Visiting Isle Royale on a Tight Timeline
Many of us operate on a tight timeline and wring every last bit of adventure from our short vacations and long weekends. Despite others’ preferences to enjoy Isle Royale for weeks or even a month each summer, some want to see the high points without overstressing. We have some options for the short timers.
Day visits and overnight excursions can be arranged with destinations to Windigo or to Rock Harbor departing from Grand Portage or Grand Marais, Minnesota, or from Houghton, Hancock, or Copper Harbor, Michigan.
The choice for departure rests on your closest access to a ferry or the seaplane and on your timeframe. The ferries run out of Copper Harbor and Houghton, Michigan, and Grand Portage, Minnesota. The seaplanes run out of Hancock, Michigan, and Grand Marais, Minnesota. When choosing your means of transportation, make sure to check schedules to ensure that what you want is available. Schedules vary by time of year as well as by service.
Upon arrival, you will also have use and/or backpacking fees and orientation which will take up some of your on-island time. While these don’t impact an overnight excursion that much, they do effect a single-day itinerary, Upon arrival at either port of entry, you will need to be oriented and prove you have paid your day-use fee, which is completed at pay.gov prior to arrival, or you must pay there on island.
Wheels of any sort are not allowed on the island, so be prepared to carry the gear and supplies you bring in an appropriate bag or backpack.
Owned by the Park Service, The Ranger III can only be used for overnight excursions because it always stays overnight at the dock before making the return. It makes only three passenger trips into Windigo once in June, July, and August each year, with twice weekly routes into Rock Harbor from the end of May through early September, but only one trip per week into Rock Harbor on the weeks that it goes to Windigo. Check destinations in the planning process.
The Isle Royale Queen IV runs on certain days each week and departs only from Copper Harbor and docks only in Rock Harbor. In peak season during July and August, it runs six days each week, but only five days each week in June and generally two days each week in May and September. Because of its frequent schedule, it can be used for day trips or overnights. Check its schedule for planning.
Grand Portage Isle Royale Transportation Lines operates the Voyageur II and the Sea Hunter III, both of which depart from Grand Portage, Minnesota, and stop in Windigo. The Sea Hunter III is used for day hikers who enter and depart the island on the same day via Windigo. The Voyageur II circumnavigates the island, departing Grand Portage on particular days with the first stop at Windigo and subsequent stops along the north shore on the way to dock overnight at Rock Harbor. It returns making stops along the south shore of the island with the final stop in Windigo on the way back to Grand Portage. The Voyageur II can be used for overnight excursions in Windigo because of its schedule. While it goes to Rock Harbor, it arrives at about 4:30 p.m. Eastern Time and departs at 9:00 a.m. Eastern Time, leaving a shorter window for hiking, similar to what the Ranger III affords when it docks at Rock Harbor. You get more time on island by spending the night in Windigo when you use the Voyageur II.
Isle Royale Sea Planes has a user-friendly schedule for day hikers and overnight excursions. You can get dropped off at either end of the island and get picked up later the same day or on the subsequent day. With two points of departure from the mainland and two destinations, at well as inter-island hops, it offers a lot of flexibility for planning an individual trip or as part of a larger excursion.
When spending a night on the island, be sure to bring toilet paper as the outhouses in the campgrounds are not supplied with it. The flush toilets in Rock Harbor and Windigo are supplied, but they are a distance from the campgrounds.
The Ranger III provides for an excursion that prioritizes the process. It departs from Houghton, Michigan, and takes 6 hours to arrive at the island, so you have most time on the boat to explore the boat itself, enjoy the views from the deck and/or the observation deck, and visit with your traveling companions. Outbound or inbound from any destination, the Ranger III departs at 9:00 a.m. Eastern Time. Lodging is plentiful in the Houghton/Hancock area to facilitate your departure. The Ranger III’s cafe closed during the pandemic and has not reopened, so you must bring your own food and beverages for consumption during the crossing. Once you arrive, you have one evening on the island, which can allow for tenting overnight and spending the evening hiking, moose-watching, or simply hanging out with others and enjoying the ambiance of the wilderness.
