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We have a tendency to take our national parks for granted. We don't realize that they are among our country's best vacation bargains. Or that the "ooh-ah" wonder of Yellowstone's Old Faithful geyser, the surprise of seeing a bison block traffic, or the magic of a misty October morning in Virginia's Blue Ridge mountains can make family memories as resonant as a trip to Disney World.
Nearly 60 million visitors flock to the 384 national parks across America every year. And you won't have to wander far from home to enjoy one of these national treasures, with Michigan's Isle Royale National Park nearby.
Located 56 miles from Houghton and Copper Harbor on Michigan's Upper Peninsula or 22 miles from Grand Portage, Minnesota, the park remains a wilderness haven that can only be reached by tour boat. With the exception of the Rock Harbor Lodge, which offers both rooms with private baths and more modest accommodations in the form of small cottages, the 572,000 acres that make up the 45-mile-long park are rough and untamed, threaded with hiking trails that lead to tents-only campsites. In other words, it's wilderness the way it used to be. You're likely to see a moose wading through mist-covered ponds at dawn in search of breakfast, gaze open-mouthed as bald eagles and osprey snag fish from Lake Superior, hear the sharp clap of a beaver slapping its tail on the water, or the lulling conversation of loons at sunset. If you're especially lucky, you might even glimpse one of Isle Royale's gray wolves, hunted nearly to extinction on the mainland. They're very shy, however, so it's more likely that you'll only hear their eerie howl.
Plenty of hiking trails open the area to exploration. At the park's information center, you can find out about ranger-led interpretative hikes and walks that explain the delicate topology of the island. Kids especially love learning how to examine an animal's droppings to figure out its most recent meal. Plenty of hiking trails open the area to exploration. The Stoll Trail, a four-mile loop, winds through spruce and birch trees and offers a tour of the island's history, including prehistoric Indian copper mines. It leads to scenic Scoville Point -- a perfect picnic spot surrounded on three sides by the sparkling waters of Lake Superior.
You can also rent a canoe at the Rock Island Marina and paddle down the shore to the Rock Harbor Lighthouse, an 1855 jewel, and the Edisen Fishery. Once a thriving business, the fishery today is manned by park service employees who use nets to demonstrate how lake trout, whitefish, and herring used to be caught from island waters. Their catch ends up on the dinner menu at the Rock Harbor Lodge.
You can explore farther afield on ranger-guided day cruises aboard the park's MV Sandy, or hop on -- and off -- the Voyageur II on its daily circumnavigation of the island. Reservations are essential and can be made at the information center.
Another essential for any visit to Isle Royale is insect repellent. All those boreal bogs, beaver ponds and streams, generously replenished by heavy spring rains, create ideal conditions for breeding bugs. Mosquitoes and black flies -- one ranger described them as "little but all teeth" -- are at their worst in June and early July. As the weather warms up and the island dries out, horse flies and deer flies -- the delta-winged B-1 bomber of the insect world -- replace them. Come prepared to protect yourself: Usually a combination of head nets, bite-proof clothing and plenty of bug spray does the trick.
For information about Isle Royal National Park, call the park headquarters at 906-482-0984 or go to the Isle Royal National Park web site. The park is open from mid-April through October; Rock Harbor Lodge is open from Memorial Day weekend until just after Labor Day. Reservations are required for the Rock Harbor Lodge; call 906-337-4993 in the summer. Reservations are also needed for boats to Isle Royal; contact park headquarters for information on booking for your area.