Backpacking Isle Royale National Park

This summer I visited my 27th National Park: Isle Royale National Park. This post includes tips on planning your own Isle Royale trip, what gear to bring, and my experience backpacking the beautiful and rugged Isle Royale National Park. 

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PLANNING YOUR OWN ISLE ROYALE NATIONAL PARK TRIP

Lying in the middle of Lake Superior on a secluded island lives Isle Royale National Park. For the past couple of years, my sister and I have dreamed of venturing to this remote park. However, whenever summer rolled around, we always forgot how much planning needed to go into this trip and found ourselves not having enough time to scramble it all together. In this post I will give some tips on planning your own Isle Royale National Park adventure, in hopes this will help you make your own dream of going to this park come true for you.

The Sea Hunter III in Grand Portage, Minnesota

The Sea Hunter III in Grand Portage, Minnesota

It is best to start planning for your Isle Royale trip at least 1-2 months in advance. Isle Royale National Park is only reachable by boat or seaplane, so you must book your transportation early, which can often be sold out about a month in advance. Make sure to use the boat and plane schedules to plan accordingly, as the boats only come and go on certain days and times. Choosing your boat really depends on how much time you have, which harbor is more accessible for you, and which parts of the island you want to see. The boat options are the following: the Ranger III from Houghton, MI, the Isle Royale Queen IV from Copper Harbor, MI, or the Voyageur II or the Seahunter III from Grand Portage, MN. If you prefer flights for quicker transportation, Isle Royale Seaplanes runs out of Houghton, Michigan to Rock Harbor and Windigo on Isle Royale NP. Isle Royale’s busy season is late June through August, so make sure to plan in advance!

I recommend staying at least 2 days/1 night on the island if you only have a weekend, or 4-5 days if you have the time. There are day trips you can take if you are limited on time or maybe you prefer not to camp or backpack, but this gives you only a few hours to explore the island. If you prefer not to camp, there are guest lodges on the east side of the island at Rock Harbor. If you truly want to be emerged in the spirit of this remote island, I really encourage you to backpack. Hiking a few miles into the wilderness alone is a must do to truly enjoy the beauty of the Isle Royale. 

For camping or backpacking, you do not need to reserve permits or campsites ahead of time. You will obtain your permit when you arrive on the island (or on the boat if you are on the Ranger III). At the visitor center you arrive at, you will register with the park ranger and tell them where you plan on staying. It is really nice because you can always change your plan and camp somewhere else - you just tell the park ranger if your plans changed and where you stayed instead when you return the permit at the end of your trip. 

Weather can be a bit unpredictable on Isle Royale and there are often rainstorms, so it is important to be prepared. The weather was perfect the weekend we went. The forecast predicted rain and storms, which we were prepared for, but we were super lucky and had sunshine the whole weekend. Our trip was in late June. During the day it was warm, but it got a little chilly overnight so it is important to pack layers. There were some mosquitos, but nothing awful, but we brought bug spray and head nets to be safe. Another neat thing I learned was that there are no ticks on Isle Royale! I thought all my gear would be tick infested by the time I got home, only to learn there are no ticks on the Island. Check out my gear list at the end of this post to see what gear I brought to prepare for the weather, in addition to a couple tips on how to keep your weight down to make the trip as enjoyable as possible.  

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MY EXPERIENCE

For my trip this June, we chose to depart from Grand Portage, MN since this location has a boat that departs early Saturday morning and arrives in Windigo by 10:30 am, leaving ample time to hike. The boats out of Michigan take longer to reach the island and we wanted a bit more time in the afternoon, so Grand Portage made most sense for us. Also, from Windigo, there is a boat back to Grand Portage Sunday afternoon, so this is perfect if you only have a weekend to visit Isle Royale.

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Our campsite in Grand Portage, MN

Our campsite in Grand Portage, MN

We arrived late Friday night in Grand Portage, MN and camped a few minutes down the road from the Grand Portage boat port. When we arrived at our campground, the moon glowed orange on the horizon and up above us we could see the milky way along with a countless number of stars. It was a crisp, clear, and quiet summer night. When the sun rose the next morning, we were delighted to see that our campsite was overlooking a small boat harbor right on the edge of Lake Superior.

