Like a lot of Minnesota backpackers, I cut my trekking teeth on the Superior Hiking Trail, the world-class 310-mile footpath that extends from southwest of Duluth all the way to the Canadian border. But a few years ago, having trod most of those miles numerous times and sampled a great many of its 93 campsites, I felt the itch for some new terrain.
I didn’t have to look far — just a two-hour boat ride southeast on Lake Superior from Grand Portage, I found Isle Royale National Park and its 170 miles of hiking trails.
On my first trip — solo — I encountered almost as many moose as people. I passed only three other hikers as I roamed for five days eastward across the island, from Windigo to Rock Harbor, the two island outposts that offer visitor services.
It was a grand introduction to the remoteness that is a defining characteristic of Isle Royale.
While my first visit was late in the season, the island is rarely busy, except at a few popular campgrounds during holiday weeks or the peak summer period. The 206-square-mile island is the least-visited park in the national system outside Alaska. The Grand Canyon sees about as many people in a day (an average of 17,135 in 2017) as Isle Royale does in a year.
For backpackers, Isle Royale is a logical alternative to the Superior Hiking Trail: Close enough that it doesn’t require a plane ticket, and small enough to explore without a long commitment. Anybody who has hiked the Superior Trail has the skills to handle the island trails, even though it’s an altogether different experience.
The Superior Hiking Trail has some length to it, but it’s not particularly far from civilization. With hikers never more than 5 or 6 miles from a trailhead, it’s popular with day-trippers, and convenient if a trip needs to be cut short.
On the other hand, Isle Royale, roughly 45 miles long and 9 miles wide, has no roads, no cell service (to speak of), and no private property. While its most popular campgrounds can fill up, visitors can often find themselves alone when they pitch their tent. The remoteness causes a real logistic problem for anyone who wants to bail from a hike early.
Oh, one more thing: Isle Royale has no bears.
The preferred pronunciation of the island’s name, by the way, is “ROY-al.”
Now that we have cleared that up, let’s look at some basics to know if you’re considering a trip. It’s always smart to make travel plans as early as possible, especially if you are thinking of going during peak times.
While you can take commercial watercraft to Isle Royale from Michigan, as well (the island is actually considered part of Michigan), most Minnesotans take a boat from Grand Portage. Grand Portage Isle Royale Transportation Lines has outbound and inbound trips three times a week during peak season (mid-July to mid-August), with stops around the island.
The trip to Windigo takes about two hours, and it’s another five hours (with two stops in between) for those going on to Rock Harbor. Some backpackers who are hiking across the island prefer to start at Rock Harbor to get the seven-hour boat ride out of the way on the first day, although that means they don’t get on the trail until sometimes after 3 p.m. (All visits start with a stop at the ranger station for permits.)
Flying in is another option. Isle Royale Seaplanes schedules flights six days a week, weather permitting, from the Cook County Airport in Grand Marais to Windigo and Rock Harbor.
All visitors to Isle Royale pay $7 per day. While boat operators at one time collected the fee, it now needs to be paid to the National Park Service. A $60 annual pass also is available, and covers the permit-holder and up to three people traveling with them.
Isle Royale has 36 campgrounds, each with one to 14 campsites (including group sites). About half sit on Lake Superior or a harbor, while the rest are on or near inland lakes. The term campground is used loosely — most have a few sites tucked away unobtrusively in the woods, rarely within view of each other.
Only about a half-dozen campgrounds allow campfires, although some — often the large campgrounds along the lake — have community fire rings.
What makes most backpackers happy after a long day hiking in the rain is that 19 of the campgrounds have shelters (the number at each campground ranges from one to 16, but only the most popular have more than a handful). These three-sided roofed wooden structures, with screened fronts, easily sleep four people and more if necessary. Even when the weather is good, they are particularly welcome in places like the Washington Creek Campground near Windigo, which has tiny, substandard campsites.
