We have been planning to see Isle Royale National Park for over 9 months. Our trip was booked well before all of the Covid stuff was even known. We didn’t cancel our trip, but debated what to do about Isle Royale because it is on an island and we would need transportation to get there. The ferry service has been shut down for the entire season. No public boats or boat services were going to the island for the entire summer. I wasn’t sure if we were going to be able to see the island during our trip because of the ferry service shutdown. I was disappointed. Especially, since we booked our trip to Grand Marais, MN just for the purpose of traveling to Isle Royale. Thousands of miles traveled with the potential of not seeing the island was frustrating, disappointing, and heartbreaking.
I found a Facebook group just for Isle Royale lovers. https://www.facebook.com/groups/43490726251/ It has over 9,000 members in the group. Most having traveled there and experienced the wonder of Isle Royale. I lamented in the group about the ferry service being closed. numerous people then suggested that we look into seaplanes. There were rumors that the park was going to reopen soon. No ferry service would restart, but at least they would be allowing visitors to the island if they could get there by private boat or seaplane. I started looking into the seaplane option and sure enough just a few days later the island officially opened to visitors once again. I booked our seaplane the day that the park reopened, this was just two weeks before we had to get on the road to begin our annual National Park adventure.
I am thankful for the advice from others in the Facebook group! I would not have known what to pack and how to prepare for our trip without their advice. I learned that I needed to order tents, sleeping bags, and prepare for a “real” camping adventure. We are fifth wheel camping people, so this was new territory for us. I haven’t tent camped or backpacked since I was in my 20’s.
Based our great experience, I have some tips for others who want to travel to Isle Royale. It is a journey you will never forget!
The island has the highest concentration of moose in the world. If you want to see moose in the wild, then Isle Royale is your best bet. There are certain areas of the island where they tend to be found. Washington Creek campground on the Windigo side of the island was where we saw at least four moose in plain view with two others off around a corner. The very first moose I saw on the trip was a bull moose. He was standing next to a path. I came upon him and we startled one another. It was frightening and memorable. I will post about that experience in another article soon.
Tip 1: Decide How You Will Get To Isle Royale
There are two major entry points on Isle Royale. By seaplane (or Ferry when they open again) you can enter the island at one of two points. These entry points are located on opposite ends of the island and are Windigo and Rock Harbor. We selected to arrive by seaplane to Windigo from Grand Marais, MN. Please note that there is a Grand Marais in Michigan too, so be sure when you are booking your reservations that you pay attention to the name of the state on the booking. The closest side of the island from Grand Marais, MN is Windigo. The flight prices were also cheapest flying from Grand Marais, MN into Windigo. There are other locations in Minnesota and Michigan that offer flights and ferry service to the island. You can check out the National Park website for options.
Our flight was booked with Isle Royale Seaplanes: https://isleroyaleseaplanes.com/ Because of Covid we wore masks, but then again our only exposure was with one pilot. We haven’t even been to a restaurant as a family since February. I completely understand the shut down of the ferry service, in light of all gathering being shut down. It is hard to do social distancing on a boat with a limited amount of space. The sea plane option was great. It was our family and a pilot. It was a 6 seat seaplane. Our pilot did a great job! We had rough winds coming into the island, but we didn’t mind, as none of us get motion sickness. It made the ride more fun and interesting for the kids especially. Charlie has been talking about the seaplane every day since I booked it. He would ask every morning how many days until we go on the seaplane. I love his enthusiasm and desire for adventure!
Tip 2: Get Your Pass to Visit the Park
Again, I am thankful for the Isle Royale Facebook group. I would not have known to go online and get our park pass in advance. You can go to this link and follow instructions for registering and paying for your visit to the island: https://www.nps.gov/isro/planyourvisit/fees.htm
If you are a party of six or fewer you get to camp free on the island. If you are seven or more, then you need to go to this link and pay for camping. https://www.nps.gov/isro/planyourvisit/camping.htm
When we arrived at the island a ranger greeted us on the path and then guided us up to the visitor’s center to issue our site permit. She asked where we intended to camp. They want to keep track of people on the island and have a general knowledge of how long people are staying and where. We didn’t have to pick the exact campsite, but they needed to know our campground. We had selected Washington Creek Campground in advance.