In the morning we made a simple breakfast that consisted of boiling some water on our JetBoil MiniMo and making some oatmeal. We packed up our bags and headed to the boat dock to board the Sea Hunter III (Voyageur II was sold out for the weekend we went). Our boat ride to Isle Royale was about 1.5 hours. Once we arrived on island, the park rangers gave a brief orientation about the park. We then went to the Visitor Center to obtain our camping/backpacking permits. If you are not interested in backpacking, Windigo has campsites near the dock and Visitor Center. There is also a full functioning restroom and a general store with some food, souvenirs, and coffee. We stopped by the restroom, checked that our packs were all set, and headed out on a path into the wilderness and away from civilization.

We chose to hike to and camp at Huginnin Cove, a 4.3 mile hike from the visitor center to the cove. The campground is off of the Huginnin Cove trail loop, which is approximately a 10.5 mile roundtrip. We took the West side of the loop to get to the campsite, as we wanted to get to the site earlier so we could set up our tent and unload a couple pounds from our packs.

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When we first started on the Huginnin Cove trail, we saw a few other day hikers along the path. After just half a mile of hiking, we were the only humans in site. It was a beautiful summer day, the sun was beaming through the trees, the forest was an explosion of yellow-greens, and all we could hear was the chirping of birds and the shuffle of our own footsteps. The trail was narrow, but well-kept. There was not much elevation change, only a small few hills here-and-there. We encountered a couple moose on our hike to Huginnin Cove. One was just in the brush probably a couple hundred feet away from us and ran away, and the other we could hear sloshing through the water as we crossed a marsh. There are over 2,000 moose on Isle Royale, so it is extremely likely you’ll encounter one, but it is important to keep your distance and not to approach them, especially if the moose is a mama moose with calves.

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As we neared the campground, we descended to the shoreline and the air became crisper and cooler. We completed the 4.3 mile hike from Windigo to Huginnin Cove in about two hours. The campsites are first come first serve, however all five campsites were available when we arrived so we got to pick whichever one we wanted. We opted for one that was a bit hidden and was right along the water with our own private shore. You cannot go wrong with any of the campsites though - they all have great views. The campground also has an outhouse, but not a water source, so you must filter your water from the lake. Hence, it is important to bring a water filter. The water was extremely clear and turquoise - not what I had expected for the middle of Lake Superior! We set up our tent and then heated up water to make lunch. We opted to bring Mountain House freezer dried food for our lunches and dinners, since all you need to do is add hot water and wait about ten minutes for your food to be ready.

After eating lunch, we enjoyed the views right by our campsite and then decided to go on a hike along the East Huginnin Cove trail, the other half of the loop we had not been on. We did a 3.3 mile hike out and back (6.6 mile roundtrip returning on the same path) to the where the East Huginnin Cove Trail meets the Minong Ridge Trail. The first part of the trail was stunning, running right along the edge of the Isle Royale. We stood right on the edge of the cliffs that overlooked Lake Superior and we could see the buttes of Canada on the horizon. I had no clue before this trip that such buttes even existed in Canada. The water was a beautiful teal gradient.

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The trail was so quiet, so any noise other than the pitter-patter of our own footsteps was noticeable. We were beginning to walk into the denser forested area with a bog. Suddenly, we both heard some footsteps parallel to us, probably about 50-100 ft away. Hearing anything that close is a little disturbing, so we paused for a moment. The steps also stopped, so we continued on. I became more aware of my surroundings, as I was a little on edge, and then to the right of the trail, about 75-100 ft away, I saw a big, black, furry behind that looked like the back-half of a black german shepherd walking away form us. I froze. It was a black wolf. I did not get to see its face, but it was very clear that it was a wolf. My heart stopped for a second, and I told my sister to turn around, so we could walk in the opposite direction it was going. My heart was racing. We decided to walk a bit further in the opposite direction of the wolf, and then wait a few minutes to give it sometime to distance itself from us. It is important to minimize any human interaction with wolves. This year there are now 14 wolves on Isle Royale - there were only 3 the previous year. Any human interaction the wolves have is some of the first human interaction they have ever had. It is important to make sure to scare them away if these interactions do last more than a few seconds. We made sure the report the wolf sighting the next day to a Park Ranger when we returned to the Visitor Center. The Park Rangers have a form they fill out that is used for research. The researches are particularly interested about the black wolves, as these were not placed on Isle Royale when wolves were reintroduced and are new to the island.

