We set off from the shores of Grand Portage, MN early one morning in July. Our boat, the Sea Wolf, cuts through the choppy waters of Lake Superior, carrying us 20 miles to Isle Royale National Park. The ride takes several hours, but it’s no chore. The views of Lake Superior and its numerous islands are superb. Isle Royale is about 45 miles long, and you can see it from the bow of the boat long before you actually arrive. This makes for a dramatic approach appropriate for this fantastic park. Welcome to Jurassic Park! Isle Royale National Park: A Superior Hike.
Cultural & Natural History
Isle Royale is a Michigan island located in Lake Superior. The park contains over 400 islands. It’s the largest island in Lake Superior about 45 miles in length and 9 miles at its widest point. Billions of years ago a rift opened in the earth’s surface. Lava and then glacial activity formed the folded landscape we see today.
Isle Royale is comprised of a series of rock folds with ridges. The prominent one being the Greenstone Ridge. This ridge will serve as our major trail as we embark on our multi-day trek across Isle Royale. We will pass through boreal and swamp forests, climb over basalt ridges, and walk along the shores of inland and great lakes. It’s truly an awesome place full of natural beauty and wonder.
Prehistoric people mined for Copper on Isle Royale, leaving behind many pits. Prospectors in the mid-1800s had their chance here as well. You can see evidence of these activities scattered throughout the island. Logging and mining activities ceased after designation as a national park in 1940. It was home to fisheries, resorts, and lighthouses. In fact, there are shipwrecks in the surrounding waters. Several being popular with scuba divers.
Flora & Fauna
One of the many unique facts about this park is that it’s home to the longest ongoing study of the predator-prey relationship between timber wolves and moose. Although, we didn’t see or hear any wolves while there, we saw many moose. It seems they love to swim in the inland lakes. Often we could spot them feeding and paddling in the waters.
Wolves and moose were not originally on the island. It was home to woodland caribou, coyote, and lynx. These animals have disappeared because of human activities. It’s hypothesized that moose swam to Isle Royale, while wolves crossed an ice bridge. Because these pioneer wolves did die, they have since been reintroduced by scientists.
There are 19 mammal species on the island. We were lucky enough to view an American Marten crashing through the forest one afternoon. Aside from mammals, you will see and hear loons. Their calls could be mistaken for a wolf’s howl. It’s a beautiful and eerie sound.
The island has gorgeous trees. Boreal forests of spruce, birch, aspen, and ash provide a canopy shading parts of the trail. Swamp forests of spruce, maple, and cedar surround hiker bog bridges. Numerous flowering plants, some of them exceptional in appearance, delight hikers. You will see ferns, carnivorous plants, and colorful lichens. On the balds of the Greenstone Ridge, you can snack on wild strawberries and blueberries, if you’re timing is right.
We make port at Windigo on the island’s western side. A ranger meets us on the dock to refresh our LNT knowledge before taking us up to the Visitor’s Center to hash out our backpacking permits. We’ve decided to hike across Isle Royale eastward from Windigo to Rock Harbor over the next few days. The ranger helps us with suggested camps along the way; although, we have the liberty to change destinations as we see fit. One stipulation is that you are not allowed to stay more than one night in a campground. We line up our camps for the next five nights, making sure that we’re near our boat’s departure point at Rock Harbor port on the 5th night.
Day One: Windigo to South Lake Desor
This is about a 10-mile hike. The terrain would be considered easy for an experienced backpacker. It’s a delightful hike through forest culminating in views of Lake Desor. We camped above the lake on its south side high on a ridge above the shore. We listened to loons throughout the night, along with the constant humming of bugs, which emerged after sundown, safely outside the net of our tent.
Day Two: South Lake Desor to Hatchet Lake
Honestly, this hike along the Greenstone was fairly boring. It passed through many lowland areas choked with thimbleberry and other waist-high vegetation of which you pushed out of the way. The bugs were a thick cloud hovering around until we climbed upward to the ridge’s “balds”. It’s about a 7-mile trek. Hatchet Lake, on the other hand, is quite scenic. We enjoyed swimming and observing moose for the majority of the day from our lakeside campsite. Watch out for leeches!
Day Three: Hatchet Lake to Lake Richie
The hike from Hatchet to Lake Richie is pleasant, climbing along many of the balds. We stop to enjoy the cool breeze blowing off the great lake, eating wild strawberries along the way. You can glimpse some lovely views of Siskiwit Lake on this trek. For our lunch break, we broke off and traveled down to West Chickenbone Lake before heading south on the Indian Portage Trail to Lake Rickie. It’s about 8 miles. Lake Richie was one of our favorite spots on this trip. It’s tranquil and has easy access to the water for swimming. Also, there were several moose who frequented the lake, eating and swimming about.
Day Four: Lake Richie to Threemile
This hike is lovely. It passes through some swamp forests then takes you along the scenic shores of Lake Superior. No longer following the Greenstone Trail, we’re now on the Lake Richie and Rock Harbor Trails. Moskey Basin and Daisy Farms are good stops along the route. Both are worthy spots with peaceful lakeside vistas. It’s about 10 miles to Threemile camp, which has amazing campsites right on Lake Superior. We spent the afternoon enjoying the spectacular views, watching boats cruise nearby.
Day Five: Threemile to Rock Harbor
Well, it’s a quick 3 miles to Rock Harbor as you may have guessed. You will see some old mines on the Rock Harbor Trail before coming to the Visitor’s Center, camp store, bathhouse, restaurant, and resort. Our boat will depart tomorrow morning early, so we have the entire day, more or less, to mill about Rock Harbor.
We take the opportunity to eat (A LOT!) and shower (WE SMELL!). We also made time for one more hike: the Stoll Trail. Many of the camp areas on Isle Royale have shelters. Our last night on the island, we stayed at a shelter in Rock Harbor. After staying in some nasty shelters on the Appalachian Trail, I had sworn them off. However, Isle Royale’s shelters are clean, critter-less, and well maintained.
One of the highlights of this trip was this 4-mile loop at Rock Harbor, the Stoll Trail, including the spur to Scoville Point. The point has the most incredible views of the great lake, the distant islands, and boats passing. There’s a dramatic coastline with crashing waves and ultra-blue waters. Fog gathered on the horizon in the most ambient way, moving towards us only to pass over minutes later. Don’t miss it!
For a trail map, click here.
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- Be sure to dress warmly for the boat ride. They will stow your backpack before boarding, so remove anything you’ll need along the way beforehand.
- Click here for details regarding transport to the island.
- Depending upon what time of year you visit, the bugs can be abundant. Plan accordingly. We brought plenty of 98% Deet and bug nets.