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Isle Royale: Do You Mind If I Camp With you?

Posted on April 8th, 2022

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Isle Royale National Park officially opens up next week after setting an attendance record last year. Now the Lake Superior wilderness is struggling with how to solve the problem of overcrowded campsites in its backcountry. Jim DuFresne, author of Isle Royale National Park: Foot Trails & Water Routes, looks at the issue of sharing your campsite.

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By Jim DuFresne

Through MichiganTrailMaps.com, I receive a lot of questions about visiting Isle Royale National Park, and a large number of them concern backcountry camping and permits.

Jim DuFresne

When backpackers, canoers or kayakers are exploring the Island in a group of six or less, they need to apply for a “small-party permit” either on the Ranger III on their way over or at the ranger station once they arrive at Rock Harbor or Windigo.

They need to know what campgrounds they plan to stay at and what nights they’ll be there. There are no additional fees for this permit; it’s part of the daily entrance fee ($7 per person) or the annual pass ($60, which covers the pass holder and up to three other adults).

The camping permit is free. But it’s not a reservation or even a guarantee there will be an open site. And in peak season, if you do that 7.2-mile trek to Daisy Farm Campground from Rock Harbor after arriving mid-afternoon on the Ranger III . . . there won’t be.

“Shelters and tent sites for individual small parties are available first-come, first-served,” park officials explain in The Greenstone, the park newspaper. “Expect crowded campsites from mid-July through mid-September. Expect to have conversations about sharing sites.”

What to do?

In a recent posting on the park’s official Facebook page, titled Follow the Five Steps for Camping if it is Busy, that dilemma is addressed. Sort of.

  1. At a campground, camp at a designated tent site or occupy a shelter.
  2. When all sites are occupied, use the identified overflow group campsite (if present).
  3. When all sites are occupied, ask to share a tent site.
  4. When all sites are occupied and there are no viable tent sites to share, ask to pitch your tent or hammock outside a shelter.
  5. When options 1-4 are full, camp outside of the campground per cross-country camping regulations and zone map.

Backpacks on the Greenstone Ridge Trail at Isle Royale National Park.

The first two have been a common practice as long as I’ve been exploring Isle Royale. It’s Step No. 3 and Step No. 4 that is the growing challenge.

In a desire to “get away from it all,” people spend a lot of vacation time and expense to reach the backcountry of this isolated island in Lake Superior. Once there, do they really want three more tents in the site they snagged because they were on the trail first thing in the morning? Or four guys hanging their hammocks in the bordering trees?

Most likely yes, because backcountry travelers seem to be cut from the same cloth. They commiserate with those who arrive late after a long day on the trail and are usually very accommodating.

The only ugly scenes I’ve witnessed in the backcountry surround the use of the shelters. In a pouring rain, I’ve seen two people in a shelter turn away two more standing outside dripping wet and cold. I’ve seen boaters monopolize shelters when they could have easily slept on their 25-five footers tied up at the dock.

Backpackers using planking to cross a swamp on Isle Royale.

That brings us to Step No. 5. If the inn is full, or you just don’t want to spend the evening in an overcrowded campsite, then camp anywhere. As long as you are a quarter-mile away from a trail and a half-mile away from all developed areas, campgrounds, and fire towers.

If you ask me, that’s a slippery slope to trails lined with unofficial campsites.

Despite the remoteness of this national park, I think you could still end up with a situation like Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. Off-trail camping was getting so out-of-hand at the Porkies, that they finally had to ban it altogether in 2018 and instituted a reservation system for the 65 designated sites in the backcountry.

Last year Isle Royale set a record for on-island visitation when, for the first time in its history, more than 20,000 people stepped ashore.

With the vast majority of those visitors being backcountry users, is a strict reservation system that far away?

Editor’s Note: It’s important to double-check campground stay night limits while planning your trip at Isle Royale. Most are in effect from June 1 to Labor Day, except for Rock Harbor, Three Mile, Lane Cove, and Washington Creek Campgrounds, which extend through Sept. 17. Changes for 2022 include Lane Cove (now 1 night) and the Windigo Dock (now 3 nights). Get these and other details regarding camping on the park website: https://www.nps.gov/isro/planyourvisit/camping.htm


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