How exciting! You have have made the commitment to visit Isle Royale. Let’s get started to help you have a wonderful time and an excellent adventure by preparing you for the challenges you will encounter.
You have a lot of planning ahead of you, from getting your passes, to booking transportation, to getting the lay of the land, to understanding the topography and climate of Isle Royale, to choosing your gear, to planning your route, and finally to setting off on your great adventure.
What is Isle Royale?
Isle Royale is an isolated island situated in Lake Superior. Four hours by ferry from Copper Harbor, six hours by ship from the Isle Royale National Park Headquarters in Houghton, Michigan, and two hours by ferry from Grand Portage, Minnesota. Thirty to forty minutes by Seaplane from both Grand Marais, MN, and Hancock, MI.
It is a pristine wilderness inhabited by wolves, moose, fox, beaver, squirrel, and other wildlife, a variety of water fowl, including loons, mergansers, ducks, herring gulls, and more. It is haunting and unspoiled, home of lighthouses, shipwrecks, abandoned mines, harkening back to days prior to the creation of the park. It is the location of the longest wolf study engaged anywhere, and it is a microcosm of unspoiled wilderness, preserved by its isolation and the protections afforded by its status as a wilderness area.
To visit the park, you will need a park pass. For backpacking, that means that you will have to pay a fee of $7 per day per person (this actually applies to all visitors, not just backpackers.), use your Federal Recreation Pass, or purchase an Isle Royale National Park Season Pass.
All Federal Recreation Passes are accepted, so your Annual, Military, Senior, Access, and Volunteer passes will be recognized, allowing a fee waiver for the pass holder and up to three adults traveling with the pass holder, for a total of four. Children 15 and under do not count against the total 4 adults per season pass. Passes must be presented at check in to the park as they have no system to verify your pass ownership.
Park passes can be purchased online at Pay.gov. You can also purchase a park pass in person or over the phone via the Houghton Visitor Center.
Camping Permits are required for all overnight stays at campgrounds, cross-country sites, docks, or at anchor.
Of course, individuals often hike Isle Royale alone, but the rules for small-party camping and individuals are the same.
Group Camping is defined as seven (7) or more people. Advanced reservations are required for any group or organization, including families and friends traveling together, bringing seven or more people to the Island. For more information, visit here: https://www.nps.gov/isro/planyourvisit/group-camping-introduction.htm
Small-Party Camping is defined as six (6) or fewer people.
All small party campsites contain either tents sites or a three-sided shelter. Shelters and tents sites for individual small parties are available first come, first served. Expect crowded campsites from mid-July through
mid-September. Expect to have conversations about sharing a tent pad and shelter space. Shelters may not be reserved and may not be used solely for cooking or gear storage. To minimize damage to vegetation, tents and hammocks may not be erected outside of shelters; tents may be used inside shelters.
Off-Trail Camping means camping outside of established campsites and trails.
Campers must stay in established campsites unless off-trail (cross-country) arrangements are made when permitting. Terrain and vegetation make off-trail hiking and camping difficult.
When you file for your permit, park service personnel give you an orientation to the backcounty after which you will file an itinerary. This itinerary serves as a starting point for locating you in case there is emergency communication from the mainland or if you fail to turn up at your destination.
1. If there is an emergency contact coming from the mainland, the itinerary is the starting point for the park service search for you.
2. If you do not meet your means departure, the transportation company will alert the park service. If you are significantly delayed, they will use your itinerary to begin a search for you, but they DO NOT necessarily send out a search party, if they have reason to believe there is a safety concern search party may be dispatched, but not guaranteed; therefore, your itinerary should be reasonably accurate. Many things such as weather can delay a search and rescue party if deemed necessary, do not expect the N.P.S. to send a boat to pick you up because you are tired or have a sprained ankle. One season in Daisy Farm an individual had a visibly Swollen ankle, the Ranger offered to radio for a Water Taxi, (at the persons own expense, but that was all they could offer). After hearing the cost of the Water Taxi, the individual decided they could walk themselves.
To plan your itinerary, you should use your number of days on the island, the stay limits at each campground, and a frank assessment of your hiking abilities in extreme conditions to guide you.
If you are experienced in extreme and rugged conditions, you will know your own pace and can plan accordingly. If you are a modestly experienced hiker in extreme conditions, you can expect to hike at the rate of 1.5 to 2.5 miles per hour, which means that you can reasonably expect to arrive at Daisy Farm in time to set up camp if you arrive in Rock Harbor on the Queen IV at noon. If you come into Rock Harbor on the Voyageur II or the Ranger III, you might want to plan a stop at Three Mile, just to have time to enjoy the sunset.
You want to have an adventure, but not a forced march, so take enough time off to have at least a week on the island.
Coordinating Hiking and Hops
To maximize what you can see on a limited schedule you can coordinate inter-island hops with the Voyageur II to be able to see all the places you want to see, even if it’s not possible to hike to every one.