Tip 3: Decide in Advance Which Campground You Plan to Camp at on the Island
There are 36 campsites on Isle Royale. The island, according to info from Wikipedia, is 45 miles long and 9 miles wide (at its widest point). It is 209 square miles and is the largest island in Lake Superior. Most people who travel to the island prefer 4-5 days. I would say that is a good idea as well. The island is seen by walking and hiking. If you don’t enjoy hikes, then you won’t see a lot of the island. I do have to say that if your intention is to see moose, then you don’t have to go far. The hike from the Windigo visitor’s center to the Washington Creek campground is about .3 miles. You can see a map of the island below that marks all the campgrounds. This map came from: https://wikitravel.org/upload/en/b/b9/IsleRoyaleMap.png
We chose the Washington Creek campgrounds for a variety of reasons. It is close to Windigo, so you can drop off your gear and you don’t have to haul it far to set up camp. Our kids were carrying food, their sleeping bags, and clothes in their own backpacks. They wouldn’t have liked going for miles carrying their gear. They like to hike, but they don’t do well with backpacks. They usually ask us to carry them after a mile or so. Thus, the Washington Creek campsites were the best for our family.
Truly the best reason to pick this area is because moose can be found here. They come to eat and drink in the creek. The campsites offer a view of the creek. The best campsite for viewing moose, according to a ranger was campsite #2 at Washington Creek. I would have to agree. We walked to the empty campsite and when we arrived we found that there was a moose already in the water eating! We watched her for about an hour. A bull moose joined her, as did her baby. It was one of the highlights of our entire trip! You can see photos below.
Justin and the boys headed back to our campsite after an hour or so of watching the mama moose. After they left the bull moose came out of the woods and into the water to join mama moose. Then, to our great surprise a baby moose came out of the woods maybe 10-15 feet away from us. It was so close, I told Brielle to get behind a tree. It may have been a baby, but it was still the size of a pony. It actually walked towards us at one point, so I had to back up and get behind a tree to give it space as well. I am not sure if it was simply curious about us, or if it wanted to enter the water exactly where we were standing. Either way, it didn’t seem to care that we were there. The baby moose proceeded to enter the water by us and joined its mom. I got video of it approaching us and another video of the moose swimming to its mama. I love the noises the baby makes in this video.
We camped at site #15. We liked the stairs leading down to the water, the wide water views of Washington Creek, and it had a shelter. They have some shelters available at Washington Creek. They are first come, first serve, so you have to bring a tent regardless. You never know if a shelter will be available. They are basic cabins with 3 wood sides and the front is made of mesh screens. We had packed a tarp and used it to cover the mesh wall at night because it was windy and cold. The nights got very cool. I am thankful for the shelter, because we did get several hours of rain. It is much easier to stay dry and spread out inside the shelter versus a tent.
We didn’t see any moose from our site during the daytime. However, around 2 am we heard them bathing in the water and making a lot of noise. There were at least three moose from what we could hear. Justin and I both got up to see them in the water. The kids were sleeping too deeply. I shined a flashlight on the moose and they didn’t even run away. I watched them for a few minutes. I had a good full view of one moose and then it looked like at least two others were around the bend, just out of full view. It was neat to see them in the water in the middle of the night. They sure made a lot of noise! I don’t know how my kids slept through all the commotion. I didn’t get any pics, since it was in the middle of the night and was dark. The memory is great though!