The shelters are first-come, first-served, and can fill up early on a busy day in the campgrounds near Rock Harbor (Three Mile, Daisy Farm), which serve as a first-night jumping-off point to the rest of the island. They can also be hard to come by at some of the most scenic campgrounds on the water, such as McCargoe Cove and Moskey Basin.
Isle Royale campsites, like those on the Superior Trail, must be shared with other campers if there is no other space. The shelters do not have to be shared, a park policy unpopular with some hikers. Some shelter occupants do elect to share, especially in bad weather, but it is a matter of choice.
There is some indoor lodging on the island. Two small rustic cabins, without plumbing, are available in Windigo for $52 per night. Rock Harbor lodging is fancier but it’s not cheap.
Hitting the trails
With 170 miles of trails, including long and short loops, itineraries can be devised lasting for a couple of days to several weeks. A relatively easy (about 8-10 miles per day) and common itinerary is to take a boat out on a Saturday, walk across the island, and take the boat back on Thursday.
In general, the trails are not as demanding as the Superior trail, with its rocks and roots and changing elevation. The main Isle Royale trail is the Greenstone, which runs along a ridge most of the way across the island. It has “a lot of long sections where you can just cruise,” said Liz Dengate, who spent three years as an interpretive park ranger on the island. (Today, Dengate is education and outreach coordinator for the Dakota County Soil and Water Conversation District.)
The other major trail, the Minong Ridge, which runs along the northern portion of the island, is a different story.
“That’s a crazy trail, a lot more challenging,” Dengate said, and some of that is by design to appeal to backpackers who want a hard hike. “It’s only irregularly maintained and very overgrown, so sometimes you’re not sure what’s trail and what’s not.” As a result, there is very little traffic on the Minong.
Another challenge is beaver dams that have flooded parts of the trail. “You have to either walk through waist deep mucky water or balance across the top of a dam,” Dengate said. “It’s tough, but it can be really fun if you’re prepared for it and you’re ready to do some basic route-finding.”
But even some trails besides the Minong, especially those on the southeast side of the island that run along the water, present navigational challenges as the trail goes across rocky areas. When you’re not sure where the trail goes, take a deep breath, relax and look around. It’s there.
Both Windigo and Rock Harbor have stores that supply basic camping necessities and some hot food, and well as wine and beer, but some items may be hard to come by late in the season. The stores close a week or so after Labor Day. Hot showers are also available in both outposts, but the showers also close in early September.
Because there are no bears on the island, campers do not need to hang food or carry bear canisters.
“You can keep your food inside your tent with you, which feels totally taboo for anyone used to camping in bear country,” Dengate said. “But that way the chipmunks, squirrels and mice don’t get your trail mix. The only time I’d not recommend it is if you’re going right from Isle Royale to someplace with bears because the smell can linger a few weeks.”
It’s always recommended to keep all camping items inside a tent or shelter, however, because the well-educated foxes on the island are known to haul away anything from boots to camp stoves. “They are little thieves for sure,” Dengate said.
There are an estimated 1,600 moose on the island, and visitors have a good chance to see them feeding — or sometimes even just outside a shelter.
“You need to remember not to get too close to the moose,” Dengate said. “Moose are kind of cute and friendly looking but they can be very dangerous, especially moms with calves, or in September when it is rutting season.”
Other things to know
Because this is, after all, an island, backpackers should take extra precautions to hike safely and carry first-aid supplies. There are no medical facilities on the island. I carry a Garmin inReach Explorer, which can be used for basic two-way texting to select numbers or to call for help via satellite communications.
Popular UV-powered and chemical water filters are not recommended, as they can’t adequately filter tapeworm eggs found in some island water. Hikers should boil all water or use a pump-type filter.
Water is everywhere, but can sometimes be a little hard to come by in the interior, or can be difficult to access. If you drink your fill in the morning, and make sure never leave a water source without filling a couple of bottles, you shouldn’t have any trouble.
Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer and photographer from Minneapolis. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.