Isle Royale is (according to recent figures) the least visited National Park in the continental US. There are only a few different boat services that go out to the island. There are no real communications lines back to the mainland (emergency services only). We took the largest of the three commercial ferry services out to the island - the Isle Royale Queen from Copper Harbor Michigan. The crossing takes about three hours in good weather to get to Rock Harbor (versus 6 to 8 hours on the other ferries). Isle Royale itself is a long thin island surrounded by clusters of smaller long thin islands.
The boat is small but comfortable enough for a few hours. They'll stow your backpack (and even kayaks) up top, but passengers aren't allowed up there so it's worth keeping a small bag of things to amuse yourself with during the voyage. Rock Harbor is a small settlement on the southeast corner of the island. There's a hotel of sorts with limited services, a restaurant, small general store, canoe rental and the ranger station. There's a limited amount to do in Rock Harbor given its placement in the corner of the island, so most visitors camp on the island via backpacking or canoe/kayak.
We had the not so brilliant idea of eating at the restaurant when we first arrived. We thought that this way we'd have a nice hot meal before heading out into the wilderness, plus we wouldn't have to start using our food supplies until that evening. This turns out to have been a bad idea as we spent roughly 2 hours attempting to get a hamburger at the snack bar. The memories are really too painful to relive here but suffice it to say that the service isn't even up to the limited expectation you'd have of a snack bar in the middle of nowhere. Bring some extra trail mix and skip the snack bar.
The tricky part about hiking out of Rock Harbor is that it sits on a narrow peninsula about three miles (5 km) from the connection to the rest of the island. This means that the first few hours of your hike (and probably the last few if you're leaving out of Rock Harbor) will be along this peninsula. There are trails on both shores. This is the Rock Harbor (southern) trail. Beyond the assorted islands visible here (Smithwick, Shaw and Tookers) is the vast open expanse of Lake Superior. Tookers Islands has a campsite on it which is only accessible by boat. The trail here is relatively easy. In fact if you find the rocks and roots here to be problematic, there's probably no point in going any further than Threemile.
Threemile is a very popular campsite with several nice beaches and a dock. The campsites here have wooden shelters with screens so they offer decent bug protection which is part of why they're so popular. Of course, they're also very close to Rock Harbor. Further down the Rock Harbor trail is Daisy Farm which is what passes as a metropolis on Isle Royale. There are roughly 20 campsites at Daisy Farm, plus group sites so it is potentially a social place to camp. We don't have any official statistics on this but it certainly seems to us that Threemile and Daisy Farm are the most popular destinations out of Rock Harbor.
The interior of the island has one long central ridge which rises above marshy lowlands on both sides. It's these areas that are most frequented by moose and thus also by wolves. Isle Royale's extremely isolated location makes it ideal for predator-prey cycle studies. Wolves and moose make up the bulk of this. There are no deer on the island at all. Wolves arrived on the island by crossing Lake Superior from the Thunder Bay region during a particularly cold winter when the entire intervening expanse had frozen over. Most of the marshy areas have raised boardwalks where trails cross them.
Interior forests are predominately birch and conifer. Melanie is particularly fond of birch trees. We could in fact probably have an entire page of birch forest pictures. However we suspect other people are less fond of birch forests and don't really want to see an entire page of birch forests so this is our one token picture. It would be a better picture if there were a moose in it, don't you think?
Here's another nice moosey (moosy? moose-y?) area which is devoid of a moose. The general trade-off you have to face while hiking on Isle Royale is this: the ridge is relatively high up and gets nice breezes off the lake so there are not many bugs. The central trail on the island is up there, but there really aren't many campsites so you have to continually drop down off the ridge which results in a whole lot of climbing. If you stay on one side of the island, things are generally nice and flat but the swampy lowlands are seriously bug-infested with mosquitos, black-flies and gnats, depending on the time of year.
We wanted to be in a more isolated part of the island so we crossed the ridge and spent most of our time on the north side. This is our camp site at Lane Cove. Lane Cove has five official campsites, four of which were occupied when we arrived so our choice was pretty much made for us. It is however a fine site. Most of the other people here had arrived by canoe. The sites at most Isle Royale campgrounds are far enough apart that there's no immediate evidence of other people around. The little trail in this picture leads down to a beach where we spent much of our time because there were fewer insects there.
Isle Royale is technically in Michigan despite being just a few miles from the Minnesota shore. This places it in the Eastern time zone. So when you couple that with the latitude and the fact that this particular night was the summer solstice, there's not a whole lot of darkness. This picture was taken around 10 PM. It was not completely dark until close to midnight.
Lane Cove is a bit of a gamble really. It's 2.4 (4 km) miles down from the Greenstone Ridge Trail. If the area were full or swamped or otherwise undesireable it would be that far back and then several more miles to the next alternate campsite. This is generally true everywhere on Isle Royale. Nearby boat-accessible campgrounds like Belle Isle and Pickerel Cove have only a few sites and it's some distance to the next nearest location. This basically encourages arriving at your first choice campsite rather early in the day. We sort of tried to do this and then take short hikes out from the campsite, although we didn't really succeed. On the other hand, our planned itinerary (the one we registered at the ranger station) worked out exactly as we had written it. This is impressive when you consider we had not actually looked at a map of the island until we were standing in the ranger station registering our route. We had purchased a map of the island but it was stranded in a backpack on top of the boat during the voyage over.
These moose tracks are from the beach just a few yards away from our tent. As you can see relative to David's foot, this is quite a young moose. This is as much of a moose as we saw in our continuing effort to not actually see a moose anywhere we went. Later, on the boat trip back to Copper Harbor, we would patiently listen to other people who had only come to the island on a day trip (yes, 7 hours on a boat for 3 hours on the island) and were complaining they had only seen four moose. We hate them.
Despite the lack of moose our time on the island was fantastic. If you're passing through the Lane Cove - Duncan Bay area, it's absolutely worth the short detour to Mt. Franklin. The inlet in the distance here is Lane Cove. If you're wondering, orienteering on the island is allowed as long as you don't disturb wildlife and follow the usual leave-no-trace ethics. Given the marshy nature of much of it though, it's not the easiest place to go off-trail. There are canoe-portage trails scattered about (anyplace on the map there's a narrow land bridge really) but connecting to them on foot is difficult.
The Greenstone Ridge trail has spectacular views to both sides. The Mount Ojibway tower is the target scenic viewpoint for many hikers but realistically you can get a very similar view from many points along the trail. The mountains way out on the horizon in this picture are just south of the city of Thunder Bay, Ontario.
Swimming in Lake Superior and its assorted harbors (this one is Tobin Harbor) is not really practical due to the temperature. There are some inland lakes where swimming is more likely. Needless to say, obtaining water is never really a problem as long as you have a filtration system. The Greenstone Ridge Trail is the only place on the island finding water could really be a problem and it's never that far to a side trail that drops down to the coast. The most annoying aspect of the island is the geography. Very few of the trails make convenient loops. The Monument Rock area for instance is less than a mile from Rock Harbor across Tobin Harbor. By foot travel though it's 10.2 miles (16 km) back.
The most important thing about Isle Royale? Don't miss your boat. Depending on the season, it's almost certainly at least 2 days until the next one, possibly as much as a week. You don't really want to be running back down the Rock Harbor trail with a full pack trying to catch the boat. Besides Copper Harbor, you can connect via ferry from Houghton, Michigan or Grand Portage, Minnesota. We made our boat with 45 minutes to spare, which didn't leave time for showers but it did leave time for cold drinks (from the general store, not from the snack bar).