Isle Royale National Park

When it comes to hiking in Isle Royale National Park, most experienced hikers head to the Greenstone Ridge Trail because it is both high up and difficult. However, while the Minong Ridge Trail is lower in elevation, it is actually more difficult. The 28.5 mile long trail was originally built in 1966 to give firefighters access to the north section of the island. When the trail was opened to visitors, park officials decided to keep it in its rugged, undeveloped state opposed to the Greenstone Ridge Trail that is highly maintained. The Minong Ridge Trail stretches from McCargoe Cove to Windigo, offering fewer of the niceties of Greenstone like the boardwalks, bridges and posted mileage. This hard trail quickly tires its hikers with constant ups-and-downs over a long distance of trail that is made up of stone footing rather than softer dirt. However, this difficult hike offers rewards of frequent wildlife sightings, views of the north shore and Canada from atop the ridge and very little in the way of crowds.

Quick Stats:

Trail Length: 28.5 miles City/State:   Rock Harbor,
Bikes Allowed: No
Elevation: 1,047 feet elevation gain  
County:   Keweenaw Dogs Allowed: No


Getting There

Isle Royale National Park is an entire island floating out in Lake Superior closer to Canada than Michigan, so the first step to getting to this trail is getting to the island. There are ferries and boats that leave from Grand Portage in Minnesota or Houghton and Copper Harbour in Michigan. Visitors can get boats that take them a number of spots on the island, but hikers will want to arrange to be dropped off at McCargoe Cove Campground which is right where the trail begins. The trailhead is located, oddly enough, in the center of the campground so it is easy to spot. This is a multiday hike, so visitors will need a wilderness permit which is $4 per day. These can be purchased ahead of time online or at the visitor's center by the campground.

The Hike

Many choose to travel to Isle Royale and stay the night at the campground before heading out on the trail proper. It is a lovely stay right on the shore and a nice campground all around, plus hikers will want an early start for what is quite the long hike. The first leg of the trail runs between McCargoe Cove and the campsites at Todd Harbor. Hikers should plan to camp in Todd Harbor as the first stretch is quite draining, but scenic and relatively bug-free due to the winds off Lake Superior. Within the first half mile, hikers will be tempted to branch off into the short spur trails, especially those unofficial historians. The spur trails detail several copper mining sites that were the major industry on this island in the later 19th century. They are now defunct, but well preserved and interesting side trip. However, be sure to conserve your energy for the rest of the hike.

Map of Isle Royale National Park

After the first mile or so, the historical mining side trails are over and the next four miles travel over an extensive ridge line that dips and rises continually. While hiking the ridge is hard work, it raises hikers high over the forest and offers sweeping views of the trees as well as Otter Lake. As the ridge isn't too high up, hikers can actually see the surrounding area in great detail. The area that overlooks Otter Lake is a great spot for a rest as a number of moose head there to drink and graze at the water's edge. Shortly after Otter Lake, the trail declines and dips into the lowlands. The next two miles to Todd Harbor will be lowlands hiking and a refreshing way to wind down before making camp. Not only is this stretch of the trail easy going, it is also the best place to spot wildlife like loon, duck, osprey, moose and maybe one of the few wolves that prowl the area. If it is starting to get dark, there may even be a few bats flying around the area so watch your hair.

Todd Harbor is a small campground right near the shores of Lake Superior; it is often home to fantastic sunsets during the summer, which is when most people hike the Minong Ridge Trail. So after you set up camp, be sure to head to the water to enjoy those if you can. There is also a mine nearby and a little stream with a waterfall for those that arrive early and still have the energy to poke around.

After getting back on the trail towards the next day's goal of Little Todd Harbor, sore hikers from the previous day's venture are rewarded with some more easy lowland terrain with more opportunities to spot wildlife. At about a mile and a half into the hike, the trail offers two side trails, one to go visit Hatchet Lake and one to join the Greenstone Ridge trail. Forget Greenstone, that is another hike for another day, but for those that want to visit Hatchet Lake, it is a somewhat short side trip to go try to spot some moose, beavers or otters that hang out in the area. After the junction, the trail host a bit of an uphill climb, but levels off at the top. However, this pleasant flat ridge hiking doesn't last for long. Soon the trail goes back to its old ways of forested ascents and lowland descents. Hikers switch from forests and rocks to streams and wide swampland so fast and frequently that it is a bit dizzying. However, no one can complain of the lack of diverse scenery during this leg of the hike.

Ultimately, the trail ends up in a large open swamp area where hikers can look up towards the hills and see all those leisurely hikers on the Greenstone Ridge Trail above. Eventually, the trail will veer north and then take a turn to the east where hikers are challenged with a few stream crossings. There are no bridges to cross these streams so hikers should be careful not to slip and fall. Unless it has rained recently, they should be fairly shallow, enough to where hikers can remove their boots and socks, roll up their pants and wade across. However, the stream beds are fairly rocky so each step should be tested first.

Unlike the first camping site, Little Todd Harbor is located on a spur trail from the Minong Ridge Trail. Hikers should be sure not to miss it as it is quite a distance until they will come across another camping area and the most difficult part still lies ahead. This campground is located along the lake as well, but each site has little in the way of privacy. Though the Minong Ridge Trail is less travelled than other trails in the park, Little Todd Harbor is still a pretty popular campground so hikers should expect company.

There is a difficult 5.7 miles ahead between Little Todd Harbor and the next destination of North Lake Desor. Once on the main trail from Little Todd Harbor, it begins to ascend onto a wide open ridge line. These are some of the best views of the hike. It offers views overlooking Lake Superior to the north and the Greenstone Ridge to the south. This ridge goes on for some time with the occasional dips into forests of birch and aspen trees that obscure the awesome views. It is the dips and the hard rock trail that make this stretch very tiring and hard on the feet, but because it is a relatively short trek, there is time for frequent breaks. At the five mile mark, a trail splits off that leads to North Lake Desor Campground. This campground is lakeside and is pretty famous for its moose sightings for those that have not seen one yet. This is the last campground of the trail, but visitors have 12 miles ahead for the last stretch, so rest up.

After returning to the main trail, hikers have a long day ahead of them for the last stretch. It is easier to hike than the last segment, but much longer. Like much of the trail before it, this section of the trail ascends and descends frequently. Some of the paths up to the ridges are quite steep so a bit of scrambling may be required. Like the last segment, the ridge tops are very scenic, but they dips into the dense hardwood forests can be difficult to navigate. This seems like the most forgotten section of the trail as much of the lowland forested areas are overgrown with brush. After miles of ridge climbing and bush-whacking, the trail widens outs into some decent beaver-viewing area right before visitors reach the East Huginnin Cove junction. The East Huginnin Cove leads to a mining area and is just a short side trip. The main trail will merge with the Greenstone Ridge Trail shortly after that and leads right into Washington Creek Campground where visitors can camp or catch a ferry back to the mainland.

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