Backpacking Isle Royale is amazing. We spent five days and four nights on Isle Royale a few years back, early in our national park adventures. It is a different life with no cell phone service and more moose than people on the island. If you need to get off the grid for a while and relax, it is a great place to do so.
It is also a place to make plenty of (short term) friends. Everyone that we met along the way was super friendly. It was August and we tended to sleep in late, so most of the individual tent sites were taken when we arrived at the campground and we usually ended up sharing a group campsite with others. We exchanged food with at least two groups that we shared campsites with, and received a cold beer to enjoy from a boater at Moskey Basin.
Despite the camaraderie on the trails, it requires careful preparation for survival. It is not the place for a spontaneous adventure, unless you have a well packed hiking go bag. Water must be filtered and carried. The insects can be intense. And you are not allowed to start a fire at many campgrounds. You need to be carefully prepared before going off the grid for a few days.
Here are a few of the things that we learned while we were at Isle Royale National Park:
Plan to Hike Less – You are unlikely to get as far as you plan if you are planning to push yourself. When planning an Isle Royale backpacking trip, the tendency is to want to reach farther. If you are
Carry Less – You will be much happier as you make any hike more than a mile long if you have five pounds fewer in your pack. We carried around a pair of hiking boots that were never worn, as well as a hammock that was never setup. We also brought far more clothes than we ended up wearing.
Water is Life – Filter water and fill up your water bottles everywhere. We spent so much time filtering water that we made up a song about it. It was August and it was hot on the trails.
Enjoy! We are always running from place to place while at a national park, but Isle Royale is a place to relax and take it slow. Take your watch off. Enjoy the time away from work, cell phones and the internet. Savor the time in the backcountry as you enjoy this wild, remote island untouched by roads.
Essential Gear List for Backpacking Isle Royale:
Tent / Hammock / Shelter
Sleeping Bag or Blanket
Water Storage and Water Filtration Systems
Food and Snacks
Portable Stove / Fuel
Knife and Utensils
Flashlight / Headlamp / Lantern / Batteries
Insect Repellent / Bug Net
Clothing / Hiking Shoes
First Aid Kit
Optional: Fishing Gear
Backpacking permits for individual parties can be acquired on the Ranger III or on arrival at Rocker Harbor or Windigo. We received our permit while we were on the Ranger III. There was a short group discussion led by a park ranger followed by the submission of an itinerary. We were not required to stick to the itinerary but it was designed to make sure that (a) everyone on the boat was not going to the same place, and (b) the rangers had a general idea where to look if you turned up missing.
Advance permits are required of groups of seven or more, including groups exceeding ten or more people that must split into smaller parties.
All boaters who overnight in a campground, dock or at anchor must secure a permit. If you are not entering through Houghton, Rock Harbor or Windigo, you can request a permit in advance.
Backpacking Trails / Our Itinerary
If you are planning an Isle Royale backpacking trip from Rock Harbor, you are generally looking at hiking either the Rock Harbor trail or the Greenstone Ridge Trail. We chose to hike along Rock Harbor.
Day 1: Arrive on Ranger III / Hike to Daisy Farm and Camp.
Day 2: Hike to Moskey Basin / Spend Afternoon at Dock / Hike to Lake Richie
Day 3: Day trip to West Chickenbone Lake / Return, Pack tent at Lake Richie / Hike to Moskey Basin
Day 4: Hike from Moskey Basin to Rock Harbor
Day 5: Leave on Ranger III in morning
Moskey Basin, Lake Richie, West Chickenbone Lake and McCargoe Cove are all popular destinations in the interior of the park.
Solo Backpacking Isle Royale
We met a few people on our Isle Royale ferry that were going to be solo backpacking on the island while we were there. We met them again on the ferry on the way back and they had a blast. If you are experienced at backpacking, you should be fine on Isle Royale alone, particularly if you stick to the popular trails. The trail from Rock Harbor to Daisy Farm / Moskey Basin and on to Lake Richie in the summer is popular enough that someone should come along as long as you do not lose the trail.
At the same time, it is worth noting that one of the large groups that came over had an injury in the first few miles of their multi-day adventure and spent the entire time at the Rock Harbor campground. If you are injured on a hiking trail without water and are unable to move, it will not be a fun trip.
Groups occasionally do require emergency rescue from Isle Royale, whether due to dehydration or another reason, so you should be experienced and well prepared before embarking on such a journey. The most common problems on Isle Royale are falls or soft-tissue injuries, along with skin infections and gastrointestinal complaints. The top 6 complaints are: ankle pain, lacerations, lightheaded, arm pain, blisters and skin infections.
Preparations such as an extra fuel container, a sat phone and a spare water filtration system are wise investments.
There are quite a few reports online from those who have gone packrafting on Isle Royale. It would have been fun to have one on some of the interior lakes when I was fishing and we had a rest day in the middle of our hike. However, your ability to boat on Lake Superior may be limited by wind, waves and the weather. We met a pair of people with a canoe early in our day that complained exactly how hard it was to make progress in Rock Harbor.
I looked at bringing one on my trip there but decided against it since I was hiking with a partner and it would require both of us to carry the extra gear on our first big backpacking trip. We later bought an inflatable kayak for use while car camping, but it is obviously too bulky/heavy to carry backpacking.
If this is your first backpacking trip, I would not add it to your plans. Isle Royale hiking is a lot of fun even without a boat. Your backpack is already going to be too heavy. If you are experienced at hiking or packrafting, I would by all means plan to bring it.