Backpacking on Isle Royale

Hello and Welcome!

If you’re planning a backpacking trip to Isle Royale and you’re looking for some general information, you’ve come to the right place.

First and Foremost

This is an informational guide for experienced backpackers who wish to plan a backpacking trip to Isle Royale. This is not a general “how-to” for learning how to backpack. It is assumed that you are well aware and versed in the methods and equipment of this hobby.

Isle Royale National Park

Introduction

Isle Royale is an island on Lake Superior, with about 450 smaller islands on its interior lakes and around its coastline. The main island is 45 miles long and 14 miles wide at its widest point. It lies 56 miles from Copper Harbor, Michigan, and 15 miles from Canada. Isle Royale and the Keweenaw Peninsula in Michigan are two ends of the longest lava flow on Earth. Isle Royale is a place of immense beauty and serenity. It is known for its isolation, backpacking, canoeing, scuba diving, beautiful views and unspoiled inland lakes. More people visit Yellowstone National Park in one day than Isle Royale in one year.

Northern Sunset

A Short History of Isle Royale

Before the arrival of European settlers, Native Americans had been mining copper on Isle Royale for thousands of years, its permanent inhabitants being mostly coyotes and caribou. In the 1840’s, several mining companies arrived, looking for the rich veins of copper and iron so prevalent in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. To aid their search, much of the island was slashed and burned. The mines did not turn out to be very profitable however, and by the mid 1880’s, all the mining companies had left.

Shortly afterwards, the vegetation started growing back, and the resorts moved in. These resorts catered to the upper-class, providing exclusive, extended vacations for the very wealthy. By 1920, there were approximately 40 resorts scattered all around the main island and its smaller islands, some private residences and a few fisheries/canneries. When the Great Depression hit in 1929, all the resorts went broke and were abandoned, all except for the one at Rock Harbor which still exists today.

In the 1930’s, the Civilian Conservation Corps knocked down all the old resorts, cleaned up the land and worked to further restore the island back it its original wilderness. The United States Government designated Isle Royale a National Park in 1940. A few families still own private fishing cabins around the island.

Before You Go

Careful planning for every backpacker is a must. Except for a few ranger stations and one small resort, Isle Royale is mostly wilderness. You will be backpacking through some very beautiful, though very isolated areas. There are no cell phone towers, so unless you have a satellite phone, your cell phone will not work. At least one person in your party should procure a waterproof, tear-proof map of the island and plot out your route out ahead of time.

It is highly recommended that only serious, experienced backpackers undertake this trip!

Getting There and Back

The park is open to the public from April 16 to October 31. Full-services are offered mid-June through Labor Day.

Just the journey to Isle Royale is an undertaking unto itself. Ferry service is provided from three different locations: Copper Harbor, Michigan, from Houghton, Michigan, and from Grand Portage, Minnesota. Be advised that you should make your ferry reservations at least a few months in advance. There is overnight lodging available at all these locations. Each ferry provides parking areas for your vehicles.

The ferry from Copper Harbor takes a little over 3 hours to arrive at Rock Harbor Lodge on the East end of the island. The Isle Royale Queen IV departs in the morning, when Lake Superior is typically calm. If you get seasick easily, it is highly recommended that you bring some Dramamine along and administer it an hour before the boat departs. Much of the time, the morning crossing is smooth. However, the afternoon crossing can get rather rough with 4-6 ft waves being normal.

The Isle Royale Queen IV at Copper Harbor, Michigan

The ferry from Houghton takes 5 hours and it also docks at Rock Harbor Lodge. The Ranger III is much larger than the Copper Harbor ferry, giving it more stability in rough seas. All the same though, it would be wise to take your Dramamine.

The ferry from Grand Portage takes 2 hours and 30 minutes, and it docks at Windigo on the South end. The Voyager II and Sea Hunter III vessels are even smaller than the Copper Harbor ferry so plan accordingly.

You can also take your own private boat if you desire. There is a small marina at both Rock Harbor and Windigo. Contact them directly for any docking fees.

Seaplane service to and from the island is also available.

The Marina at Rock Harbor Lodge

The Ranger Station at Rock Harbor Lodge

Seaplane at Tobin Harbor

When You Arrive

While on board the ferry, each person will be required to pay a camping fee. This is usually collected on board while enroute to the island, so make sure you carry some cash. As of this writing, the camping fee was $4 per person per day.

