Isle Royale Hiking:
Best Tips For Backpackers

by Diane Spicer

Meet Hiking For Her's Diane

Isle Royale hiking isn't for everyone.

  • Just those who want to match wits with Mother Nature
  • Hikers who long to see moose
  • And maybe a hiker who enjoys shivering inside the tent, listening to the howling of wolves!

I say this having fallen in love with this wild little island (which is also a National Park) in the icy waters of Lake Superior.

And although I haven't been back to the island in decades, I'm still in love with the wind, waves and wildlife to be found there.

It tested my hiking mettle and taught me many things about being a strong female hiker.


Why hike on Isle Royale?

The history of this chunk of extremely old rock (billions of years!) is the usual sad tale of humans cutting the logs, stripping the metals, setting fires and causing the usual mayhem.

You can still see the remnants of logging camps and mining operations, if you know where to look during your Isle Royale hiking trip.

But that's not the reason to go there.

You want to hear wolves howl in the silence of the starry night.

You want the thrill of encountering a majestic moose on the trail.

  • Read more about the interplay between these two species here.

There are no bears to worry about, but a dainty but wily fox might nibble your boot laces when you walk away from your gear.

If you time it right, there are plentiful thimbleberries along the trail.

If you're into mining artifacts, you can spot abandoned copper mines from the mid 1800s.

Marvel at the ancient rocks beneath your boots - you're walking a ridgeline from a submerged mountain range.

Feel chills creep down your back when a loon does its crazy call right next to your tent on the lakeshore.

And you might get more than you bargained for, in terms of weather: wind, thunderstorms, icy mists...

Plus, uncrowded campgrounds and unspoiled trails are there for your enjoyment.

  • Less than 30,000 backcountry campers in 2018.

Ah, you'll fall hard for this feisty, lovely and isolated island.

Rushing water in a mountain streamLots of water and trees to explore during Isle Royale hiking


Fair warning, dear hiker

But Isle Royale plays very hard to get.

For one thing, you can only visit her for a few brief months, mid April through October.

  • She shows her friendliest face in July and August, with less bugs and even fewer people the later in the year you visit.

Wildflowers, hillsides of gorgeous shrubs and trees, animals, butterflies..... on a sunny warm day.

  • Otherwise, pull out the rain gear and slog through the mud, drip drip drippy trees, and wet brush.No matter which mood she's in, she's still gorgeous.

And you'll have to fly on a tiny float plane, or board a ferry boat and hunker down for many hours, to cover the watery miles she keeps between herself and civilization.

  • Ontario, Minnesota, and Michigan offer transportation options.

I rode the Ranger, from Houghton, Michigan, on all of my trips to the island, and it's still in operation (it's the Ranger III now).

  • You can catch the Isle Royale Queen from Copper Harbor to enjoy the boat experience on a choppy, unpredictable inland lake.

The people who show up on the island really want to be there!


Recommended trail
for Isle Royale hiking

Backpackers like myself have an ongoing love affair with the trails and trees and swamps and bogs (and bugs, to be fair).

  • The Greenstone Ridge Trail follows the spine of this island, and takes you to many fantastic destinations.
  • Or customize your trip according to the number of days you have carved out to visit the island. But if it's your first time, stick with this one.

The Greenstone Ridge trail covers 42 miles, with lots of up and down that totals over 3000 feet gain along its length.

Along the way you'll enjoy sweeping vistas of Lake Superior, bug free breezes, and plenty of lowland opportunities to spot moose at Chickenbone Lake and Hatchet Lake.

A few tips:

Be prepared for lots of mud (wear gaiters) and bring insect repellent.

Chilly weather is to be expected; dress in layers with a waterproof outer layer.


Researching your Isle Royale
hiking trip

This narrow little spine of an ancient mountain range is not only historical, but rocky and wild - just the way hiking should be!

Isle Royale will steal your heart.

Trust me.

  • Prepare to leave a little piece of yourself resting in the solitude of Isle Royale, if you dare to set foot on her rocky shores.

(Your blood donations to the local mosquito tribes aside.)

But you're going to have to earn your time there, with careful preparation.

There are very few services on the island, so once your'e there, whatever is inside your backpack and your head are all you've got.

If that sounds slightly sinister, Isle Royale hiking isn't for you, or isn't for you yet.

  • Keep learning backpacking skills and build up the gear inventory you'll need for self reliant Isle Royale backpacking.
  • These beginner backpacking tips will get you started.


How to start planning your
Isle Royale hiking trip

I have some suggestions for you to get ready to visit this remote, isolated and fabulous place on Earth.

To get a good sense of what day to day hiking is like on the island, read this website: http://www.isleroyale.info

And for a dip into history, read this book published by the Isle Royale Natural History Association, located in Houghton, Michigan (where you can board the Ranger, your trusty big water crossing boat).

Borealis: An Isle Royale Potpourri

Logistics planning to cover all your bases (especially your mode of transportation to the island) can begin here with the National Park Service.

Once you're on the island, you're forced into self reliant behaviors.

  • Be sure you have the supplies and knowledge you need for your backpacking trip before you head over to Isle Royale.


Serious about heading out
over the "shining big sea" waters?

Reading trip reports is always a great idea, regardless of where your hiking destination lies.

Use the National Park's website link above for up to date information.

For instance, they publish a newspaper called The Greenstone (a geologic nod to the billion year old rock underlying this island) every year with guidelines, regulations and rates that any visitor to the island needs to know.



Mementos of the island

Once you've hiked this lovely island (or know someone who has), you'll want to remember each and every day of your hiking adventure.

Here's what I recommend: a puzzle of the official Isle Royale map!

You can mentally re-hike the trails as you put it together, sipping a steaming mug of hot chocolate and planning your return trip.

Or laminate it, mount it behind your desk, and use push pins to trace your memorable hiking route on Isle Royale.

  • It will bring a grin to your face whenever you glance at it!

Best wishes for a wonderful Isle Royale adventure! 


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Isle Royale Hiking



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Photo credits: All photos on this website were taken by David Midkiff or Diane Spicer.

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