Arriving in Rock Harbor using the Ranger III, there is enough time to complete both the Stoll Trail and the Susy’s Cave Loop for the fast hiker and plenty of choices for those not that fast. Once you get set up in the campground, you have plenty of time to choose what to do. For non-hikers, there is plenty of time to dine at the Lodge restaurant or the Greenstone Grill and stroll leisurely about Rock Harbor to take in the ranger programs or visit the artist in residence.
Using the Ranger III to arrive in Windigo, you have time enough to hike out to and back from Huginnin Cove. While you could potentially spend the night at Huginnin, it would create the stress of having to be up at daybreak to return to Windigo in time for departure. Grace Creek overlook and out and back hikes for a couple of miles on each the Minong or the Greenstone Ridge trails are also hiking options. You can check out the Windigo store as well.
Whichever end you visit, be sure to purchase food and beverages for the passage back to Houghton as there Ranger III doesn’t provide food or beverage, as per its website.
The Isle Royale Queen VI provides service from Copper Harbor, Michigan. The Queen VI departs the dock in Copper Harbor at 8:00 a.m. Eastern Time, so you will need to arrange lodging the night before at an establishment in Copper Harbor. There are a few choices: The King Copper, Mariner North, Fanny Hooe Resort, Minnetonka, or the Bella Vista. Each of these are motels locally owned and operated. You can also choose to camp out at Fort Wilkins State Park. Once you park your car and get boarding passes in the morning, you might have a minute or two to get some coffee at Jamsen’s Fish Market and Bakery which is right on the dock.
Even on a day trip, be sure to bring a day pack for supplies, snacks, water, and rain gear in the event of rain. You don’t want to cut short a hike for the lack of water or to forego one because of falling water, so think about your needs and comfort as you prepare. Even if you don’t plan to hike, bring a rain coat with a hood so that you have protection to and from the dock and for walking around in the event of rain.
The Queen IV arrives in Rock Harbor about 3.5 to 4 hours after departure, arriving between 11:30 a.m. and noon. Of course, you must be oriented and address your use fees with rangers. After these activities, you will have about two and a half hours on island. Boarding for departure begins at about 2:15 p.m. to cast lines at 2:40 p.m. Eastern Time.
There are a few options for completing a hike in that time, depending on your speed and experience, from leisure strolls to strenuous hiking. You may choose low-key options of viewing sites within Rock Harbor, such as the artist-in-residence displays, or spending an hour of your time paddling in Tobin Harbor in a rental canoe or tandem kayak, weather permitting.
Remember to take water with you on any of the several hikes or activities you choose. You can buy it from the store or bring a couple of Nalgene or Smart Water Bottles for transporting the water on your hike. A day pack will make transporting it and a few snacks easier. Only Rock Harbor and Windigo and their respective campgrounds have spigots to fetch potable water. All other water on the island needs to be filtered through a .4 micron filter at minimum. For day hikes, make sure to fill your bottles before heading out.
On a day hike arriving on the Queen IV, you can head out to Susy’s Cave on the Rock Harbor Trail and return on the Tobin Harbor trail for a three-mile loop in all. The trail is rocky and uneven, so use trekking poles to ensure that you don’t slip and twist an ankle, but you should have enough time to make the hike if you keep a reasonable pace. Remember, the terrain makes it difficult to maintain your footing, so be prepared and hike with caution. Once you get back to Rock Harbor, you should have time to get a to-go item from the Greenstone Grill or buy snack food from the Rock Harbor store for the boat ride home. There are snacks and beverages for sale on the Queen IV as well.
For a day hike while remaining close to Rock Harbor, when arriving on the Queen IV, you can complete part of the Stoll Trail heading toward Scoville Point. On the leg going out, choose the waterfront hike to see the beautiful, rugged shoreline, and return via the forest loop that will bring you back along Tobin Harbor and past the Smithwick Mines. This option should leave you time to buy a to-go lunch from the Greenstone Grill. If you are fast, you can do the entire hike to Scoville Point, but you will need to be very mindful of the time. The full hike to the point is about five miles, so many people will find that distance too much in the short time. Gauge what you can do safely and don’t miss your boat.
