Isolated Island Wilderness: Backpacking Isle Royale National Park, Michigan

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 13101A, Backpacking


  • Backpack the renowned Greenstone Ridge Trail
  • Capture camera-clicking views on remote, beautiful Isle Royale National Park
  • Share this unique island wilderness with moose, wolf, fox, and loon


  • Boat transportation between Grand Portage, Minnesota, and Isle Royale
  • Highly rated meals
  • Permits, fees, topos, and more


DatesSep 2–8, 2013
Difficulty3 (out of 5)
StaffPhil Snyder

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Trip Overview

The Trip

Isle Royale National Park, famously isolated in the largest freshwater lake in the world, offers outstanding opportunities for backpacking, especially along the Greenstone Ridge, which stretches for 43 miles along the undulating spine of the park. Wonderful ridge-top views, lush valley forests, and dozens of inland lakes highlight this classic hike.

Approximately 18,000 visitors crossed Lake Superior to Isle Royale last year, the smallest number of visitors to any national park in the U.S. outside of Alaska. And in September when our week-long backpack begins, rangers estimate only 100 hikers -- and 700 moose -- are scattered throughout the island’s 210 square miles. The colors will be starting to turn, and the bugs will be mostly a memory, so it’s a great time for a hiking vacation on Isle Royale.

Although the park is officially located in Michigan, this trip departs from Grand Portage, Minnesota. The Voyager II will carry us 22 miles in a 2.5-hour voyage across the largest freshwater lake in the world. Depending on weather, Isle Royale is evident most of the trip, with peaks rising 800 feet above the water. The island, part of the largest lava flow on earth, was shaped by a grinding glacier two-miles thick. The result is a nationally designated wilderness that features rocky outcroppings, glacier-carved lakes and bays, and dense forests.

Isle Royale is home to the 54-year-old study of the symbiotic relationship between moose and wolf. (See “Conservation”) Although the number of animals is declining, we could see moose browsing in the lakes that border five of our six campsites, along with beaver and red fox. Each night we will be lulled to sleep by one or more of the 100 nesting pairs of common loon that inhabit the island.

Isle Royale is a special place that relatively few have an opportunity to visit. Join us Labor Day Week for an unforgettable stroll in the Upper Midwest.


Pre-trip: On Sunday, September 1, we’ll meet at 6 p.m. at Naniboujou Lodge, north of Grand Marais, Minnesota, for trip orientation and commissary distribution. An optional dinner at the lodge follows.

Day 1: The trip starts Monday, September 2 (Labor Day) on the docks in Grand Portage, Minnesota, when we board the Voyageur II for the trip to Isle Royale. After reaching Windigo, we hike east, ascending Sugar Mountain in a tunnel of trees on the Greenstone Ridge Trail, traveling about seven miles to our first campground at Island Mine.

Day 2: Today’s short 5.5-mile hike includes woods and ridges as we climb past Mount Desor, the highest point on Isle Royale, to the Lake Desor Campground. We’ll have 50-mile views to Canada and Minnesota, and enjoy several hours of free time in the afternoon to explore, swim, and relax.

Day 3: From Lake Desor, we climb over the second highest elevation on the island, Ishpeming Point, on an 8.1-mile hike en route to the campground at Hatchet Lake.

Day 4: As we climb past Mount Siskiwit, we’ll have many wonderful ridge views of inland lakes and Lake Superior. Today’s 7.9-mile hike to Chickenbone Lake provides a good chance to see moose and beaver.

Day 5: After lunch on today’s 7.9-mile hike, we’ll climb off the Greenstone Ridge to Daisy Farm Campground on Lake Superior. Just offshore is the Rock Harbor Lighthouse built in 1855.

Day 6: Our final hike, on the Tobin Harbor Trail, is a picturesque 7.7 miles to Rock Harbor, which is one of many resorts developed on the island in the 1920s. Public facilities may be closed for the season when we arrive, but the lakeshore campground is a cozy place to spend our last night on the island.

Day 7: We’ll spend the day sailing across Lake Superior back to Minnesota, where we are scheduled to arrive at 3 p.m.



Getting There

Although getting to Isle Royale is an adventure, the drive on Highway 61 to our departure point on Minnesota’s North Shore is sublime, with many state parks and scenic overlooks. If you have time, this coast should be explored, including any stretch of the 240-mile Superior Hiking Trail.

