Overview and Logistics
The Feldtmann Loop is the only loop among the three classic hikes on Isle Royale. It’s about 33-34 miles, with up and downs of about 600 feet in elevation each day. It makes a good three-day trip
There are four campsites on the loop: Windigo/Washington Creek, Feldtmann Lake, Siskwit Bay, and Island Mine. Island Mine is by far the least attractive site, and the water supply starts to dry up in late season (it was there, but unattractive, in late August). Fortunately, you can skip Island Mine and I would recommend doing that.
Counterclockwise, it’s 8.5 miles to Feldtmann Lake, 10.2 miles to Siskwit Bay, 4.3 miles to Island Mine, and 6.3 miles to Washington Creek (plus another 0.3 miles to the Windigo dock). After the boat ride, LNT lesson, and getting permits, you can’t expect to be on the trail until almost 11:00 am.
If you’re going counterclockwise (as we did), it’s easy to get to the Feldtmann Lake campground. Your next two days would then each be a straightforward 10-11 miles. Alternatively, you could stop at Island Mine and then wake up early enough the next morning to hike 6.6 miles to the dock before the Voyageur II leaves at 10:00-10:30 am. (Or, for a more leisurely time, the Wenonah leaves at 3:00 pm.)
Going clockwise, you’d be starting at 11:00 am for a 6.6 mile hike to an unattractive site, or 10.9 miles to the Siskwit Bay cutoff (plus 0.1 miles to the campsites). That was too far for the slowest member of our party, so we went counterclockwise.
If you have a scout troop or similar large party, you could also split up and have one half take the loop in each direction. Presumably, you’d meet for lunch at the fire tower on Feldtmann Ridge.
This would be a good place to mention that, although Isle Royale is the largest island in the world’s largest lake, water can be somewhat scarce except at campgrounds—and perhaps not even there, as Island Mine was marginal when we passed through. Also, Feldtmann Lake’s water was really hard on filters for some reason. In addition to the campgrounds, there’s a small creek near the fire tower, and some dubious-looking ponds off trail here and there.
Any trip to Isle Royale begins with a boat ride, and ours was no exception. Our scheduled boat, the Wenonah, had decided to take an unexpected dry-dock vacation in Duluth, so we were rerouted to the Voyageur II.
There had been several days of gales on the island just before we got there on August 20 - - clearly “the gales of November came early.” We met one boy scout troop that had been stranded for two unplanned days, and we later heard of another troop that suffered the same fate. We weren’t sure whether the Voyageur II would sail until the morning of our scheduled departure, though we got clear skies for the crossing.
My first piece of advice for any visitor to Isle Royale is to be prepared for weather. Leave an extra day or two free at the end of your trip, and if your itinerary doesn’t end at Windigo or Rock Harbor (where food can be purchased), bring some extra supplies.
The “Rock of Ages” lighthouse was our first sight of the park and thus the first sight of Michigan in many years (we used to live in the southeast). Isle Royale is part of Michigan but it’s off the coast of Minnesota and Ontario. It’s on Eastern time but most people on the southwest end have come from Minnesota. The NPS, boats, and other concessionaires are pretty good about posting everything in both Central and Eastern time. This is important because you don’t want to miss your boat back (though NPS keeps an eye on the passenger manifests too).
Because the gales had kept people from getting to the island for a few days, and the Wenonah’s troubles had kept more people off the island, we saw very few people: a family of four the first night, a family of eight the second, a solo hiker on the path on Day 2, a group of four and a group of two on the trail on Day 3, and a boater at Windigo the night of Day 3 (plus a reunion with one family and the solo hiker). But we saw a lot of squirrels.
The trail itself
The trail (which is well marked) begins with a pleasant walk along the shoreline for about a mile. After this, it ascends gently about 240 feet to a very pleasant overlook. From there, the trail takes a long, curving approach through the woods to Feldtmann Lake. This stretch, which is more than six miles long, was the most tedious part of the entire hike.
We spent our first night in a tent because Feldtmann Lake campground has no shelters. However, we were able to get shelters the other nights—because almost nobody else was on the island.
The campground at Feldtmann Lake has about ten campsites. Each has its own stretch of beach but it’s not private. Most sites have to cross the camp trail to get to “their” beachfront property. We had a moose cow visit us at dusk and dawn, but we weren’t able to get the photo.
There’s also a pit toilet, and it was well-stocked with toilet paper. Clearly the NPS elves do a good job!
Day 2 began with us rounding the lake in a low-lying and somewhat marshy, often-planked area. Then you have a sharp climb to the top of Feldtmann Ridge.
Here’s a view from the top. You can see most of Feldtmann Lake, and also see how close the lake is to Lake Superior. The campground is at the far left of the lake in this picture.
The Feldtmann fire tower is about the midpoint of Day 2 and a good place for lunch. It’s closed to the public above the third landing, unfortunately.
We spent the second night at Siskwit Bay, which also has about ten campsites in addition to two shelters. There’s a dock there, so in principle you might run across boaters with ice chests and other creature comforts. (Siskwit Bay is officially not federal wilderness, so motorized transportation is not officially prohibited.) Speaking of creature comforts, the NPS elves had been doing their job here too. Our shelter even came with a freshly-painted picnic table, which left an attractive brown stripe on my pants.
The shelter is spacious, with bug screens—though we didn’t see that many bugs in mid-to-late August. Be advised that the spring doors are really loud when they shut, so be considerate of your neighbors.
Siskwit Bay is farther from a paved road than any other point in the lower 48 states—a claim usually made for the Thorofare region of Yellowstone NP. Is Siskwit Bay cheating by being on an island? You be the judge.
In any case, it’s a long way from motors. One of Isle Royale’s pleasures is that there are no air routes nearby, so that we never heard an airplane for three days.
But that night we did hear some other excitement around 2:00 am - - wolf howls and a bugling moose. The next morning we found a jumble of tracks on the lakeshore about 1.5 miles from the campsite. An adult moose, moose calf, and one or two wolves had clearly passed this way the night before. Very few visitors ever see Isle Royale’s famous wolves, so we counted ourselves lucky indeed to get sounds and tracks and the pieces of a story.
Day 3 continued up the Island Mine trail. Because of the gales before we arrived, there were quite a few down trees on this trail. The trail is also surprisingly steep in places, given the amount of elevation gained (less than 600 feet).
We continued on along the Greenstone Ridge trail to Washington Creek campground. We finally got a good moose picture there. This cow and her calf worked the stream in front of our campsite for a few hours. The calf spent its time in the brush behind the cow, so we never got a good picture of it.
Once again, we got a shelter. We also got a hot shower at Windigo.
Because the Wenonah was in dry dock, we returned to Grand Portage on the Voyageur II (leaving at 12:30 pm instead of 3:30). We still had time to go kayaking. We met the cow moose again the next morning while kayaking around a blind corner. Everyone was surprised to see the others, but we separated without incident. We also kayaked over to Beaver Island and saw this seagull eating a fish.
Overall: I heartily recommend Isle Royale. You can enjoy a beautiful North Woods experience in authentic wilderness with abundant wildlife.
If you'd like to sign the log, there's a "hidden" log here
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