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An Epic Isle Royale Itinerary for Backpacking (First-Timers Guide)

April 24, 2024

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Isle Royale National Park is a rugged and remote midwest park that is known for its Lake Superior views, rugged wilderness, wild moose and more. It’s one of the least visited US National Parks and can only be reached by seaplane or boat. Due to its remote location, it’s a hard park to visit and plan for. This Isle Royale itinerary will help sort through the logistics and plan an epic backpacking trip to this incredible place.

When you visit Isle Royale, it’s like stepping back in time to an era before humans. It’s a well-preserved island that is home to moose, wolves, foxes and other wildlife. The isolated nature of the island has made it a great place to research the populations of moose and wolves, and how they’ve changed and adapted over time. It’s an amazing place to go if you’re looking to get away from it all and connect with nature.

This blog explains how to get to Isle Royale, what you need to know before visiting, and where to go for an epic backpacking itinerary of 4 days and 3 nights.

Watching the sunrise from a Moskey Basin campsite in Isle Royale. There is a rock extends out into the water at the center of the photo.
Moskey Basin Campsite

Isle Royale Fast Facts

  • The island is 45 miles long, 9 miles wide and makes up 206.73 square miles. It’s the 4th largest lake island in the world!
  • Isle Royale is a part of Michigan, but it’s actually closer to Minnesota and Canada. It’s the largest island in Lake Superior, which is the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area.
  • Isle Royale became a national park in 1940.
  • In 2023, Isle Royale was the 5th least-visited US national park with 28,965 recreational visits.
A black fox going to the lake to drink some water at the Moskey Basin campground.6 baby ducks skidding on top of the water.
Wildlife on Isle Royale

Things To Know Before Visiting Isle Royale

  • Isle Royale charges a $7 per person daily entrance fee to enter or remain in the park. However, you won’t need to pay this fee if you have a Federal Land Pass. If you’ll be visiting multiple national parks over the course of year, I highly recommend the America the Beautiful Pass.
  • You’ll need to book a ferry or seaplane to visit the park, and you can choose between leaving and arriving in multiple locations. Make sure to book in advance, as the ferries can sell out early. I will explain this in more detail below!
  • Isle Royale has a relatively short season and completely closes in the winter. The park is open between April 16 through October 31, but most visitors come in June, July or August.
  • The mosquitoes can be quite bad on Isle Royale, make sure to bring insect repellent.
  • Inclement weather or heavy fog can cancel or delay the ferries or seaplanes to and from Isle Royale. Prepare yourself to potentially spend extra time on the island by bringing the essentials, such as prescriptions, extra food and extra clothing, and leaving some flexibility in your travel schedule.

How to Get To Isle Royale

There are multiple ways to get to Isle Royale, and it can be a bit confusing! You’ll need to make a few different decisions: Will you travel from Michigan or Minnesota? Will you travel by ferry or seaplane? And which side of the island would you like to arrive at: Rock Harbor or Windigo?

A view looking down at Isle Royale Island from a seaplane. You can see multiple islands with green trees.

Leaving from Michigan

The Michigan seaplanes and ferries depart from two different areas of the Keweenaw Peninsula.

  • The Isle Royale Queen IV Ferry departs from Copper Harbor and goes to Rock Harbor. It takes 3.5 hours each way.
  • The Ranger III ferry departs from Hougton and goes to either the Rock Harbor or Windigo sides of the island. It takes about 6 hours each way.
  • Seaplanes leave from near Houghton (the Torch Lake Seaplane Base) and go to either Windigo or Rock Harbor. The flights take 45 minutes each way.

Leaving from Minnesota

If you’re departing from Minnesota, ferries depart from Grand Portage, and seaplanes depart from Grand Marais.

  • The Sea Hunter III ferry goes to Windigo and takes 1.5 hours each way.
  • The Voyageur II ferry stops at both Windigo and Rock Harbor. It takes 2 hours to get to Windigo and 5 hours to get to Rock Harbor.
  • The seaplanes take 25 minutes to get to Windigo, and 45 minutes to get to Rock Harbor.

Rock Harbor vs Windigo

How do you decide between arriving on the Rock Harbor or Windigo side of the island? Part of your answer depends on time. If you are doing a day trip, you’ll get the most time by visiting the Windigo side and taking the Sea Hunter III ferry from Grand Portage, MN.

However, if you have multiple nights on the island, Rock Harbor has more to do. There are more amenities on the Rock Harbor side, such as two restaurants and fishing charters.

