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The Comprehensive Isle Royale Backpacking Guide

Isle Royale is one of the least visited National Parks in the United States.  Each year Isle Royale receives just 0.1% of the number of people that visit the Smoky Mountains every year (16,000 vs 11.4 million). But even though it's one of the least visited parks, Isle Royale is one of the most revisited national parks.

How come? Well after visiting during the summer of 2018, it's obvious to me now.

In addition to being incredibly secluded, it's a beautiful island with huge variations in the landscape. From high ridges that let you see into Canada to gigantic lakes that lie inside of the island, Isle Royale is a hidden treasure for backpackers.  It's tucked away in Lake Superior​ north of the coast of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Let's dive in and I'll take you through everything you need to know to plan your own backpacking trip to Isle Royale.

Background Info

Isle Royale is an island located in Lake Superior, between the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Canada's Thunder Bay.

Isle Royale is 45 miles long and 9 miles wide with a total area of 206 square miles. The island has 170 miles of hiking trails which range from short day hikes to 2 week long island tours that will take you end to end on the island.

The highest point on the island is Mount Desor which is about 700 feet above Lake Superior.

Source: Wikipedia

There are a lot of trails and different ways to see the island, but the 3 most popular routes are:

  • The Greenstone Ridge which spans end to end on the southern side of the island.
  • The Minong Ridge which is also end to end but on the northern side of the island.
  • The Feldtmann Loop which is on the southwest side of the island near Windigo.

We'll cover the trails and routes in more detail later. Here's a map showing all the trails on the island.

Source: Wikipedia

How to Get to Isle Royale

There are 2 ways most people get to Isle Royale: by a ferry boat or a sea plane.

The ferry takes a lot longer to get to the island (3-6 hours depending on if you're coming from Minnesota or Michigan) but it also costs much less, about 60% less compared to the sea plane.

The sea plane only takes 45 minutes from take off to landing on the island but it's pretty expensive. It's also more prone to delays due to weather or mechanical issues. 

The ferry will pretty much sail in any weather so delays are less of a concern. And I really do mean almost any weather.

Just ask people you meet on the trail about the ferry and you'll hear ​tons of stories about "that one boat trip" they went on 15 years ago where the waves were 6 feet high and everyone was throwing up.

Let's take a look at both options in a little more detail.

Isle Royale Ferry

The official site for booking your ferry trip to the island is www.isleroyale.com.

Here's an idea of what the fares look like for the 2018 summer season:

2018 ROUND-TRIP FARES (One-way fares half price)

PEAK SEASON: 7/20 thru 8/20

Adults (16 and over)..............$136

Children (15 and under)......... $100

Canoes,  Kayaks………………..$60

Double-Kayaks………………….$80

Motors(under 5 hp)...................$10

Motors(over 5 hp).....................$30

2018 OFF-PEAK: 5/14 - 7/19 and 8/21 - 9/28

Adults (16 and over).............$124

Children (15 and under)...........94

Canoes, Kayaks, Double-Kayaks, motors: Same as peak season

You can make reservations online through their website and they also have a phone number you can call during the day.

I'd recommend making your reservations as soon as you can, especially if you're traveling during peak season which is in late July/August.

The ferry takes about 3.5 hours to travel from Copper Harbor to Rock Harbor so make sure to include that travel time in your planning for your hiking route.

Your first day will be much shorter because of this travel time.

The ferry's FAQ page says they sail in almost any weather and usually are only delayed 1-2 times per year. 

For a comparison, when I flew on the sea plane to the island and back, we were delayed going to the island and coming back. Maybe it was bad luck, maybe the plane has significantly more delays 🙂 I'll cover this in a second.

Isle Royale Sea Plane

First off, the sea plane is badass. If you've never flown in a sea plane before it's definitely worth trying. You can check out their website here.

Here's what the plane looks like at take off (left) and as you approach the island (right)

this is where the sea plane takes off from Houghton, MI

The sea plane is more expensive than the ferry (about 2x the price) but it takes significantly less time. From take off to landing is only about 45 minutes. You also have the added benefit of not being crowded with a ton of other people. The ferry can hold quite a few people and if you get off last, you could be stuck last in line to get the prep talk from the ranger which you have to do.

The sea plane can only fit 5-6 people in it so when you get off the plane you can head straight to the ranger station, get your permit, and hit the trail.

Here's what the cost break down looks like for the sea plane:

2018 ROUND-TRIP FARES

Hancock Portage Canal to Windigo: $320
Hancock Portage Canal to Rock Harbor: $320
Grand Marais to Windigo: $290
Grand Marais to Rock Harbor: $380

Rock Harbor to Windigo (and vice versa): $125

One thing you have to watch out for with the sea plane is that it's very prone to delays. If there are any weather conditions like wind, fog, waves, etc, your flight will be delayed.