Tip 4: Make Sure You have the Right Gear
I found out about a week before our trip that the Washington Creek campsites where we wanted to stay did not allow campfires. I had purchased freeze dried meals from the camping section at Walmart. The plan was to boil water in a camping pot for these meals. We had to come up with plan B. I did some research and I found that self contained stoves were allowed at these campsites. However, we could not take fuel on the airplane. No propane, meant I had to find a stove that didn’t require propane or fuel. I now know that you can register with your airline for propane if you are taking a seaplane. You pay the airline and they will give you propane when you get to the island. I didn’t know this information at the time. I purchased a twig stove and it worked great. We collected twigs and birch bark that we burned in the stove. We were able to boil our water easily with this tiny backpacking stove. The stove brand that I bought also sells a pot that will perfectly fit the stove. Both are lightweight and compact when the stove is put inside the pot for transport. Weight and size are important when you have to carry everything into the island on your back. Every little thing adds up in the backpack so you have to choose wisely. Here is the link to the twig stove and pot. I highly recommend these products, as I used them and they worked great! The stove is a good deal too! https://amzn.to/2Ea4rpH and https://amzn.to/2D3mDk9
The freeze dried meals from Walmart worked out great for us! We had hot meals, which made the camping experience more pleasant. The meals are also lightweight, which is helpful for packing. Our family favorite is the lasagna meal. Here is a link to this freeze dried meal. This brand makes all kinds of meals. We brought a variety. https://www.walmart.com/ip/Mountain-House-Freeze-Dried-Lasagna-with-Meat-Sauce-2-Servings/423044153?wl13=2980&selectedSellerId=0
Be sure to bring extra food along. We packed an extra 2 days of meals in our backpacks. With the uncertainty of seaplanes being able to land on the island because of weather, we were instructed to bring a couple of extra days worth of food. If there is heavy fog or bad weather the seaplanes can be delayed not just hours, but days.
Other food that we brought along included trail mix, beef jerky sticks, and lots of bars. I purchased a variety of Cliff Bars. They are nutritious and provide good fuel for the body. My kids, including a very picky eater, all love them.
You will want to pack good sleeping bags. It gets colder at night on the island than you can imagine. We were there in the middle of July and it was in the 40’s at night. I would recommend sleeping bags that go down to 20 degrees or more. Ours were considered good for moderate temps, but not cold. We ended up wearing all of our clothes including fleece jackets and North Face windbreakers/rain jackets at night. It was that cold.
I wasn’t keen on sleeping on the ground, but I also knew that we didn’t have a lot of room in our backpacks of air mattresses. I found backpacking mattresses that weighted in at one pound each. I am thankful we had them, because the shelter floor is hardwood. https://amzn.to/30AYLwy. I also bought pack-able flannel pillows that are made for backpackers. Justin and I were grateful for these too. https://amzn.to/2ORpvn6
Don’t forget your rain gear. Be sure you have rain covers for your backpacks and raincoats. It is very unpredictable weather and rains often on the island. We know this to be true in our personal experience, as well as testimony from others.
With the weather being cooler, you will want to wear layers. I purchased hiking pants for the kids that zip off at the knees to turn into shorts. They worked out great! Everyone also had a fleece jacket, along with the windbreaker/ raincoat. It may have seemed excessive on the flight there, but we were truly grateful for the cool weather clothes on the island. It gets cold there!
Of course, don’t forget good hiking shoes. Waterproof shoes are best. We got rained on and my shoes were supposed to be waterproof, but with the downpour I hiked through, my shoes were soggy and squishy. Day two I had to wear wet shoes. I wish I had thought to pack flip flops to wear around the campsite, so I could allow my shoes to dry and I had something to wear. I ended up bare foot instead. Once we went to hike, I had to put them back on. Putting on wet shoes is never fun. I tried to dry them in the sun and by our camp stove, but they were still wet after 10 hours allowing them to dry. I won’t recommend my Magellan hiking shoes since they were definitely NOT waterproof (they lied). They should advertise them as mildly rain resistant at best.
There is a water spigot at the Washington Creek campground. Only one at this location, but I was thankful we didn’t have to purify our water. I did buy a water purification system for backpackers in case we needed it. I would recommend having one if you are going to the island and staying more than one day. Most people who go there bring one along. Most of the campgrounds do not have any running water. We used Nalgene water bottles. I like their 32 ounce bottles because they are BPA free, hard plastic, and are lightweight. https://amzn.to/2CJfllT
Tip 5: Choose Your Hikes
There are many incredible hikes on the island. One popular hike is the journey from one end to the other, the ends being Windigo and Rock Harbor. This journey is 41 miles and typically takes 4-5 days for most seasoned hikers. This is a backpacking journey, where you must carry all of your gear with you for the duration. This trail is called the Greenstone Ridge Trail.
