Isle Royale National Park is located on group of islands in Lake Superior. It is the nation’s least visited national park. In this article, we will explore things to see and do in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan before (or after) a trip to Isle Royale National Park.
It is also the nation’s most re-visited national park. Many visitors make multiple return trips to Isle Royale. The only way to reach Isle Royale is by boat or seaplane. Commercial boat and seaplane passenger services operate out of the Minnesota North Shore and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. There’s a lot of natural beauty in the area around the park and there are plenty of outdoor activities near Isle Royale National Park itself.
Getting to Isle Royale National Park
Let’s begin, by discussing the various ways that someone can travel back-and-forth between the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (“The UP”) and Isle Royale.
The Ranger III is a boat which is owned and operated by the National Park Service. It departs for Isle Royale from the NPS Isle Royale Houghton Visitor Center on Tuesdays and Fridays of each week (between late May and early September). The Ranger III makes the return trip from Isle Royale on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The Isle Royale Houghton Visitor Center is located at 800 E. Lakeshore Drive, Houghton, Michigan.
Hancock, Michigan is located across the bridge from Houghton. Isle Royale Seaplanes is located at the Hancock Portage Canal Seaplane Base (21205 Royce Road Hancock, Michigan). Seaplanes travel between Isle Royale and Hancock several days each week from mid-May until mid-September. (Isle Royale Seaplanes also operates out of Grand Marais, Minnesota). Advance reservations are required.
A third way, to travel to Isle Royale from the UP, is abroad the Isle Royale Queen IV. This boat is owned and operated by The Isle Royale Line (14 Waterfront Landing Copper Harbor, Michigan). The company offers passenger service to and from Isle Royale between mid-May and late-September. During the height of the travel season, the boat makes the round trip every day of the week. At other times during the season, the boat travels a little as twice per week. It is important to contact the company for their most up-to-date schedule.
It is strongly advised that visitors book their Isle Royale transportation far in advance of their trip. The longer that you wait to book a seat on a boat or seaplane, the greater the likelihood that all seats will already be booked by other people.
The Keweenaw Peninsula – Gateway to Isle Royale National Park
Houghton, Hancock, and Copper Harbor are all located in a part of the UP called the Keweenaw Peninsula.
The Keweenaw Convention & Visitors Bureau operates a visitor’s center at 56638 Calumet Avenue, Calumet, Michigan (U.S. Highway 41). This is a good place to stop to obtain information regarding the numerous sites and attractions located on the Keweenaw Peninsula. They also maintain a website at https://www.keweenaw.info/
Keweenaw National Historical Park is also located in Calumet, Michigan This national park celebrates the life and history of the Keweenaw Peninsula. There are 22 Keweenaw Heritage Sites located throughout the Keweenaw Peninsula. These sites are not owned by the National Park Service. They are public and privately owned locations which work in partnership with the National Park Service to interpret the region’s copper mining heritage. The Keweenaw National Historical Park Visitor Center is located at 98 5th Street, Calumet, Michigan.
Calumet is also the home of the Calumet Theatre. The theatre was built in 1900 and is currently celebrating its 120th anniversary. The theatre still presents concerts and theatrical productions. Self-guided tours are available during box office hours. Guided tours are available by appointment.
U.S. Highway 41, between Houghton and Copper Harbor, is designated the Copper Country Trail National Byway. This 47-mile byway celebrates copper mining and the communities, culture, and history in areas located along (or near) U.S. Highway 41. The northernmost end of U.S. Highway 41 is located in Copper Harbor, Michigan. The highway runs South for 2,008 miles to Miami, Florida.
Approximately 27 miles north of Houghton (on U.S. Highway 41), is the unincorporated community of Phoenix, Michigan. In Phoenix, you can visit a restored church from the mid-1800s. The Phoenix Church was constructed in 1858 in the now defunct community of Cliff, Michigan. In 1899, the building was dismantled and reassembled in Phoenix. It remained in use as an active Roman Catholic church until 1958. The building is is no longer the home to an active congregation. However, it is a museum and is used for weddings and memorial services. Near the Phoenix Church is the Bammert Blacksmith Shop. It is a restored blacksmith shop from the late 1800s and early 1900s.
At Phoenix, you will find the junction of U.S. Highway 41 and Michigan Highway 26. If you get the chance, try to drive north on Highway 26 to Copper Harbor.
For much of the 22 miles between Eagle River and Copper Harbor, Michigan Highway 26 follows the cliffs and bluffs located above the Lake Superior shoreline. There are scenic overlooks and stairways which lead from the highway down to the Lake Superior shore. There are lower lying areas which travel much closer to the beaches and shoreline. Along Highway 26, you will find the small communities of Eagle River and and Eagle Harbor.
There are several sites to see in the Eagle Harbor area. One of those sites is the Eagle Harbor Lighthouse. It is open from mid June thru early October. Another site near Eagle Harbor is the The Rathbone School Museum. This is a former one-room schoolhouse which has been restored to look the way that it would have appeared in the year 1900.
Near Highway 26, just outside of Copper Harbor, is the Brockway Mountain Wildlife Refuge. It is a scenic overlook which provides wonderful views of Lake Superior, Copper Harbor, and the surrounding countryside.
The community of Copper Harbor is a delightful place to visit for a couple of hours or for a few days. The town has a population of slightly over 100 permanent residents. Copper Harbor has a few restaurants and motels. There are a handful of quaint shops.
