At Todd Harbor Campground in the middle of Isle Royale National Park, a remote island in the northwest corner of Lake Superior, Aaron Sheehan-Dean slowly removed his left boot. He then gently stripped off the wool sock and examined the souvenir he picked up that day while hiking the Minong Ridge Trail: a blister on the back of his heel. "That's a tough trail, but it's a scenic one," said the backpacker from Charlottesville, Virginia. "I'd say the views are worth enduring a blister or two."
Few backpackers who have walked this 29-mile route will argue with Sheehan-Dean that Minong Ridge is one tough trek. It's not only the most challenging stretch of the park's 161-mile trail system, it is arguably the hardest hike in Michigan. Maybe in the Midwest.
And that's the way the National Park Service (NPS) intends to keep it.
"We managed it to be a more challenging hike so people can expect fewer hikers and more solitude," said Larry Kangas, a retired Isle Royale National Park ranger. "That's the appeal of it for many backpackers; the trail's rustic and rugged nature."
This year the National Park Service celebrates the 80th anniversary of the U.S. Congress designating Isle Royale as a national park in 1931. Although acquiring the land and the development of the park was held up by the Great Depression and then World War II, by the early 1950s, a steady stream of backpackers and campers were making their way to the 210-square-mile island.
In the mid-1960s, NPS rangers cut a route along the Minong Ridge as a "fire manway," a route firefighters could use to access the isolated northern half of the island. Almost from the beginning backpackers began following it. Eventually the NPS decided to maintain Minong Ridge as a primitive trail with as few markers, bridges and boardwalks as possible.
Part of the challenge of Minong Ridge is the amount of time needed to hike it. The trail itself is a three- to four-day walk from McCargoe Cove Campground to Windigo, the park's ferry port at the west end of the island. But most backpackers need another two days to reach McCargoe Cove from Rock Harbor, the park's port of entry at the east end that services the ferries from Michigan.
Carrying six days worth of food and fuel makes for a heavy backpack on a trail where you want to be as light as possible.
Then there is the fact that the trail hasn't changed much over the years. For all practical purposes, it's still an up-and-down hike along a trail that at times you have to search for. Portions of it are wooded, but much of the Minong Ridge is a route along a rocky ridge where the only indication you're headed in the right direction is an occasional rock cairn.
On the trail
The two days of hiking from Rock Harbor to the start of the Minong Ridge proved to be ideal. We were able to earn our walking legs on easier paths, such as the Rock Harbor Trail, while lightening our food bags.
When we departed McCargoe Cove, it didn't take long to discover the true character of this trail. Almost immediately we were faced with a steep climb through the woods. Within 2.5 miles, we were following the rocky crest of the ridge when we were rewarded with our first spectacular view. Standing on the sharp edge of a bluff, we could see on the horizon the north shore of Lake Superior, below us Otter Lake, and seemingly half the Island, including Todd Harbor, our destination that afternoon.
The most intriguing part of the Minong Ridge was the third day when we walked from Little Todd Harbor to the North Lake Desor Campground. It's a trek of only 5.7 miles, but you spend almost the entire day on the open ridges hiking from cairn to cairn. The few times we weren't on the crest of the ridge, we were climbing to the next stretch of rock.
Such long spells on rough rock is jarring on the ankles and tough on the knees. Trekking poles would be a huge help. The best thing you can do is take your time and stop often.
And we wanted to. The day was almost a continuous panorama of the island, Lake Superior and Canada, only 14 miles to the north.
Late that night we returned to the open ridge with our sleeping bags to wait for the Northern Lights while stargazing with clarity never possible in the city.
The longest day on the trail was the final one, a 13-mile hike from Lake Desor to Windigo. It begins on the ridge but descends often into the forest where twice we had to tiptoe across a beaver dam. Four miles from our destination, we reached the end of the Minong Ridge and the last bit of rock on the long hike.
We paused briefly to enjoy the view. We then hurried along to well-deserved warm showers and the junk food that awaited us in Windigo.
Jim DuFresne, a Clarkston, Michigan-based writer, is the author of Isle Royale National Park: Foot Trails and Water Routes and the main contributor to MichiganTrailMaps.com.
If you go...
The visitor's season at Isle Royale National Park is April 15 through October with the peak season being early July through mid-August.
Departing from Grand Portage, Minnesota, for Windigo are the ferries, the Wenonah and Voyageur II. The Voyageur II continues around the island to overnight at Rock Harbor. The next day it follows the south shore of the island to Windigo before returning to Grand Portage. For more information on either boat, contact Grand Portage-Isle Royale Transportation Line, Inc., 888/746-2305 or 218/475-0024 May thru October; www.isleroyaleboats.com.
From mid-May to late September, the Isle Royale Queen IV (906/289-4437; www.isleroyale.com) departs from Copper Harbor, Michigan, and the Ranger III (906/482-0984; www.nps.gov/isro) travels to the park from Houghton, Michigan.
There is also seaplane service to the island from Houghton through Royale Air Service, Inc. (877/359-4753; www.royaleairservice.com).
For more information call Isle Royale National Park at 906/482-0984 or check the park's website, www.nps.gov/isro.
New website leads visitors down Michigan trails
Summer is a great time to hit the trails, and a new website is devoted to helping people do just that throughout Michigan.
Launched last year, MichiganTrailMaps.com is already one of the most extensive resource sites for Michigan trails. The site allows users to search for a path by county, region, specific park and activity.
The website includes reviews and downloadable maps of more than 100 trails. The trail information includes descriptions, directions to the trails, color photos and facilities available at the trailheads. There are also outdoor features on backpacking and hiking, links and a resource page for nonmotorized trail users, ranging from hikers and mountain bikers to people looking for a rail-trail.
The heart of the new website are its trail maps produced with GPS coordinates, USGS topographical maps and satellite images to make them the most accurate maps available to Michigan trail users.
Also part of the website is Trail Talk, a blog in which author Jim DuFresne provides commentary, views, humor and advice. DuFresne is the author of almost 20 guidebooks, including Backpacking in Michigan, 50 Hikes in Michigan and Best Hikes with Children: Michigan.
MichiganTrailMaps.com publishes Trail Mix, a free monthly electronic newsletter devoted to trails around the state, and recently released its first title, the fourth edition of DuFresne's Isle Royale National Park: Foot Trails and Water Routes.
You can subscribe to Trail Mix online at MichiganTrailMaps.com or drop an email to email@example.com.