Many parks have been closed throughout the pandemic, but of the 63 national parks managed by the National Park Service, only one is always closed during the winter, in part because it is so remote.
National parks can be ideal places to escape to during the colder months, from the sunbaked cliffs of Zion to the lush swamps of the Everglades.
The frigid waters of Lake Superior near the Canadian border, however, are a different story for many. Here, the winters are harsh and snowy, nighttime lows fall well below zero, and the wilderness island designated as Isle Royale National Park is almost entirely shut down to human activity from November to mid-April.
The National Park Service maintains these annual closures for safety reasons, though other remote parks with freezing temperatures continue to allow visitors in the off-season — albeit far fewer of them. Gates of the Arctic, for example, where temperatures regularly get below -50 F; Denali, which recently set multiple records for snowfall; and Mount Rainier, where 93.5 feet of snow once fell in a single winter all have at least some areas that hardy visitors can still access during the coldest months.
Unlike these larger parks with open terrain, however, visitors can only get to Isle Royale by ferry, seaplane or private boat, and extreme weather conditions make these modes of transit more perilous. Although park staff usually allow scientists to conduct research during the winter months, even that was halted amid pandemic closures in 2021. Isle Royale is the site of the longest-running predator-prey study in the world, and researchers at Michigan Technological University, led by principal investigators Rolf Peterson and John Vucetich, have long relied on the park’s heavy snows to provide an ideal backdrop for counting the island’s growing wolf population.
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Fortunately, it’s worth waiting until the weather is (relatively) warmer to explore this wilderness gem. Isle Royale is one of the largest lake islands in the world, with very few human-made structures and roads, but plenty of fragrant pine forests, craggy rocks and quiet shorelines. Visitors can trade the sounds of traffic for the calls of loons and sandhill cranes and enjoy chance encounters with moose and other wildlife. Historic lighthouses and cabins dot the coasts, and the island’s picturesque ridges are streaked in the coppery colors of the park’s 600-plus lichen species.
Just be sure to plan your travel and reserve a campsite, lodge room or camper cabin well in advance. Though it never feels crowded on the island, designated places to sleep — and anything remotely qualifying as an amenity — are in very limited supply.
Note that Isle Royale is the only site designated as a national park that closes in the winter, though a handful of sites with other designations also close seasonally, such as the John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site in Massachusetts and the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Pennsylvania.
About the author
Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications
Jennifer co-produces NPCA's podcast, The Secret Lives of Parks, and writes, edits and moderates online content.