We spent four nights camping on Isle Royale National Park in August 2016. It was our first backpacking adventure and this remote island in Northern Michigan did not disappoint. We had a real blast and were definitely looking forward to our next adventure. Although I do have to admit that we were pretty happy to find potable water, flush toilets, a warm shower, regular food and not have to carry all of our belongings at the end.
Jayne and I have both spent significant times in Michigan but neither one of us had ever been to Isle Royale. Since we were going to be in the Upper Peninsula anyway for a family function, we decided to extend the trip and get out of cell phone range for a while.
We reached Isle Royale via the Ranger III out of Houghton. By the time that we booked our tickets, the Queen IV out of Copper Harbor was already booked. We stayed at the Hancock Recreation Area campground the night before. It was a short drive from there to the parking area for the boat in the morning so it was convenient.
A few logistics details for those considering visiting: There are two parking areas for the Ranger III. Park in the lower area by the building if possible as it is gated. Check-in with the rangers inside the building and then load your gear into the wheeled carts.
It is a roughly six hour boat ride to Isle Royale from Houghton, so settle in. They have plenty of games available for free near the kitchen. If you are going to be backpacking, you are required to listen to the safety lecture that happens near the beginning of the ferry trip.
Day 1: Boat to Rock Harbor and Hike to Daisy
Just over 5 hours later, we were pretty excited to start seein our destination.
Mott Island is the park headquarters and was the first stop for the boat that we took from Houghton. We thought this would be an unload and go but it ended up being a 15-20 minute stop. So there is plenty of time to get off the boat, take a photo with the national park sign, and get back on. Just remember that you should stay to the right of the line that is taped/painted on the ground. If you veer too far across it, then you risk being scolded by the park employees unloading the boat.
After we departed from Mott Island, we sat on the port side of the boat and waved to all of the hikers that were either returning to Rock Harbor to catch the boat out the next day or had arrived earlier that day on the boat arriving from Copper Harbor and were headed to Daisy Farm for the evening. In a few days, we would be standing on those same rocks reminiscing about our trip as we returned to Rock Harbor for the evening.
We arrived at Rock Harbor around 2:30-3:00 PM EST after the brief stop on Mott Island (we rarely checked the actual time while in the park). After getting our bags from the wheeled carts, we took a leisurely stroll through the store and got our national park stamps from the ranger station. Behind the store is a potable water faucet and a short path to a restroom with running water (the last we would see until we returned at the end of our trip!).
We headed off on the Tobin Harbor trail to Three Mile in the hope that we could make it to Daisy Farm before it got dark. Daisy is about 7 miles away from Rock Harbor. We should have each been carrying about 10 pounds less in our packs but as first time backpackers, we were optimistic that we would be able to carry everything for our 4 nights on Isle Royale. And we didn’t know how much food we would need. Among our biggest regrets was that we didn’t ever stay in one location long enough to unpack and setup the 4 pound hammock.
We took Tobin Harbor because the path along Rock Harbor is reportedly pretty rocky and no fun whatsoever. (On our return trip, we learned that one of the boy scout troops had a leader twist their ankle on the trail which we avoided, and spent the rest of the trip at either Three Mile or Rock Harbor.) Tobin was a bit narrow (we walked single file) but was one of the more pleasant trails that we encountered.
The only part of the trail that was unpleasant was the sign initially led us down the hill to the seaplane dock and we had to backtrack a short way to get back on the trail. After what seemed like an eternity for new backpackers, we soon came to the fork in the trail where we cut back to Three Mile and lost our new friends who were going to Lane Cove for the evening. We learned later that they made it right about sunset without much trouble.
It is 4.2 miles from Three Mile to Daisy Farm, and we knew that we needed to be on the move in order to get there by nightfall. We got a little lost following another couple on a rocky section of the trail, but we soon learned to watch for a stack of three rocks to mark the appropriate path. We found the rock stacks very helpful as there were numerous sections of trails where we would have been wandering around aimlessly without them.
We ended up marking our progress on this section of the trail by the opposite shore, which has Mott Island, Caribou Island and the Rock Harbor Lighthouse. We were pretty tired as we pulled into Daisy Farm for the evening. There was still a little light as we started looking for a campsite. We ended up dropping our packs at the entrance, talking to some other backpackers who though that there was space in one of the group camp sites, and then quickly racing up there to confirm. By the time we got our packs to the open campsite, it was dark. In hindsight, we shouldn’t have spent as much time in Rock Harbor as we did – although it was probably no more than 20 minutes.
We were so exhausted from carrying the heavy packs for seven miles and relieved that we had found a campsite in the nick of time, that we ended up making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while lying down in our tent. We were asleep within 5 minutes of finishing the sandwiches.
