Ideas for visiting Isle Royale without backpacking
When we think of Isle Royale, backpacking, kayaking, and boating come to mind, but not all people want, or are not able, to backpack in order to experience the beauty of this national park. Campground hopping can be a perfect option. It requires a sufficient amount of time and gear, but it doesn’t require backpacking from campground to campground. You can choose from a variety of campgrounds that are accessible on Lake Superior and that the Voyageur II visits, but plan in advance and make reservations–the Voyager II only makes stops that are scheduled in advance.
Let’s start by catching the Queen IV to Rock Harbor and spend a single night in the campground. On your first night on the island, you can take a stroll out to Scoville Point, have a burger in the restaurant, and keep an eye out for Bruce the Moose on main street in the evening. The next morning, you want to catch the Voyageur II for your first stop at Daisy Farm.
Daisy Farm offers a three-night stay, and it provides access to the Mount Ojibway as well as offering close access for a day hike over to Moskey Basin at four miles one way. There is also an opportunity to hike over to Three Mile and Susy’s Cave, or not. The Dock at Daisy Farm offers a great place to fish or to dive off, for those who can take a dip in the frigid water of Lake Superior. Since the beaver dams took over a prominent part of Daisy Farm, it’s likely to observe them swimming at the dock.
From Daisy Farm, coordinate a hop to Chippewa Harbor which has a three-night stay. There is Lake Mason a short hike from the campground. The Johnson Schoolhouse is a half-mile from the group sites on the way to the ridge from which you can see Lake Superior and overlook Lake Mason. There’s a smidge of cell signal from the ridge, so you can likely text your family. While you’re in Chippewa Harbor, you can fish from the dock. There are shipwrecks you can view if you have a portable kayak. It’s just a short paddle.
Next you can hop to Malone Bay for up to three nights. You can splash in the waterfall, visit the visitor center, and hike over to Siskiwit Lake. Enjoy the raspberries and the thimbleberries. Hike out to the beaver dams toward the Ishpeming Tower. There, I saw a beaver chewing bark from a stick as though it were eating a cob of corn. This is a favorite of Wise Old Man Guide Services for its water views.
After Malone Bay, you stop at Windigo for another few days. You can get a shower at Windigo, or you can take an off-island adventure by hopping over to Grand Portage for a night in the lodge and then hop back to Windigo. There, day hike out to Grace Creek Lookout, about 2.5 miles out on the Feldtmann Lake Trail. You can day hike out and back to Hugginin Cove (10 miles round trip), and you can also hike out toward North Lake Desor on the Minong Ridge Trail. Spend your evenings in the Washington Creek Campground to watch for moose that graze in the creek. Our best moose viewing on the island has been there.
Another campground visited by the Voyageur is McCargoe Cove also with a three-night stay limit. It is the first stop made by the Voyageur II once it leaves Windigo. McCargoe Cove has beautiful sunrises. There are six shelters, three individual tent sites, and three group sites. You can hike to the Minong Mine, fish off the dock, and just bask in the sun. The community fire ring affords great companionship as you visit with other campers who are taking a break from the trail or just passing through.
After McCargoe is the gem of gems, inaccessible to hikers unless they schedule with the Voyageur II. Belle Isle once housed a flourishing hotel with amenities. Its remnants are still visible in a fireplace, a stone stairway, and what appears to have been a patio of some sort. There is a sheltered beach for swimming, a lookout for sun bathing, and plenty of water for fishing. There is a dock where boaters often dock. There is a five-night stay limit at Belle Isle, and if you have a kayak, you have access to the fingers and can spend your days floating among the islands and enjoying the flat water.
Leaving Belle Isle, you can catch your last hop into Rock Harbor for a final night on the island. Enjoy a burger and a beverage, shop at the island store. Stop at the Visitor’s Center, and attend a presentation at the auditorium. Book yourself into the hotel for a night and enjoy a shower and a soft bed.
Most people don’t have 22 plus days to take this leisurely and extended vacation on the island, but if you do, this might be the summer of a lifetime. If you don’t have all that time, pick and choose among the hops to meet your needs.
Scheduling is important as is coordinating the stay limits and the ferry schedule. As you hop, remember that the Voyageur II traverses from Grand Portage to Windigo and clockwise along the north side of the island on to Rock Harbor on Saturdays, Mondays and Wednesdays. It returns to Windigo from Rock Harbor along the south shore on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. The Voyageur stays in port on Friday. The Seahunter III can help with planning entry and exit from Windigo to Top Hat Marina in Grand Portage, but those are the only two ports it services.
Let’s consider a few potential itineraries to see how they play out with the coordination of the boats and the stay limits.
