Greenstone Ridge Trail - Backpacking Routes (2023)

The Greenstone Ridge Trail was sponsored by Adam Ward & Family. Hailing from the Midwest, the Wards saw a dearth of coverage about their regional trails and were thrilled to help this one come to life.

By Amy S. Eckert

The Greenstone Ridge Trail is a 41-mile point-to-point route across Isle Royale National Park that can be hiked in 4-5 days.

Region: Great Lakes Midwest (Isle Royale National Park, Northern Michigan)
Distance: 41 miles (4-5 days)

Physical Difficulty: Moderate

  • Trail can be rocky, muddy, or thick with vegetation
  • Sudden weather changes may include rain, high winds, and temperature fluctuations
  • Biting insects depending on the season

Logistical Difficulty: Moderate

  • Transportation to and from trailheads can be challenging
  • Scant opportunity for resupply
  • Permits required

Season: Late spring, summer, early fall

Elevation (average):1,000 feet
Total Elevation Gain: ~4,000 feet

Greenstone Ridge Trail GPX FileDownload

Hiking the Greenstone Ridge Trail
Greenstone Ridge Trail - Backpacking Routes (1)

The Greenstone Ridge Trail is a well-marked, moderately difficult trail, made challenging not so much for its terrain, but for the moods of Lake Superior. (Remember the Edmund Fitzgerald?) It’s a rare visit to Isle Royale that doesn’t leave backpackers feeling at least briefly at the mercy of the Big Lake and its unpredictable weather. Morning sunshine suddenly turns to afternoon thunderstorms; a 70-degree lunch break is followed by nighttime frost; miles of boot-sucking mud morph abruptly into sweeping views of exposed basalt, warmed by the sunshine.

(Video) Backpacking Isle Royale (Greenstone Ridge Trail 4k)

Because of that, thru-hiking the Greenstone Ridge Trail from west to east, beginning in Windigo, isn’t a bad idea. That’s what we did. Hiking eastbound allowed us to cut through the island’s windward side early in our journey, with the wind and weather at our backs. Dense arboreal forest, damp, thigh-high ferns, and rain were more prevalent on the island’s western end, at places like Island Mine, Hatchet Lake, and Chickenbone Lake.

Once the Greenstone Ridge Trail reached Mount Siskiwit, we approached the leeward side of the island. Here there were more stretches of wide-open grasses and scrubland (although the arboreal forest never disappears for long—this is northern Michigan, after all). Heavy clouds and fog began to dissipate, and the wet socks bungied onto our backpacks began to dry. At the same time, the trail changed from hard-packed dirt and muck to unstable scree. Hard on the ankles, but the trade-off was worth it.

Greenstone Ridge Trail - Backpacking Routes (2)

While the Greenstone Ridge Trail travels up and down over Isle Royale’s basalt ridges, there’s little in the way of truly difficult climbs or descents. In fact, there isn’t much elevation gain to be had on Isle Royale: Lake Superior’s surface lies at 600 feet above sea level, while the trail’s highest point, Mount Desor, is only 1,394 feet high.

If Isle Royale’s weather is fickle, its natural beauty is abundant all along the Greenstone Ridge Trail. At high-elevation vistas like Lookout Louise and Mount Ojibway (climb the old fire tower for even better views), you’ll see a wide expanse of Lake Superior and Ontario to the north, the Rock Harbor Lighthouse to the south. The laughing birdsong of loons can be heard on inland lakes. And you may spot one of Isle Royale’s famous moose, although we didn’t. They typically prefer the Lake Superior shore.

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Wildflowers are a big draw on this trail. Foamy white Canada mayflowers, lavender-blue harebells, and wild roses are common, just a few of the 600+ blooming plants on Isle Royale. And in July and August, you won’t even need to slow down to snack on the wild raspberries, blueberries, and thimbleberries that line the route.

How to get to the Greenstone Ridge Trail
Greenstone Ridge Trail - Backpacking Routes (4)

Western Terminus: Windigo Trailhead
Nearest City: Copper Harbor, Michigan (56 miles/3.5 hours by ferry)

Eastern Terminus: Hidden Lake Trailhead
Nearest City: Grand Portage, Minnesota (22 miles/1.5-2 hours by ferry)

The decision whether to travel to Isle Royale by ferry or seaplane depends on which you have more of: time or money.

