When winter casts a gentle hush across Minnesota, the deepest drifts can be found along the 57-mile historic Gunflint Trail.
More than 100 inches of snow typically blankets this northeast tip of the state in the mountains above Lake Superior. Snowmobilers zoom through 200 miles of state forest trails. Nordic skiers swoosh past and through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area on more than 125 miles of trails. You can ice-fish for lake trout in more than 300 lakes or snowshoe across them. Bird-watch in the boreal forest or simply savor the scenic solitude and cozy lodges along the way.
The 57-mile byway begins in Grand Marais, a picturesque harbor town known for its artists and adventurous spirit. At North House Folk School, you can craft your own birch skis, snowshoes, toboggan, dogsled, moose-hide mukluks and woolen mittens. Just be sure to layer up before you hit the Trail.
The Gunflint follows County Road 12 and climbs 1,000 feet above the harbor as it heads into the Sawtooth Mountains. Watch for the Pincushion Overlook and Recreation Area about a quarter-mile down County Road 53, where you can ski or gaze at Lake Superior and the town below. Most of the Great Lake remains open, adding sapphire blue to the landscape of winter white.
The Gunflint dates back to the 1890s when it was cut through the wilderness by mining prospectors, then used by loggers. It's now surrounded by Superior National Forest, the largest federal forest in the lower 48 states with 3.9 million acres.
Some of original 350-year-old Eastern white and red pines tower above the Gunflint, which is rich with rivers, lakes, and breathtaking views of distant palisades. Keep your eyes open near marshy areas and the edge of forests for wildlife, including gangly moose, red fox, pine martens and the elusive gray wolf, which is making a comeback.
Animal tracks tell stories along the trails. Resorts and guide services can provide maps and equipment to reach them. You can even ride or ski lodge-to-lodge, staying in everything from modern cabins to a Mongolian yurt. Along the way, enjoy the rich character and history of restaurants such as Trail Center Lodge or Gunflint Lodge, where deer stroll across the grounds as dusk turns the snow twilight blue.
At the end of the day, step outside for the clearest star-gazing in the state and the soothing, cottony silence of winter in the wilderness.