Trip Guide

Backpacking Isle Royale

Pooping in the woods, Covid, and must-see spots: a conversation with Lynn Makela on the adventures of backpacking Isle Royale with her favorite adventure buddy—her mom.

Backpacking Isle Royale is just one of the many outdoor activities that draw people from around the world to this beautiful, isolated spot, and it’s a trip we try to take once every summer. Isle Royale National Park is a rugged, isolated island in Lake Superior about 55 miles northwest of Copper Harbor, MI, which stands at the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula.

From Fresh Coast Cabins, getting to or from the island is super accessible, making it an excellent spot to begin or end your island adventure.

About Isle Royale

Reachable only by boat or seaplane, Isle Royale is mostly a spectacular northwoods wilderness with not a single road. It is Michigan’s only national park and one of very few island national parks in the U.S.

The 45-mile long island is surrounded by 400 smaller island segments, creating a mosaic of some of the most secluded and untouched hardwood forests in Michigan.

Did you know?

With around 18,000 annual visitors, Isle Royale is one of the least visited U.S. national parks, but it is the most revisited national park.

Image courtesy of MSU.

We’re not strangers to backpacking Isle Royale, but this trip was special. Lynn was able to tag along with one of her favorite adventure partners—her mom—who experienced Isle Royale for the first time.

We sat down to ask Lynn questions about their adventure so we can share her tips with you. Enjoy!

Lynn and her mom, Barb, on day 1 of their trip.

How did you get to the island?

We flew with Isle Royale Seaplanes, a 35-minute flight from the Keweenaw. Arriving on Isle Royale is like something out of a movie. The seaplane ride allots you unforgettable aerial views—have your camera ready!

Ferry service out of Copper Harbor typically sails nearly every day in summer and two days a week in May and September, but was closed in 2020 due to Covid restrictions.

How long was your trip? Did you feel that was enough time, too much time, or just right?

Five days, four nights. It was the perfect amount of time for us to explore a small portion of the island. We did a very approachable out-and-back with some day hikes.

My mom is 68 and prone to broken bones. We were looking to explore but be cautious and not overdo anything. When you get tired, you tend to make stupid mistakes and step bigger, sideways, or roll an ankle. We were able to do just the right amount of stuff without over-doing anything.

Many people will craft very different types of experiences out of their visit to Isle Royale. Some want to hike from one end to the other while others make their way around a big loop or even a tiny loop. There are so many options!

Lake Superior is Isle Royale’s natural ice bath for soaking tired feet after a day of trekking.

Did you or your mom have any injuries or problems on the trail?

Thankfully, no! But on the last day of our adventure, we came across a young woman soaking her foot in Lake Superior (the biggest ice bath, ever). She said she was staying back after twisting her ankle on the Tobin Harbor Trail while her group day hiked—mere miles from their starting point. She shared she had wilderness backcountry experience and had many trips under her belt but she was so excited when they arrived, that she jumped off a rock and rolled her ankle.

Even the most experienced and prepared hikers can have accidents and Isle Royale isn’t picky about who stays at the dock instead of seeing the sights.

For folks who have limited time on Isle Royale, maybe only a couple nights, what are the must-see spots in your opinion?

Mount Ojibway Tower – From 1,136 feet in elevation on the Greenstone Ridge, we got some of the best views on the island! Definitely worth the trip. 

Tobin Harbor Trail – This easy, scenic trail along Tobin Harbor gave us beautiful views of the shoreline. As an added bonus, this is a great spot to watch the sea planes land and take off at Rock Harbor.

Moskey Basin—Some people say Moskey Basin is the most beautiful spot to camp on the island, and folks often make their whole trip to Isle Royale an out-and-back to get there. We camped here in one of the shelters pretty much on top of the water and unforgettable beaver viewing. 

If you could plan this trip and take it all over again, is there anything you’d do differently? What did you do just right?

Because of COVID, the Rock Harbor Lodge was shut down (yes, there is a lodge and their rooms overlook Lake Superior—now on my bucket list). In the future, I think ending at the lodge and nabbing a six-pack to unwind and reflect before making the trip home would be perfect. 

There’s also a beautiful trail we visited on our last day the opposite direction of where most people go on the island. The Stoll Memorial Trail makes a loop out toward the east side of Rock Harbor and they have informational/historical signage to help explain facets of Isle Royale and how it was founded. 

Did You Know?

Isle Royale was primarily a combination of commercial mining and cabin/cottage resorts around the turn of the century? For $28.50/week you could rent a cabin, a small boat, and have three meals served to you per day! It was a deal! But Albert Stool set out to enact a movement to protect the natural beauty from the capitalism he saw overtaking many parts of the UP!

How many people did you encounter on the trails and at the overnight shelters?

We saw people regularly but not a lot of them. We were on some of the more travelled trails so this wasn’t a surprise. Shelters were between 30-60% full each night. 

In recent years, shelters have become really busy. Park rangers even recommend buddying up (in times before Covid) to help make room for everyone. The park has seen substantial increases in traffic over the last 10 years since our first visit, so it was a treat to experience the park in 2020 with significantly less hiker traffic.

What was the mosquito situation like while you were there?

I would say we lucked out—there were no bugs for our August trip but I know many people who have donated to the mosquito blood bank. There are many shelter walls denoting the 1,000s of pints donated. While mosquitos are generally present throughout the summer, it’s worth noting that avoiding black fly season (July) can be a good strategy!

What types of bathroom facilities, if any, should people expect to encounter on the trails? When there wasn’t a facility available, how did you handle that?

Isle Royale is flush with outhouse toilet options. There are outhouses at every campground. When there wasn’t a potty? Pack your TP in and out. For number two, dig a cat hole! Learn more about cat holes and the proper disposal of human waste.

The lines for outhouses on Isle Royale can be a little aggressive.

What types of things did you do differently while backpacking Isle Royale during Covid versus pre-Covid?

We saw NO ONE compared to the island in other years. Without the ferry service, the island was wayyy less crowded which meant more berries for us! Mid-August put us right in the prime season for a delicious thimbleberry and blueberry crop.

Do you have a question about backpacking Isle Royale that Lynn didn’t answer? Thinking about planning a trip to Isle Royale or the Keweenaw and don’t know where to start? Reach out to us—we’d love to talk!