Traveling via ferry from either the Minnesota or Michigan mainland will take between 1.5-6 hours, depending on your departure point, as compared to only 30-45 minutes via Isle Royale Seaplanes. However, a round-trip ferry ticket will cost about $150 whereas a flight will set you back $330.

A further consideration: The Greenstone Ridge Trail’s Windigo trailhead on the western end of the island is conveniently located alongside both the ferry and seaplane docks. In contrast, the Hidden Lake trailhead on the island’s eastern end, while near the Tobin Harbor seaplane dock, is 10 miles from the Rock Harbor ferry dock. Some hikers purchase one-way tickets, flying to one trailhead and ferrying out of the other, or vice versa.

The two most popular ways to hike the Greenstone Ridge Trail are:

(Video) Isle Royale: Solo backpacking trip on Minong & Greenstone Ridge Trails - Planning & Training

  • Take the Isle Royale Seaplane from Hancock, Michigan, to the trail’s Windigo trailhead. Hike eastbound until you arrive at Mount Franklin. Once there, leave the Greenstone Ridge Trail behind and head southeast, along the Mount Franklin and Tobin Harbor Trails, to Rock Harbor and an overnight (and burgers and beer) at the Rock Harbor Lodge.
  • Take the Isle Royale Queen IV or Ranger III ferries from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to Rock Harbor. After a good night’s sleep, travel on foot or via water taxi to the Hidden Lake trailhead.

There are no opportunities for food caching and few outdoor supplies on Isle Royale. However, camp stores in Windigo and Rock Harbor sell a limited selection of camping gear and freeze-dried food, snacks, fishing licenses and tackle. The Rock Harbor Lodge has two nice restaurants: the Greenstone Grill and the Lighthouse Restaurant. Both are open to the public, regardless of whether you book a room in the lodge.

When to Hike the Greenstone Ridge Trail
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Summer and early fall are the best seasons for hiking Isle Royale. Lake Superior’s always-frigid waters have warmed a bit by then, warming the air as well. And the worst of spring’s thunderstorms (and mud) will be behind you.

Mid-June through mid-July is peak wildflower season, followed soon after by berry season, when you can nibble on wild raspberries, blueberries, and thimbleberries as you hike. But the mosquito and black fly hatches peak sometime in July. Come in August or later to avoid them. Evening frost arrives early on Isle Royale in autumn, but considering the island’s spectacular fall foliage you might just pack a down jacket and take your chances.

Here in northern Lake Superior, the weather can be fickle. Arrive prepared for the possibility of sudden thunderstorms, mud, high winds and frosty nights, no matter the season.

Five-Day Eastbound Itinerary: Hiking distances on your first and last days will generally be limited by ferry and seaplane schedules.

Day 1: Washington Creek (Windigo) to Island Mine (7 miles)

Day 2: Island Mine to Hatchet Lake (13 miles)

Day 3: Hatchet Lake to Chickenbone Lake west (8 miles) or east (9 miles)

Day 4: Chickenbone Lake west or east to Lane Cove (13 or 11 miles, respectively)

Day 5: Lane Cove to Hidden Lake dock (8 miles)

If you decide to cut south at Mount Franklin to avoid complicated transportation schedules, substitute the following schedule for days 4 and 5:

(Video) The Greenstone Ridge - Isle Royale | Days 6 & 7 of our Epic Hike

Day 4: Chickenbone Lake west or east to Three Mile (13 or 11 miles, respectively)

Day 5: Three Mile to Rock Harbor (3 miles)

Day 5’s hike seems ridiculously short. But Three Mile campground occupies a rocky Lake Superior shoreline, washed by the surf all day and brilliant with starlight all night. Don’t miss it.

To hike the Greenstone Ridge Trail westbound, simply reverse the above itineraries.

Greenstone Ridge Terrain
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The Greenstone Ridge Trail is very well marked, so you won’t need to carry GPS maps. The ridge forms the spine of Isle Royale, the crest of an ancient fold of basalt carved like a washboard by glaciers. Where the trail sits above the surrounding landscape, expect open forests, wide-open grassland or bald rock outcroppings. Where the trail dips into lower elevations, you’ll encounter thick mud, heavy tree cover, dense foliage, and wetlands.

