Conservative talk shows, evangelical preachers, and time-warp music: the big three of Midwestern radio. On the drive from Kansas to northern Minnesota I heard bands I hadn’t thought about in years. Who still listens to Dexys Midnight Runners and Huey Lewis? Most stations were playing classic rock with a good-ol’-boy slant, and at any given point there was a 50/50 chance I could find a song by The Steve Miller Band, Bryan Adams, or Bob Seeger.
I drove straight to Voyageurs National Park, where my first stop was the Kabetogama Lake Visitor Center. I picked up a map and learned that – while most of the park is only accessible by boat, canoe, or kayak – there were several trails I could reach by car. I spent the afternoon hiking and then camped at nearby Woodenfrog State Park.
The forests and lakes of Voyageurs National Park were beautiful, but I expected more from a National Park – something unique and exceptional. Granted, I saw only a fraction of the park and didn’t get out on the water, but I never discovered what makes Voyageurs any more impressive than other wilderness areas in northern Minnesota.
The next morning I packed up and drove to Grand Portage, a tiny town on the edge of Lake Superior. Just 22 miles from Isle Royale National Park, Grand Portage offers the shortest ferry ride out to the island. It took me a while to locate the ferry dock, and when I finally found it there was bad news: that day’s ferry had already left, the next day’s ferry was sold out, and the day after that there wouldn’t be any ferry at all.
Cooling my heels for three days didn’t sound particularly appealing, so I decided to drive all the way to Copper Harbor, Michigan, where another company ran a ferry to Isle Royale. I stopped that night on the shore of Lake Superior, woke up early for sunrise photos, and then drove through Duluth, across the northern edge of Wisconsin (the first time I’d ever been to that state), and into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
“I don’t know why anyone goes to the island for less than three days,” a woman sitting next to me commented to her friend. “It’s just stupid.” That meant I was especially stupid, because I didn’t even plan to stay one night. Admittedly, six long hours on a ferry for three short hours on the island didn’t make much sense. But I wasn’t interested in a longer visit. I just wanted to take a quick look around and check Isle Royale off my list.
And that’s all I did. After the mandatory welcome briefing at the Rock Harbor Visitor Center, I headed out on the loop trail to Suzy’s Cave. Light rain fell sporadically, but nothing heavy came down until – conveniently – I’d reached the cave. Dry and comfortable, I sat inside the natural shelter and listened to the low roaring of the rain as it swept over the leaves and rocks outside. Once the brief storm passed I returned to the dock and caught the afternoon ferry back to Copper Harbor.
“Thanks for your visit to Isle Royale National Park, the least visited of all our National Parks,” said the ferry captain at the end of our trip. That didn’t sound right, so I did a little research on the National Park Service Web site. It’s true that Isle Royale is the least-visited National Park in the 48 contiguous states, but there are four parks that attract fewer visitors. Three of them are in Alaska (Kobuk Valley, Lake Clark, and Gates of the Arctic), and one is in American Samoa (creatively named the National Park of American Samoa). If you’re curious, here’s the annual number of recreational visitors for the least-visited U.S. National Parks (averaged over the past five years).
Kobuk Valley: 2,092.
National Park of American Samoa: 3,589.
Lake Clark: 7,463.
Gates of the Arctic: 10,627.
Isle Royale: 15,505.
Voyageurs , by comparison, is the 14th least-visited park, with 230,086. Great Smoky Mountains, the most-visited park, averaged 9,332,091, more than twice any other park.
I wish I could report that Isle Royale is a hidden gem, but – like Voyageurs – it didn’t strike me as being any more remarkable than other nearby wilderness areas. I enjoyed both parks, but they’re just not playing in the same league as a Yosemite, Yellowstone, or Zion. Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio was my next target. From Copper Harbor I drove south through Michigan, stopping briefly in Ann Arbor for a nostalgic walk around my alma mater.