The flights are spaced out by 2 hours each. So the flight schedule looks like this:

  • 8 AM - Fly to Isle Royale
  • 9 AM - Drop people off at island, take people back to main land
  • 10 AM - Drop people off at main land, fly people over to island
  • 11 AM - Island to main land
  • 12PM - Main land to island
  • 1 PM - Island to Main land
  • 2 PM - Main land to island
  • 3 PM - Island to Main land

So if any of these flights have a delay, it backs up everyone else's flight for the rest of the day. 

When you call to book your flight you'll be able to choose what time you want to depart unless someone else has already chosen that time.

If you can pick any time, I'd recommend choosing the earliest flight of the day. I'll get to this in more detail in the next section, but just remember, always take the early flight.

Also, you cannot bring fuel on the plane. You have to buy fuel in the store, on the island.

How This Affects  Your Planning

When you plan out your backpacking trip, you'll be planning your mileage based on when you arrive, when you depart, and how many miles per day you think you can hike.

When I planned my trip, I knew I could do about 10 miles per day without issue. I assumed since our flight was leaving at 10 AM, we'd be to the island at 10:45, and on the trail at 11:30-ish.

This means we'd have 6-7 hours of hiking time which should be plenty for hiking 10 miles that first day. So that's what we planned.

When we got to the sea plane dock, we were informed that due to the fog (which wasn't really that bad!), our plane was delayed. Not sure how long, but at least an hour or two.

We had arrived at 9:30 for a 10 AM flight and the 8 AM flight still hadn't left yet....

So we sat and waited...and waited...and waited some more.

Finally at 10:30 AM the plane left, taking the 8 AM flight to the island. The plane dropped them off at 11:15 AM, picked some people up from Isle Royale, and made it back to the dock by noon. After refueling and getting the backpacks loaded up, we finally took off at 12:15 PM.

By the time we landed, talked to the ranger to get our permit, and bought fuel, it was about 1:30 PM and we still had a 10 mile hike in front of us.

The terrain isn't that bad and you can make good time, but we ended up getting to the campsite at about 6:30 PM. And we found out that most people on the island like to do pretty short hikes (6 miles per day or so) and set up camp at like 1pm. 

So when we got there, every campsite was full and we ended up having to share a site which isn't bad, but if you had shown up any later you might not have been able to even find a spot to share.

So the key take away is to book an early flight so you can deal with any delays and to plan a short hike for your first day.

We got lucky to only have our flight delayed by a few hours. If we had a longer delay like 8 hours, it would have meant starting our hike around dinner time and being on the trail until almost midnight. Not fun.

Isle Royale Mileage Chart

The easiest way to plan your trip out is to get the National Geographic Isle Royale Map and get a rough idea of what path you want to take.

Then check the mileage on the chart below so you can make sure you have a reasonable amount of miles planned for each day.

isle royale mile chart to calculate distances between trails and camps

Backpacking Permits

You are required to have a permit if you're staying overnight on Isle Royale. There's no fee for the permit but you do have to pay an entrance fee to the park. 

The entrance fee is $7 per person, per day. You can also get a $60 pass that covers 3 people for the entire season.

If you're going with more than 1 person, you'll probably be better off getting the $60 pass.  You can get more information the passes here.

If you are going with a large group (7-10 people) then you'll have to get a different type of permit and reserve your campsites in advance.

Trail Map

Even if you have a GPS unit or maps on your phone, you should carry a physical map of the island. You can get one here for pretty cheap.

But for planning purposes, here's a map you can use to figure out your routes and plan your itinerary. Click here to see the full size version (600kb).

Most Popular Backpacking Routes

There are a million ways to see Isle Royale. Your route will mostly depend on the length of your stay. If you're doing a 7+ day trip then you can even do an end to end to end trip where you'd traverse the entire island both ways.

For most people though, they'll be looking at a 3-5 day trip which means you'll have to carefully choose your route.

I'm 30 years old and in pretty good shape and found 10-12 mile days just fine but definitely a work out. I went in mid August and during the day it was probably around 75-80 degrees and sunny. You're also going to spend a lot of time walking on rock. Not a rocky path, but literally huge slabs of rock. This is hard on your feet and you'll definitely be sore if you don't have the right shoes and the right route planned out.

So let's take a look at some of the more popular routes on Isle Royale.

Minong Ridge

This is the route I went on so I'm going to cover it first 🙂

The Minong Ridge is a ridge that runs along the northern side of the island facing towards Canada. It's the least trafficked route on the island since it's further out of the way than the other routes.

