paneled room felt a bit cramped.


The next morning we used a voucher for coffee and muffins at a nearby coffee shop (a nice surprise) and then headed to the International Wolf Center, an educational center with programs, exhibits, films, and actual wolves.



We saw four of the five current ambassador wolves that hang out in the acre-and-a-half area surrounding the building. It was a warm morning, and the wolves were mostly sleeping. I think they’re probably more active in the cooler months – the photos inside the center show the wolves happily romping in the snow. We listened to one lecture, viewed all the exhibits (see one, below), and moved on.


Ely is best known as the jumping-off spot for the Boundary Waters, but since we don’t canoe, we searched for hiking trails instead. There are a few in the area; we chose the Kawishiwi Falls Hiking Trail.



It’s short but has a huge pay-off when you get to the falls. We were glad we took the time to find it before heading north to our next destination: Voyageurs National Park.

Like the Boundary Waters, Voyageurs is tailor made for people who like to boat, fish, canoe, and kayak. We do none of these things. So when we were planning our visit to this national park – another of the park system’s least visited parks – we looked for hiking trails. My goal was to find a lodge or cabin near good hiking, but I failed. I found lodges, but they were nowhere near trails. Some, like the historic Kettle Falls Hotel, were not even accessible by car.

Another thing about Voyageurs is that there are multiple access points with visitor centers (Rainy Lake, Kabetogama Lake, Ash River) or ranger stations (Crane Lake). We decided to hike the trails around Ash River on our first day there.




We arrived at Ash River Visitor Center around noon and ate lunch in the small picnic area that overlooks the lake. We went inside the visitor center itself to pick up maps and see what other information we could find about the area, and when we told the ranger we were there to hike, she seemed surprised. I didn’t understand that at first because clearly there are hiking trails in the area. But the more I thought about it, I decided that the hiking trails are just an afterthought. This is definitely a water park.



But we were determined to explore on foot, so we hiked the Blind Ash Bay Trail, a 2.5-mile loop with some views of the water and later some impressively tall pine trees.


It was an OK hike. Toward the end, we noticed storm clouds gathering, so we walked faster and indeed it started to rain just as we got back to our car.  The rain didn’t last long, so we took one more short hike to a beaver pond overlook before leaving the park for the day.


I wasn’t thrilled with our overnight choice of International Falls, located near the west end of Voyageurs National Park. International Falls is not a great town, and it doesn’t have any remotely interesting bars or restaurants. In fact, the restaurant at our hotel, the AmericInn, was voted the #2 place to eat by TripAdvisor. That’s really depressing. We ate at an average Mexican restaurant, then I took a long bath to wash away the multiple applications of bug spray and sunscreen, and called it a day.



We started the next morning with breakfast at a restaurant called the Chocolate Moose. The coffee was decent, and the blueberry pancakes were delicious.


The Rainy Lake entrance to Voyageurs National Park is just a few minutes from International Falls. On the way we stopped and hiked the Tilson Bay Trail, a short, wild-flower-infused trail that needed to be groomed a bit more. And it was raining lightly, so the trail was slippery. We enjoyed the views of the homes and boats in the bay.



We moved on to the Rainy Lake Visitor Center, where we nosed around a bit and then took a hike on the nearby Oberholtzer Trail. This trail offered overlooks and plant diversity, and we were told there had been a number of animal sightings.


We saw a grouse and two deer, but mostly mosquitoes and black flies, which made the hike a lot less fun. I think they were actually attracted to my brand of bug spray. They seemed to love me.


After the walk, we watched a short film about the national park, had a picnic lunch on the visitor center patio, and gathered our things in preparation for an afternoon on the lake.



We’d booked a boat tour months in advance: The Grand Tour of Rainy Lake aboard the aptly named Voyageur ($30 each). The two-and-a-half-hour tour took us to Little American Island for a quick walk to view the mining activity that historically took place. We viewed some of the park’s 500-plus islands and spotted eagles in their huge, high nests. I was disappointed that we didn’t see more loons. I think I only saw two during the entire boat tour.



Voyageurs sprawls along the Canadian border, sharing much of its lake water with our northern neighbors. The park gets its name from the trapping, trading, and travel routes established by the early voyageurs: Europeans who came to North America in search of wealth. They were aided by the Ojibwe Indians, who served as guides and interpreters as well as supplying the Europeans with birch-bark canoes.



I was overly prepared for this boat tour. Thinking about the ferry to Isle Royale, I brought along a sweatshirt and a jacket, neither of which I needed. The temperature on this boat tour was pretty much perfect, even though we sat outside for the view.


After the tour, we went to a resort called Sha Sha, which we’d seen from the water during our tour. (Why didn’t we stay here? It would have been a great location.) After two beers and a light dinner, we headed back to International Falls, where I promptly fell asleep.




5 comments so far

  1. Tim & Janice Coble on

    Great post!

  2. Stacey on

    Thank you so much for this! We are trying to plan a trip this summer and I was looking to see if we could hit these two national parks together. My question is – would this trip be any fun at all for a 4 yo boy? It’s my husband and my goal to see all the national parks – and he will get dragged along, but not sure if we should save this trip for later?

    • cgieseke on

      Oops, sorry for the delay. I just noticed this question! I don’t think this is the best option for four-year-olds, no. There’s just not much for them to do. Better to wait until they’re older. Have fun in all the parks!

  3. Rob - Parkcation on

    I have always wanted to go to Voyageurs, but we ended up doing Isle Royale instead of Voyageurs when we had the opportunity. Since we didn’t stay in the lodge and camped, it was super affordable.

    Thanks for sharing! I love reading about adventures in the national parks

  4. Marie Elston on

    Thanks so much for this terrific description of your trip. I’m planning the same trip and this was supremely helpful!

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