Isolated Island Wilderness: Backpacking Isle Royale National Park, Michigan

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14106A, Backpack


  • Backpack the renowned Greenstone Ridge Trail
  • Capture camera-clicking views in 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 1–7, 2014
Difficulty3 (out of 5)
StaffPhil Snyder

Trip Overview

The Trip

Isle Royale National Park, a remote island in Lake Superior, offers outstanding opportunities for backpacking, especially along the Greenstone Ridge that stretches for 43 miles along the spine of what some call the largest lava flow on earth. Scoured by glaciers two miles thick, the result is an archipelago with rocky outcroppings, glacier-carved lakes and bays, and dense forests. This nationally designated wilderness provides an unforgettable setting for a weeklong adventure.

Relatively few people visit the island -- this is the only national park closed in winter -- primarily due to logistics that require at least a 20-mile boat ride across the largest freshwater lake in the world. More people visit Yellowstone in a day than visit Isle Royale annually. And in September when our backpack begins, rangers estimate only 100 hikers -- and 900 moose -- are scattered throughout the island’s 210 square miles.

Although the park belongs to Michigan, this trip departs from Grand Portage, Minnesota, near the Canadian border. After a two-hour cruise on the 40-passenger Voyager II, we begin the hike at Windigo on the west side of the island, hiking 43 miles east to Rock Harbor, where we reboard the Voyager II seven days later to return to Minnesota. Our small group -- limited by permit to eight participants plus two leaders -- will camp at six reserved backcountry campsites along the trail. Except for the first camp at Island Mine, all are on the shores of inland lakes or Lake Superior. We may be lulled to sleep by one or more of the island’s 100 nesting pairs of common loon, and, with luck, we may hear wolves calling to each other. Isle Royale is home to the 55-year-old study of the symbiotic relationship between moose and wolf. (See “Conservation”) Although elusive, we always hope to see a moose walking on the trail or browsing in the lakes that border our campsites.

Isle Royale is a special place for backpackers. Join us Labor Day week for a hiking vacation in one of the country’s most unique national parks.


Pre-Trip: On Sunday, August 31, 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 1 (Labor Day) at 6 a.m. when we pick up a bag breakfast from the lodge, including coffee, and head to the docks in Grand Portage, Minnesota for the voyage to Isle Royale. Our introduction to the Greenstone Ridge Trail is a 6.9-mile hike in a tunnel of trees over Sugar Mountain to our first campground at Island Mine. Sugar Mountain is one of several island peaks that rise 800 feet above Lake Superior.

Day 2: Today’s short 5.5-mile hike includes 50-mile views of Canada and Minnesota as we climb past Mount Desor, the highest point on Isle Royale, to the Lake Desor Campground, where we’ll have lunch on the beach. We’ll 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 to the secluded campground at Hatchet Lake.

Day 4: When we climb to the top of Mount Siskiwit, a great lunch spot, we’ll have long views of inland lakes and Lake Superior. Today’s hike to Chickenbone Lake is 7.9 miles.

Day 5: After lunch on another island promontory, we’ll climb down from the Greenstone Ridge to Daisy Farm Campground on Lake Superior. Just offshore is the Rock Harbor Lighthouse, built in 1855. Today’s hike is 7.9 miles.

Day 6: Our final 7.7-mile hike to Rock Harbor is on the picturesque Tobin Harbor Trail. Rock Harbor includes the last remaining resort on the island, although it likely will be closed for the season when we arrive. Our lakeshore campground is a cozy place to celebrate our week and enjoy 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 Naniboujou Lodge north of Grand Marais, Minnesota is sublime with many state parks and scenic overlooks. If you have time, this coast should be explored, including any stretch of the 300-mile long Superior Hiking Trail.

We’ll meet at 6 p.m. (CDT) on Sunday, August 31 at Naniboujou, but the trip officially begins at 6 a.m., Monday, September 1 (Labor Day) when we carpool about 28 miles from Naniboujou to the boat dock in Grand Portage. Parking at the docks costs $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

All meals, from breakfast on day one to lunch on the last day, are included. Fish and chicken are on the menu, but vegetarians can easily be accommodated; however, if you avoid dairy products, nuts, or wheat, this trip is not for you. We bring the kitchen equipment, including stoves, pots, and fuel. All water must be boiled for cooking or filtered for drinking, and we bring the filters. Everyone helps with cooking, cleanup, and other camp chores.

All campsites have pit toilets.

Trip Difficulty

The trip -- rated 3, formerly Moderate -- is for experienced backpackers in good physical condition. The pace, 43 miles in seven days, is modest, 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 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 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. 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.

Web sites:


If you want to carry a map or become more familiar with the island, the only map you need is The National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map of Isle Royale, available from many sources.


Isle Royale is the site for the longest predator-prey (wolf-moose) research study, now 55 years old. In 2013 it was determined that the number of wolves on the island dropped to nine, but two pups were born. The highest number of wolves recorded was about 50 in the early 1980s. Carolyn Peterson, who has been involved in the study with her husband, Rolf, for 40 years, has spoken to our group several times, and we hope to meet her again in 2014 to help us better understand the debate about introducing new wolves to the island. Some argue that since Isle Royale is a federal wilderness, interference in the ecosystem is inappropriate. Others say without wolves, the number of moose -– now at 900 -– would explode, depleting island vegetation and causing other problems. We also hope to hear from a ranger, who suggested in 2013 that moose on the island might be as transitory as wolf. 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.

In 2014 America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The Sierra Club, various other organizations with a wilderness focus, and the four federal wilderness management agencies are vigorously planning this celebration. The goal of the effort is to assure that a broader public knows about the concept and benefits of wilderness. Sierra Club Outings is a vital part of the celebrations for wilderness.
While the Act was far in the future when our outings program started, we were already promoting the principle behind it: to forever set aside from human developments certain special places, by civic agreement. This is the basic principle on which the Sierra Club was founded. The wilderness anniversary gives us an opportunity to highlight our organization’s leading role—in publicizing this principle, in passing the 1964 Act, and in achieving more designated wilderness since then.
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 Midwest and Southwest, including Isle Royale National Park, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Superior Hiking Trail, and Big Bend National Park. 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:

Mark Nelson has been hiking and backpacking for many years and is a lifetime member of the Sierra Club. He enjoys helping others explore the beauty of backcountry areas and learn about the importance of preserving them. When not exploring the great outdoors, Mark is active on not-for-profit boards and the VT Sierra Club Exec Committee, and is a volunteer for the local fire and rescue. In addition to backpacking, Mark enjoys biking, cross-country skiing, and listening to many types of music.

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