Isle Royale Greenstone Ridge
For our third great trail adventure together my brother and I chose Isle Royale National Park. Our previous two adventures took us to Grand Canyon and Grand Teton National Park. This year personal schedules kept us a little closer to the midwest and so Isle Royale became the choice option. My brother had been wanting to finally make it up there and I had been there previously in 2016. I also happened to have a 50-mile trail race in Marquette, Michigan in mid-August and a window opened for us to hit Isle Royale the day after my race.
One thing anyone who attempts to plan a trip to Isle Royale will quickly discover is that one of the most difficult parts of this adventure is actually planning it. Just getting to the island is an adventure on its own and numerous logistics around one's calendar need be navigated. To get to the island one has to use one of the three boat ferries or use a seaplane. The ferries have very specific daily schedules of when they'll get you to the island and when they'll take you off. This is only the first step.
|Sunset on Lake Desor|
Next, you figure out your itinerary on the island and where your hiking will take you. If you just do some sort of out and back from one of the main island harbors (Rock Harbor or Windigo) it becomes a bit simpler. We chose to do the Greenstone Ridge which takes hikers from one end of the island to the next. This adds a major logistical hurdle. Now you have an extra layer of transportation to figure out on either the beginning or ending of your hike to get you back to wherever your car is ultimately parked.
Our plan was to ferry from Copper Harbor on the Queen IV up to Rock Harbor to get started. We would then take a seaplane to Windigo to start our hike on the west end of the island. We would hike the Greenstone Ridge back to Rock Harbor and then take the Queen IV back to our start. There is a ferry boat that circumnavigates the island (the Voyageur II) and that would also have accomplished our needs of getting to Windigo but it is very challenging to get its schedule to fit with your hiking schedule. We couldn't work out the times and so explored the seaplane option.
The Greenstone Ridge hike is listed at roughly 40-miles if you go from Windigo to Rock Harbor. There is a portion of the trail that extends further east onto the island but it becomes an out and back hike. It was good we didn't even give that consideration this year as the Horne Fire had started up almost two weeks before our arrival and it was burning in the very area the Greenstone Ridge continues into. The whole part of the island between Duncan Harbor and Tobin Harbor was closed due to the fire.
Our initial plan was to leave the Greenstone Ridge on the Mt. Franklin trail down to Threemile Camp and then finish on the Rock Harbor Trail. We were also prepared to keep our options open depending on how the hike went and what fresh ideas came to mind as we went. This would prove to be a good move as we did indeed change things up a bit before the end.
WHAT WE PACKED We attempted to keep things fairly light for this trip despite it being a bit easier than our previous trip to the Tetons where we went as ultralight as possible. My main motivation is that I was going to be running a 50-mile ultra the day before we started here and I did not know what condition my legs would be in. So lighter would be better. The weather forecasts were also leaning warm which meant we really wouldn't need to worry about much cold gear other than bringing a light rain jacket.
My goal in packing was to be able to use my REI Lookout 40 daypack again to make this trip go. This effort was a success. I had to strap our 2-person tent and my sleeping pad on the outside but was able to make everything else go on the inside. It was predominantly sleeping bag, clothes, food, water filter gear and a few small items that all made it in. The main thing I was unable to bring due to weight concerns (but in hindsight wish I had brought) was my camp chair. I really enjoy that thing and not just for sitting. Its always great to have a place to set things down without putting them in the dirt.
Here's a basic packlist:
- Tent: REI Quarter Dome 2
- Sleeping Bag: Sierra Designs Backcountry Bed 700/35
- Pad: NeoAir XTherm Pad
- Filter: Sawyer MicroSqueeze
- Wore zip-off pants and a long-sleeve tech shirt
- Packed 2nd pair zip-off shorts and a short-sleeve tech shirt for the tent, a light rain jacket, extra socks and underwear, and a buff to use as a mask during transportation.
- Hydration: 3.0L bladder,
- Emergency: SOL Emergency Bivvy, Matches, Swiss army knife, Garmin inReach Mini
- Cooking: no cooking gear, just a spoon
- A few more miscellaneous small items
Sunday, August 22
Queen IV Ferry from Copper Harbor to Rock Harbor. Seaplane from Tobin Harbor to Windigo. Greenstone Ridge trail to Lake Desor South Campground.
Trailhead Elevation: 623 ft.
Distance: 12.58 mi.
Elevation Gain: 1,111 ft.