I woke up twice in the middle of the night. The first time the stars were so vivid and bright. The other was overcast and I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to enjoy them again.
If you sleep in Daisy, you should definitely wake up early and go down to the dock for the sunrise. It was amazing and there was a group of about ten people sitting there in silence enjoying the start of the day and watching a couple of loons play in the water.
Day 2: Daisy Farm to Lake Richie
We cooked our first freeze dried breakfast with our propane fire kit this morning. It worked remarkably well at quickly boiling the water and we soon had both eggs and coffee to enjoy. We were definitely moving slow after our long boat ride and hike on day one and didn’t get all packed up until around 10 or 11.
We were fortunate to get some delicious biscotti to go with our coffee from the pair of hikers that we shared the group campsite with that night. We found everyone that we met on the journey very eager to share tips and treats with us. Why did we share campsites? Because campsites are available for the most part on a first come, first serve basis. But we were there during a busy time in August and the individual campsites were generally full late in the afternoon. The group campsites generally contained three spots to put a tent and filled up last. Technically, they are available to large groups of 7-10 before a certain time in the afternoon. After that time, they are open to other campers to use. Except for the last night of our journey, we only stayed in group campsites. And we shared the individual campsite with another person that night.
Daisy was the first place where we filtered water, which would became a major theme of the trip. We put all of our water first through a UV treatment device and then filtered it through one of two lifestraws before drinking it (one was a bag system, the other a straw that filtered immediately before you drank it). It takes a while to filter all of the water that you are going to cook and drink for the day when you are hiking.
So it was pretty late in the morning when we actually got on the way to our next destination – Moskey Basin. We were moving slow and found the trip between Daisy and Moskey our least favorite of the trip. About half of the trail is spent on large rock deposits which are exposed to the sun and there are a surprising number of small inclines and descents. We ended up resting a bunch and were nearly out of water when we finally came across a small babbling brook that served as a wonderful water source for a bit of splashing about and drinking (after filtering, of course).
(Pretty typical view of the trail between Daisy and Moskey.)
Refreshed, we descended into Moskey and immediately dropped our packs at the picnic table on the dock. At this point, it was mid-afternoon and we were exhausted again. The waterfront was beautiful, there were people swimming in the remarkably chilly water, and there was even a small sailboat with cold beer docked there. There weren’t any shelters available, so we cooked at the picnic table and enjoyed a wonderful afternoon on the waterfront. One of us even acquired a sunburn which would prove troublesome later as sunburnt shoulders really wasn’t conducive to carrying a heavy pack for miles on end.
(This is the walkway down to the dock at Moskey.)
The bathrooms at Moskey were smelly but stocked with toilet paper by the rangers. For the most part throughout our trip, every pit toilet already had toilet paper and we only had to contend with the semi-horrific odor. We were generally so happy to be sitting without a pack that we really didn’t care too much, though.
After a surpisingly scrumptious meal of freeze dried chicken, we took a look at the declining sun and decided that we were going to make the 2 mile trek over to Lake Richie. This was our favorite trail as it was pretty flat and we were able to travel very quickly on it. We grabbed another spot in a group campsite and I even managed to catch a small pike before the sun went down.
(Lake Richie after the sun came up.)
We were pretty tired from thirteen miles of hiking in two days and decided that we were going to leave our camp setup and do a day hike to West Chickenbone with the camera and our fishing gear. We ended up having pretty good luck fishing on the lakes between Richie and Chickenbone by taking the canoe portage trails and fishing off the shore there. Although we didn’t camp at West Chickenbone, they were definitely our favorite individual tent sites.
(Photo of Chickenbone Lake.)
The original plan had been to camp for the night in West Chickenbone and then take the Greenstone Ridge Trail back to Three Mile (leaving us a short hike for the morning of the boat departure). But we decided that we wanted to be sleeping right next to the boat the final night so we didn’t want to have to worry about missing the boat if we slept in too long. This ended up being a wise call because it allowed us to have a hot, fresh meal before departing. But it meant that we only briefly intersected the Greenstone while we were on the island, and didn’t get to climb the Mt. Ojibway Tower.
Anyway … we ate like kings on the shore of Chickenbone Lake that afternoon and hustled back to our tent. We moved so much faster without carrying 25-45 pounds on our backs. As the sun was starting to get low in the sky, we decided we had plenty of energy and we were going to pack up and make camp for the evening back at Moskey Basin, which we did.