Here’s a McCargoe Cove-Rock Harbor-Chippewa Harbor-Washington Creek itinerary: Let’s start from Grand Portage and take the Voyageur II to McCargoe Cove on Wednesday. In this case, you can stay three nights at McCargoe because the ferry won’t come back by until Saturday. (It doesn’t travel on Friday.) On Saturday, you catch the Voyageur II for Rock Harbor and stay overnight in the campground, which is ADA compliant. Take the opportunity for a hot shower and do your laundry. (Make sure to bring quarters for the driers as the store won’t give you cash from your card and there is not ATM, at least not at this point.) Have dinner at the restaurant, and enjoy the company of other travelers.
On Sunday, take the Voyageur to Chippewa Harbor to enjoy fishing in Lake Mason, view the Johnson schoolhouse, and climb up the ridge (if you wish) to view Lake Superior and the countryside surrounding Chippewa Harbor. There’s a smidge of cell service, so text you friends. Chippewa Harbor has standup grills in the event that you catch a fish and want to cook it. On Tuesday, catch the Voyageur II again for Windigo where you can stay for three nights in the Washington Creek campground, which ADA compliant. Get a shower, visit the store, and eat a pizza or a microwave burger on the patio with other adventurers.
From Windigo, you can book the final leg to Grand Portage on the Voyageur II on Wednesday or Thursday, or on its sister boat, the Seahunter III, on Friday between June 7 and September 2. You can’t stay the full three nights unless you can book your return on the Seahunter III as the Voyageur II does not sail on Friday.
A Washington Creek-Rock Harbor-Washington Creek or a Rock Harbor-Washington Creek Rock Harbor ADA compliant excursion is possible as well. You can start and terminate from either end of the island. Remember, only Rock Harbor and Windigo are accessible.
For a six-day five night stay originating from Copper Harbor, you take the Queen IV and get your first night in Rock Harbor. You take the Voyager II the next morning to Windigo to spend three nights in the Washington Creek campground. Then you return via the north side of the island and stay overnight in Rock Harbor for a next-day departure.
For a seven-day six-night stay originating from Grand Portage, you take the Voyageur II from Hat Point Marina in Grand Portage to Windigo and spend three nights in Washington Creek campground. On the third day, take the Voyageur to Rock Harbor for a night, and then take the Voyageur II back to Hat Point Marina at Grand Portage. When booking, you need to make sure that you are choosing departure dates that allow for you to make the connection in Rock Harbor where you can only stay one night. You can only depart from Rock Harbor on Sunday, Tuesday or Thursday. (The Seahunter III does not go to Rock Harbor. She is a day-trip boat that ferries between Grand Portage and Windigo only.)
- It is recommended to arrange with the park for an accessible shelter in advance of your stay. Only Rock Harbor and Windigo are accessible.
- There is a step up into the shelters, so you cannot bring a wheelchair into the ADA shelter in Windigo at the moment of this publication, but there is a shelter with a ramp in Rock Harbor.
- You must climb a hill to access the Visitors Center and the store in Windigo.
- Both Windigo and Rock Harbor have accessible outhouses at the campgrounds in addition to the accessible shower/laundry/bathroom buildings. The modern facilities are a distance from the campgrounds, so you should expect to use the accessible outhouse.
- If you are planning to take an service dog, there is a process which you must complete to secure permission from the Park Service prior to booking. The ferries may wish to see your official approval from IRNP prior to allowing you to board. This policy is in place because dogs carry diseases to which wolves are particularly susceptible. Only approved service dogs with appropriate documentation are permitted to board.
A longer excursion can be accomplished by incorporating Belle Isle into the Itinerary and including either either Chippewa Harbor or Malone Bay. If you start from Grand Portage to Windigo on Monday via the Voyageur II and continue to Belle Isle, you can stay five nights in Belle Isle, and catch the Saturday boat for Rock Harbor to spend the night. Sunday, you can opt for Chippewa Harbor or Malone Bay for two nights, and then on Tuesday hop back into Windigo for three nights and depart the island via the Seahunter III or stay two nights and depart via the Voyageur II.
To do this itinerary from Rock Harbor, it looks a little different. You take the Queen IV from Copper Harbor on Monday, and stay overnight in Rock Harbor to catch the Voyageur II on Tuesday for Chippewa Harbor or Malone Bay for two nights. You have to take the Voyageur into Windigo on Thursday and stay two nights. Then you can the Voyageur again on Saturday for Belle Isle where you can stay four nights and catch the Voyageur II on Wednesday to overnight in Rock Harbor for Thursday departure on the Queen IV.
Remember, whichever excursion you take, you have to coordinate among the ferries’ schedules to and from the island and for inter-island hops, and also with campground stay limits. The ferries’ schedules are more plentiful during peak season, so if you are early or late season, the coordination is more difficult. However, visiting Isle Royale is not impossible even if you are not comfortable with hiking and don’t want to spend your days and nights in the lodge or a camper cottage. With careful planning, you can experience the remote beauty of the island without hiking. While we are not medical experts or care aides, Wise Old Man of Isle Royale guides can help with the logistics and can even lead your excursion.