An Epic 3- Day Itinerary for Backpacking Isle Royale National Park

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Have you visited the least visited but most re-visited National Park in the contiguous US? Yes, we’re talking about Isle Royale National Park in Michigan!

The only way to get there is by ferry or seaplane. Once you reach the park, it’s remote wilderness, perfect for a backpacking itinerary. We have a perfect 3-day Isle Royale backpacking itinerary.

A backpacker to the far right of the frame enjoys a panoramic view of Isle Royale National Park, with shimmering blue waters meeting a rugged shoreline dotted with evergreen trees under a clear sky with wispy clouds.

This was the first spot where we decided to take on the adventure of backpacking. Neither of us had ever been backpacking before. Honestly, it generally sounded like a lot of work for little reward to me.

We decided to road trip the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and check Isle Royale off of our National Park list while we were at it. Backpacking Isle Royale National Park was on our itinerary.

Backpacking. Boy, did I have it all wrong.

I’ll sum it up for you here: Our Isle Royale backpacking trip was better than we could have ever expected. We are definitely planning to be among those who return to spend more time in the backcountry on this beautiful, rugged island.

3-Day Isle Royale Backpacking Itinerary Overview

Day 1: Arrive at Rock Harbor. Check-in and brief at the visitor’s center. Hike to Lane Cove.

Day 2: Hike from Lane Cove to Daisy Harbor via Greenstone Ridge. Stop at Mount Ojibway lookout tower.

Day 3: Daisy Harbor to Rock Harbor. Stop at Suzy’s Cave and historic mine locations.
(Drop your packs and hike to Scoville Point if there is extra time before your departure!)

Our Experience Backpacking Isle Royale National Park

Isle Royale is unbelievable. Three days of hiking and camping on the island were so much better than expected. We quickly learned why this is the most revisited National Park!

➡️ When planning our routes for this trip, we used National Geographic’s Isle Royale National Park map. It’s both an illustrated trail map and a topographic map. We also carried this with us the entire time and pulled it out multiple times for reference. It’s waterproof and tear-resistant, so well worth the money!

We arrived at Rock Harbor on a Tuesday afternoon around 2 pm. After checking in at the visitor’s center and reporting our itinerary, we set out on our backpacking adventure.

The distance from Rock Harbor to Lane Cove is about 7 miles, which we thought was doable at our planned pace.

We were glad that we didn’t plan to hike any further as we arrived at the campground just as darkness was setting in.

➡️ PRO TIP: Leave some extra time for potential wildlife viewing!

We were able to stop and watch a female moose feeding in the water for about 30 minutes. We also had some trouble following the trail at one point heading up over the ridge, but eventually found our way.

Arriving at Lane Cove, we quickly discovered that we had the entire campground to ourselves.

There are 5 campsites at the Lane Cove Campground. Each one is situated next to the water and kept fairly secluded from the others with tree cover. We chose site #4, for no particular reason. All the sites here were beautiful.

Looking for a fairly lightweight, relatively affordable backpacking tent?
Check out the Naturehike CloudUp (above). Check out our review!
They offer 1-, 2-, and 3-person options. The setup is sooo easy. The rainfly does a great job of protecting you from the elements, or leave it off to enjoy a night under the stars.

Day #2 began with breakfast and the climb back up to the Greenstone Ridge Trail.

This particular part of our hike was the most active with wildlife.

We caught a glimpse of a huge bull moose trudging through the forest. We watched beavers swim around the swamp. Squirrels and birds greeted us with “good morning” songs.

After taking in the views at Mount Franklin and the Mount Ojibway lookout tower, we refueled with some lunch.

Then, we headed down the Daisy Farm Trail to the Daisy Farm Campground. Check out the fall colors on this section of the trail!

Daisy Farm is the largest campground on Isle Royale and also has the most shelters. Since rain was in the forecast when we left for Isle Royale, we had planned to stay at Daisy Farm.

We briefly considered continuing to Moskey Basin but chickened out of hiking the extra 4 miles.

We arrived at Daisy Farm around 2:30 pm and covered a distance of nearly 9 miles. Plenty of time to rest our tired feet in the cold waters of Lake Superior!

We secured shelter 10 close to the small beach at Daisy Farm and chose to keep our tent packed.

The small beach was a great place to relax, swim, and spend time taking in the scenery.

There were plenty of moose tracks around Daisy Farm, but the only visitor we had was a small fox, probably looking to share our dinner!

Of the food we packed for this trip, we thought we’d plan a “fancy” dessert for the occasion. It was part of our “backup” honeymoon, of course!
This crème brûlée from Backpacker’s Pantry definitely hit the spot.
We’d both recommend this dessert.

A smiling man wearing a gray hoodie with his hood up enjoys food from a dehydrated food pouch with a green spork, seated at a wooden picnic table in a forested campsite.

Day #3 began with an 8-mile trek along Lake Superior via the Rock Harbor trail to Rock Harbor. This was by far my favorite section to hike.

The power of Lake Superior and the navigation of the rocks was a beautiful experience. Suzy’s cave and some of the open historical mine pits along the trail are worth spending a few moments exploring.

We stopped at Three Mile Campground to have lunch at one of the open sites. We saw no other people there.

We arrived back in Rock Harbor with plenty of time to spare, as we had hoped.

We checked in with the ranger, ditched our packs at the visitor’s center, and at her suggestion enjoyed the rest of our time “being light.”