Two seaplanes parked at the Rock harbor dock on Isle Royale
Seaplanes at the Rock Harbor dock

My Recommendation for Transportation to Isle Royale

Personally, I chose to take a seaplane from Minnesota to the Rock Harbor side of the island. Coming from Minnesota, the seaplane saved me hours of time. Plus, the seaplane offered some incredible views flying over the island! And from my research, I felt that the trails leaving from the Rock Harbor side were a bit more scenic than from the Windigo side.

Can you take a day trip to Isle Royale?

Yes, you can take a day trip to Isle Royale. There are a few different ways to take a day trip.

  • You can take the Isle Royale Queen IV from Copper Harbor, MI to Rock Harbor in one day. This will only give you about 4 hours on the island, with about 7 hours of time on the ferry. But this should be enough time to hike the beautiful Scoville Point Trail.
  • You can take the Sea Hunter III ferry from Minnesota to Windigo in one day. This gives you about 4 hours on the island with 3 hours of time on the ferry. That gives you enough time to do some of the short trails from Windigo.
  • You can take a day trip to either Windigo or Rock Harbor via seaplane. They only offer day trips from their Torch Lake/Houghton, MI location. This will typically give you a lot more time on the island than the ferries. Depending on their schedule, this should give you about 7 hours on the island.

Personally, I would not recommend taking a day trip to Isle Royale. It’s a lot of time and cost to spend only a few hours on the island. I think you’ll have a much more meaningful visit if you can spend at least one night on the island. However, if a day trip is your only option, go for it! It’s still worth doing to get a little taste of the island.

Where to Stay on Isle Royale

Now that we’ve covered how to get to Isle Royale, here are your options on where to stay! There is lodging on both the Rock Harbor and Windigo side of the island: the Rock Harbor Lodge or the Windigo Camper Cabins. Make sure to book early if you’d like to stay in one of these properties!

Camping on Isle Royale

A tent set up inside a shelter in Isle RoyaleHolding up a mug that reads 'Happiest Camper' on the shores of Lake Superior
Camping on Isle Royale

Isle Royale is an incredible place to camp and perfect for a backpacking trip. There are 36 campgrounds on the island, and they are all first-come first-served.

You’ll need a camping permit, which is free to obtain. You can get it aboard the Ranger III ferry, or after you arrive on the island if you take the seaplane.

Many of the campgrounds have consecutive stay limits during the summer. This means you cannot stay more than one night at the most accessible campgrounds, such as Rock Harbor. This encourages hikers to travel into the more remote areas to set up camp. Review the information for each campground on the national park website.

Things To Know About Camping and Backpacking on Isle Royale

  • If you take the seaplane to Isle Royale, you cannot bring fuel of any kind on the aircraft. This includes iso-butane canisters, propane canisters and even Thermacell mosquito repellent fuel cartridges. You can purchase fuel on the island when you arrive.
  • On the island, potable water is available only at Rock Harbor and Windigo. Most campgrounds are located on Lake Superior or an interior lake, so it’s easy to find additional water. However, you’ll need to treat it. The park service recommends a water filter + UV treatment, a physical purifier, a water filter + chemical treatment, or boiling water.
  • Many of the campgrounds have a mix of shelters and individual campsites. The shelters are a nice way to have a bit more privacy and protection from the elements. However, all campsites are first-come, first-serve, so you may not always have a choice.
  • If you’re traveling via seaplane, each customer is limited to a total of 45 pounds of luggage. No liquids, solid fields or flammable gas are allowed. It’s best to bring small to medium sized soft sided bags to ensure they fit in the plane. If you’re backpacking, larger backpacks are allowed. But they do not accept external metal frame packs.
  • Your camping permit is written on a hang tag that should be on the outside of your pack when traveling, and left visible on the outside of your tent if you leave your campsite during the day. For those staying in shelters, it’s common to tie the tag to the handle of the shelter’s front door.
Tall green trees reflecting into the water on Lake SuperiorLydia hiking and wearing a backpack on Isle Royale

What to Pack for Camping on Isle Royale

Here’s a quick packing list for camping on Isle Royale! This may vary depending on your preferences, but this is a great place to start.

