Isle Royale is one of the most unusual national parks, not just in Michigan or the Midwest but in the country.
It is one of the smallest at only 210 square miles and has one of the lowest numbers of visitors, a mere 17,000. It is the only national park in the country to completely close down in the winter and is also one of the most costly to visit as special transportation is needed to reach the isolated island.
But most of all, Isle Royale has become a paradise for wilderness enthusiasts, particularly backpackers. The 45-mile-long island is laced with 165 miles of foot trails and dotted with backcountry campgrounds. The cost of getting there and the excellent opportunity for wilderness adventure is why Isle Royale has one of the longest visitation averages (the amount of time a visitor stays) in the country. At Yellowstone National Park most tourists stay only a few hours. At Isle Royale the average visit is four days.
People come to escape at Isle Royale, not to sightsee.
And more often than not they take to the trails with a backpack to escape that crush of civilization they left at home.
The longest trail in the park and most popular is the Greenstone Ridge Trail, one of Michigan’s classic treks, a five-day walk from one end of the island to the other.
Other long trails include the Minong Ridge Trail. This is Michigan’s toughest trail, a six-day walk along the rocky crest of the ridge and across beaver dams. At the west end of the Island there is the Feldtmann Ridge Trail is a three-day walk out where the highlight for many who follow the loop is spotting a moose.
Other trails at the park are shorter and often combined to form a variety of overnight treks out of either Rock Harbor, the entry port at the east end of the Island, or Windigo, the entry port at the west end. These include Rock Harbor and Lake Richie Trails, Indian Portage Trail, Hatchet Lake Trail, Island Mine Trail and Mount Franklin Trail.
Still other trails are suitable dayhikes from either port of entry. Ferries from Michigan depart from Houghton or Copper Harbor and arrive at Rock Harbor where there is a lodge, housekeeping units and a campground as well as transportation to other parks of the Island. In Rock Harbor visitors can spend an afternoon hiking Tobin Harbor Trail, Stoll Trail or Lookout Louise Trail.
Ferries from Minnesota depart from Grand Portage and arrive at Windigo where there is a campground and visitor’s center. Dayhikes from the west end include Huginnin Cove Loop, treks to Grace Creek and Minong Ridge Overlooks and Windigo Nature Trail.
Along with campgrounds or accommodations, both Rock Harbor and Windigo have small stores, showers, ranger stations and transportation to other parts of the island, aboard the Voyageur II. The Minnesota-based ferry can also return backpackers to the port they arrived at after their trek across Isle Royale.
But keep in mind that you must come prepared and in good walking shape if contemplating a multi-day backpacking adventure. This is not a place to be breaking in your new hiking boots. All backpackers must arrive with a water filter and a small stove as fires are not allow in most of the park. You should also arrive with a light pack and lots of moleskin for unexpected blisters. Isle Royale is not mountainous but it is composed of long ridges and on all three of these trails at times there will be considerable up-and-down hiking.
Small price to pay to escape the mundane routines at home.
Click Here to order detail maps and a guide to the park's trail system: