Three Days and 42 Miles Backpacking Across Isle Royale National Park
Whew. We did it.
When we planned our trip to Isle Royale, we knew a few things. We knew we wanted to have a big adventure, and we knew we’d be a bit strapped for time.
Those factors, combined with ferry schedules, led us to the arguably insane idea to hike the spine of Isle Royale (42 miles) in just three days.
We crunched the numbers and weighed our options, and decided to go ahead and book the ferry tickets. Then we started reading reports of people who had hiked the Greenstone Ridge Trail across Isle Royale. They usually recommended about 5-7 days for this hike. Whoops.
As our trip approached, we didn’t have enough time to be anxious. We were busy visiting our 47th, 48th, 49th, and 50th national parks in the Dakotas and Minnesota. But we did have good friends decide they wanted to join us, match our itinerary, chain themselves to our crazy train. Similar to other times family and friends joined us this year, we felt like we owed it to all national parks to show them a good time. We started thinking this might be tough with three hard hiking days, followed by no showers.
Thankfully, everyone trooped along and we had an amazing time. Spoiler alert: Isle Royale is a babe. The island is wild; there are many moose, two wolves, foxes, rabbits, and several species of birds throughout the chain of islands. The island is also wild; there was more mud than I’ve ever seen in my life, swarming mosquitos, and very primitive campgrounds.
Ups and downs aside, hiking the length of Isle Royale was a huge accomplishment. We want to share information and insight into completing this bucket-list worthy national parks hall-of-famer.
So here ya go.
Getting to the island is almost as difficult as the hike itself (okay, 30-miles-in Elizabeth would not agree with this). If you don’t have your own boat, you’ll be taking a ferry from one of three ports: Grand Portage, Minnesota, Houghton, Michigan, or Copper Harbor, Michigan. Read more about ferry options here.
Besides the ferry, other costs include parking at the ferry port ($4/day in Grand Portage), and a national park usage fee of $4/day per person which you should pay ahead of time online. (Heads up: your national parks annual pass doesn’t cover this fee. I’ll never understand why parks work their way around this… looking at you, Mount Rushmore and Virgin Islands!)
Once on the island, you will acquire your free backcountry permit. As of summer 2016, these do not have to be reserved ahead of time. Just head to the visitor center with an idea of which campsites you plan to use throughout your trip.
Speaking of campsites, you have many options when hiking in Isle Royale. There are more campgrounds located in the Rock Harbor area, and these are spread out nicely for a loop hike from the Harbor, allowing you to ferry back from the same location. From Windigo, the options are more sparse, but still spread out in a way that worked for us.
We ferried into Windigo, arriving around 10:30 a.m. Our first night was spent 11 miles away at Lake Desor South Campground, beautifully nestled against the lake. We made good time and arrived around 4:30 p.m. It was early June, not quite peak season, and there were only three groups at the campground. The sites are spread out and easily held two tents. Water was available from the lake, but of course had to be filtered.
On day two, we hiked the Greenstone Ridge Trail 15 miles from Lake Desor to West Chickenbone Lake Campground. This was our favorite campground, as it was closer to the lake and more scenic. We were able to arrive with enough time in the evening to cool down in the water before cooking dinner and crashing early.
Our third day was the toughest in terms of mud and miles, so we fell asleep quickly as we set up our sleeping bags inside a shelter at the Rock Harbor Campground after a 16-mile day. These rustic, screened-in shelters are located in several campgrounds near the harbor, and are available first-come, first-served. Even though we arrived around 7:30 p.m., we snagged a shelter with many options still open. It was a nice treat to not have to set up a tent on that last night before hopping on the ferry in the morning.
We hiked the Greenstone Ridge Trail before dropping down to Lake Superior along the Daisy Farm Trail. The Greenstone Ridge Trail was my dream elevation change: rolling up and down from 625 feet above sea level to only about 1400 feet. Most of this elevation is gained early from Windigo up to the ridge. From then on, there are gentle ups and downs, but nothing too drastic. This allowed us to tackle big miles in each of our days.
The challenge of the trail came in terms of mud. The trail is technically maintained, with most fallen trees cleared by a crew, but the mud was something I was not prepared for. At one point each day, we surrendered our boots to the mud and trampled through, ignoring rocks and branches available for careful avoidance. We found that this slowed us down a lot. Most of the mud was located down along Lake Superior in our last ten miles or so, but there were plenty of stretches along the first part of the Greenstone Ridge Trail that were completely covered in mud.
Another obstacle in places was the amount of rocks on the trail. It was nothing inhibitive, but we’d definitely recommend sturdy shoes with ankle support.
What to Bring
If you are looking into backpacking Isle Royale National Park, I’ll assume you know the basics of what to pack on a three-day trip. Here are a few things to remember:
- BUG SPRAY. Hella bug spray.
- Water filter and backup water purification system (iodine tablets are not effective enough)
- Rain gear
- Topographic map
- Toilet paper – there are outhouses in the campgrounds but no TP
- Plastic bags & ziplock bags to pack out trash and toilet paper
- Stove – most campgrounds did not allow fires
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If you do choose to hike the Greenstone Ridge Trail in Isle Royale, I’d probably suggest stretching it out to more than three days. But if you want a challenge, I hope our information helps you plan the best backpacking trip ever.