  • A tent
  • A trail map
  • Sleeping pad
  • Sleeping bag
  • Camping pillow
  • Insect repellent
  • Clothing with extra layers
  • Sunscreen, hat and sunglasses
  • A water filter and water purification tablets
  • A first aid kit
  • A headlamp or flashlight
  • Any other necessary hiking gear. I always recommend bringing the 10 essentials
  • A portable phone battery
  • A satellite emergency messenger
  • Enough food for your trip, plus a little extra
  • Hiking shoes and socks
  • A jet boil / camping stove

Pro Tip: Make sure to bring a paper map and download the offline trail maps before your visit. Plus, bring a portable battery to keep your phone charged. Don’t expect to have cell coverage on the island.

An Epic 4 Day Isle Royale Itinerary for Backpacking

Now to the fun part - the itinerary I recommend for backpacking on Isle Royale if you have 3 nights and 4 days! The beauty of backpacking on Isle Royale is that you don’t have to know exactly where you’ll stay each night. It’s first-come, first-serve, so you’re welcome to stop early or hike longer if you choose! But if you’d like a recommendation, I thought that my route and itinerary was an epic way to explore the park in this amount of time.

This itinerary starts and ends in Rock Harbor.

Day One

Arrive at Rock Harbor, hike to the Three Mile Campground

On day one of your Isle Royale trip, travel to the Rock Harbor side of the island! I explained all of your options for arriving above. Personally, I took the seaplane from Grand Marais. My plane left in the afternoon and I arrived in Rock Harbor around 4PM.

Lydia standing on a rock at the Three Mile Campground.
Three Mile Campground
A rocky path and some greenery seen while hiking in Isle Royale
The trail between Rock Harbor and Three Mile Campground

When you arrive from the seaplane, you’ll need to fill out a camping permit. It was self-service and under a white tent near the visitor center and camp store. You’ll also want to purchase fuel for your trip at the camp store and fill up on water. The camp store was able to accept credit cards and cash as payment.

When we were ready, we set off to hike 3 miles to the Three Mile Campground.

The hike between Rock Harbor and Three Mile was one of our favorite stretches of the trip! The trail follows a rocky path right along Lake Superior and has a beautiful view the entire time. This route is about 3 miles.

When we reached Three Mile Campground, we were able to snag a tent site right on the water. It had a picnic table, was reasonably secluded and had direct access to the lake. It was a picturesque way to begin our trip.

Day Two

Hike between Three Mile Campground and Moskey Basin

One day two, we hiked from Three Mile to Moskey Basin (our favorite campground of the trip!). The distance between the two is about 8 miles, and the portion between Daisy Farm and Moskey Basin has some elevation.

Moskey Basin can fill up, so I recommend getting an early start. We arrived at 2:30PM and were lucky to snag the last waterfront campsite available! (but there were a couple more without shelters or water access).

The hike between Three Mile Campground and Moskey Basin passes through Daisy Farm, which is the largest campground on Isle Royale. The path between Three Mile and Daisy Farm was our least favorite, it was muddy, buggy and had some shaky boardwalks. Daisy Farm also makes a great alternative to camp at, and you can stay for up to 3 consecutive nights.

A colorful sky at sunrise seen from a campground in Isle Royale
Moskey Basin Campground

There are also ranger-led programs at Daisy Farm, such as talks about the island wildlife. There is also a giant beaver dam here!

However, Moskey Basin was an extra special place to stay, and because it’s smaller, it felt much more secluded than Daisy Farm.

The best part of my stay at Moskey Basin? I saw a lot of wildlife! First, we saw a gray fox! It ran through the campsite and came to the lake to get a drink of water. To be honest, I didn’t know that gray foxes existed, so I thought it was a wolf at first. However, a ranger later kindly informed us from the photo that it was a fox. (Wolves live on the island but are quite rare to spot).

A tiny duck skidding on the water with trees reflecting into the water behind it.A beaver swimming in Lake Superior
Wildlife at Moskey Basin

We also saw beavers! One beaver in particular was swimming all around the cove at both sunset and sunrise, and made a point to slap its tail in the water once in a while.

We also saw a snake and many leeches in the water. Other visitors swam, but I’m not sure if I’d recommend it. Overall, staying at Moskey Basin was very peaceful and a highlight of our trip!

Day Three

Hike from Moskey Basin to Rock Harbor via the Ridge Trail

One day three, we traveled from Moskey Basin to the Rock Harbor campsite. We could have gone back the way we came, but we decided to challenge ourselves a bit and hike along the Ridge Trail! And it was very much worth it.

