Let’s face it, more than any other trail on Isle Royale, I love the Minong Ridge Trail. Why? Because it’s difficult. It may be the most difficult trail on the island. Yes, there is the Feldtmann Loop which is not for slouches. There is the hike out to Malone Bay, which is ass-kicking when done as an out and back. But the Minong Ridge Trail has captured my heart. I soloed from McCargoe Cove to Windigo, hiking for two and a half days last summer at 63 years old. Did I say that I love the Minong Ridge Trail?
First, I have hiked this trail more often than any other, and I know it most intimately. Yes, its permutations have surprised me a time or two, but only for a moment. Because I love the game of knowing it and owning it, I relish the challenge of its rigor and its occasional confusing turn that shakes novices and disorients even experienced hikers.
Let’s talk rigor. The Minong Ridge Trail technically starts (or terminates) at McCargoe Cove. This first video documents the hike from McCargoe Cove to Todd Harbor. To access McCargoe, you have to hike from Rock Harbor or take an inter-island hop from Windigo. Hiking from Rock Harbor adds distance. From McCargoe to Windigo is 33 miles, give or take. 33 grueling miles. To hike from Rock Harbor, I stop at Daisy Farm (7.2 miles) the first night and McCargoe (8.2 miles) the second night. Then there’s 6.7 miles to Todd Harbor, 7 miles to Little Todd Harbor, 5.7 miles to North Desor, and 13 miles to Windigo. The distances don’t seem that great, and they are not. But it’s not just distance to be considered.
We are talking rigor. To start, you could try to hike directly from Rock Harbor to McCargoe Cove, but that would make for a long and grueling day at more than 15 miles. Fifteen miles elsewhere might not be a big deal, but 15 miles on Isle Royale is tough. People in the army infantry remark on it, like “that is a hump!” Then they hang out for a day or two before pushing on. Far better to make the stop at Daisy Farm and then proceed to McCargoe.
You can also hike directly from Todd Harbor to North Desor, skipping Little Todd, and I have done it, but it’s not fun. To do so, you have the worst section–Little Todd to North Desor–after the 7 miles from Todd to Little Todd, which is tough. This video shares views of this section. When I did it, I was okay with it until I realized, while I skipped the hike in and out of Little Todd, I missed Little Todd, a beautiful campground situated on the shore of Lake Superior. Wise Old Man Guide of Isle Royale Guide Services makes a point to stop here because of the remote beauty of the campground and the views from the shore.
Each camp site has a fire ring, and the gravel beach offers good swimming in the late summer. Because of the rigor of the hike, by the time I got to North Lake Desor, I was too tired to really enjoy it. This video shares that grueling section. After setting up and eating, I simply filtered water and went to sleep. I needed to be ready for the last grueling 13-mile day.
There are hidden hazards and complications. The trail between Todd and Little Todd has some issues that are not apparent right off. While a lot of it is going up and down off the ridge, there are parts where you walk through brush up to or over your head. It always make me wonder where the moose are because there are no trees to get behind. There is nothing but deep brush. Too, there is a section with luscious thimbleberry bushes, and you will be tempted to pick them, until you notice that just beyond them are tree tops, indicating a steep drop that is camouflaged by the berry bushes. If you listen, you will hear a river running, but you cannot see it as it is in the ravine outside your field of vision, deep in the ravine.
The trail from Little Todd to North Lake Desor has ascensions and descensions up to and down from the ridge in such close succession that they are exhausting. If the day is wet, these variations are slick, and you cannot hike the ridge in event to a lightning storm. This trail requires an intentionally planned zero day to accommodate bad weather. If you don’t need that extra day, you can plan to extend the end of the hike by a day by spending it at the beautiful Huginnin Cove.
The final section’s challenges. The distance and lack of water between North Lake Desor and Windigo complicate the situation. Here are some views of that final leg. It’s important to start early on that last 13 mile haul into Windigo, so you can’t sleep in after the grueling hike if you skip Little Todd. If you hike the last section into Windigo in the mid or late summer, you should have at least three liters of water, and the last place to get drinkable water on that section is at North Lake Desor.
