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Isle Royale National Park

Isle Royale National Park: Hiking Lake Superior’s Island Wilderness

Michigan’s idyllic national park promises rocky shorelines, aromatic pine forests, beautiful lighthouses, and more moose than humans.

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If it’s tranquility you want, you’ll find it at Isle Royale National Park. Set in Michigan’s northernmost reaches and surrounded by the world’s largest freshwater lake, it’s possible to hike all day along the island’s more remote trails and never see another human. Rain and snow off Lake Superior produce a landscape of cool, fragrant evergreen forests, mirror-smooth inland lakes and lush inlets, Nirvana for the island’s famous moose population. Commercial anglers, copper miners and lumberjacks have all taken turns trying to exploit Isle Royale’s rich natural resources, but they all gave up when they discovered this isolated outpost to be more work than their effort was worth. All the better for backpackers, hikers, and paddlers, who spend their days relishing the feeling that they have this piece of wilderness all to themselves. 

Best Dayhikes in Isle Royale National Park

You don’t need to plan a multi-day backpacking trip to appreciate Isle Royale’s rugged natural beauty. Some of the island’s most impressive views can be enjoyed on dayhikes from Rock Harbor, site of the park’s primary ferry dock and its only full-service hotel (Rock Harbor Lodge).  

Best Coastal Views in Isle Royale National Park: Stoll Trail

Hiker on Scoville Point, Isle Royale
Hiker on Scoville Point, Isle Royale (Photo: Per Breiehagen/Stone via Getty Images)
  • Length: 4 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 20 feet
  • Trail Type: lollipop loop
  • Difficulty: easy

Rock Harbor Lodge sits just a few feet from the Stoll Trail, which leads past one of Isle Royale’s loveliest stretches of Lake Superior shoreline. The 4-mile loop begins in a mixed deciduous and pine forest dotted with tiny white Canada mayflowers and purple columbines. The trail leads past ancient Native copper mines at the .5-mile mark (look for the historical marker) before departing the woods to follow the rocky peninsula of Scoville Point. The exposed bluff, named for an old copper prospector, is the perfect place to soak up the summer sun and watch the Lake Superior surf crash against buff-colored cliff faces. The return trip meanders over a carpet of pine needles and offers glimpses of Tobin Harbor where, with any luck, you’ll be able to watch seaplanes taking off and landing.   

Best Scenic Overlook in Isle Royale National Park: Lookout Louise

Lookout Louise at Isle Royale, Michigan
Lookout Louise at Isle Royale, Michigan (Photo: Posnov/Moment Open via Getty Images)
  • Length: 2 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 280 feet
  • Trail Type: out-and-back
  • Difficulty: difficult

The trail to Lookout Louise is only 1 mile each way, but it’s a steep trek that first requires a 1-mile paddle across Tobin Harbor. Rent a canoe and head east from Isle Royale’s seaplane dock up the narrow, crystal-clear inlet, keeping watch for the otters and loons who like to splash around in the water. When you arrive at Hidden Lake, you may see moose checking out the local mineral licks. After a brief flat stretch along Hidden Lake’s shore, the trail leads steeply upward to the crest of Isle Royale. Hike past boulders the size of SUVs as well as the 60-foot stone spire of Monument Rock until you reach Lookout Louise, the most spectacular viewpoint on the island. From here the views take in northern Lake Superior, the Canadian shoreline, and the washboard ridges of Isle Royale’s outer islands.  

Best Weekend Hikes on Isle Royale National Park

A journey to and from Isle Royale will require at least one full day each way. Still, armed with a sense of purpose (and perhaps a 3- or 4-day weekend) you can break away from the daily grind with a healthy dose of Great Lakes hiking. 

Most Diverse Hiking Trail in Isle Royale National Park: Ishpeming Trail

A beaver lodge built near the shore of a beaver pond at Isle Royale National Park.
A beaver lodge built near the shore of a beaver pond at Isle Royale National Park. (Photo: jtstewartphoto/iStock via Getty Images)
  • Length: 7 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 777 feet
  • Trail Type: point-to-point
  • Difficulty: moderate

From Isle Royale’s basalt crest to its Lake Superior shoreline, from dense sugar maple and pine forest to swampland and a wide open beach, the Ishpeming Trail never grows dull. The trail begins at the lookout tower on Isle Royale’s second highest elevation, Ishpeming Point (1,377 feet) before heading gradually downward, crossing the island’s corduroy ridges along the way. Alternating between forested 1,300-foot crests and planked swamps and streams, the trail finally reaches the shore of Siskiwit Lake, Isle Royale’s largest. Follow the lakeshore to arrive at Malone Bay, home to one of the prettiest campgrounds on Isle Royale, with a long pebble beach and views of the Menagerie Island Lighthouse. 

Best Opportunity for Moose Trekking in Isle Royale National Park: Huginnin Cove Loop

a moose in the woods
a moose in the woods (Photo: Hawk Buckman / 500px via Getty Images)
  • Length: 9 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 250 feet
  • Trail Type: loop
  • Difficulty: moderate

The Huginnin Cove Loop traces part of an old route used by 19th-century copper miners, and it’s possible to see the remains of their dilapidated cabins along the trail. But the sighting most hikers hope for is Isle Royale’s most beloved mammal, the moose. Departing from Windigo, the Washington Creek Trail rolls through swamps popular with the mega-sized ungulates before gradually swinging upward again and again to 700- and 800-foot heights, perfect vantage points for spying the large but shy creatures. Camp at Huginnin Cove campground, one of the most beautiful and secluded spots on Isle Royale’s northern shore.  

