BACKPACKING ISLE ROYALE NATIONAL PARK

Updated: May 19


Back in May Nicole and I took a last minute weekend trip to Isle Royale National Park in the middle of Lake Superior between Michigan and Ontario, Canada. The only way to get to the park is a 6 hour ferry or a 30 minute sea plane flight, so not typically the sort of place you’d plan on visiting last minute, but we made it work! Because I tend to get very sea sick on anything smaller than a cruise ship, and because our time on the island would be limited to 4 days and 3 nights, we decided to take the sea plane for roughly $100 more per person. It was totally worth it. We planned our hiking itinerary as a loop around the eastern side of the island as we unfortunately did not have enough time to hike the island from end to end (when we go back that will definitely be the plan). We hiked roughly 7 miles a day starting and ending our trip at Rock Harbor, one of the two visitor centers on the island.


ABOUT THE NATIONAL PARK

Isle Royale National Park is the least visited national park in the continental United States. Roughly 30,000 people visit the park each year, compare this to the millions of visitors parks like the Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite typically receive. The remoteness of the park, lack of development on the park, and wilderness keeps all but the most adventurous away. Despite the relatively few visitors this park receives, it is also the most re-visited national park. If you visit Isle Royale once, chances are you’ll be back. Our days backpacking on the island we rarely saw others and the solitude added to the stunning beauty of the park.


Isle Royale is open April 16th - October 31st each year. The island is closed all winter due to extreme conditions.


If you plan on camping or backpacking on the island you will need a backcountry permit. All of the island other than the lodge/cabins at Rock Harbor and Windigo are wilderness areas and a backcountry permit is required for all overnight trips.


The island is teeming with wildlife! Even while we were on the island in May (the very beginnings of spring on the island) we saw beavers, garter snakes, snowshoe hares, squirrels, loons, Canadian gray jays, and several other species of birds, and coolest of all Moose! The island is also home to several wolves which are being reintroduced to the island from Canada and Minnesota. Learn more about the wolf/moose populations on the island here.


PLANNING YOUR TRIP

At first glance, planning a trip to Isle Royale National Park can seem daunting. There isn’t a ton of information easily accessible about the island, but with a little research, time, and planning you can plan an exciting adventure to the island. We planned our trip in the matter of about 3 weeks before heading out, so it can be done! Because the island is so remote, I would definitely plan to spend at least 3 nights on the island to get a good experience. While there are a few things to do and see near the visitor’s centers at Rock Harbor and Windigo, most of the island is more than a day’s hike away. The island is a backpacker’s paradise, do yourself a favor and spend enough time on the island to truly experience it. See a map of the park here.

While we didn’t have the luxury of a week on the island, I would say a week would be the perfect amount of time to see nearly all the island and give you the best opportunity to see the most diverse wildlife. Most backpacker’s thru-hike from Windigo to Rock Harbor (or Vice-Versa) via either the Greenstone Ridge Trail, or the Minong Ridge Trail, however there are a ton of options for shorter trips. Ferries run around the perimeter of the island every day, making stops along the way at specific camps. The only downfall to the ferry is that it only runs certain days and certain times because of how large the island is, so if you plan on using a ferry to get to either the starting or ending point of your hike, make sure you look at the schedule and plan accordingly!

Because our trip was fairly last minute and early season, we did not have the luck of the ferry schedule matching our days on the island so we started our hike at Rock Harbor (the southeast end of the island) and hiked a roughly 21 mile loop to Daisy Farm and Lane Cove before hiking back to Rock Harbor the day before we departed the island. I’ll give a synopsis of our trip below! Regardless of your itinerary it would be difficult to pick a bad hike as each day we saw something new, and the entire island was breathtaking.

An impressive 360 degree view of the island from Mt. Ojibway

If backpacking isn’t your thing, there are still ways to enjoy a trip to Isle Royale National Park. Many people kayak, day hike, or relax in the lodge or cabins located at Rock Harbor and Windigo. Rock Harbor even has a restaurant that is open when the lodge is open. The lodge and restaurant are only open during peak season and were not open during our trip. We actually preferred being on the island during the off-season as many days if felt like we had the island almost entirely to ourselves.