When you arrive at Rock Harbor Lodge or Windigo, you will be required to go through a mandatory ranger orientation and registration, where you will receive your backpacking permit. Only one permit per group is needed, and this whole process can take an hour or two, depending on how many backpackers they have to process.

Land Route or Water Route?

Each method has its advantages and drawbacks, but no matter which way you choose, you are in for a real treat!

If you do a land route, it is possible to trek from Rock Harbor to Windigo in four days (or less, if you really hump it!). You can hike the upper trail on the Greenstone Ridge, or you can hike the low areas along the shore. The choice is yours. The advantage of taking a land route is that you can cover a lot of ground. The disadvantage is that you are likely to run into more people (though it will typically be quite sparse).

The Greenstone Ridge Trail

If you decide on a water route, a quick scan of the map may reveal that your best bet will be to stay around the Eastern half of the island.

Canoe/Kayak Rental: There are canoes and kayaks available for rent on the island and it is best to reserve what you need well ahead of time. There are numerous inland lakes and trails which connect them all, so plan on doing some portaging. The portages on Isle Royale range in length from a hundred feet to over two and a half miles…….one way.

Of course, portaging means that you have to carry the canoe, drop it off, then go back for your gear….you know the drill. However, most of the portages are half a mile or less in distance. Portage trails are marked with a brown post with the letter “P” on a white background. Look closely, as they easily blend into the woods so sometimes they can be hard to spot.

Typical Portage Marker

A portage on the boardwalk through a swamp

Another factor to consider on a water route is Lake Superior. The exposed lake can get very rough in a small craft.

When planning your water route, pay particular attention to the areas along the way where your canoe/kayak is directly exposed to Lake Superior. Depending on your skill level, you may want to limit this exposure. The waves are large, and the period between them is very short, making it somewhat dangerous for a canoe. The average temperature of the water is 40 deg F….. and that’s in the Summer.

This is not a body of water you want to swamp your canoe into. Within a few minutes, you will start to feel numb, and moving your arms and legs will be slow and painful. You cannot paddle too closely to the shore, or you will risk being smashed upon the rocks. If you swamp your canoe too far off-shore and you’re not wearing your life jacket, chances are you will cramp up and drown. So remember…..PLEASE WEAR YOUR LIFE JACKET AT ALL TIMES.

BE ADVISED: Lake Superior conditions can change very fast, even within a few minutes. What starts out as a mirror-smooth body of water can turn into rough seas very quickly. One area of exposed lake that is well-travelled by canoe is on the North side of the island, the water-leg from the Pickerel Cove portage to the mouth of McCargoe Cove. You are exposed to the open lake for about two miles. If the lake is rough and you’re paddling against the waves, it can be a LONG two miles so take caution.

Now, that being said, there are numerous outer islands that are long and thin, which provide excellent barriers against the waves of the open lake, making it much easier to paddle around. Even here, it can still get a little dicey, so keep that life jacket on.

Water Taxi: You may decide on beginning and ending locations for your trip which are entirely different. For example, you may want to start at Rock Harbor and stop at McCargoe Cove. This is entirely possible since the island does provide Water Taxi service to haul your gear, canoes and yourselves. Of course, you’ll have to plan this and make reservations ahead of time.

The main advantage to doing a water route is that you are able to get to more isolated campsites that are not accessible to folks taking a land route. It also means that you will see far fewer people. One trip my buddy and I did a water route, and we didn’t see another person for six whole days!

The main disadvantage is that you’ve got a lot more stuff to haul overland. Also, between canoe rental and water taxi service, it makes your trip a bit more expensive.

Trails

Trails are fairly well-marked, even so, make sure you have a compass and a waterproof, tear-proof map. When trekking from Rock Harbor down to Windigo, there are a few ways you can go: Do you want to hike along the Greenstone Ridge, or take the Northern route along Lake Superior? Generally speaking, no matter which route you take, you will hike through some of the most beautiful scenery in North America.

Backpacking on the Lake Richie Trail

The Minong Ridge Trail

Campsites

Camping is low-impact, back-country style. Each campground has a varying number of designated sites, from just a handful to dozens. No campfires are allowed, unless there’s an official park-designated fire pit. Plan on bringing your portable backpacking stove.

