Wondering if you can do it? People new to backpacking feel unsure of their skills when they consider hiking Isle Royale. Their reticence is actually a strong indication that a little research and preparation is in order. Not to fear, we are here to help.
Hiking Isle Royale is tough, and the trails are challenging. You may hear experienced backpackers scoffing at the easiness of this trail or that, but those are the people who have been hiking on Isle Royale for years and are aware of the harshness and willing to endure some pain to meet their hiking goals. Not all of us want that level of discomfort or have that level of drive to push through, and that’s okay.
The worst accidents happen when inexperienced hikers or those who have not hiked in a few years attempt the rugged backcountry trails on Isle Royale without adequate preparation. Lots of times the accidents are minor, including blisters, scratches, and discomfort, but serious injuries or conditions can occur. Accidents, including breaks and sprains, can make hiking impossible. The effects of exposure and dehydration are life-threatening and happen because of inexperience or insufficient knowledge of the conditions and lack of access to amenities, such as clean drinking water.
Wise Old Man of Isle Royale Guides help prior to departure and during the excursions to keep you safe with planning guidelines and support. They also know each trail well because they hike them often and at various times throughout each season and have real-time knowledge of their hazards, so they provide season-, trail-, and event-specific support before and during your adventure.
Know Yourself. Knowing yourself and the island, and preparing for your adventure can make your excursion an enjoyable experience. Start with a frank assessment of your level of experience and fitness.
When was the last time you hiked? How rigorous was the hike? What amenities were available to you during your hike? What did your pack weigh? Have you ever hiked where there is no or little opportunity to abort your plan? Have you hiked where only very few points along your way will have access to transportation to depart the island if you are injured or simply overestimated and want to stop? Do you have an SOS beacon?
What is your level of fitness? Can you hike on rugged terrain carrying a backpack that weighs 25 to 30+ pounds (if you pack with only essential gear and food)? If you have not hiked recently, start hiking at least six to nine months prior to departure. Start with a very light pack, and gradually add weight until you can hike up and down hills with a full pack for five miles.
Know the challenge. To be successful, you need to be able to hike over uneven trails with significant impediments, smaller rocks and tree roots as constant tripping hazards, boulders to scramble over and boardwalks to balance on as you cross swamps and beaver dams. There are ridges to climb up and over, and brush neck deep to hike through. Mosquitos and stable flies abound, and there is no medical care without extraction by helicopter.
I’m not trying to scare you. In fact, my point is to make sure you know what you are getting yourself into. Knowing the challenges allows you to prepare for them and to decide the kind of excursion you need, at least on your initial visit, so that you plan within your skill and experience level.
On a second excursion, you will have the actual on-site experience you need to make accurate decisions without as much advice from an expert.
First-Timers. For your first excursion as an new hiker who wants to backpack Isle Royale, then read on. There are longer hikes and shorter hikes on IRNP. There are also hikes that extend your range by coordinating your passage with an inter-island hop. Many first-timers compare what they have done elsewhere and set out to complete the Greenstone Ridge Trail or the Minong Ridge Trail because the distances look pretty doable. That may not be a good idea.
Isle Royale is not easy. I can do 20 miles, no problem, on the North Country Trail, for example. I won’t be happy, but I can do it. I cannot do the same amount on Isle Royale. I have done 16 miles, and I am beat at the end of it. On the North Country Trail, I can abort, but on Isle Royale, there is no way or it is very difficult to abort. If I pass Daisy Farm from Rock Harbor, I am relatively committed to the hike and aborting cannot occur without walking a long distance to the Lake Superior Shore.
On the North Country Trail, there are many water sources. On Isle Royale, there are few, and they have known contaminants and cannot be safely drunk without appropriate treatment. Sometimes algal blooms render the sources of water undrinkable and untreatable, so alternates need to be located. These alternates will impact your planned itinerary and mileages.
If I need to abort and press my SOS beacon on Isle Royale, it should be an emergency and not because I am a poor planner, overestimated my abilities, and am tired. Law Enforcement will not be pleased to collect me because I am tired. Even if I press the SOS beacon, I still have to walk to where I can get on a boat–that I have to pay for.
Of course, if I have a real emergency and am injured, Law Enforcement will be happy to help. In fact, if I break something and can’t hike, they will transport me to the extraction site. But it’s my job to do my best not to have an emergency, and that starts with research and planning.
Weight is everything. As a beginning backpacker, pack weight is make or break. If you are 6 feet tall and strong, you can plan a total pack weight of 40 to 45 lbs.–with water. I am 5 feet 2 inches, and I aim for 30 lbs. with 2 liters of water (4.4 lbs.). That means that all my gear can not weigh more than 25.6 pounds. I keep my gear at 23 lbs. because I don’t want to struggle. Duane is an infantry brute, but he doesn’t want his pack more than 45 lbs.
Check the WOM Required Gear List and start accumulating what you need and weighing it as you go. Ounces matter. Weigh everything and compare options by how much they weigh and the purposes they serve. If you book with us, you can rent gear, which simplifies things. Otherwise, use the gear list, get a fishing scale, and reach out if you need help.