By carefully coordinating your arrival and departure dates with the Voyageur II’s circumnavigation schedule, and your hiking capabilities, you could land in Rock Harbor, hike to Malone Bay, catch a hop to Washington Creek and visit Windigo for a night, and hike back to Rock Harbor along the Greenstone Trail or along the Minong Trail. To accomplish such a plan, you need a map of the island and the distances between campgrounds both of which are available in the Greenstone, and the schedule for your own proposed transportation and schedule of the Voyageur II’s route. You can reach out to the folks running the Voyageur II here.
To keep your weight down, which allows you to hike faster and with greater range because of a lighter pack, you can consider scheduling a resupply drop with the Voyageur II, which for a minimal fee will drop your package at any of the following docks along their schedule if you coordinate with them ahead of time:
- McCargoe Cove
- Rock Harbor
- Daisy Farm
- Chippewa Harbor
- Malone Bay
For this to work, you have to coordinate your route to coincide with the Voyager II’s published schedule, which is available on their website, here, and, as I said, in the Greenstone. For help planning, you can reach out to us at Wise Old Man of Isle Royale Guide Services and leverage our knowledge and experience of the island.
One caution: Novice hikers think that they can go further than they actually can. Therefore, plan into your schedule some “zero” days so that you have time to catch up if you find you have over-estimated your rate of travel or in the event that you have an injury that requires you to rest before pushing on.
Remember, the ferries won’t wait for you, so you must be sure to meet any scheduled transportation at the appointed time or be prepared for face the consequences. Specifically, if the Voyageur II does not have a planned stop at Chippewa Harbor, they will not stop at that dock, so you will have to schedule in advance.
And by the same token, if you miss your scheduled boat, you cannot assume there is room for you on the next boat as, in peak season, boats are often full, even for inter-island hops.
Rules & Regulations
There are rules and regulations associated with Isle Royale as with any public place. This lesson covers the guidelines published in the National Park Service’s newspaper, Greenstone. These regulations are designed to protect Isle Royale and to keep park visitors safe.
While many may seem intrusive and even silly to those who don’t realize the conditions and circumstances surrounding visiting this National Park, they are implemented for important reasons. In this free course, we address the rules and regulations and the reasons that undergird them.
Leave No Trace
Isle Royale National Park ascribes to the Leave No Trace principles. They explicitly share information about these principles in the Greenstone. They request that visitors “do their part to preserve and protect the park’s wilderness character for use and enjoyment by present and future generations” (p. 5).
The seven leave no trace principles are developed by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. Be sure to visit their website, they can be located at https://lnt.org/about/.
- Principle One: Plan Ahead and Prepare
- Principle Two: Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
- Principle Three: Dispose of Waste Properly
- Principle Four: Leave What You Find
- Principle Five: Minimize Campfire Impact
- Principle Six: Respect Wildlife
- Principle Seven: Be Considerate of Other Visitors
Ranger III is the National Park Service boat operated from the Isle Royale Park Service Headquarters in Houghton, Michigan, on the Portage Canal. Find information on the Ranger III here. Ranger III has the benefit of being run by the Park Service, and visitors to the island undergo their orientation in transit. Hikers also complete their paperwork for their camping permits while on board. Parking is available on NPS property in Houghton, and hotels are available nearby if you are driving from a distance and need accommodation before and/or after you trip.
Transportation to Isle Royale is available from four carriers with five points of departure either by ferry or by seaplane.
There are three ferry services.
1.) National Park Service
2.) Grand Portage Isle Royale Transportation Line, Inc. (GPIRTL)
The Sea Hunter III and the Voyageur II are operated from Grand Portage, Minnesota, in the arrow head region, adjacent to the Canadian border. You can book your passage here. The trip to the Island is approximately 1.5 to 2 hours. Parking is available at the dock site for a fee. One hotel, the Grand Portage Lodge and Casino, is located in Grand Portage, about a mile from the dock, and additional motel and hotel accommodations are available in Lutsen and Grand Marais, Minnesota, 40 and 45 minutes, respectively, from the dock.
3.) Isle Royale Line, Inc.
Queen IV operates out of Copper Harbor, Michigan, at the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula. Book the Queen IV here. Its passage to Isle Royale takes 3.5 hours.
Parking is available near the dock for a fee. Several motels, campgrounds, and lodging options are available in Copper Harbor, adjacent to and within a few miles of the dock.
Sea Plane Service
Isle Royale Seaplanes runs several planes out of both Hancock, Michigan, and Grand Marais, Minnesota. You can book their services here. Passage to the Island via the Seaplanes takes 30 to 40 minutes, depending on wind conditions.
Parking is available at the dock for a fee, and hotels, motels, and camping is available in the surrounding communities of Houghton and Hancock, MI, and in and around Grand Marias, MN.
Whichever transportation you take, be sure to take into account the circumstances of these remote points of departure to the even more remote island. You may have to arrange a hotel stay in a very small town to be able to arrive early enough at the dock to meet your boat or plane. The remote communities have limited lodging and transportation, so be prepared to book well in advance.
Planning for Your Needs
Once you have your boat(s) or plane booked, you can think about planning for your needs. See our previous blog for help with it.