Many campsites have at least a few shelters which can easily sleep six adults comfortably. Some may consider this cheating, but it does lessen the wear-and-tear on this fragile ecosystem.

Typical shelter at the Daisy Farm Campground

The campgrounds have outhouses, and the park requests that everyone help do their part to keep them clean as they don’t have the time or resources to take care of them on a consistent basis. For this reason, it is a very good idea to carry a roll of toilet paper just in case.

There is no way that the Park Service can get a “honey-sucker” back in the wilderness to remove all the “goodies” from the outhouses, but this isn’t a problem since the traffic they get is quite low. In fact, in this author’s few trips to Isle Royale, the outhouses were usually found to be in excellent condition, clean, with very low odor. In exercising responsible backpacking, the park requests that only bio-degradable items be disposed of in the outhouses. Please pack out all your trash, garbage, and other non-degradables.

Inland Lakes: Swimming and Fishing

On Isle Royale, you will find some of the most pristine, unspoiled lakes left in North America. You will not find shorelines dotted with cabins, resorts, taverns, marinas, etc. You will not find speedboats, sailboats, or pontoon boats with those festive lights strung from bow to stern…….just the unbroken scenery of wilderness. The inland lakes afford much warmer water for swimming than frigid Lake Superior, but don’t expect to find white sandy beaches. The geography is ancient pre-Cambrian. Just bare rock, boulders and stones.

Also, the fishing is fantastic! Northern Pike, Yellow Perch, and Walleye await. No license is required to fish on the inland lakes, but only artificial bait and lures are allowed.

Lake Richie

Fresh Pike for Supper, Thanks to Molly and her Superior Angling Skills!

Lake Superior: Swimming and Fishing

A State of Michigan fishing license is required for any fishing in Lake Superior waters. Lake Trout, Brook Trout, and Whitefish are around but you might have better luck on the inland lakes. Only the heartiest of souls should attempt swimming in Lake Superior. It can be done, just don’t plan on spending more than several minutes at a time in the water as you will get chilled very quickly!

View from Moskey Basin on Lake Superior

View of McCargoe Cove from Birch Isle

Duncan Bay

Water

Potable water is available at Rock Harbor and Windigo. Otherwise, fresh water is very readily available all around the island, but you will need to carry your portable water filter. Drinking the water without filtering or boiling runs the risk of contracting Giardia, and you don’t want that nastiness in your intestines.

Tapeworm eggs deposited into the water from wolf droppings can also be a concern. Chemical treatments like Iodine tablets will not kill off tapeworm eggs, so always filter or boil your water.

Note: I don’t need to tell you that a responsible backpacking group does not carry only ONE water filter!

Climate and Terrain

Around the edges of the island that are exposed to the fierce, cold winds coming off of Lake Superior, you will find the Boreal-type forest of the Northern Canadian shield. Dense, sticky evergreens with thick hanging moss dominate here, along with birch and poplar. The woods are very thick and in many places, it is almost impossible to bushwhack through. Move to the interior of the island where it’s warmer, and you will find hardwoods such as oak, maple and elm.

Trail through Boreal Forest in the lowlands, near Lake Superior

Moving through the Interior

A marshy area in the Interior

This is a damp, wetter climate so plan accordingly.

The terrain will take you through thick forests, over stretches of bare rock, down into swamps, through lush meadows and along rocky shorelines. The park has placed boardwalks across the swamps and marshier areas. Many places are very rocky. Pay particular attention to the topographical lines on your map: You will be doing a lot of up-down-up-down-up-down while you backpack. Some of these areas are quite steep so take it easy.

CAUTION: When the bare rocks get wet, they are VERY SLIPPERY! If you fall and break a leg, it could be several days before help gets to you. So exercise caution!

Weather

In the Summer, the temperatures can range from near freezing at night to 90 degrees during the day. It is not uncommon to wear long pants in the morning and switch over to shorts in the afternoon.

Due to Lake Superior, Isle Royale has its own weather. It can and will change rapidly. Day one may be hot, humid, and sunny, while day two may be cloudy, cold and windy. You may start out canoeing from the Threemile Campground with calm, cloudy skies, get to the Daisy Farm Campground and it will turn to wind with driving rain, and by the time you make it to Moskey Basin, the sky clears up and the sun comes out. The weather does (literally) change that fast. So it’s best to plan for every type of weather and temps from 32 Deg F to 90 DegF.

