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Hike of the Week : Isle Royale National Park

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Through this weekly series, we aim to inspire you to go out there and experience amazing backpacking locations in person. Simply looking at them on your phone or monitor is not enough. Feel the wind, breathe the air and bask in the sun.

Our hike this week is the gorgeous, but remote, Isle Royale National Park.

Featured Photo: Big Bull Moose (photo by Ray Dumas)

Why this Hike?

This multi-day hike takes you through 46.5 miles of gorgeous forests and great views of Lake Superior, North America's largest lake. Isle Royale has the largest concentration of wolves and moose, so you're bound to see them on the trail.

  • Total distance is 46.5 miles
  • 4-8 days are recommended, although it can be done in 3 days
  • Isolated and a great place to decompress
  • It's one of the least visited National Parks, but has one of the highest percentage of returning visitors
  • Gorgeous views of Lake Superior
  • Lush forests and beautiful inland lakes
  • A high chance to see wonderful wildlife, like wolves and moose

Take note of these factors before starting your adventure:

  • Isolated and a bit difficult to get to
  • No vehicles are allowed on the island
  • Potable water is seasonal
  • Late May to late September are the best times to do the hike
  • Moderate difficulty
  • Book your accommodations and boat / seaplane rides in advance

How do I get there?

There are only 2 ways of getting to Isle Royale National Park; either by boat or by seaplane. There are several departure points, including Houghton, Michigan; Copper Harbor, Michigan and Grand Portage, Minnesota.

When going to the Houghton, Michigan departure point; you could drive there via US 41, take an Indians Trail bus, or take a United Airlines flight to Houghton County Memorial Airport. Here you could either ride the Ranger III boat or an Isle Royale Seaplane.

Copper Harbor, Michigan is accessible via US 41, just 52 miles north of Houghton. From there, you could go on the Isle Royale Queen IV.

If going to the Grand Portage, Minnesota departure point, you could drive up US 61, 50 miles southwest of Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada. You could also take the Greyhound to Duluth, Minnesota. By plane, you have the options of Thunder Bay International Airport or Duluth International Airport. From Grand Portage you could ride Voyageur II or Seahunter III to Isle Royale.

Here’s a list of the ferry and seaplane services available:

  • For Ranger III, contact Isle Royale National Park - 906-482-0984 / www.nps.gov/isro
  • For Isle Royale Queen IV, contact Isle Royale Line - 906-289-4437 / www.isleroyale.com
  • For Voyageur II or Seahunter, contact Grand Portage – Isle Royale Transportation Line - 651-653-5872, 888-746-2305 / www.isleroyaleboats.com
  • For seaplane transport, contact Royale Air Service - 218-721-0405, 877-359-4753 / www.royaleairservice.com

Map

Here’s a map of our recommended route:


The best way to undertake this hike is by starting from the Windigo Visitor Center and hiking the length of the island to the Rock Harbor Visitor Center via the Greenstone Ridge trail. The hike will take 5 days.

  • Day 1: Windigo to Washington Creek Campground (0.3 miles)
  • Day 2: Washington Creek Campground to Lake Desor South Campground (11.3 miles)
  • Day 3: Lake Desor South Campground to Chickenbone West Campground (15 miles)
  • Day 4: Chickenbone West Campground to Lane Cove Campground (13 miles)
  • Day 5: Lane Cove Campground to Rock Harbor (6.9 miles)

You have the option of taking the trail in reverse although the boat ride from Copper Harbor and Houghton are longer than when coming from Grand Portage.

Experienced hikers could finish the trail in 3 days but we recommend 4-8 days so that you could take in as much of the scenery as possible.

Trail Description

Our trail starts off once you reach Windigo either via seaplane or boat. From here we’ll take a short hike up to our first campsite, Washington Creek Campground. You could skip this if you have limited time or arrive early in the day. However, if you arrive later in the day or wish to take in the scenery around the west side of the island before heading for the 2nd campsite, we recommend camping at Washington Creek. You could also check out the shops and do a final re-stock before embarking on the hike.

From the Washington Creek Campground, we head off to the Lake Desor South Campground. The trail is uphill and runs through the forest. Most moose sightings are around this part of the trail, so be on the lookout. Just make sure to respect their territory and view them from a distance. Halfway to the Lake Desor campgrounds is Island Mine. You can rest here and have your lunch. Then you could continue on to Lake Desor, the campsite for the night.

On day three, the trail now takes us to Hatchet Lake which is a great resting point. There may be a bit of rock scrambling needed on this part of the trail, but it’s worth it as you take in the gorgeous panoramic views. We then head on to Chickenbone West Campground to conclude the third day.

From Chickenbone West, we continue on the trail until we reach Mt. Franklin. Then we head north to the Lane Cove Campgrounds. There are several campgrounds along this portion of the trail. Some of them can be good stopping points for lunch but you have the option of taking your time and extend the hike by turning those mid-points into overnight campsites instead.

Then from Lane Cove, we head back south to the intersection with the main trail and turn east to Rock Harbor which is the final stop for our hike. Just like Windigo, there are shops and resorts here and you could wind down and relax, or take a ferry or seaplane back to the mainland via Copper Harbor or Houghton. Just make sure to book your flight or boat ride in advance.

What will I need?

Even if the Park is already open by April, potable water is only available from the end of May to the end of September. We suggest scheduling your hike around this time, since the weather will also be better. Regardless of when you go, all water has to be filtered or boiled before consumption. We recommend filters or filtration tablets to lessen the weight of what you have to carry. There are a lot of water sources along the trail and at the campsites, so you don't need a ton of water storage as long as you have a means to treat the water.

The island can be buggy, so make sure to bring bug spray and sunscreen.

We suggest a light tent or tarp that could withstand thunderstorms because they can be frequent. If you're not too familiar with tarps, it may be a good idea to practice pitching one quickly before you come to the island. A good rain jacket is needed both for the storms and your ferry/boat ride.

The trail goes from asphalt, to gravel, to regular soil trail, with some rocky areas. Your most comfortable and waterproof hiking shoes/boots would be the best choice for this hike. As always, a comfortable pair of camp shoes would be welcome after a long day of hiking.

There is no access to cellular service on the island, so you will need a good map. The Visitor Centers will have some that you can bring along. There are also markers on the trail in the form of stacked stones (cairns), so be on the lookout for them.

For more gear recommendations on what to bring to a multi-day hike like this, refer to our Ultimate Backpacker's Packing List.

Do I need a permit?

There is a $7 daily entrance fee for Isle Royale National Park, with children below 15 exempt from the fee. You could also purchase one of the $60 season passes. All Federal Recreation Passes are accepted. A maximum of 10 persons are allowed per group.

To avoid congestion and waiting upon arrival; we suggest paying in advance through pay.gov. Entrance fees could be paid upon arrival at the Rock Harbor and Windigo Visitor Centers. Permits are needed for overnight visitors (ie. backpackers) and could be acquired at the Visitor Centers as well. Visitors arriving via Ranger III will pay for both the entrance and permit fees upon reservation through the Houghton Visitor Center.

Resources

Your Invitation to a Superior Wilderness
Best Hikes in the Parks: Trail Maps Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
Isle Royale NP: Greenstone Ridge Trail-Map

Have you explored Isle Royale National Park? Do you have other outstanding hikes that you'd like us to write about? Please share your feedback in the comments.

Hike of the Week Isle Royale National Park

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