When we went during peak season, we ​saw 0 people during our 3rd day on the trail and only 2 people on our 4th day as we headed back into Windigo. This route is really secluded and the campsites are smaller. One of the reasons you have to give the ranger your itinerary and update them on any changes when you depart the island is so they can track campsite usage. This let's the NPS plan ahead and add additional campsites if they're hitting full capacity.

If you're looking for a challenging hike that can be done in 5-7 days, the Minong Ridge would fit the bill.  Here's the exact route I took during our 5 day/4 night trip. You can see the larger size here.

Greenstone Ridge

The Greenstone Ridge is your only other choice if you want to hike end to end on the island. I didn't go this way so I don't have a ton to share. From the people we met along the way, they said the Greenstone Ridge is more popular and easier than the Minong Ridge. 

One highlight of the Greenstone Ridge is that you go right by Mount Desor which is the highest point on the island. Lake Superior is about 600 feet above sea level and Mount Desor is a little over 1,300 feet above sea level, so a net elevation gain of 700 feet.

Here's what a route across the island on the Greenstone Ridge would look like. This would probably take 5-7 days, just like the Minong.  Larger picture is here.

Feldtmann Loop

If you only have 2-3 days on the island, the Feldtmann Loop is definitely the most popular trail to do. This route is 30 miles but is fairly easy hiking compared to the other 2 ridges.

There aren't a lot of loops on the island that make sense to do for a backpacking trip. If you have more than 5 days you can get creative and create your own loop on the Rock Harbor side of the island. For the Windigo side, the Feldtmann loop is the only game in town.

Here's what your trip would look like on a map.  Larger size is here.

Sample Itinerary

Like I mentioned earlier, I hiked the Minong Ridge when I went to Isle Royale. I was traveling to Isle Royale from the Chicago area so to give you an idea of what a sample itinerary looks like, here's how my trip was mapped out.

  • 8/11 - Drive to Houghton, car camp
  • 8/12 - Take 10 AM sea plane​ to Isle Royale and hike to Moskey Basin
  • 8/13 - Moskey Basin to Todd Harbor.
  • 8/14 - Todd Harbor to Desor North
  • 8/15 - Desor South to Washington Creek
  • 8/16 - Depart Windigo @ 9 AM, fly back to mainland then drive home.

Obviously you can tweak the days you're on the island to match your route, but no matter how you slice it, you're going to have 2 days wasted getting to and from the island and depending on when your departure time is. You could lose most of that first day on the island as well depending on what time your plane/boat arrives.

Because of this I wouldn't recommend planning anything less than a 3 day/2 night hike on the island. Isle Royale is a pretty big commitment to get to because it's so secluded. You'll want to take advantage of your time there once you finally arrive.

Isle Royale Weather

​When I went to Isle Royale in August, the weather was surreal. I've been to the Upper Peninsula 10-15 times in my life. My grandparents own a cabin about an hour east of the Mackinac Bridge and I've never experienced great weather in the U.P.

A nice day up there is somewhere around 75 degrees F and during the night it's usually in the 50's. Typical weather in August would be more like 65 and cloudy.

But Isle Royale was totally different. The days were consistently warm and pleasant, around 75 degrees and sunny. But at night it felt even warmer. There was a strong breeze coming off Lake Superior on the north side of the island and the air was so warm it actually warmed us up at night.

I'm not sure if this was some weird, 1 time event or if Isle Royale has different weather from the rest of the U.P. but I was pleasantly surprised. Other nights were definitely in the 45-55 degree range and I was really glad I brought my jacket with me which is a Patagonia Nano Puff.

This chart shows the high/low temperatures for the island throughout the year to help you plan your supplies and bring the right gear.

high and low temperatures by month for isle royale

Isle Royale Fishing

​​A permit is not required to fish on the inland lakes on Isle Royale. However, you do need one to fish in Lake superior if you're 18 or older. For the official regulations on fishing you can view the NPS site here.

Over the course of my trip, between myself and the 2 guys who went with me, we probably spent a few hours fishing and caught nothing. We also ran into people who had gone fishing and they also caught no fish.

There are plenty of people who have caught fish on Isle Royale but they usually recommend fishing off the docks on Lake Superior. The inland lakes don't seem to be as good for fishing and you're going to be casting from shore which doesn't help.

Isle Royale Kayaking

​This isn't specifically related to backpacking but one of the other ways you can get around the island is to kayak the perimeter of the island. Some campsites are pretty heavily utilized by kayakers which means fewer spots available for backpackers. If you're going to a campsite that's on Lake Superior and it's near the kayak route around the island, I'd recommend getting to camp a little earlier than normal. 

Packing List

​I'm going to show what I packed for this trip but don't take this as an exhaustive list. I went with 2 other people so one guy had the medical kit, another one carried some of our other supplies.  There might be some things missing from this picture but it's just for a general idea of how I packed.