Windy, Stormy conditions on Lake Superior

Fog Rolling in at Duncan Bay

Wildlife

Isle Royale is the home to an ongoing, long-term study of the predator/prey system which began in 1958. The coyotes and caribou are long gone however, being replaced by moose and wolves. In the early 1900’s, moose swam to the island from Minnesota and around 1949, some wolves ran across an ice bridge from Canada during the Winter. The isolation of Isle Royale affords ecologists a controlled environment to study this delicate relationship.

You may encounter a moose, especially if you are camped near the water and your site happens to be in their path to go quench their thirst. Though generally, they tend to avoid people.

The Moose is Loose!

“Sure, come on in! Our camp is your camp!”

A wolf sighting is very rare, however it is not uncommon to hear them howling at night.

You may also see red foxes, red squirrels, snowshoe hares, ground squirrels (otherwise known as micro-bears), mink, and beaver. You will have to hang up you food or keep it inside your shelter to protect it from micro-bears. Also, do not let your hiking boots out of sight. It is not unheard of for foxes to steal them.

There is a wide variety of birds, including Loons, Great Blue Herons, Bald Eagles, Red-Tailed Hawks, Owls, Ravens, and Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds, just to name a few.

Wildflowers

If you are interested in wildflowers, Isle Royale will not disappoint. The island is home to over 600 flowering plants, 40 of which are endangered or threatened. Many types of Orchids, Iris, and Marigolds many be seen. Isle Royale is the exclusive home to the recently-identified Packera insulae-regalis, the only place on Earth where this flower is found.

Wildflowers at Belle Isle

Purple Iris

Packera insulae-regalis, found only on Isle Royale

Insects

Of course, your main concern here is the presence of Gnats, Mosquitoes, Black Flies, Deer Flies, and Horse Flies. Due to the damp, wet climate, these insects can be very numerous and quite bothersome. One of the best ways to wreck your trip is to forget your bug repellant. DEET works well against mosquitoes, and a hat will help keep the flies off. Long sleeves and boots provide good protection as well.

Depending on the time of year and your location on the island, you could be walking into an insect hurricane (literally). Hot, humid days tend to bring them out more, while cold, windy days help keep them at bay. The gnats, flies and mosquitoes come in around the middle/end of May. The flies and gnats are mostly gone by the beginning of July, though some hang along a lot longer. As the season progresses and things dry out a bit more, the mosquitoes slowly fall off in number.

There are ticks on Isle Royale, but they are Winter Ticks and they don’t attach themselves to humans, only to moose and wolves.

As long as you properly plan for a high degree of insect exposure, this shouldn’t have an adverse affect on your backpacking trip.

“Is that the sound of a billion mosquitoes in the woods, or a formation of B-17 bombers overhead??”

Things to See and Do

You may not want to backpack every day, instead you may choose to stay more than one night at any given campground (Note: The due to the higher levels of traffic at Rock Harbor, the park requests that you not stay more than one night at the Rock Harbor and 3-Mile Campgrounds). Most campsites have a 2 or 3 night maximum stay, which affords ample opportunity for striking out on day-hikes from your base camp.

Here are just a few things to see and do for day-trips:

Rock Harbor Lighthouse and Edisen Fishery: Just South of the Daisy Farm Campground at the Middle Island Passage, the Rock Harbor Lighthouse stands watch. Built in 1855, it is now a museum and you can go inside. There’s a small loop-trail which will lead you to the old Edisen Fishery, which was built in 1895. The fishery is still operated today on a limited basis. The lighthouse and fishery are only accessible by boat.

The Rock Harbor Lighthouse

Suzy’s Cave: Situated on the Rock Harbor Trail between Threemile Campground and Rock Harbor Lodge lies Suzy’s Cave. It is small, just large enough to be classified as a cave.

Suzy’s Cave

Lookout Louise: Across Tobin Harbor and a mile North of Rock Harbor Lodge sits the entrance to a trail which leads to Lookout Louise. It is one of the highest points on the Eastern end , at 880 ft above sea level.

The view from Lookout Louise

Mount Desor: Located on the Greenstone Ridge Trail just South of Lake Desor, Mount Desor is the highest point on the island at 1394 ft.

