Isle Royale Backpacking

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Isle Royale National Park was another place on my bucket list, ever since I got into outdoor adventure travel.  Unlike most trips where I do all the planning, for this trip I joined a group of friends who had already done all the groundwork – permits, routes, reservations, etc!  All I had to do was show up for a week of Isle Royale backpacking!

Isle Royale National Park

Many people have never heard of Isle Royale National Park – it is the least visited National Park, but the most frequently re-visited.  Set in Lake Superior, it’s not an easy park to access and not one you can just drive through on your way elsewhere.  It’s known for wolf and moose populations, and many studies are done here on how those two populations cohabit the island.

In case you're wondering where Isle Royale is.  Most people gave a blank stare when I said where I was going.

Getting to Isle Royale

After an 8 hour drive from Chicago to Copper Harbor, MI, we gathered at a rental cabin and enjoyed a hearty meal at a restaurant in town.  In the morning, We would take the Queen IV ferry out of Copper Harbor, for a 3 hour ride over to Rock Harbor. Easily the most challenging thing about planning a trip to Isle Royale are the transportation logistics.  Many of the ferries only run every other day, so it’s a real challenge to get your hiking plans to line up with the ferry schedule, without having a down day or a super long day.  Our trip planners did a great job with the itinerary given these challenges!

Isle Royale Backpacking

We landed at Rock Harbor around noon, stashed some items in a locker at the lodge, and set out for the 7 mile hike to Daisy Farm campground.  Being a group of 10, we had a group permit, which meant we had a set itinerary and reservations for group campsites.  Groups less than 6 people have more freedom, as the rest of the campsites are first come, first served.

The campsites had an outhouse and plenty of room for several tents and/or hammocks.  A few campsites also had a fire ring and picnic table.  Our itinerary was as follows:

  • Day 1 – Ferry to Isle Royale, 7.1 miles to Daisy Farm
  • Day 2 – Daisy Farm to McCargoe Cove, 8.2 miles
  • Day 3 – McCargoe Cove to Hatchet Lake, 10.7 miles
  • Day 4 – Hatchett Lake to Todd Harbor 3.7 miles*
  • Day 5 – Zero Day at Todd Harbor*
  • Day 6 – Todd Harbor to Chickenbone West, 9.3 miles
  • Day 7 – Chickenbone West to Daisy Farm, 9.5 miles
  • Day 8 – Daisy Farm to Rock Harbor, 7.1 miles; ferry home

*The rest of the group hiked to Lake Desor, while I opted for a “zero day” at Todd Harbor.

Many days we hiked along a high ridge, which afforded views in all directions – Michigan, Minnesota and Canada!

While many of the trails had boardwalks through the swampy areas, there was also plenty of mud to go through!

Isle Royale Muddy Trail

The pace of the trip left plenty of time for afternoon relaxation at camp each day.  Several campsites also had boat docks, like this one at McCargoe Cove.  Most of the group opted for a swim in the freezing water here.  Not me!

Isle Royale McCargoe Cove dock

The trails here are very well marked, I think it would be nearly impossible to get lost. In addition to a lack of bears and cougars, this would be a great place to try solo backpacking!

Isle Royale Backpacking

I spent an extra day at Todd Harbor,which gave me a chance to rest my legs, do some laundry in the lake,and enjoy the magnificent Todd Harbor sunsets.  Todd Harbor also has a boat dock, where I met this gentleman who stopped in on his boat and shared his lunch with me and another backpacker.  What a treat in the middle of a week of dehydrated meals!  He also gave me what was leftover of his toilet paper so I could restock the outhouse, which was running low.  An Isle Royale trail angel!

Isle Royale Boater

The final day was a sunrise hike from Daisy Farm to Rock Harbor, where I purchased two shower tokens ($6 each) and changed into clean clothes from the locker.  Afterwards, a greasy burger in the cafe, and a ferry ride back to Copper Harbor.

Rock Harbor and our ride back to the mainland.

Isle Royale was everything I expected, and more.  Due to the remote location, I’m not sure if I’ll ever get back here, but if I were to plan a return trip, I think it would be fun to try staying at the backpacking shelters, and maybe even a night or two at Rock Harbor Lodge.

For more pictures, click here!

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Isle Royale Backpacking


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