Pro Tip: Make sure you fill up on water before heading inland on the ridge trail. You won’t water up there.

The Greenstone Ridge Trail extends about 40 miles across the island. As the name suggests, the trail follows along a ridge in the center and highest point of the island. This means there are some epic views!

Our route from Moskey Basin to Rock Harbor via the Ridge Trail was 15 miles. It had a fair amount of elevation gain to get up to the ridge, but never got overly steep. We arrived on the ridge at the Mount Ojibway Tower, which you can climb partly up. It provided some incredible 360-views of the island!

After the tower, we followed along the ridge trail and enjoyed a mix of exposed areas and forested sections. This was the point where we saw a moose! It was among thick brush in a forested area along the ridge, and walked away pretty quickly. If you’re lucky, you may see a lot of moose on Isle Royale, but we were glad we saw at least one.

Lydia standing in the Mount Ojibway Tower and admiring the views
Mount Ojibway Tower
Lydia sitting on a rock and admiring the views from Mount Franklin
The View from Mount Franklin

Mount Franklin was our final viewpoint before ascending down from the ridge trail. The viewpoint faces Northeast and you have a great vantage point to admire some inland lakes below.

We arrived at the Rock Harbor campground around 3:30PM and were able to get a tent spot, but not a shelter. We then enjoyed some pizza and beer at the Greenstone Grill. The food is not spectacular, but it hits the spot after a few days of backpacking meals!

Day Four

Hike the Scoville Point Trail

On our final day on Isle Royale, we hiked the Scoville Point trail before departing on our seaplane.

The Scoville Point trail is a beautiful trail to complete as a day hike from Rock Harbor. The 4.7-mile loop provides great views of Lake Superior and leads you out to a rocky point and the Stoll Memorial.

Lydia standing far away on a rocky peninsulaLydia sitting on rocks and admiring the views from Scoville Point
Scoville Point Trail

The trail also has some historic elements. A monument honors Albert Stoll, who was an advocate for making Isle Royale into a national park. Another part of the trail has some information and artifacts on the copper mining that used to take place on the island. You'll also see an Artist Cabin as you reach the point - this Artist-in-Residence program has housed over 100 artists since 1992!

This trail also makes a perfect day hike if you’re staying at the Rock Harbor Lodge or taking a day trip to Rock Harbor.

The rocky point was a beautiful and peaceful place to take in the Isle Royale and Lake Superior scenery before heading back to the mainland.

Our seaplane left at 2PM. Overall, this was one of my favorite national park trips to date!

If you have more time

If you have more time, an epic backpacking trip is to go all the way across the island, from Windigo to Rock Harbor (or vice versa). You can book the ferry or seaplane to drop you off one side, and pick you up on the other. It’s about 40 miles and most hikers do it in 4-6 days.

Final Thoughts

A trip to Isle Royale is a magical experience. The remote park is a sanctuary for wildlife, full of peaceful water views and an amazing place for backpacking whether you’re a seasoned backpacker or a newbie. It truly feels world’s away from the mainland. While getting to the park involves a lot of logistics to work through, it’s 100% worth taking a trip to this special place. I hope this Isle Royale itinerary helps you plan your visit to this amazing midwest national park.

FAQ’s for Visiting Isle Royale

When is the Best Time to Visit Isle Royale?

Isle Royale is only open between April 16 and October 31, but there are limited services in April, May, September and October. Typically, mosquitoes are the worst in late June and early July, so the best time to visit tends to be late July, August and early September. However, I visited in early July and didn’t think the mosquitoes were too bad.

Can I bring a car to Isle Royale?

Nope! Each ferry and seaplane location has a place to park your car and there are no vehicles allowed on Isle Royale, except for special circumstances.

How many days do I need on Isle Royale?

This really depends on what you want to do! If you’re backpacking, I recommend 3-7 days to explore around the island. If you’re staying at a lodge or cabin, 2 or 3 days is a nice amount of time to day some day hikes nearby. Personally, I recommend spending at least one night on the island so that you can experience it fully, as most of the day trip options are relatively rushed.

Do I need a bear can for Isle Royale?

Nope! There are no bears on Isle Royale. However, it’s best to keep your food in scent-proof containers. Please make sure to never feed wildlife.

Is there cellular service on Isle Royale?

There is very little chance of reception on Isle Royale, so make sure you don’t rely on it. However, I did get a little bit of service from the ridge trail.

For more Guides on Exploring the Midwest, check out these blogs:

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