Bring trekking poles to facilitate hiking safely on the uneven surfaces and choose well-broken-in boots or hiking shoes to ensure blisters won’t hinder your experience.
The Sea Hunter III provides access to Isle Royale from Grand Portage, Minnesota, going into Windigo. Owned by Grand Portage Isle Royale Transportation Lines, the Sea Hunter III departs from Grand Portage at 8:30 Central Time several days each week, arrives at 10:00 a.m., and returns at 3:00 p.m. Using the Sea Hunter allows you 4 hours on island which can be spent hiking, canoeing, moose watching, or enjoying the view from a cozy bench or a seat at the Windigo store. The most convenient hotel is the Grand Portage Lodge and Casino, located a mile or two from the departure dock. It is the only lodging in Grand Portage, but options abound in Grand Marais and other communities nearby, which will require about a half-hour or 45-minute ride to the boat on the morning of departure.
Taking the Sea Hunter III into Windigo, you have several options for day hikes, depending on the ambiance you seek. You can hike out to Grace Creek Lookout which is about 5 miles round trip on the Feldtmann Loop Trail. Another option is to hike out on the Greenstone Ridge Trail toward Island Mine for a couple of miles. You will have a steep climb on the way out, but the return will prove enjoyable by contrast. Alternately, you can take the Minong Ridge Trail to the lookout over the first beaver dam, which is about 6 miles round trip. If you are a trail runner, you can take the West Huginnin Cove Trail out and back for an 8 mile route. Taking the West Huginnin out and the East Huginnin back will extend you to about 10 miles, which will likely require you to run the entire way.
Bring a down puffy and rain gear in case of cool or inclement weather. In early or late season, take a sock hat and gloves as well. A light hoodie to wear under your puffy might be prudent as well, especially for moments when you are stationary and watching for moose or other wildlife.
Other options for a Windigo excursion, arriving by the Sea Hunter III, include a leisurely walk through the Washington Creek Campground to sit on the bench overlooking the creek itself in hopes of seeing moose coming to graze in the slow-moving waters. From there, you can stroll back to the Windigo store for snacks or lunch. If you prefer not hike, you have plenty of time–weather permitting–to rent a canoe or a tandem kayak for a paddle in Washington Harbor or out to Beaver Island. You would still have time to get lunch and shop in the store.
It bears repeating: If you are camping overnight at any campground, bring toilet paper. The park service does not stock toilet paper in the campground out houses.
If you can manage an overnight stay, several options open up for you. Taking the Queen IV, the Ranger III, the Voyageur II, or the Sea Plane, you can plan to stay in Rock Harbor or Three-Mile Campground. Taking the Sea Hunter III, the Voyageur II, the Ranger III, or the Isle Royale Sea Planes into Windigo, the options are to stay at Washington Creek Campground in Windigo or the Huginnin Cove Campground.
Staying overnight in Rock Harbor, you would set up your tent in the campground on the first day and make the 5-mile round trip hike out to Scoville Point, rather than cutting it off at the shorter loop. On the longer loop, you will have opportunity to walk along the rocky and cragged shore heading out, and on the way back enjoy the quiet, lush woodland where you might see a moose, a fox or even a wolf. Be sure the check out the Smithwick mines as you return to the settled area of Rock Harbor.
For overnight excursions, bring a tent, insulated sleeping pad, 15-degree sleeping bag, and don’t forget a breakfast drink, camping cup, camp stove, pot, and fuel. It can be beautiful to enjoy a warm bowl of oatmeal in the cool, pristine morning. Bring the oatmeal, a bowl, and a spoon.
Dinner can be in the campground with your own backpacking meals, or you can stop at the Greenstone Grill or the Restaurant in Rock Harbor. If you choose backpacking meals, be prepared and bring utensils and a backpacking stove to cook them. The other option for an evening meal is to purchase cheese and meats along with some crackers or other snacks from the store. Whatever you choose, you will enjoy the peace and quiet of the evening, watching the constellations in the night sky overhead. A wolf may howl in the night. Surely, you will hear the loons.