Start Time: 3:24pm
End Time: 7:54pm
The Queen IV ferry ride started with a bit of excitement when we arrived at 7am for parking and the attendant informed us the sailing would be delayed two hours. Lake Superior was experiencing heavy winds and they had reason to believe things would simmer down later in the morning. The only time commit we had beyond the ferry ride was the 2:45pm seaplane flight at Rock Harbor. Our original arrival time of 11:30am was now 1:30pm and we had a tighter window. But it could still work!
|Wildfire smoke from the Horne Fire|
Thankfully, things did work out as we left on the Queen IV from Copper Harbor at 10am and things were looking good. Clear blue skies greeted us all through the lake and it was a beautiful day. The winds were whipping through and waves were up to five feet. We could feel a bit of seasickness by the halfway point.
The real notable highlight of the ferry over was in the last 20 miles when we could begin to see the wildfire smoke rising up from the east end of the Island. The Horne Fire had started almost two weeks prior and the smoke was blowing westward over what appeared to be most of the island. The Queen IV captain said it was the worst wildfire he had seen on Isle Royale in all 50 years of his sailing.
Upon arrival the backpackers stood on the docks with a ranger who gave us the tutorial of things to know while on the island. We may have had the most excitable ranger in the whole park service. She was quite nice but wow did she try to be entertaining to the extreme. The rangers gave us updates on trail conditions especially in regards to the current fire. The Horne Fire had closed trails in the Duncan Harbor area as well as the Stoll Trail to Scoville Point. The upper part of the Mt. Franklin trail was closed as well as the Greenstone Ridge east of Mt. Franklin. Thankfully none of the closures would affect out itinerary. In fact, the fire really didn't affect out trip at all and we didn't smell smoke anywhere outside of Rock Harbor. The only item of note we found was on Monday evening in Moskey Basin. We could see the occasional tiny bit of ash falling on our tent. Tiny little white flecks would show up. That was all we found.
While the ranger tutorial goes on the crew of the Queen IV unloads all the backpacks. David and I had a great system as things wrapped up. He went and grabbed our bags and I was able to head over to the ranger station and their white tables and be first in line for permits. The ranger took our itinerary and filled out our permit for us. David, with his parks pass was able to make everything free for us. Only took a few minutes and then we were free to head on our way. We topped off water supplies and hit the bathroom and then started our short hike. We had to head to the seaplane dock on the Tobin Harbor side and the walk was well-signed. It is a short 5-minute hike to the docks. We got there with time to spare. The seaplane folk wanted us present 30 minutes before flight and we made it. Only downside was that we had no time to get any sort of a hot lunch prior. We had to settle on eating up trail snacks and forego the hopes of a juicy burger and beer before our start.
We were at the seaplane dock plenty early as requested and eventually a few others showed up. Some were on a 3pm flight, none said they were on a 2:45pm flight with us. The plane finally showed at 2:30pm and dropped off 3 individuals. The pilot came to the dock and asked for us and my brother and I loaded. Our two packs were small enough he put them in the cabin with us. Larger packs were being loaded into the pontoons. The plane had two pilot seats and then two more seat behind them. It appeared any other passengers would squeeze in behind the two rear seats.
We exchanged pleasantries with the pilot and then he set about his business. Things became so noisy in the cockpit when he revved up the engine that we didn't talk to him the entire flight. Its hard to describe the details along the way in the flight other than we absolutely loved it. The takeoff was smooth and we were immediately mesmerized in just taking it all in. From watching how the pilot handled the controls in the cockpit to soaking up the scenery as it floated away below us. We took some good photos of the wildfire smoke as it drifted away behind us to the east. The flight path took us just off the northern shore of the island where we flew over the lake waters. To see all the features we knew on the island and name out the lakes I had begun to learn was great. Before we knew it the pilot had swung to the south to make the descent into Windigo harbor. I took some video of the landing. The landing on the pontoons on the water was just as smooth as a normal jetliner landing on a runway. He "taxied" us to the seaplane dock at Windigo and that was it. He helped unload our bags and we exchanged pleasantries once more. As we walked away from the dock we wondered if this was one of those situations where we were supposed to give the pilot a hospitality tip on top of the large fares we paid or if not. Someone wiser than we will have to correct us on it someday.
|Checking out the cockpit and controls|
|The north shore of Tobin Harbor after takeoff|
|Looking east to the Horne Fire|
|More of the Horne Fire|
|Pretty sure this was Lake Desor|
In Windigo we made a walk up to the visitor center to double check things with the ranger. We weren't sure if the permits required us to check in there (it did not) but we figured we would double-check on trail conditions and camping conditions. We also hit up the store which was largely devoid of many options as their most recent shipment was a few days late. They were even out of ice cream much to the dismay of pretty much every hiker in the area.
