Few venturing to Isle Royale, and that’s good news

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A seaplane lands on Isle Royale, the country’s fifth least-visited national park.

Jim Peaco, National Park Service

A seaplane lands on Isle Royale, the country’s fifth least-visited national park.

Capital News Service

LANSING — Isle Royale National Park was one of the least-visited U.S. national parks in 2022, with only 25,454 recreational visitors.

It’s the 5th least-visited park in the country.

But some people, like Visit Keweenaw Executive Director Brad Barnett, celebrate this sparsity of attention. 

“For those that really want to connect with nature and do that in an intimate way, Isle Royale National Park is the place to do that,” Barnett said. 

The park, a remote archipelago in Lake Superior, has a short season and is open from mid-April to the end of October, and it’s only accessible through ferry, boat and seaplane. 

Barnett said locals make a “pilgrimage” to explore Isle Royale annually to reconnect with nature, but for tourists, visiting is a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to experience the preserved ecosystem’s 165 miles of trail.

 While it is one of the least-visited national parks, Barnett said it has the highest rate of return.

“Once you get to Isle Royale, you keep coming back,” Barnett said. “That’s a testament to experiencing the way the national park system has preserved this special place in Lake Superior.”

Isle Royale’s busiest year was 1987, when the National Parks Service recorded 31,760 visitors. With the exception of 2020, when COVID-19 struck, its numbers have been relatively consistent since 2016, between about 24,000 to 28,000 visitors.

The only other Great Lakes region park on the least-visited list is Minnesota’s Voyageurs National Park in 14th place. The overall least-visited one is National Park of American Samoa. 

Jim DuFresne, a Clarkston-based author of a popular Isle Royale guidebook, said the cost of travel to get there and limited season might be a reason for the low number.

His book, “Isle Royale National Park: Foot Trails & Water Routes,” has been in publication for 40 years and is marketed toward backcountry hikers. 

While some people stay in the lodges, he said one of the best ways to see the island is by camping and kayaking. 

DuFresne said what makes Isle Royale so unusual is that its visitors stay for long periods. Rather than an overnight backpacking trip, people tend to hike and camp for a whole week.

“They fall in love with getting away and simplifying their life to where all you need is in your backpack,” DuFresne said.

He said the best time to visit and see wildlife, like wolves and moose, is when the trails are clear of tourists in late August or early September. 

“To have that simplicity and disconnect yourself from the world for a handful of days is a really incredible experience,” DuFresne said. “It’s very refreshing, even spiritually refreshing.”

After visitors see “pristine” Lake Superior by way of the park, DuFresne said they will have a changed perspective on preserving Great Lakes water quality and preventing climate change. 

“In order to preserve that, we need to get people to experience it,” DuFresne said.

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