Exploring Isle Royale, the Lower 48’s Least-Visited National Park

Head to this preserve's Greenstone Ridge Trail for a deep-wilderness experience in the Midwest.

Photo: © John & Ann Mahan

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The morning sun fills our tent with light, and the warm rays have never been more welcome. Yesterday, our first full day of hiking, was a rough one. The rain fell in sideways sheets, nearly drowning our long-awaited end-to-end hike of Isle Royale, the least-visited national park in the
contiguous United States.

One foot in front of the other, my husband Bruce and I had marched rather than hiked, our faces lowered away from the deluge. The water pooled in muddy moose prints, evidence of the island’s largest residents. Upended thimbleberries, knocked free by the torrent, scattered across the trail, fat and full of water like tiny, red Solo cups.

The 43-mile Greenstone Ridge Trail follows the spine of Isle Royale, the largest in a 450-island archipelago comprising the national park of the same name in northern Lake Superior. Late summer promises the best conditions—mild temps, no blackflies—so we had aimed for an August getaway.

It was a long time coming. From when we were kids growing up in the Midwest, Isle Royale had loomed in our minds. Accessible only by ferry or seaplane, it offers Alaska-like solitude in the Lower 48 and a certain badge of honor for Midwesterners—the satisfaction that comes with traversing one of the region’s remotest trails. We weren’t about to turn around just because the weather wasn’t perfect.

After refusing to let the rain dampen more than our boots, we’re rewarded with day-two sunshine. We pack our gear in a primitive campground surrounded by a thicket so dense it seems poised to reclaim our site as soon as we vacate it. Then we receive some Midwestern, neighborly advice from backpackers hiking in the opposite direction: East Chickenbone campground is muddier than West, and if we make it to Three Mile, we should nab a campsite on the Lake Superior beach.

The Greenstone Ridge Trail leads us away, over basalt layers that rise and fall like accordion folds. We wade east through thigh-high ferns still wet with yesterday’s rain, then power up thousand-foot mountains beneath a blue sky that peeks at us from between gnarled pines. As we walk, we look for the rustle of moose in the balsam firs and, as sunlight fades, we listen for their last predators: gray wolves.

With warmer water temperatures, the Lake Superior ice bridge rarely forms anymore, so wolves can no longer cross from the mainland. Isle Royale’s pack of nearly 30 animals dropped to two by 2018, and the moose population has seen a corresponding increase. An estimated 1,500 of the ungulates occupy the island, a number that has grown steadily in the last decade and could double in the next five years if nothing changes. The National Park Service recently announced a controversial plan to restore a viable wolf population, starting as soon as next month. It’s a complicated issue—one that’s hard to ignore as we hike through the unique habitat.

By the middle of day three, we reach the open summit of 1,200-foot Mt. Siskiwit, where we eat lunch on sun-warmed rocks that overlook Isle Royale’s undulating pine woods and the steely waters of Lake Superior. It’s the transition point of the hike; after, on Isle Royale’s leeward side, it seems like a different trail. Firs twisted and dwarfed by the island’s punishing winds yield to stands of towering birch and sugar maple. The fern-lined trail morphs into a ribbon of scree snaking through hip-high grasses and purple asters.

Mt. Ojibway marks the final peak on our route, and from atop its fire tower we spy Rock Harbor Lighthouse and the end of the trail. We descend to the harbor and, ironically, our first moose sighting. We had to hike 43 miles to see it—and it’s worth it.

DO IT Thru-hike the Greenstone Ridge Trail from west to east to enjoy your final night at Rock Harbor Lodge. (There is no accommodation at Windigo, the trail’s western terminus.) Come prepared to filter and carry each day’s water. Campsites are first-come, first-serve, and large enough to share.

Ferry Book a ferry from Grand Portage (starts at $71 one-way), Copper Harbor ($62), or Houghton ($55). Seaplane Fly from Houghton to Windigo or Rock Harbor ($220). Permit Entrance fees required ($7/person per day or $80 annual pass); pay in advance at pay.gov or obtain from Rock Harbor or Windigo ranger stations. Free backcountry camping permits are required. Season June to October

From 2022

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