As a lover of the outdoors and an adventure enthusiast, I made it my life’s mission to visit all 58 National Parks within my lifetime. A pretty hefty goal when you have only visited two by the age of 24 and have little money to go off of (devoting your life to wildlife pays off in a different way than just monetary value). Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain National Park are the two I have crossed off my list (shocker).
While they are undoubtedly stunning, both make it in the top four most visited National Parks annually. That means A LOT of other visitors – I’m talking millions of people. In 2016 Yellowstone saw over 4 million visitors! So while the more popular parks are unquestionably a must-see in your lifetime, I encourage you not to forget about the other 54.
With two of the most common parks checked off of my list, I decided to visit one of the more secluded parks this summer. With only about 18,000 visitors annually, Isle Royale National Park in Michigan is the third least visited National Park, following Lake Clark and Gates of the Arctic in Alaska. Established in 1940, the Isle Royale archipelago is a uniquely isolated ecosystem that lies in the great Lake Superior. The only way to reach the park is by ferry or float plane. I traveled with my good friends Devon, Darrin and some of the Merrell crew and we were lucky enough to arrive by plane. Seeing the islands from the air is something truly magical.
The 45-mile long island is surrounded by 400 smaller island segments, creating a mosaic of some of the most secluded and untouched hardwood forests in Michigan.
Arriving on Isle Royale is like something out of a movie. Upon our landing we were greeted by many excited visitors who were recounting their recent sighting of a beautiful bull moose on the Tobin Harbor Trail just moments before.
There are around 1,600 moose that reside on the island today and they are a part of one of the most recognized ongoing predator-prey relationships in the United States. While they do try to avoid visitors, there is still a good chance of seeing one on your visit. Beginning our stay we checked into the visitor center at Rock Harbor. Here they go over safety, rules and the implications of a “no trace left behind” park. Getting that one-on-one with a ranger upon your immediate arrival is unique and crucial to the preservation of our lands.
My friends and I then rented a boat to ride over to the Rock Harbor Lighthouse. Here the old fish hatchery still stands with all its timeworn accessories, including an old Sea Lamprey exhibit (an invasive species of the Great Lakes) and a wooden hatch door that leads straight down into Lake Superior for ice fishing excursions. We then climbed to the top of the 65-foot tower into the old lantern room and got a truly spectacular view of the islands, one I would recommend to all.
Being on the island in mid-August put us right in the prime season for a delicious thimbleberry and blueberry crop. This summer was the first time I had ever tried berries from vine-to-mouth in the forest and it was amazing. While most of you have probably had blueberries before, thimbleberries are a little less common but worth the quest. Red in color and literally found ALL OVER the island, they are a little flatter in shape than raspberries and in turn taste more tart. My friend Devon likes to explain them as a cranberry and raspberry mixed together. It is important to note that you should always do your research before harvesting wild berries to make sure you are identifying these edible plants correctly!
Our first night, we checked into our lodge at Rock Harbor and enjoyed a sunset hike along Lake Superior where we stumbled across a little short-tailed weasel. He was very curious and we stood and watched him for about 20 minutes. Hesitant and inquisitive as he was, he would stare at us, scurry away and pop back up from behind another log just a few feet away to stare at us. He repeated this pattern until we decided to head back to our cabins. Short-tailed weasels belong to the mustelid family, related to wolverines, otters and badgers. Despite their size short-tailed weasels can be very ferocious carnivores, feasting on rabbits, chipmunks, voles, shrews and mice.
Since our trip was only a one-night stay we made the most of it by exploring the docks at nighttime in hopes to catch the aurora or northern lights. Being an isolated body with very little light pollution, Isle Royale makes for a great viewing spot. However the night we were there, auroras were at a low visibility level and we didn’t get a chance see them. But we did get an amazing view of the night sky and got to hear loon and owl calls all night. Loons have four different calls that are used to communicate with family members and other loons nearby. The most common call we heard was the tremolo call. This call is often heard at night and signifies a territory boundary, warning any other loons not to get too close. Other familiar loon calls include the wail, yodel, and hoot. Each of which has its own meaning and significance to others in the species.
The next morning we awoke at 5 am to embark on a sunrise hike to Scoville point, a beautiful place for horizon gazing over Lake Superior. This trail is about 4 miles round trip and considered 4 of the best 100 miles of trail in the entire national park system! We made our way through tall evergreen forests along a trailed shoreline where we could listen to the waves as we walked and while we still hadn’t seen a moose, the signs were everywhere. From large, grassy bed sites to scat piles the size of college-ruled notebooks, to unmistakable tracks, we were definitely in moose country. Upon reaching our destination we got a mostly cloudy day with little of a sunrise, but a gorgeous view all the same. These rocky outcroppings formed in old glacial periods, the latest dating back 12,000 years ago. The untamed, rugged country that rises from the bedrock is one to be cherished and preserved for thousands of more years to come.
The rest of our final day on the island was spent hiking and exploring some of the other island trails. This included Suzy’s Cave, a small cave that was sculpted by waves when the water levels of Lake Superior were much higher. The cave is named after Suzy Tooker, a young fisherman’s daughter who would often canoe to, and play in the cave about 100 years ago. Legends say that during a rough patch of weather, Suzy was actually stranded in the cave for most of a winter. True or not, for us it acted as a cool spot to rest our aching feet (See Darrin).
As our trip came to an end and we awaited our floatplane’s arrival we couldn’t help but to reminisce on such a fast-paced, yet short adventure. Like many of the other annual visitors, we agreed that we would all be returning at some point to the picturesque park that we called home for a night. While one of the least visited national parks, Isle Royale holds first place for the most revisited national park in the U.S. Out of all 58, our Michigan island is the park that brings people back more often than not. Perhaps it is the majestic solitude that one feels upon the arrival at such an unmarked place. Or maybe it’s the chance to experience all the unique creatures that call this patch of wild land home.
Possibly the way the plants and trees stand tall from years of unscathed human interaction that they now adorn haunting quantities of old man’s beard lichen hanging from their limbs – a lichen that was once used as tonic to heal whooping cough and stimulate hair growth. Whatever the reasons for being so little visited and yet so highly revisited, I can attest that it is a uniquely beautiful park all in its own and definitely worth seeing in your lifetime. I am proud to say that I have now crossed national park number three off of the list and I will be back again – next time to see a moose.