Beginner Hikers. If you are a novice backpacker, keep it simple and try not to exceed five to seven miles each day and not more than five or six days total. Not more than five to seven miles keeps you safe in event that the hike is significantly more difficult than anticipated, especially if your pack is heavy. It also keeps you in a doable range even in bad weather. Plan for a zero day, if possible, to accommodate injury, fatigue, or bad weather. Give yourself time to enjoy the scenery, rather than running from place to place. Planning for five or six days helps you to keep your pack weight down because you don’t need as much food as you would for the longer hikes.
Plan for cool weather in the evening and at night. It is likely to see temperatures in the upper 40s and 50s throughout the summer, especially along the shores of Lake Superior. If you hike the ridges, plan for temperatures in the 80s as the rocks absorb and hold radiant energy from the sun. By late afternoon in August, they are baking hot. Plan for long days as daylight is between 14 and 16 hours from June through August.
Beginner Itineraries. There are several appropriate hikes for beginners. To choose the best for you, assess your needs carefully. You can choose itineraries that require hiking particular distances, some that don’t exceed four miles each day, and one that has only day hikes from a stationary campsite.
The easiest beginner hikes originate in Windigo. Take the Voyageur II or the Seahunter III from Grand Portage to Windigo and spend three days in the Washington Creek Campground. You can day hike the 4 miles to the lookout on the Minong Ridge Trail to a plateau overlooking Canada. You can also take a day hike on the Feldtmann Lake Trail to the Grace Creek Lookout. Further, Washington Creek itself is a prime moose-viewing area. Wise Old Man Guides are happy to help you with your plans, even if you don’t book with us.
Huginnnin Cove is also a great beginner hike from Windigo. This hike is incredibly flexible because of the stay limits at each campground as both Washington Creek and Huginnin Cove offer three night limits. Once you land in Windigo, you hike the half-mile to Washington Creek Campground and spend the night. You have option to stay two more days before hiking out to Huginnin Cove where you can stay for three days prior to your return. The West Huginnin Cove Trail is 4 miles from Washington Creek. The East Huginnin Trail route is approximately 5 miles. If you want help to plan this hike, reach out. While Wise Old Man guided hikes don’t originate out of Windigo, we can help you to plan your trip.
The Least Complicated Beginner Hike from Rock Harbor is the Daisy Farm Loop. Plan to arrive by the Isle Royale Queen or the Ranger III in the afternoon and hike to Three-Mile Campground with a stop at Susy’s Cave on Day 1. Proceed to Daisy Farm (4.4 miles) on Day 2. Return to Three-Mile Campground via Mount Franklin (6.2 miles) if you wish on Day 3. Take the Tobin Harbor Trail into Rock Harbor on the morning of Day 4 and have some time to shop and have lunch at the restaurant prior to departure. You can do this with Wise Old Man Guides if you want support for your hike, or you can do this loop independently. Even if you don’t book with us, you can still reach out for help.
Slightly more adventurous is an out and back hike to Moskey Basin. It is the same out hike with the stop at Susy’s Cave on the way to Three-Mile Campground on Day 1 and on to Daisy Farm on Day 2. On Day 3, hike 3.9 miles to Moskey Basin. On Day 4, return to Daisy Farm. On Day 5, hike to Three-Mile Campground, or hike in 7.2 miles to Rock Harbor to dine at the restaurant and spend the night prior to departure on Day 6. If you wish, Wise Old Man Guides can accompany on this hike, or you can do this hike independently. Keep in mind, if you overestimate your ability, you can stay in Daisy Farm an extra day instead of proceeding to Moskey Basin, but you must stop again Three Mile Campground to avoid stay limitation issues, but you still spend a night in Rock Harbor for dining and shopping for gifts.
Chippewa Harbor is the slightly more complex itinerary with an inter-island hop. For this itinerary, you must coordinate your arrival on the Queen IV with the Voyageur II in order to schedule the hop. The Voyageur departs Rock Harbor on at 9:00 AM Eastern Time (8:00 AM Central Time) Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays, so your arrival in Rock Harbor has to occur on Monday, Wednesday or Saturday to make the connection and remain in compliance with the single-night limitation in Rock Harbor where you spend Day 1. Once debarking the Voyageur, you overnight in Chippewa Harbor on Day 2 and can hike to Lake Mason as well as to the Johnson Schoolhouse and past up to the ridge to view Lake Superior. On Day 3, proceed to Moskey Basin, Day 4 to Daisy Farm, Day 5 to Three-Mile or the full 7.2 miles into Rock Harbor. Wise Old Man Guides can work with you on this itinerary if you want support.
You can hike Isle Royale safely. Assessing your abilities, preparing yourself for the hike, packing carefully and appropriately, and planning your itinerary prudently, all help you to stay safe and have an adventure of a lifetime. Remember, you need to take all the required gear without exceeding a reasonable weight in order to be able to hike on this rugged island. Because you cannot resupply (without scheduling ahead of time) once you leave your point of access at Rock Harbor or Windigo, you need to pack carefully and anticipate your needs. If you need help, reach out to us. Call us at 9o6-2o1-1588 or email at email@example.com. We can help even if you don’t book with us.