Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Hike traverses island park on Lake Superior

Moose at Isle Royale National Park.
Map of Windigo Nature Trail, courtesy of Isle Royale NPS.
A rarely visited island full of moose and wolves awaits day hikers at Isle Royale National Park.

Isle Royale, a 45-mile long island in the chilly waters of Lake Superior, requires a 3-hour ferry trip, or a shorter but more expensive journey via sea plane, to reach. Because of this and the island’s remoteness, it’s one of the lowest attended national parks, with only 17,000 annual visitors.

Ferry or sea plane
It’s also closed in winter when Lake Superior freezes over. June through September mark the best time to visit the park.

The national park's Windigo Nature Trail is best reached from the ferry in Grand Portage. Alternatively, a sea plane can be taken from Houghton, Mich. In either case, advance reservations are recommended.

Once the the ferry docks or the plane lands in Isle Royale’s Washington Harbor, head up to the visitor center then to the Windigo Park Store, where the trailhead is located.

The 1.2-mile loop rambles over a gently rolling landscape. You’ll pass through a a fern-filled cedar lowlands and a hardwood forest of maple and birch.

Moose, wolves and osprey
While on the trail, watch for evidence of the boreal forest’s wildlife. About 2400 moose typically live on the island, though that population rises and falls annually. Wolves also call the island home, though you’re unlikely to see the reclusive creatures this close to the harbor. Keep an eye to the sky for osprey, however.

One highlight of the trail is the moose enclosure, a small fenced-in area that keeps out the area’s moose population to show the affect they have on the island’s vegetation.

Watch the trail for rusty nails, rotted timbers and broken clay pipes all – they’re leftovers from a mining community that existed on the island during the 1800s. In fact, the nature trail is the remains of an old road built by the miners.

Leaving on the outgoing ferry the same day as you arrive is possible, but time will be tight, so frequently check your watch. Alternately, camping and a lodge are available for overnight stays.

Though closer to Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ontario proper, the island actually is part of the state of Michigan.

Read more about day hiking Northeast Minnesota in my Headin’ to the Cabin: Day Hiking Trails of Northeast Minnesota guidebook.