When my pack was fully loaded with food and water it weighed 35 pounds. Not ultralight but definitely better than when I went to Colorado in 2017. On that trip my pack weighed 49 pounds and had a pair of bincoulars and a pound of Skittles in it...hiking up 4,000 feet of elevation gain taught me some very important lessons on pack weight.

Anyways, here's my pack laid out on the ground (larger size here).

all of the backpacking and camping gear i took to isle royale

Here's a run down of what the gear is:

Frequently Asked Questions

I had a ton of questions when I was planning my trip and the answers were spread out between 100 different website. I'm going to try to consolidate everything here and put them in one place.

  • Are dogs allowed?

    • No. Neither are cats or any other pets.
  • Are there ticks?

    • Yes, there are ticks that latch on to moose in the winter but there are no deer ticks (no deer on the island), so people are fine and you don't have to worry about ticks!
  • Are there bears?

    • Nope, just moose and wolves.
  • When is the best time to visit?

    • Isle Royale is open from April 16 to October 31. I'd recommend avoiding the earliest part of the season but I prefer warm weather when I go backpacking. Some people do take the first ferry over but that requires different preparation and gear than going in July/August.
  • What do the shops have in them?

    • There's 1 store in Windigo and 1 in Rock Harbor. The Rock harbor store is larger but they both have similar items. Most importantly, they have almost all the camping supplies you could need (fuel, freeze dried meals, maps, etc) so if you forget anything you can pick it up there. They also have a lot of souveneirs and even beer and pizza 🙂 for a better idea of what the stores have, check out these videos for a tour. Video #1 and video #2.
  • How much does a permit cost?

    • Technically permits are free but you do have to pay for an entrance license. The license costs $7 per person, per day. You can also buy a season pass for $60 which covers 3 people for the entire season (Apr 16 - Oct 31). 
  • Should you buy the season pass?

    • Here's the threshold where you would save money by buying the season pass instead of the daily permit:
      • 1 person - 9 days or more
      • 2 people - 5 days or more
      • 3 people - 3 days or more
  • Can you make a campfire on the island?

    • Campfires are only permitted at specific campsites. The official and most up to date source of where fires are permitted is the Greenstone Newsletter which you can find here.
  • How bad are the bugs?

    • This depends on when you go. Earlier in the seasons (April-May), when snow is melting and there's more water on the island, you'll have to deal with mosquitoes. Later on (June-July), the black flies come out. August and beyond are a toss up depending on how the weather has been. I prepared for the worst by bringing a bug net for my head and bug spray. I ended up only needing the bug spray/head net during the evening when we were at camp because the mosquitoes were annoying but I didn't see a single black fly the entire time we were there.
  • Can you hammock camp?

    • Yes, hammocks are allowed and most campsites have quite a bit of trees so it's not difficult to hang your hammock.
  • What kind of water filter should you use?

    • The only restriction on water filtration is that you can't use UV filters. The water in and around the island has tapeworms in it which UV light can't treat. You should use another kind of filter like a squeeze (Sawyer), pump (MSR) or gravity (Platypus, my favorite).

The Wolves and the Moose

Isle Royale is well known for it's moose and wolf population. Since the island is totally isolated from the outside world, it's been a great opportunity for researchers to study the predatory/prey relationship.

However, over the years due to numerous causes, the wolf population has dwindled. As of August 2018, there are just 2 wolves on the island and over 1,600 moose. The National Park Service is planning to import wolves from different states to help repopulate the island.

Almost everyone who goes hiking on Isle Royale sees moose.  Unfortunately we saw none during our trip but we ran into people who saw 10-20 moose in their 5 day trip so keep your eyes peeled and don't get too close.

Where to Find More Info

If you want to do more research or get detailed information to plan your trip to Isle Royale, here are the best sources online (besides this article of course).

  • National Park Service
    • The NPS website is the official source and you should check everything with this site before your trip since rules and conditions change over time so other sources may become outdated.
  • IsleRoyale.info
    • This site is an awesome resource and has some cool software tools you can use to plan your trip. The guy who runs the site has a little store as well with informational guide books and trip planning software that can do some of the planning for you.
  • Isle Royale Forums
    • If you have a specific question you want answered or just want to soak up a ton of information, this is the place to go. The people on this forum are SUPER friendly and SUPER knowledgeable. 

One thing you'll notice is that the people who like Isle Royale REALLY like it. They go back to the island 10+ times and spend their free time answering people's questions and helping others plan their trip. The online community built up around Isle Royale is truly impressive and is something I've never seen for other backpacking locations outside of the Appalachian Trail.

If you have any questions or need advice on planning your trip you can also email me directly at [email protected]al.com.

By | 2018-09-14T16:41:05+00:00 September 14th, 2018|Categories: Backpacking Guide|0 Comments

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