The least visited but most re-visited National Park in the contiguous US, in Michigan? Yes, we’re talking about Isle Royale National Park!
The only way to get there is by ferry or seaplane. Once you reach the park, it’s remote wilderness. 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 past the visitor’s center.
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. Boy, did I have it all wrong.
Here is what we have to say about our 3 days spent in the Isle Royale National Park backcountry.
About Isle Royale National Park
First, a few fast facts about Isle Royale National Park.
It 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. Why would you want any?!
Getting to Isle Royale National Park
As I mentioned earlier, typically, there are three ways to get to Isle Royale National Park.
- Ferry departing from Houghton, MI; Copper Harbor, MI; and Grand Portage, MN
- Seaplane departing from Hancock, MI or Grand Marais, MN
- 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 does strategically seat 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, camping at one of the many primitive campgrounds scattered across the island or the Rock Harbor Lodge.
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, at 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 in just one day, 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. Typically, plan at least 4-6 days, as it will require you 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 are accepted. Otherwise, pay your fees ahead of time online to save time when you arrive.
What is the best time to visit Isle Royale? Isle Royale is seasonal, and you are only able to visit from mid-April through October. July and August are best for swimming and enjoying the waters. Towards the beginning and end of the seasons will bring fewer crowds but cooler temperatures.
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.
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: 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.
(Hike to Scoville Point if there is extra time before your departure!)
Our Experience Backpacking Isle Royale National Park
IIsle 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 giving them our itinerary, we set out on our adventure backpacking Isle Royale National Park. 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 any further as we arrived at the campground as darkness was setting in. Leave time for 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, but eventually found our way.
Arriving at Lane Cove, we quickly discovered that we had the entire campground to ourselves. There are 5 campsites here. 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 sites here were beautiful.
Looking for a great, fairly lightweight, relatively affordable backpacking tent? Check out the Naturehike CloudUp (above). Check out our review! They offer 1-, 2-, and 3-person options and the setup is sooo easy. The rainfly does a great job of protecting you from the elements, but 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 good morning.
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, 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!
We secured shelter 10 close to the small beach at Daisy Farm and chose to keep our tent packed. You are able to also set up tents inside the shelters for privacy, but we decided to just lay out our mats and sleeping bags to save some work. The small beach was a great place to relax 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.
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 mine pits along the trail are worth taking a few moments to take in.
We stopped at Three Mile Campground and had lunch at one of the open sites. We saw no other people there.
Arriving 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 lite.” 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, cluing us in on some of 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 spent on Isle Royale!
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 hand full 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 the opposite side of the island at Windigo in the future. We’d also love to take on 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!
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.