On top of Mount Desor

1800’s Copper Mines: A quick scan of the map may reveal abandoned copper mines from the mid-1800’s, not far from your campsite on any given day. You will find filled-in mine shafts, tailings, old railroad grades, even old equipment rusting away as the Earth slowly erases all traces of human activity. The Minong Mine, Isle Royale Ohio Mine, and Siskowit Mine are just a few that are marked on the map and easily accessible by foot.

Ancient Native American Copper Mines: These can be found all over the island, though only a couple of them are marked. They are rather obscure to locate, one needs a trained eye to realize what one is looking at. Some are small, others are quite large. At Rock Harbor Lodge, Stoll Trail is a three-mile loop along which one of these ancient copper mines is pointed out.

Large piles of tailings at the Minong Mine

Former Railroad grade at the Minong Mine

Part of what remains of the Minong Mine

Lookout Towers: There are lookout towers on the Greenstone Ridge Trail at Mount Ojibway and Ishpeming Point. There is also a tower on the Feldtmann Ridge Trail, halfway between Feldtmann Lake and Siskiwit Bay Campgrounds. You may or may not be able to climb them.

The Feldtmann Ridge Tower

Private Fishing Lodges: A few families still own and operate private fishing lodges which have been in the area since before it was designated a National Park, under lifetime leases from the US government. Please be sure to obey all “No Trespassing” signs. If you look closely while paddling along the various waterways, you may see the ruins of an old cabin along the shoreline or back in the woods.

Shipwrecks: There are many shipwrecks around Isle Royale, the more famous ones being the Emperor, the Monarch, and the Chester Congdon. While not of much use to backpackers, they are popular destinations for scuba diving.

Former Resorts: Several campgrounds reside at the same locations as the exclusive, luxury resorts of yesteryear. While the CCC cleaned up all these old resorts and put the land back to its natural state, some things still remain. It is not uncommon to walk back into the woods and find old bottles, rusty antiques, and other relics of a bygone era. These are historical artifacts, so please don’t disturb them!

Echoes of the Past: Cement steps and a shuffleboard court are all that remain of the Belle Isle Resort

Amenities

Both Rock Harbor and Windigo have a Ranger Station, a small camp-store, pay-showers, small marina, marine fuel, flush toilets, and potable water. Rock Harbor Lodge has a restaurant and a smaller café. If you decide to have a meal there, be prepared to pay premium pricing since shipping in all the food is expensive. But after eating nothing but dehydrated food for over a week, a plain old hamburger tastes great!

Pets

Sorry, no pets are allowed on Isle Royale.

Know Your Limits

As with any backpacking trip, make sure you know and understand your group’s limits, your own personal limits, as well as your gear. Take only gear that you are comfortable with and you know works well. Isle Royale is not the place to experiment.

Injuries and Emergencies

You will be miles from any sort of help and unless you have a satellite phone, you will be out of communication. If you sustain an injury, it may be several days before help can get to you.

Greenstones

Chlorastrolite, otherwise known as Greenstone, is Michigan’s State Gem. It is illegal to take Greenstone from the island, so please don’t do it. Like all responsible backpackers, take only pictures and memories, leave only footprints. If possible, always leave your campsite cleaner than when you arrived.

Chlorastrolite, or Greenstone

Thank you!

Thank you for visiting iselroyalebackpack.com. We hope this basic guide will aid you as you plan your trip to the island. Remember, plan ahead, be safe, but most of all, HAVE FUN!

Disclaimer

This is a basic guide for backpacking on Isle Royale, just an overview only. This is by no means complete or exhaustive. This is for informational purposes only. Author makes no guarantee of the success of your individual trip, nor does this author take any responsibility whatsoever for your own decisions, successes, failures, injuries, loss of life, blisters on your feet, angry significant-others or anything else for that matter!

This website and the author are in no way associated with the United States Government, the US Department of the Interior, the National Park Service, or the Government of the State of Michigan.

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5 Responses to Backpacking on Isle Royale

  1. Pam J says:

    Hey – looks great! I’ve been thinking of doing this for a long time, but just haven’t done it. Now I’m motivated again. All I need is a backpacking buddy…..

    • Jim Hopper says:

      I was wondering if you could recommend a good 3 day 2 night hike? Nothing real aggressive (I’m still a newbie) I was thinking about going mid August to early Sept. by myself.

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