The main "trail" along the Windigo shore eventually leads northeast out of town and then good signage points to the Greenstone Ridge trail start. Things were already pretty warm today (low 80s) which was a bit of a theme for this trip. We were glad to have loaded up on water before we left. The trail immediately began to ascend towards the ridge crest though as a reasonable climb. Rarely did any of the trails on Isle Royale get very steep, particularly while on the Greenstone. Five minutes down the trail we bumped into our first hiker. A very quiet man hunched over his poles who appeared to be struggling badly. I would have guessed likely dehydrated. We debated the morality of offering him our water to help while weighing that against the fact that we really needed the 2 liters we carried to get us to camp while he was five minutes from the water spigot.
The first couple of miles were pretty mundane. It was mostly tree-tunnel hiking with fairly thick vegetation. As the trail continued along the high points of the ridge the vegetation would thin but you were always under the tree canopy. You could see several hundred feet off trail on either side with just the large trees and very short vegetation near ground. It didn't take long for us to be drawn into a discussion of just how we would look back in hindsight on hiking on Isle Royale. It is beautiful and unique and special to be on the island. There are a number of beautiful things. You even feel compelled to speak favorably about the island. Yet, one has to be honest, quite a large number of the hiking miles are downright boring. Unless you are near a lake or the Superior shore or in a few of the rare spots on the Greenstone where views open up, you spend a lot of time in the trees looking at the same mile over and over again. So I've said it, let's put that thought to rest.
The best views of day one came after Mount Desor in the couple mile descent down to the lake of the same name. A few spots opened up to see Lake Superior to the north and we were glad to have them. As we planned out this first day itinerary we appeared to have only two camping options. We certainly didn't want to stay at Windigo and really needed to knock out some miles so that was never a consideration. The first main option then would have been Island Mine camp. It is 6.5 miles in Windigo but also over a half mile off the Greenstone. It also appeared to me it would basically in the middle of the woods. Option two would be to go 11.5 miles to Lake Desor South camp. Its a big first day but at least you make it to a lake. We knew this would likely put us into camp around 8pm but we deemed it worth it. And in hindsight we would still very much agree.
The junction for Lake Desor camp was well marked (as were all juctions) and we made the 0.3 hike down the hill to the start of the campground. It was all full except for site 5. Some sites had multiple campers in them. They appeared to all know each other. Though site 5 had no views of the lake (probably why it was the last one left) we were just glad to have it. The vegetation was pretty thick around camp and not sure where we would have gone if we had to go dispersed camping.
The true highlight of day one came when we walked down a small trail to the lake to fill up with water. There we found another small group sitting and watching the sunset begin. It hadn't even dawned on us to try this and we were sure glad we happened into an amazingly beautiful moment. From our vantage point on the lake shore we had a perfect view to the west with the sun setting over the treeline above the western shore of Lake Desor. Wow. Put day one in the books with a big plus.
|Plenty of moose antlers to go around.|
Just remember LNT!
|The "best" view from the Greenstone on day one|
|Lake Desor South Camp map|
Monday, August 23
Greenstone Ridge trail from Lake Desor South to West Chickenbone Junction. Indian Portage Trail and Lake Richie Trails to Moskey Basin Campground.
Lake Desor Elevation: 896 ft.
High Point Elevation: 1,368 ft.
Distance: 21.57 mi.
Elevation Gain: 1,567 ft.
Elevation Loss: 1,843 ft.
Start Time: 7:39am
End Time: 4:11pm
Knowing we had a full day ahead of us we got started shortly after first light. We were up 7am to pack up camp and get moving. It had rained for about 10 minutes around 6am so of course the outer parts of the tent were wet. That was the only rain we would see the whole time thankfully as the rest of the day would prove to be just fine weather-wise. We were on trail by 7:40am and making the quick climb back up to the Greenstone.
|A couple of beavers swimming|
|Beaver friend on trail|
|Moskey Basin Camp Map|
|Camp at sunset|
Tuesday, August 24
Rock Harbor Trail from Moskey Basin to Rock Harbor
Moskey Basin Elevation: 609 ft.
High Elevation: 777 ft.
Distance: 10.81 mi.
Elevation Gain: 238 ft.
Elevation Loss: 236 ft.
Start Time: 7:17am
End Time: 11:11am
Our final morning on Isle Royale began with a beautiful sunrise over Moskey Basin. It didn't quite reach the vibrant colors of the sunset we saw at Lake Desor but it was still a delight to wake up to. We had heard other campers the night before speaking of getting out to the dock by sunrise (which was just before 7am) and we figured we could get a great view right from our camp. We hopped up at 6:30am to work on tearing down camp while we also took in the sunrise. A great way to start the day. It was a damp morning in camp and the rainfly and tent were moist with condensation.
|The Queen IV has come into port to await us this afternoon|
|Watched them unload a large dump track|
and other cargo from this barge ship
|On the Queen IV looking back at the wildfire smoke|
|Encountering a large cargo ship on the way back to Copper Harbor|
I have a track and waypoints from the hike all contained in the embedded Google Map. Check it out and use at your own risk.