The western half of the Greenstone Ridge Trail traverses the island’s windward side, where you are most likely to encounter clouds, heavy rain, and mud. The eastern half of the trail passes through Isle Royale’s leeward side, where terrain is more open. However, the footpath on the eastern half of the island is frequently composed of scree, making for slow going at times.

Logistics: Camping, Water, Special Gear, Land Designation
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Camping:Camping permits are required for all overnight stays at Isle Royale campgrounds. For groups of six and under, permits are free and should be picked up upon arrival at the Rock Harbor or Windigo ranger stations or aboard the Ranger III ferry from Houghton, Michigan. Campsites are available on a first-come, first-served basis, with most including at least a few sites large enough for doubling up.

Groups of seven and larger must pay $25 for a group permit and register in advance for group sites.

Dispersed camping is allowed under a strict array of regulations and with an additional free permit. The ranger station can offer more details.

Water:In spite of Isle Royale’s frequent rain, there is little access to water along the Greenstone Ridge Trail, owing to its ridge-top location. You’ll find ample water sources at campsites (potable tap water at Washington Creek and Rock Harbor campgrounds, filter required elsewhere). Arrive prepared to carry each day’s water with you, or plan to take the occasional off-trail detour to access inland creeks and lakes.

Note that climatic changes have caused a recent increase in algal blooms on Isle Royale’s inland lakes. Ask park rangers about any advisories, as the algae’s dangerous toxins cannot be removed by filters.

(Video) The Greenstone Ridge Trail, Isle Royale - Day 1

Special Gear:Rain gear is essential. Gaiters may be useful in keeping your feet dry in wetlands. Mosquito nets will guard against flying insects in June and July.

Land Designation:The Greenstone Ridge Trail is located entirely within Isle Royale National Park. A national park entrance fee is required of all visitors to the park. Pay $7/person/day for a daily park pass; $60/year for an annual Isle Royale Season Pass; or buy an annual America the Beautiful National Parks pass.Pets are not allowed on the island due to wildlife protection concerns. Service dogs are allowed with a permit.

Know Before You Go
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Short Season: Isle Royale is open annually to the public from April 16 to Oct. 31. Because the season is short and the island popular, transportation and group campsites fill quickly. Book early.

Transportation:Traveling to Isle Royale via ferry is the most common and inexpensive way to the national park. Four ferries service the island from Copper Harbor and Houghton, Michigan, and from Grand Portage, Minnesota, docking at Windigo and Rock Harbor on the island.

There is also seaplane service from Hancock, Michigan, and Grand Marais, Minnesota, to docks at Windigo and Tobin Harbor.

Finally, visitors can book water taxi service from Rock Harbor, Windigo, and points all around the perimeter of Isle Royale, including the Greenstone Ridge Trailheads. See “How to Get to the Greenstone Ridge Trail” above for more detailed information.

Wildlife:The only mammals of any consequence on Isle Royale are moose and wolves. You are unlikely to spot moose on the Greenstone Ridge Trail, as they prefer the more secluded and verdant shoreline. If you do encounter a moose, be aware that they can be dangerous. Keep your distance and, if necessary, hide behind a tree until they pass. Wolves are few in number and famously elusive on Isle Royale. You are unlikely to encounter any on the trail or elsewhere on the island.

Weather: Isle Royale is located in Lake Superior, a lake famous for its fickle nature. Pack rain gear and warm clothing, no matter the season. Likewise, Lake Superior’s unpredictability can affect ferry and flight schedules. Build some flexibility into your travel schedule, perhaps adding a zero day into your itinerary.

Isle Royale National Park / Greenstone Ridge Trail Resources

Isle Royale National Park

Ferry and Seaplane Services

Rock Harbor Lodge

(Video) Isle Royale - Hiking the Minong Ridge

Upper Peninsula Travel & Recreation Association

Greenstone Ridge Trail - Backpacking Routes (9)

Amy S. Eckert is based in Holland, Michigan, and is an avid lover of the outdoors. She enjoys hiking, backpacking, and paddling the Great Lakes—especially the Upper Peninsula—and has trekked throughout North America and in the U.K., Australia, Japan, Iceland, and New Zealand. When she’s not traveling, you can probably find Amy with her hands in her flower gardens or her nose in a book.
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