The trip begins at 7 a.m. (CDT), Monday, September 2 (Labor Day), when we meet at the boat dock in Grand Portage, Minnesota, about 28 miles from Naniboujou and a few miles from the Canadian border. Parking is available at the docks in Grand Portage for a fee of $28 per car for the week.

A block of rooms will be held for our group at Naniboujou Lodge. Information about pre-trip accommodations and the trip roster will be shared with registered participants to encourage room and car-sharing. Naniboujou is about 125 miles north of the nearest commercial airport in Duluth, Minnesota, and 275 miles north of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

Accommodations and Food

Our small group -- eight participants plus two leaders -- will camp at six reserved, primitive, backcountry campsites along the trail. Except for the first campground at Island Mine, all are on the shores of inland lakes or Lake Superior. All water must be boiled for cooking or filtered for drinking. We bring the filters. All meals, from breakfast on day one to lunch on the last day, are included. Meals are mostly vegetarian, and some will include a meat option. The leader will share the trip menu with participants in advance of the departure date. Special requests may be accommodated; however, if you avoid dairy products, this trip is not for you. Everyone on the trip will help with cooking, cleanup, and other camp chores. 

Trip Difficulty

The trip -- rated 3 -- is for experienced backpackers in good physical condition. The pace, 42 miles in seven days, is relaxed -- the longest day is 8.1 miles -- but the hikes are sometimes strenuous with sections that are steep, rocky, and rooty. Good hikers will appreciate the challenge, but if you’re new to Midwest hiking, don’t underestimate the effort required. 

Equipment and Clothing

The Sierra Club provides food, cooking gear, water filters, and more. The leader will provide a list of required and suggested gear to each of the participants well in advance of the outing, including a large backpack to carry 10-12 pounds of group food and kitchen equipment; tent; sleeping pad; sleeping bag; sturdy, broken-in, waterproof hiking boots; rain suit; and layers of clothing to keep warm. The maximum weight for packs is 40 pounds at the beginning of the week.

The weather in September on Isle Royale ranges from perfect to challenging, with high temperatures ranging from the 60s to the 80s, and lows in the 40s and 50s. Please bring what you need to stay dry and camp comfortably. 



  • Peterson, Rolf, The Wolves of Isle Royale, a Broken Balance.
  • Peterson, Candy, A View from the Wolf’s Eye.
  • DuFresne, Jim, Isle Royale National Park, Foot Trails and Water Routes.



Isle Royale is the site for the longest predator-prey (wolf-moose) research study, now 53 years old. In 2012 it was determined that the number of wolves on the island dropped to nine, including only two adult females. The highest number of wolves recorded was about 50 in the early 1980s. The head of the study, John Vucetich of Michigan Tech, told Minnesota Public Radio that only two wolf packs remains on the island vs. four in 2009, and he has serious concerns about the remaining wolves given the low number of females: “If both of them were to die before successfully raising pups, that would be the end.” There is a debate about whether to introduce wolves to the island from the mainland. Some argue that since Isle Royale is a federal wilderness area, interference in the ecosystem is inappropriate. Others say without wolves, the number of moose -- now at 700 -- would explode, depleting island vegetation and causing other problems. We will discuss the study and what it suggests about this classic predator-prey relationship.

Leave No Trace principles will guide our stay in Isle Royale. For more information, visit LNT.

Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and will operate under a permit from Isle Royale National Park.



Phil Snyder is an avid hiker who has enjoyed trails in all parts of the country for more than 40 years. He is enthusiastic about helping others discover often overlooked hiking opportunities in the Southwest and Midwest, including Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Superior Hiking Trail and Isle Royale National Park, and trails in Texas and Utah. When he’s not on the trail, Phil is a newly enthusiastic bicycle rider, community volunteer, freelance writer, and a certified instructor of motorcycle safety in Appleton, Wisconsin, where he lives with his wife, Patti, and too many pets.

Assistant Leader:

Diana Lynn, a native of central Wisconsin, has a deep appreciation for nature and love for the diversity of seasons in the Midwest. In 2000, she began section hiking the Appalachian Trail spending two to three weeks on the trail each year. In the past 10 years, her backpacking adventures have taken her to 13 states.

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