Fires are only allowed in fire rings in designated campgrounds. Rock Harbor, Windigo, and Huginnin Cove do not have fire rings. Charcoal grills are not allowed. Bring a camp stove and a pot.
On the second day in Rock Harbor, you can make the hike out to Susy’s Cave on the Rock Harbor Trail and come back along the Tobin Harbor Trail. Early risers might be on the trail in sufficient time to scale Mount Franklin and get back in time to grab a snack at the store before boarding for the return trip on the Queen IV. The Mount Franklin hike is very much worth the early rise and the push to pull it off. If you use the Ranger III or the Voyageur II, you won’t have time to scale Mount Franklin because of the early departure. In fact, you will need to be up at daybreak to make the hike to Susy’s Cave and directly back to Rock Harbor in time for boarding. Don’t dally because you will need to stop at the store for snacks and beverages for the boat ride home. If you take the sea plane, you can plan an evening departure, which allows plenty of time to hike to Mount Franklin and for other activities.
If you stay overnight and camp outside Rock Harbor or Windigo, you will need to add a water filter to your gear. Many use the Sawyer Squeeze for short excursions, but you can also try a 2- or 4-liter Platypus Gravity Filter which generates clean water quickly and is extremely light. Spigots at Windigo and Rock Harbor and their campgrounds provide potable water. Water from any other source must be filtered and treated.
Another option for a Rock Harbor arrival is to hike to Three-Mile Campground for your overnight stay. Once you get set up, you should have time to day-hike up to Mount Franklin for its awesome views of the Canadian shoreline, returning to Three-Mile for a dip in the frigid waters of Lake Superior from the dock at the campground. Less busy than Rock Harbor, this campground affords for stargazing and night photography from the dock.
On the return from Three-Mile to Rock Harbor in the morning, you can stop by Susy’s Cave and head on over to the Tobin Harbor Trail to hike along the calm waters of that bay. If you start early enough and use the Queen IV or the Sea Plane for transportation, you should have time for the short loop on the trail out to Scoville Point and still be able to grab something to go from either the grill or the store prior to departure. If you take the Ranger III or the Voyageur II, however, you will have to be up very early in Three-Mile to have time to stop at the store for snacks and beverages for the ride home as boarding is prior to the 9:00 a.m. Eastern Time departure. You will not have time for Scoville Point.
If you choose to stay in 3-Mile or Huginnin Cove Campgrounds, you must not forget the water filter or the water bottles. You will also need to add a dinner plan and a breakfast choice so that you are appropriately hydrated and nourished for your adventure.
On an overnight excursion with an arrival in Windigo, the most pleasant and quiet option is to hike out to Huginnin Cove to spend the night on the shore. The campground sits right on the water for pleasant wading or simply being soothed by the rhythmic lapping of gentle waves from your seat on a log or a camp chair that you bring with you. As night falls, the stars will pierce the dark sky overhead, a million pinholes from heaven. Rise early to enjoy steaming coffee in the emerging warmth of the dawn, and hike back in plenty of time to shop, enjoy lunch, and catch the boat.
Plan carefully for a fun and exciting adventure to experience in your own timeframe the most you can of the island. You won’t regret it. If you need help, reach out. Whether or not you book with Wise Old Man of Isle Royale Guide Services, we can help you plan.
If you need support for hiking, Wise Old Man of Isle Royale guides can lead you on either the day trips or overnight stays. You only need to reach out to make arrangements, keeping in mind that we operate from Michigan. If you feel comfortable going it alone, that’s great. You can still reach out to chat about options and needs.
If you are not fully geared-up and are departing from Houghton, Hancock, or Copper Harbor, you can rent our gear. We have full gear packages as well as individual items that can fill out whatever you are missing to complete the set-up for your excursion.
We can be reached at 906-201-1588 by phone or firstname.lastname@example.org by email.