A 4-Day Backpacking Trip at Isle Royale National Park

Thank you, Isle Royale, for gifting this wanderer a gorgeous, rugged, secluded little trip she didn’t even know she needed.

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It’s the biggest island in the world’s largest freshwater lake.

It’s home to the longest continuous study of any predator-prey system in the world.

It’s also considered to be one of the most beautiful yet isolated parks in the country.

And yet, Isle Royale National Park is one of the least visited national parks in the nation.

I’ll venture a guess here and say it’s likely the island’s remote, hard-to-get-to location that deters visitors from making the trip: Isle Royale is accessible only by boat or seaplane. But it’s one of the closest national parks to my home in Wisconsin and it also ranks as the #1 national park in the U.S. for backcountry use – and I was due for my inaugural backpacking trip! So off to Isle Royale National Park we were. Along for the journey were my boyfriend, Jackson, his cousin, Dusty, and Dusty’s girlfriend, Shelley (AKA “Fern.”)

Arriving at Isle Royale National Park!
The Adventures of Jackson, Mariah, Dusty & Fern!

Our mode of transportation into the island would be the Isle Royale Queen IV ferry. It’d depart from Copper Harbor, MI on Friday and return on Monday, which meant we had four days, three nights to explore as much of this 206 mi² park as possible!

Isle Royale Queen IV
The legendary Isle Royale Queen IV. Don’t forget the Dramamine!

Day 1: Arrival by Ferry // 8-Mile Hike to Daisy Farm 

I’m not one to get seasick but I had more than a few people warn me about the perils of the Queen IV. But we must’ve really lucked out because things were pretty calm! (Or, it seemed that way. Thank you, Dramamine.) Our group made our way across the big lake to Isle Royale’s HQ in 3.5 hours. We joked that arriving at the park did feel a little Jurassic Park-esque – the rangers there divided us in two groups right away for “orientation.” But within 20 minutes or so, we were on our way to our first destination – packs and all. We chose Daisy Farm Campground as our home base, which was 8 miles south of where we stepped off the ferry.

The hike was tough – for me, anyway. My eyes were mostly locked on the rocky, muddy, tree root-y trails but to my left throughout most of the 8-mile hike were beautiful views of Lake Superior. This was also my first time hiking for a significant amount of time with my 25-pound pack. I wouldn’t learn how to properly strap on the hip belt for another 48 hours so suffice it today, this hike was pretty brutal for me.

Beware the Sprained Ankle
Isle Royale is a breeding ground for moose, yes, but also sprained ankles. Lots and lots of sprained ankles.

But alas! Despite an uptick in visitors to the island (it was Memorial Day weekend), Jackson, Dusty, Fern and I were able to claim Shelter #4 at Daisy Farm Campground as our temporary home. It was located on a bubbling little stream that fed right into Lake Superior, which was visible from our “window.”

Shelter #4 at Daisy Farm
I spy Fern’s little head peekin’ out of Shelter #4 at Daisy Farm!

Day 2: Moose…Everywhere! // 12-Mile Hike along Greenstone Ridge to Mt. Ojibwe & Mt. Franklin Lookouts

I had one soul mission while at Isle Royale National Park: to spot a moose. This shouldn’t be difficult, I thought, as there are currently 2,015 moose on the island – and just 15 wolves. We decided to embark on the Greenstone Ridge Trail to check out a few lookout points, which ended up being a solid choice on our part. We spotted – and in some cases practically bumped into – 7 moose along the way! The sun was also shining on Saturday giving us our best weather day of the trip.

 

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Moose sighting #3: This bull posed for us for a solid minute or so. PC: @jburgau

Speaking of, weather is a tricky little thing here at Isle Royale – as with most islands. At times, I’d be bundled up in four layers of clothing and still not feel warm. And there were times when I was down to leggings and a tank top. The ‘feelin’ all four seasons in one day’ thing was a very real reminder that while we may be on a remote island, we still hadn’t left the Midwest.

Day 3: Everything hurts. // 13-Mile Hike to Three Mile Campground and Lane Cove

Legs are sore. Back is hurting. I think my toes are blistered. Are my shoulders bruised or am I imagining that? Muussst. Keeeep. Hiking.

Are we there yet?
Half way to Lane Cove!

Everything hurts but by this point, our plan to do 13 miles – nine of which would be without my pack – suddenly seemed pretty manageable to me! So, we changed up our plans on Day 3 and decided to say goodbye to Shelter #4 at Daisy Farm and instead staked a claim at a shelter on Three-Mile Campground. This provided an opportunity to explore a different trail to the north side of the island, where human life was pretty scarce! We spotted plenty of wildlife though, including a snake, some super tiny squirrels that I was weirdly enthralled by and also lots of chatty birds (with soprano vocal chords, I might add). This trail was verryyyy hilly. So I kept my mind busy by ruminating over which of my freeze-dried backpacker’s meals I’d delight in next. (Don’t knock ’em til ya try ’em!)

Bon Appétit!
“The best part about hiking are the snack breaks. Oh, and the views!” -Fern
Rest Stop
Jackson, Dusty and Fern take a little rest break.

Day 4: The Departure… // 5-Mile Hike along Tobin Harbor & Stoll Trails Plus Return to Copper Harbor

Last day on the island. I have mixed feelings: On one hand, I feel the inevitable bathos heading my way. Vacation today/Emails tomorrow. But on the other hand, man am I ready for a long, hot shower…despite my best purchase of the trip doin’ me proud (Travel Size IGK First Class Charcoal Detox Dry Shampoo, $14 FTW!!! <– not an ad and yes, it’s worth the money.)

There’s even more to be optimistic about on Day 4 though. For example, today is the day I figured out how to properly use my hip strap on my backpack and it was as if the angels sang in unison from the heaven of backcountry gods. 🙌 How it took me 38 miles of hiking to figure this out, I’ll never know, but I’m gonna chalk this one up as my official rite of passage into the backpacker’s club.

Home Stretch
This was taken around the time I figured out how to properly tighten the hip belt…with about a mile left to go.

What’s more, while we were packin’ things up and debating as a group over what athlete had the most social/cultural relevancy of all time, a cow moose strolled right on by through our camp. She paused directly in front of the outhouse (or privy, as they say on the island), stared at us and then walked right on by. She’d be the last moose sighting of the trip 🙂 (And for the record, Michael Jordan is the athlete who clearly had the most social/cultural relevancy…)

With just 2 hours before the ferry was set to arrive, the island was not done showing off her beauty to us. When we made it back from Three Mile Campground to Tobin Harbor, Jackson and I decided to venture a bit north and we were so glad we did. The thing about Isle Royale is that the views tend to change quite drastically about every quarter-mile. Things just looked different up here – I swear the water was bluer and the trails seemed easier (although really, the trip in general may have just gotten easier for me at this point!). We stared at the waves, summed up our trip to one another (We agree: top 5 vacation for both of us) and took a few celebratory selfies before making our way back to the harbor to await the Queen IV.

Shameless Selfie
Our trip comes to an end!
The Clear Waters
The views here reminded me of Cave Point County Park in Door County, Wisconsin.

Here’s the thing about backpacking: It’s like a vacation you have to work extra hard for. You’re probably asking: Y THO. What you get in return is nearly impossible for me to put in writing. I found a sticker in the gift shop though that kinda sums it up better than I ever could: “My feet hurt but my soul is alive.” Thank you, Isle Royale, for gifting this wanderer a gorgeous, rugged, secluded little trip she didn’t even know she needed.  😌

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