The Copper Harbor School is an attractive one-room schoolhouse located in Copper Harbor. During the past 40 years, the school has had as many as 16 students and as few as two students. It is not everyday that you get to see a working one-room schoolhouse.
Near Copper Harbor you will find Fort Wilkins Historic State Park. It is a restoration of an 1844 U.S. military outpost.The park has campsites available. Some sites have 50 amp service.
The Copper Harbor Light is located at Fort Wilkins Historic State Park. It is a lighthouse which was originally constructed in 1848 and has gone through various changes and upgrades over the years. The current tower was constructed in 1866.
The mountain bike trails in the Copper Harbor area are of a very high quality. They have been designated an International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) Silver Level Ride Center. There are several other bike trails in the Keweenaw Peninsula. Churning Rapids is a private trail system located in rural Hancock. There are trails at the Michigan Tech Recreational Forest on the south end of the Michigan Tech campus in Houghton. The Swedetown Trails are located near Calumet.
On the Keweenaw Peninsula, there are many opportunities to go sea kayaking, canoeing, and paddle boarding. There are private businesses in both Copper Harbor and Houghton/Hancock which cater to paddle enthusiasts. In Copper Harbor, check out Keweenaw Adventure Company. In Houghton / Hancock, visit Portage Paddle Sports.
There are several waterfalls of varying sizes located throughout the Keweenaw Peninsula. Many of them are located near Michigan Highway 26 or U.S. High 41. Keep your eyes open for signs alerting you to their location.
The Keweenaw Peninsula has many miles of ATV trails. Information and maps are available online or at visitor centers.
For people who are interested in birding, the Keweenaw Peninsula is a birding paradise. The Audubon Society has counted over 300 different species of birds in the Keweenaw. The Estivant Pines Nature Sanctuary (located near Copper Harbor) is a place where at least 85 different species of birds have been observed.
The Keweenaw Peninsula provides many opportunities for fishing. Anglers can go fishing in Lake Superior or they may try their chances in one of the inland lakes and streams which are scattered throughout the peninsula. Some of the species of fish in the Keweenaw include walleye, perch, crappies, bluegill, large and smallmouth bass, rainbow, brook and brown trout, northern pike, and tiger muskie. There are charter fishing and guide services which are available for hire.
There are various underwater diving opportunities in the Keweenaw Peninsula. The Keweenaw Underwater Preserve is operated by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. The 103-square mile preserve is host to a variety of underwater wrecks. The underwater geography of Lake Superior also offers some interesting diving opportunities.
Mining tours are offered at several old copper mines. The Historic Quincy Mine is located just north of Hancock. The Quincy Smelter is located on the banks of the Portage Canal in Hancock. The Delaware Mine is located approximately 12 miles south of Copper Harbor on U.S. Highway 41.
There are a few golf courses on the Keweenaw Peninsula. The Keweenaw Mountain Resort is located near Copper Harbor and has a nine-hole course. Portage Lake Golf Course, in rural Houghton, boasts an 18-hole golf course. Calumet Golf Club is a 9-hole public course located in the Calumet area. Sandy Pebbles Golf Course is a 9-hole course situated at Ahmeek, Michigan.
The Finnish American Heritage Center is located at 435 Quincy Street in Hancock. It is on the campus of Finlandia University. The Center houses an archive, museum, small theater, and art gallery. It is also home to the Finnish American Folk School.
There are over three dozen parks and nature preserves, of various sizes, on the Keweenaw Peninsula. Many of them have walking and hiking trails. Some of the trail systems are shorter than a half-mile in length. Other trail systems are several miles long. More information can found at visitor centers and visitor and tourism websites.
McLain State Park is located on the shores of Lake Superior at 18350 Highway M-203 Hancock MI. The park has a camping area with 98 sites. The camping area has showers and bathrooms. There are seven cabins for rent. The park has four miles of hiking trails.
The Hancock Recreation Area is located not too far from the seaplanes and the Ranger III. The Hancock Recreation Area has a campground with 58 campsites for recreational vehicles and 14 tent sites. It has restrooms and shower facilities. Some people have been known to camp at the Hancock Recreation area on the night prior to their departure for Isle Royale.
Shopping opportunities. In addition to the sites already mentioned, there are numerous other businesses scattered throughout the Keweenaw Peninsula. You can shop at a “Big Box” store in the Houghton/Hancock area. You can also check out any of the dozens of smaller shops, boutiques, and galleries scattered throughout the Keweenaw.
Dining. The Keweenaw Peninsula offers various different kinds of restaurants. Their menus range from typical fast food fare to uniquely local cuisine. One UP dining favorite is called a “pasty” (pronounced “pass-tee”). It is a hand-held pastry filled with diced meat, potatoes, onion, turnip or rutabaga, and seasonings. Various restaurants serve fresh Lake Superior trout and whitefish. Thimbleberries are a type of wild berry which are abundant in the UP. Thus, in the Keweenaw Peninsula, you can purchase thimbleberry jam, thimbleberry margaritas, thimbleberry cosmopolitans. and other thimbleberry treats. If beer is more to your liking, there are at least four craft breweries located on the Keweenaw Peninsula.
The Keweenaw Peninsula is approximately 50 miles long and less than 20 miles across. If you have a motor vehicle, you can travel nearly every mile of the major highways on the Keweenaw Peninsula in just a few hours. This relatively small size makes the Keweenaw Peninsula an ideal place to explore either before, or after, a trip to Isle Royale National Park.
This guest post was written by Mr. John Prain. Thanks to John for his contribution and his great story!