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After we heard the wolf scurry off in the opposite direction, we waited a few more minutes for it to put some more distance between us. We then continued down the East Huginnin Cove trail. As my nerves settled, my awe for Isle Royale settled back in. On the trail, we passed a beaver dam with a beaver swimming around, munching on some plants. We saw open fields and marshes. About 3.3 miles down the trail, we arrived at Wendigo Mines, a copper mine that was in operation in the late 1800s. We expected a hole in the ground or something more substantial, but it ended up just being the top of the mine shaft completely filled in with dirt. Copper mining used to be one of the main activities on the island, and along the trail you can see remnants of tools and cabins. After our brief stop, we continued down the trail to where the East Huginnin Cove trail intersects with the Minong Ridge Trail and turned around to head back to our campsite. 

Backpacking and hiking alone in the wilderness gives plenty time for reflection. Silence becomes the norm on the trail. It’s eerily quiet. The only noises are those of your own footsteps and the slight hum of the creatures hiding within the forest’s realm. In the silence you become attuned to your own impact on the earth and any slight difference is noticeable. We didn’t see other humans for miles and miles.   

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At our campground we cooked dinner by once again heating water up on the jet boil and making our Mountain House freezer dried food. We both opted for the Chili Mac after a long day of travel and hiking. We sat on the rocks by the water, taking it all in and eating our meals after a long day of hiking. The sun warmed our faces and we just laid on the rocks after eating, snoozing off a bit. This moment took me back to the many summers we spent in Maine, kayaking out to a rock island in the middle of a lake by the mountains. We would spend hours just laying on the rock, jumping into the water, and enjoying being immersed in nature and away from the busy hum of life. I was nostalgic for these summers, and oh how I wished we could be children again with no cares in the world. But for now, being alone on an island in the middle of Lake Superior was good enough.

After dinner, we did some organizing and prepping for the next morning. Once we were all set and in our pajamas, we sat on the rocks and watched the sunset over Lake Superior. It was incredible. The sun didn’t set until about 10 pm ET, as it was the longest day of the year since it was the summer solstice. We were tired, but we were so fulfilled. As the light began to fade, the exhaustion of a full day was hitting us, and we headed into our tent to sleep.

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In the morning, we woke up, changed, and made breakfast and coffee. While we were eating our oatmeal, a beaver decided to join us for breakfast and swam up pretty close to us along the water’s edge. The beaver disappeared in the brush for a bit, then popped back into the lake, and swam away. Once we finished eating, we packed up the tent and our remaining gear. Our goal for the day was simply to make the 4.3 mile trek back to Windigo to catch our 12:30 pm boat.

We ended up hiking fairly fast and arrived to Windigo early. We stopped by the Visitor Center to return our backpacking permit and report the wolf-sighting. In the Visitor Center, a friendly older gentleman started up a conversation about how he had been to Isle Royale for 10 years in a row, and had never seen a wolf. He was in awe of our wolf sighting. It’s incredible that and island can draw someone back for so long, but it is not hard to see why. Isle Royale has quite the charm for those seeking solitude.

Before our boat departed we had some free time, so we decided to do a brief mile hike out and back on the Feldtmann Lake Trail. The trail was nice and right along the water’s edge. I hope to come back sometime and hike the entirety of this trail. After our brief hike, we arrived back in Windigo, made some lunch, grabbed coffee at the General Store, and boarded our boat back to Grand Portage, MN to begin our long journey home. We were tired, but we were so fulfilled. Isle Royale is one of the least visited National Parks, but the most re-visited, and I completely understand why. It is a haven for those longing for silence and solitude, for those who want to be immersed in nature and beauty and to be far away from the chaos of life. While my trip may have been short, I know will be back, Isle Royale.

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GEAR LIST

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To increase enjoyment of this trip, I strongly encourage attempting to keep your backpack weight as light as possible. In total, my base weight (this does not include water, food, or clothes that you are wearing) was about 12-13 pounds, which was not bad to hike with.

I carried about 4 pounds of camera gear, so if you don’t plan on bringing a bunch of camera gear, it is quite possible to bring the weight down to around 8 pounds. For the photographers out there, to help keep the weight down, I opted to only bring one lens for my DSLR rather than multiple. I don’t regret this choice. Bringing only my wide-angle lens was sufficient for the weekend. 

My main tip is to think critically about what you actually need. It’s amazing how little you really need to survive.

Camping Gear:

Hiking Gear:

Hygiene Kit:

  • Trowel: Deuce of Spades (0.6 oz)

  • Toothbrush, Toothpaste, Hand Sanitizer, Sunscreen, & Bug Spray: Mini/travel sizes found at local grocery store

  • Other: Toilet Paper, Contacts and solution, & Glasses

Optional:

*Starred items are worn wear items.

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