We only had two days on the island. Our 6 year old twins and 8 year old are not quite ready to do a 41 mile hike. They hiked several miles on the island each day though. We attempted to begin the hike up to Huginnin Cove campsites, which offers spectacular views of Lake Superior. They made it a couple of miles. Alex was not up for hiking on this particular day. He was in a mood of sorts. He is 6, it happens. We went back to the shelter and I spent some time with him while Justin hiked with the other two kids.
When Justin returned from hiking with the two kids, he told me to go ahead and do the hike I had wanted us to do. It was 2:30 pm. The entire Huginnin Loop trail is over 9 miles. I had to make sure that I could make it back by dark. I decided that if I could make it up to the Huginnin Cove in less than 2 hours, then I would continue with the remainder of the loop. I was able to get up to the cove in an hour and 45 minutes. I hiked with purpose and paused only to drink water or take photos. It was a great hike and I made it back before dark. The entire 9+ mile hike took me 4 hours and 15 minutes. It was worth it! I will tell you in another posting about my moose encounter during this hike.
Just for clarification, I know I shouldn’t hike alone. It is always best to hike with someone else. I didn’t have that option. It was by myself, or not at all. I took a risk. I know I did. I was cautious though, especially in my footing. The most probable accident would be to trip or fall on the trail and incur an injury. I wanted to avoid that since there weren’t many people on the island. I didn’t encounter another person during my 9 mile hike, so I am glad God protected me and I never fell.
The trail is very rough, rocky, with tree roots abounding, and lots of board walks. The board walks are wood planks secured to logs, so that you don’t have to walk in the muck in the marshy areas. These boards become slippery when wet. I walked slow and with purpose on these planks. I probably walked by moose without even knowing it. I was so focused on watching my feet and the ground ahead that I probably missed some moose. Oh well, I saw a big bull moose up close regardless.
The Huginnin Loop is a great day hike. Most hikers will take 6-8 hours for this hike so they can take decent breaks along the way. I didn’t have that option since I started so late in the day. It was an amazing hike! This is a good place to site moose since the hike on the west side of the loop is through several marshes. The moose love to hang out in these marshy areas. I didn’t see any, but I heard them on several occasions. I could hear the suction noise of their feet coming out of the mud as they walked. I turned around to see the moose and each time I only saw the branches moving and not the actual moose. They are good at blending in and moving quickly.
If you are staying at the Washington Creek Campground the Huginnnin Loop is one I highly recommend. It was also recommended by others who had visited the island and by the ranger who greeted us when we arrived at Isle Royale. It is challenging in spots because it is steep, rocky, and with iffy terrain in some spots. Any able bodied individual in decent shape can make the hike up to Hugininn Cove, which is 3.1 miles if you take the west side of the loop. You may just need to take more breaks or go more slowly if you are hiking with children or those who aren’t as physically able to do a moderate to challenging hike. We had planned to do it with our kids and we allowed ourselves noon until dark to do the hike. Again, it didn’t go as planned because Alex was not willing to hike. I wasn’t about to carry him, that was certain! Instead I started out on my own at 2:30 and did the entire 9 mile loop alone.
Below are my photos from my 9 mile hike on Huginnin Loop.
Tip 6: Get Good Materials About the Island Before You Go
I purchased a detailed island map and a book about the island that came recommended from others who had traveled to the island. The book shared detailed maps and information about hikes on the island, which I found very helpful. I actually tore out the pages for the Huginnin Loop to use on my hike. I didn’t want to carry the whole book. I was glad I did, as I used the map from the book for the entire hike. There is also a great deal of information about the thousands of years of history on the island and a great deal about moose and wolves and how they got to the island. The populations of both have fluctuated greatly over the years and the book explains why and how it happened. Miners used to live on the island too. The book tells about their history. I found this information very fascinating. The book is called Isle Royale National Park: Foot Trails & Water Routes by Jim DuFresne: https://amzn.to/2ZRuFWy
If you are even planning a day trip to the island on the ferry I highly recommend this book. It is a wealth of information about Isle Royale.
We also purchased a detailed map on Amazon, which was quite helpful: https://amzn.to/30GFgTh
If you have the chance to go to Isle Royale I would say go!! It was the 35th National Park (of 62 total) that we have visited as a family. Isle Royale is definitely in my top 5 of favorite National Park experiences.