Best Multi-Day Hikes in Isle Royale National Park

While many backpackers gravitate toward the classic Greenstone Ridge Trail, there’s much to be said for diving deep into Isle Royale’s lesser-known long trails. Besides finding more solace and less competition for campsites, you’re more likely to spot wildlife when you break away from the beaten path.  

Best Wildlife Viewing in Isle Royale National Park: Feldtmann Lake and Feldtman Ridge Trails

Isle Royale, Michigan
Isle Royale, Michigan (: Tim Bieber via Photodisc/Getty Images)
  • Length: 19 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 560 feet
  • Trail Type: point-to-point
  • Difficulty: moderate

The 19-mile horseshoe-shaped combo of the Feldtmann Lake and Feldtmann Ridge Trails begins with a stretch along the rocky Lake Superior shore and along the top of the Greenstone Ridge. Enjoy the scenic overlook before descending to a largely level hike through southwestern Isle Royale. Here in the lower elevations you may spot moose grazing on marsh grasses or nibbling on blueberries or thimbleberries. Keep your eyes open around the trails’ tiny inland ponds and creek beds, where you may see active beavers working on their lodges and dams.     

Best Shorelines in Isle Royale National Park: Rock Harbor, Lake Richie and Indian Portage Trails

Sunrise at Rock Harbor, Isle Royale NP
Sunrise at Rock Harbor, Isle Royale NP (Photo: posnov/Moment via Getty Images)
  • Length: 20 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 160 feet
  • Trail Type: point-to-point
  • Difficulty: moderate

A well-worn footpath marks the beginning of the Rock Harbor Trail, a favorite among daytrippers due to its stunning views of Lake Superior. After 3 or 4 miles, leave the crowds behind and enjoy the scenery in solitude. Make time to check out Suzy’s Cave, carved by wave action when Lake Superior’s water levels were higher, and enjoy views of the nearly 170-year-old Rock Harbor Lighthouse. The trail morphs into the Lake Richie and Indian Portage Trails, where you’ll catch more aquatic views at Moskey Basin (prime place for sunrise watching). At Chippewa Harbor, 20 miles from your starting point in Rock Harbor, views of Lake Superior are framed by rugged bluffs and dotted with tiny islands. 

The Classic Isle Royale Hike: Greenstone Ridge Trail

 Isle Royale, Michigan.
Isle Royale, Michigan. (: Posnov / Getty Images)
  • Length: 41 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 794 feet
  • Trail Type: point-to-point
  • Difficulty: moderate

The Greenstone Ridge Trail is the classic thru-hike in Isle Royale National Park, an end-to-end traverse of the island’s basalt spine. The Greenstone measures 41 miles in length and stretches between Windigo near the island’s westernmost point and Lookout Louise near Rock Harbor. Leading from Windigo Campground and the rocky shoreline of Washington Harbor, the Greenstone traces the island’s crest beneath towering pine trees, across open, sun-kissed balds, through miles of delicate thigh-high ferns and past thimbleberry bushes heavy with sweet, melt-in-your-mouth fruit in late summer.  

When to Hike

Isle Royale National Park is only open to visitors from mid-April to the end of October, but June through September are considered prime hiking and camping months. Wildflowers peak from mid-June to early-July, and thimbleberries begin ripening in August. In September, cooler temperatures are offset by smaller crowds and vibrant fall foliage. Isle Royale’s Lake Superior location makes weather extremely unpredictable, so bring good raingear and a warm jacket whenever you visit.

Isle Royale National Park Fees and Permits 2022

Isle Royale National Park charges an entrance fee ($7 per person per day) for all visitors aged 16 and older. The Federal Recreation Pass as well as a park-specific Isle Royale Season Pass are also accepted. Beginning in 2022, all Isle Royale fees and permits must be paid by credit card. Overnight visitors require a camping permit. Groups of 6 or fewer may obtain a free permit in person at the park’s ranger stations in Windigo or Rock Harbor or aboard the Ranger III ferry. Campsites are available on a first come, first served basis except for parties of 7 or more, which must reserve group sites in advance for a flat fee of $25. 

Access to Isle Royale National Park is via ferry, seaplane or private boat from Michigan or Minnesota. Make reservations in advance. 

Pack of Gray Wolves
Pack of Gray Wolves (Photo: Naturfoto Honal/Corbis Documentary via Getty Images)

Staying Safe Around Moose and Wolves in Isle Royale

While spotting moose and wolves can be the highlight of an Isle Royale visit, hikers also need to take some precautions to stay safe around these large mammals. Moose are most dangerous when cows are raising calves during the spring and bulls are rutting in the fall; give them extra space during these times. If you come on a moose unexpectedly, back away slowly and get behind a tree or a rock where you’re out of sight. Give them a wide berth, especially if they’re showing signs of aggression (ears going back, looking directly at you, hair on the neck standing up). To avoid a negative encounter with wolves, leave any area where you find a carcass, and give any wolves plenty of space. If you’re within 25 feet of a wolf and it doesn’t leave, back away slowly–don’t run. Stow food safely away from camp, and dispose of any fish remains (if fishing while in the park) at least 200 feet from your campsite.

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