Being prepared for weather on the island is extremely important. The island is extremely far north and located in the middle of Lake Superior. When we were flying to the island at the end of May, we could still see some areas of snow on the ground and the temperature dropped into the upper 30’s every night during our trip. Additionally, when we were camping on the northern shore of the island, the winds were a little brutal. The most popular time to visit the island is September-early October, as the temperatures are generally warm and most of the insects and mosquitos are gone for the season. Another benefit of a later season trip is Moose on the island seem to be more prevalent. We saw two moose (a cow and her calf) on our trip, but from our conversations with rangers, our sea plane pilot, and those who had been on the island before, the moose (especially the bulls) are much more prevalent due to rutt. Personally, I enjoyed our early season trip as there weren't many others on the island, our average high temperatures were in the 50’s, and we didn’t see a single mosquito or fly on our entire trip.


OUR TRIP

PREP:

Trip Itinerary: Rock Harbor to Daisy Farm to Lane Cove to Rock Harbor

When planning a backpacking trip, it is important to consider a lot of factors, especially when visiting a place as remote and secluded as Isle Royale. We each carried our 35L packs (see our post about these backpacks here) packed with all we needed for our 4 day adventure. I carried our tent, stove, fuel, first aid kit, spade, pot for boiling water, water filter, a small amount of food, and my personal items (10 degree sleeping bag and pad, clothing, rain gear, toothbrush, etc) while Nicole carried most of our food for the trip, our camera gear, and all of her personal items. Each of our packs weighed 25 pounds fully packed for the trip. Water is abundant at Isle Royale, considering it is an island, so we carried two liters of water per person and never came close to running dry.


Route planning wasn’t an easy task for our trip because we wanted to see as much of the island as possible, but we only had 4 days to do it. Ultimately, we decided that a loop hike that covered most the eastern side of the island would be our best option.


We booked our flight 2-3 weeks before our trip, and honestly we barely made it. If you plan on taking the sea plane to the island I would highly recommend booking as far in advance as possible, especially if you have a larger group. Each plane can only carry 4-6 people max and they seem to fill up fast, even in the off season.


THURSDAY, MAY 23RD:

Travel day. We left our hometown of Canton, Ohio after Nicole got off work for the day. We left around 1pm and proceeded to drive the 12 and a half hour to Hancock on the northern edge of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We arrived in town around 2:30am and decided to sleep in the car for the rest of the night as we were catching our flight out of Copper Harbor at 8am. We were exhausted, and while neither of us had the best night of sleep we made it thru the night and woke up excited to begin our adventure the next morning.


FRIDAY, MAY 24TH:

The seaplane to Rock Harbor with Houghton, MI in the background

After waking up groggy with aching necks from our night of sleeping in the car, we headed out for some breakfast at Victoria’s Kitchen in Houghton around 6:30am. With bellies full of homemade jam, eggs, and French toast we crossed the draw bridge over the river into Hancock and arrived at Isle Royale Seaplanes to catch our flight over to the island. It was a foggy/misty morning so unfortunately all the flights to the island were delayed, but it gave us the opportunity to relax and talk to some of the other backpackers heading to the island.


After about 2 hours of waiting for the fog to clear, we were finally given the all clear to board our ride to Rock Harbor. Our packs were placed in the floats and we climbed inside the 6 seat plane and took off for Isle Royale.


Neither Nicole nor I had ever flown in a seaplane before and it was quite the cool experience. As we climbed over the cities of Houghton and Hancock we took the opportunity to take some photos and understand the scale of just how large Lake Superior is.

About 20 minutes after takeoff, Isle Royale began to come into view. From the air, you really begin to understand just how large, secluded, and wild the island really is. The island stretched as far to the west as I could see, and the only sign of civilization was the Rock Harbor Visitors Center. Landing in Tobin Harbor was by far the most exciting part of the flight. We descended over the island, and made a surprising smooth landing on the waters of Lake Superior just to the north of the Rock Harbor Visitor’s Center.


After deplaning, we shouldered our packs and hiked up the hill into Rock Harbor. Upon arrival, we were greeted by a park ranger who provided a short safety briefing, took down the details of our planned itinerary, and provided us with our backcountry permit. We were off! Our first day of hiking led us along the rocky southern side of the island and past Siskiwit Mine and 3 Mile Camp. The pine trees, wildflower buds, and grasses intermingled with the rocky outcrops and ledges as we hiked up and down keeping the shore and small islands off the coast in site most of the trip. We only saw one other couple during our hike.


