Gunflint Trail Scenic Byway: Nature, Made to Order
by Berit Thorkelson
No matter your adventure threshold, there's a wilderness experience waiting for you along the Gunflint Trail National Scenic Byway.
The fifty-seven-mile paved road cuts across Minnesota's far northeastern tip, from Lake Superior's North Shore toward the Canadian Border. It carves a driveable swath into the Superior National Forest's nearly four million acres. That acreage includes the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, or BWCAW, a lake-studded wilderness superstar famous for secluded canoe-in camping.
The road's so completely surrounded by abundant natural beauty that you really don't have to stray far from your car to earn amazing experiences, including picking wild blueberries, standing among 100-year-old white pines and maybe even catching a moose sighting. The longer you linger, though, the deeper you can dig in to the area's trademark experiences such as fishing, wilderness camping, canoeing, or even a combination of all three. You choose the adventure level. The Gunflint Trail delivers.
The drive starts in Grand Marais, known for its iconic white lighthouse at the tip of a boardwalk poking into ocean-like Lake Superior. Visitors appreciate the unique shops, galleries and fine dining found in this artsy harbor town, nestled between tremendous lake and vast forest. Answer any remaining byway questions at the Gunflint Trail Information Center on Broadway Avenue downtown before heading out.
From here on, it's just you and the wilderness-lined byway, also known as County Road Twelve. No towns break up its fifty-some miles, though attractions are plentiful and immediate. Pincushion Overlook at County Road Fifty-Three, just two-and-a-half miles in, for example, offers a panorama of Grand Marais and big, beautiful Lake Superior.
If you'd rather earn your view, consider tackling Eagle Mountain, Minnesota's highest point. The turnoff to the trailhead's another mile down at County Road Eight, but get complete directions beforehand. Prepare for a moderately difficult seven-mile roundtrip hike into the Boundary Waters. The fantastic lake view you get at two-thousand-three-hundred-and-one feet makes for a fine reward.
Back on the trail, the roadside aspen turn to maples and then, finally, the old growth red and white pines long emblematic of the Gunflint Trail. They signal your official entrance into the historic forest, traversed by American Indians, Voyageurs, early surveyors, miners and lumberjacks before you.
Keep your eyes peeled for moose in the swampy areas where the North and South Brule Rivers cross the trail, especially at dusk and dawn. Early winter, too, is a good time to spot them. They often emerge from the forest to lick the salted roads. If you're up for a hike, try the trail between miles twenty-two and twenty-three. Lined with old-growth pines and wild blueberries, it leads to a pond popular with area moose.
Pulloffs and trails, long and short, line Gunflint as it continues into the northern Minnesota wild. Each option presents a unique perspective. Highlights include a five-mile gravel stretch of the original Gunflint Trail, a hike amid young Jackpine and magnetic rocks that render your compass useless, and even views of Canada.
Lodges tucked into the woods along the trail offer lakeside cabins and some quick restaurant stops. Many also specialize in outfitting you with all you need to explore the BWCAW for a day or a week, from freeze-dried food to canoe to fishing guide. Seriously consider an extended trip. National Geographic named the Boundary Waters one of fifty trips of a lifetime.
Towards the end of the drive, stop at the Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center, new as of mid-two-thousand-ten. The historic fifty-acre resort property holds area history and an easy-access taste of the Boundary Waters. It's a worthy stop for modern-day explorers of all skill levels seeking — and finding — wilderness adventures along the Gunflint Trail National Scenic Byway.