While this last section is not as rugged as the section into North Lake Desor, it is longer than any other section on the trail. It also has areas where the trail is less distinct, creating hazards for getting lost. This last section accounts for most Search and Rescues (SARs) because of people losing their way in one of the four beaver dams it crosses through. The time spent trying to find a way through the beaver dam causes delays until hikers have drunk the water they had allotted for the remaining parts of the trail. They succumb to dehydration, necessitating rescue. Check this video to see the dams.
There are three basic options for doing the Minong Ridge Trail. Of course, with really long timeframes, other options appear in combination with completing other trails, but these three suggestions provide for the most direct means of completing the Minong Ridge Trail.
Option I: In a nutshell, if you start from Rock Harbor and depart from Rock Harbor, you can plan to hike the Minong Ridge Trail to Windigo (48 miles) and then back along the Greenstone Ridge Trail (44 miles) for a total of about 92 miles. This roundtrip requires 13 or 14 days, allowing a zero day to recover in Windigo before heading back and one day for weather. Your stops are thus: Daisy Farm, McCargoe Cove, Todd Harbor, Little Todd Harbor, North Lake Desor, Windigo for two nights, Island Mine, South Lake Desor, Hatchet Lake, West Chickenbone, Daisy Farm, and Rock Harbor. For more information on the Greenstone Ridge Trail, follow this blog as the the Greenstone Ridge Trail is my next planned post.
Option II: If you have fewer days (9 or 10 days) to allocate to the trip, use an inter-island hop to Windigo and hike back to Rock Harbor for a total of 48 miles. Plan to arrive in Rock Harbor, spend the night, and catch the Voyageur to Windigo where you stay overnight to allow yourself a full day for the 13 mile hike into North Lake Desor. Then you progress to Little Todd Harbor, Todd Harbor, McCargoe Cove, Daisy Farm to Rock Harbor. This itinerary should include a zero day and plan a final overnight in Rock Harbor to ensure you don’t miss your boat. Prudently, you need nine or ten days.
It’s best not to plan to hike to Windigo with a hop back to Rock Harbor. If you are delayed for a day while hiking and miss your scheduled hop, you can’t guarantee that there space on the next boat, so do your hop first and then adjust your hike to accommodate the weather and other needs. If you end up with an extra day, you can spend an extra day in Daisy Farm and take a day hike to Moskey Basin. Don’t arrive in Rock Harbor two days prior to your departure because Rock Harbor has a single night stay limit. Instead, arrive the night prior to departure.
Option III: For a very short stay, you can do the Minong Ridge Trail from McCargoe Cove to Windigo in 4 or 5 days, which is 33 miles. To manage this itinerary, you take the Voyageur II from Grand Portage, permit in Windigo, reboard and continue to McCargoe Cove for an afternoon arrival. Immediately, hike to Todd Harbor for the night. On day 2, you can try to make North Lake Desor Campground, bypassing Little Todd, but you must hike into Little Todd to replenish your water. There is a stream you cross just prior to the Little Todd junction, which can also be used to resupply if it is flowing sufficiently. Beware, skipping Little Todd sets you up for a grueling hike to North Lake Desor, so don’t take this option if you are not an advanced hiker.
From North Lake Desor, the hike is 13 miles into Washington Creek Campground. There is no place to refill your water, so you must carry a minimum of 3 liters and take care not to get lost in the beaver dams. It is essential to plan a zero day on this itinerary because you are on the ridge every day of the hike, and there is no alternate route. If you are an intermediate skill level, plan to stop in Little Todd, which means you need five days. If you are advanced, you can plan for four days, with three days of hiking and an overnight in Washington Creek to catch your boat back to Grand Portage the next day.
Plan for enjoyment. Whichever itinerary you choose, keep in mind that there are considerations for terrain, hazards, potential weather, making connections, and accommodating stay limits. There are challenges with scheduling hops and with ensuring that you make choices that allow for a pleasant experience and not a forced march to ensure you have a good time. For guide and planning services reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us at 9o6-2o1-1588.