Isle Royale National Park

Isle Royale

Hiking the Isle Royale National Park
Imogen Reed, Guest Contributor

Isle Royale
Huginnin Cove, Isle Royale. Photo courtesy of

At the far northwest of Michigan is an island closer to both Minnesota and Canada than any other part of the state. So far in fact, that if you wanted to drive from any other part of Michigan you would have to go through at least Wisconsin and Minnesota to get there. If you’re from Detroit or Flint, make that Illinois and Indiana as well. That is one heck of a trip and Isle Royale is worth it, so long as you like hiking.

Getting to Isle Royale is only half the fun of the trip. There are three ferry services to Isle Royale including Copper Harbor and Houghton, but the most fun is Grand Portage. To get there, use your care or go to a car hire firm in Minnesota and take Route 61 along Minnesota’s Lake Superior coastline, taking in towns such as Beaver Bay and the evocatively named, Castle Danger. Right up the road, past Chippewa City, Covill and Hovland is Grand Portage, a bay on the border with Canada.

Grand Portage is a small unorganized territory of Cook County and part of the Ojibwe Indian Reservation. An important part of the fur trade, the area still thrives on traditional Ojibwe culture. An important detour worth taking on the way to Isle Royale or on the way back, is the Grand Portage National Monument.

Great Hall at Grand Portage National Monument, from

One of the monument’s main features is the Great Hall at Grand Portage, which can be found inland along Joes Road. It originally served the fur trade, overland trade routes and specifically the Anishinaabeg Ojibwe tribe. Apart from the great hall, there is the portage trail, which runs for 8.5 miles from Lake Superior to Pigeon River. The trail makes for a beautiful hike and one that complements the island itself, although in a far more developed kind of way. Timed to coincide with the Perseid meteor shower, the Ojibwe tribe and park staff wearing traditional costumes hold a Pow Wow and a rendezvous event every August.

Situated in Lake Superior, Isle Royale is the largest island on the lake and its national park contains around 400 other, smaller islands in the vicinity. It is made up of ridges of greenstone with the largest, Greenstone Ridge, being 1,000 feet in height. These have been covered mostly with boreal forests similar to those around Grand Portage in Minnesota and Thunder Bay in Ontario. It was established as a National Park in 1940 and then made a wilderness area in 1976 and an international biosphere reserve in 1980.

Hiking on Isle Royale. Photo courtesy of

The island started off, in human terms at least, as a site for fishing and copper mining. These copper mines were mostly prehistoric until a geological survey by Douglass Houghton in the 1840s created a second boom on the island. Many artifacts of this boom still abound on the island and make for interesting sights while hiking the island. Mining did not last however, and logging took over. This led to the quick deforestation of much of the island until that too was ended in 1940.

Since then the forests have re-grown across the 45 by 9 mile island. It is home to caribou, snowshoe hares, red foxes, red squirrels and beavers as well as predators such as coyotes and wolves. The latter of which crossed by themselves when Lake Superior iced over. For the budding ecologist, there are a wide range of other creatures to be on the lookout for including the painted turtle, eastern garter snake and three kinds of salamander.

The island contains around 165 miles worth of hiking trails. Upon arrival island rangers will give hiking groups maps of the island with all the trails marked on them. Each trail is noted for its different level of difficulty and length. Not all the long ones are difficult and not all the short ones are easy. There are seven long trails including Feldtmann Ridge, Greenstone Ridge, Rock Harbor and Ispheming. In addition to this, there are 15 shorter trails such as the Daisy Farm and Chickenbone East trails.

Click on Isle Royale Map for a larger view

The difficulty of any trail depends on the weather and whether you are crossing Greenstone Ridge or not. As it happens, the ridge runs lengthwise along the island, so is pretty much a feature of most trails. The island also features a number of campsites allowing for overnight stays. In fact, traversing the entire length of Greenstone Ridge is seen as a four to five day journey, so be warned.

Those visiting the island are urged to be well prepared. Those experienced in hiking will know what to do, but all should bring sturdy boots, bottles for clean water at Windigo or Rock Harbor, insect repellent and waterproof clothing. Any water from rivers and lakes should be boiled or filtered before being used as it may contain intestinal bacteria and insect eggs. Most importantly of all, the park requires people to look after their own waste, such as wrappers, food and broken equipment and asks visitors not to damage the island.

Hiking Michigan’s last wilderness can be a rich and rewarding experience. It can be done as a one-time, week long or weekend vacation, or can be a place that is explored bit by bit as each of the many trails are completed. Best of all though, start with sunrise on the east of the island and make sure you are on the west for sunset.


Isle Royale Day Hiking Trails

Isle Royale National Park Website

ScenicPathways National Parks Directory