On the trail between Richie and Moskey, we ran into a very nice ranger who warned us about moose on the trail in the evening. We were kind of hoping to see one so we were extra vigilent after the warning. But we weren’t fortunate enough to see a single one during the entire trip. We did at one point hear a large grunt next to us on the trail, which was probably a moose, but since we didn’t see it, we’re not counting it as our first moose encounter yet.
We thought about setting up the tent without the rain fly that night because it was a bit warmer and we wanted to sleep under the stars at least one night. But we decided to put up the rain fly and we were very happy we made that call when a brief rain shower moved in during the middle of the night.
Day 4: Moskey to Rock Harbor
Our last full day on Isle Royale was a travel day. We had ten miles ahead of us to get back to Rock Harbor for the boat departure. We knew that Moskey to Daisy was going to suck, and it did. So we jumped into Lake Superior off the dock in the morning to celebrate our adventure. We hadn’t showered in a couple days, so it seemed like a good idea … until we took the plunge of course. It was so cold that we got out immediately. And by immediately I mean faster than a human being would move in any ordinary circumstance.
We stopped again at the small brook to filter our water and fill up the bottles that were attached to our packs. We got to Daisy by mid-afternoon and stopped for a while next to the dock to feast again and make our pack lighter for the last haul.
On the trail back to Three Mile, we spent a while looking at the docked boat at Mott Island and expecting it to depart. In actuality, it was later than we thought and the boat was going to overnight at Mott Island so we figured out that we were behind schedule and needed to hustle.
(This is a photo from Rock Harbor trail which we would take on our hike back.)
By this time in the trip and the day, our feet were pretty sore. We had walked on a lot of small rocks over the past four days and although we had avoided injury our feet were definitely worse for wear. You could pretty much feel every pebble that was on the trail through your footwear. And by this time the packs were feeling especially heavy since our shoulders were also sore from the long days carrying the extra weight.
We were pretty happy to get to Three Mile but we couldn’t stop if we wanted to get to Rock Harbor before sunset. We took the Tobin Harbor trail again and practically ran up the last hill to Rock Harbor Lodge in order to get in just before sunset. We dropped our packs at the Marina and ran through the campground looking for a place to stay until someone suggested we share an individual site with another member of our incoming boat. We found the site in the dark, setup the tent, and passed out with only some granola bars as dinner.
On the way to the campground from the Marina, I saw two rangers chasing a fox away from the campground. As a city-dweller, this isn’t something I normally encounter in my everyday life. But it was just one of the many amazing experiences on the island.
I had two leg cramps overnight from the long hike. But the stars were beautiful again.
We woke up early, said our goodbyes to our final campsite, and we ate a hot breakfast that morning at the diner after we dropped off our packs near the boat. Service was a bit slow because everyone waiting for the boat came in within about 20 minutes of each other, but we all got our food in plenty of time and who were we to complain after four days of freeze dried food. It was delicious.
We sat at the food counter on the way back and played cards (war and euchre), settlers of cataan, and regaled each other of stories from our adventure on Isle Royale.
A few things that we learned:
1. Almost everyone thinks they are going to hike more than they actually end up doing. We met a pair that were canoeing and planned a 2 mile portage. They didn’t do it. Another backpacker was going to go off-trail hiking. He declined. The boy scout troop was supposed to do a 4 day hike of the island – and they made it exactly six miles instead. You should take this into account when planning your adventure.
2. If we are only going to be there for 4-5 days on another trip, then we would take the water taxi to either McCargoe Cove or Chippewa Harbor on the first day and hike back to Rock Harbor. We spent a lot of time hiking to the interior of the park and then had to turn around and hike back due to the short amount of time that we were scheduled to be there. We didn’t do it because it was a bit more expensive than we wanted, but in hindsight we totally regretted it.
3. Water filtration is a lot of work and takes a lot of time. It felt like we were filtering water for at least an hour a day. We even had composed some song lyrics about filtering by the end of the trip. Don’t forget to take this time into account as you are planning your trip.
4. Wait a bit before you load your pack in the wheeled baskets at Houghton. They get stacked pretty high and you want your pack to be on top when you get off at Isle Royale rather than on the bottom.
5. Your hikes will be less frantic than ours if you commit to getting up in the morning and making it to your destination by early afternoon. We just weren’t on the same schedule as everyone else, who seemed to get up early, get packed up early and get on the trail early. We were always enjoying a leisurely morning and consequently our afternoons/dinners were rushed and we wasted a lot of time looking for a campsite at the end of the day.
6. Buy a good trail map. We did at the recommendation of the people at the Houghton ranger station and we found it invaluable during our journeys. We probably would have been fine without it but we spent a lot of time consulting it and it was a great purchase for the price.
This was our adventure on Isle Royale National Park. This post is backdated to appear appropriately on the blog timeline.