We explored the 4.5-mile loop to Scoville Point with no other visitors! I’m sure on a normal year, this trail is packed with people from the Lodge, so this is an experience we don’t take for granted!

The Scoville Point Trail did have some educational signage in the earlier part of the hike, teaching us more about the history of Isle Royale.

This hike was worth it to learn more about the park’s significance, as well as catch the views at the end!

This was a great way to cap off our three days backpacking Isle Royale!

Getting to Isle Royale National Park

As I mentioned earlier, typically, there are three ways to get to Isle Royale National Park.

  1. Ferry departing from Houghton, MI; Copper Harbor, MI; and Grand Portage, MN
  2. Seaplane departing from Hancock, MI, or Grand Marais, MN
  3. Private boat

The two common destinations are Rock Harbor and Windigo. Windigo is the more rugged of the two. Rock Harbor has more amenities and ranger-led educational programs.

We chose to take the seaplane from the Michigan side to Rock Harbor, and it was just us and another couple along with the pilot on our seaplane.

The flight typically takes about 45 minutes from Houghton to Rock Harbor. The Isle Royale Seaplanes staff member strategically seats you in the plane according to weight distribution.

You may not be sitting beside your adventure partner!

Spending the Night at Isle Royale National Park

There are only two options for your overnight stay at Isle Royale. You’ll either have to camp at one of the many primitive campgrounds scattered across the island or snag a room in the Rock Harbor Lodge.

On the Rock Harbor side, the island is much more developed with a restaurant and lodging. On the Windigo side, you won’t find much beyond the visitor’s center.

The Rock Harbor Lodge typically offers both two or four-person guest rooms and six-person cabin duplexes.

There are also two cabins in Windigo, on the other side of the island, maintained by the Rock Harbor Lodge.

Isle Royale National Park Backpacking FAQs

How many days do you need for Isle Royale?

While it is possible to visit the park on just a day trip, we’d recommend no less than 3 days for your visit. Most visitors plan at least 3-5 days for backpacking Isle Royale.

How long does it take to hike the length of Isle Royale?

There are 2 trails where you can hike from one side of the island to the other. The Greenstone Ridge Trail is more popular, while the Minong Trail is more rugged and difficult to hike. Typically, plan at least 4-6 days, as it will require you to cover at least 40 miles to hike between Windigo and Rock Harbor.

How much does it cost to backpack Isle Royale?

There is a usage fee of $7 per person per day to visit the island. You will need to pay the fees from the day you arrive through the day you depart. Federal Recreation passes, such as the America the Beautiful pass, are accepted. Otherwise, pay your fees ahead of time online and bring your receipt to save time when you arrive.

What is the best time to visit Isle Royale?

Isle Royale is seasonal. You are only able to visit from mid-April through October. July and August are best for swimming and enjoying the water. Towards the beginning and end of the seasons, there are fewer crowds but cooler temperatures. It’s worth visiting Isle Royale National Park whenever you can, though!

Can you see the Northern Lights from Isle Royale?

Yes! It is possible to see the Northern Lights from Isle Royale. Sometimes, though, they don’t appear until 2:00 am or 3:00 am. You are certainly not guaranteed to see the Aurora, but it is possible from this location.

About Isle Royale National Park

Panoramic view from a high vantage point in Isle Royale National Park, showcasing the expansive forest canopy with varying shades of green, punctuated by hints of autumnal colors. The horizon stretches wide under a clear sky with a striking cloud formation, capturing the serene and untouched wilderness of the park.

Isle Royale National Park is the least visited but most revisited National Park in the US. Likely, this is because it isn’t the most convenient to get to, but the beauty is unparalleled.

The park is part of the state of Michigan (56 miles from shore) but is actually closer to both Minnesota (18 miles) and Canada (22 miles).

No wheeled vehicles are permitted on the island (aside from a couple of maintenance vehicles owned by the National Park Service we noticed in Rock Harbor.)

There is a small daily usage fee for the park but no fee for camping. Make sure to pay these fees prior to your arrival on the island and save proof of purchase. You are unlikely to have any cell service on the island.

Final Notes on Backpacking Isle Royale National Park

We were able to visit Isle Royale during a slower time when it was not crowded. The limited number of visitors only enhanced the feelings of seclusion.

While we did cross paths with a few groups of hikers on the Ridge, we encountered no one on either the first or third day while hiking. There was a handful of others camping at Daisy Farm.

Other activities typically offered on Isle Royale include boat and kayak rentals, sightseeing tours, and ranger programs.

We’d absolutely love to return and explore more on the opposite side of the island at Windigo in the future.

We’d also love to tackle the Minong Trail, which is said to be the most difficult trail on the island. It was closed during our visit due to a lack of emergency response capabilities and resources.

FINAL CONCLUSION: After our first experience visiting and backpacking Isle Royale National Park, we’d absolutely recommend you visit, with no hesitation!

A couple smiling at the camera with a serene lake and a docked seaplane in the background, capturing the final moments of adventure at Isle Royale National Park.

Looking for other national parklands experiences after backpacking Isle Royale National Park? Head over to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, also in the UP of Michigan. Across the Mackinac Bridge to the southwest, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore offers a sandy getaway, as opposed to the rocky shores.

Heading to Isle Royale from Minnesota? If you’re looking for more water, head to the northern border with Canada and check out the sights of Voyageurs National Park, or travel east from Duluth to find yourself at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore near Bayfield, Wisconsin.