We arrived at Daisy Farm Camp around 7pm after hiking thru a bit of rain, set up camp, and made dinner. We settled in for the night, just excited to be on the island and went to bed looking forward to Saturday, and our hike over to Lane Cove.


SATURDAY, MAY 25TH:

Saturday was the most beautiful day we had on the island. The rain from the day before gave way to clear, sunny skies and the temperature rose to the mid 60’s as we hiked across the interior of the island and to the highest point of our trek.

As we hiked we passed beaver dams, marshes, streams, and inland lakes before beginning our accent up the Greenstone Ridge to Mt. Ojibway. It was about halfway up the Greenstone Ridge that we spotted one of the main reasons we decided to travel to Isle Royale; Moose! As we walked up the trail, we head a twig snap off to our right. We stop, look over, and we spot them between the trees. A cow and her calf were munching on the fresh spring grass and hardly even cared that we were there. Unfortunately, these were the only moose we saw during our trip, although the evidence of their existence was everywhere. You couldn’t walk 10 feet down the trail without walking thru moose droppings and seeing tracks.


After standing and watching the moose for a few minutes we decided it was time to continue our hike. About an hour later we arrived at Mt. Ojibway and climbed the lookout tower to get a better view of the island. From Mt. Ojibway almost the entire island was visible and the views were stunning. The panoramic views with the sunny skies, green conifers, and blue waters around the island were yet another highlight of our trip. From Mt. Ojibway we continued hiking along the Greenstone Ridge for about a mile. This mile was among the most scenic of the trip. I highly recommend hiking along either the Greenstone Ridge or Minong Ridge during your visit to Isle Royale.


The last section of hike on Saturday led us down the north side of Greenstone Ridge and into marshes and streams on our way to Lane Cove. We passed dozens of beaver dams and hiked along elevated boardwalks just above the surface of the clear flowing water where the beavers made their homes. We enjoyed the views as we continued down the ridge and the northern shore of Isle Royale. When we arrived at Lane Cove, we setup camp at the lake’s edge, had dinner, and enjoyed a gorgeous sunset over the cove.


SUNDAY, MAY 26TH:


Sunday morning arrived way too soon. We woke up to a cool north wind and packed up camp to begin the last leg of our hike. We hiked about 2 miles up the trail we had travelled down to Lane Cove and then crossed the Greenstone Ridge to head back to Rock Harbor. At the ridge, we stopped for some lunch and again enjoyed the panoramic views of the island. From here we could see our destination; Rock Harbor stood about 5 miles below us, so we began the long hike down the ridge. As we walked we came across a Canadian gray jay and a snowshoe hare. We passed a few more beaver dams and lodges as our trip came to an end.


By the time we arrived at Rock Harbor, we were beat! For some reason, today’s hike really took it out of both of us. Luckily, there was one shelter at Rock Harbor available when we arrived into camp, so we took full advantage. More protection from the wind and threat of rain was a nice treat for our last night on the island. Before dinner, we walked over to the camp store and bought ice cream and drinks as a reward for completing our hike.



MONDAY, MAY 27TH:

The day had come and it was time to leave the scenic wilderness of Isle Royale. We had originally planned to day hike to Scoville Point on the far northeastern edge of the island, but decided Monday morning, that we would take it easy and mosey around camp for a few hours instead. We met a few fellow backpackers at a campfire, shared our experiences and left over snacks, and enjoyed the last of our time on the island. About an hour before flying out, we walked over to the seaplane dock and took the opportunity to take a few photos.

When our pilot arrived, we boarded the plane with a few fellow travelers and took off back to Michigan. As we climbed over the island, we had one last look at all the places we’d been and all the island that we have yet to see… It will have to wait until our next trip, I suppose.


After landing back at Hancock we climbed into our car, grabbed some pizza, and began the long drive home. About an hour into our trip home, Michigan gave us one last parting gift. I glanced out my window and saw a bald eagle sitting near the side of the road! I quickly made a u-turn as Nicole grabbed the camera. It was the first time either of us had seen an eagle in the wild. After watching him perch in the top of a pine tree, we observed him for a few minutes before he flew away. Then we settled in for the long ride home.




SEE THE REST OF OUR PHOTOS FROM THIS TRIP BELOW:

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