Pedal from Capitol to Canada on the North Star Route
By Brian Fanelli
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The U.S. Bicycle Route (USBR) system is a fast-emerging network of numbered cross-country bicycle routes, already spanning more than 11,000 miles across the nation. Many biking enthusiasts are familiar with Minnesota's first U.S. Bicycle Route, the Mississippi River Trail (USBR 45), but its second deserves equal renown.
Geography & Culture of the North Star Route
Passing through a cross-section of Minnesota geography and cultures, the 315-mile North Star Route (USBR 41) brings riders from metropolitan St. Paul to the bustling port city of Duluth, along the rocky North Shore of Lake Superior, and ends at Minnesota’s highest waterfall, High Falls of the Pigeon River, along the Canadian border.
Like its predecessor, biking the North Star Route is a combination of roads and trails that create a continuous, “ride-ready” experience from start to finish. Paved trails make up nearly half the route, including the Bruce Vento, Gateway, Willard Munger and Gitchi Gami trails. These sections of the route—sheltered from the whirr of cars, immersed in Minnesota’s natural beauty—are perfect for families planning an afternoon ride and picnic, or even biking a longer, two- to three-day camping trip.
The route’s longest uninterrupted trail segment is the 80-mile Willard Munger State Trail between Hinckley and Duluth, a picturesque journey through the rich scenery and history of northeast Minnesota. A variety of lodging options are available in both Hinckley and Duluth, making either city an excellent starting point and home base for your adventures. With plenty of state parks and forests, resorts, lodges and hotels between the two cities, it’s easy to split your time on the trail into a few days’ worth of shorter rambles.
Heading north from Duluth, the route’s remaining 150 miles hug the beautiful and historic North Shore of Lake Superior. Unlike the route’s southern portion, this section is primarily on-road and will appeal mostly to bicyclists who are comfortable sharing the road with motor vehicles. It’s not all Highway 61, though. Occasionally, segments of the Gitchi Gami State Trail appear along the lakefront for a brief couple of miles, most notably the breathtaking 17-mile section between Gooseberry Falls State Park and Silver Bay.
Unique Attractions Along the Way
With a long history of reported paranormal activity dating back to the 1800s, the Grant House Hotel & Eatery in Rush City isn’t just good; it’s scary good. You may recognize the Grant House from the SyFy Channel TV show “Ghost Hunters.” Whether you believe the ghost stories or not, Grant House is a charming place to stay, for a night or just a meal.
The Hinckley Fire Museum offers a view into the infamous Hinckley wildfire of 1894, one of the largest in recorded history. The inferno reached far into the sky and changed Minnesota history forever. View artifacts that made it through the fire, learn stories of the survivors and delve deeply into this incredibly impactful part of Minnesota history.
About 15 miles outside of Duluth along Scenic Highway 61, you’ll pass an understated, old-school, Americana-style cafe. The modest exterior doesn’t give much away, but for those in the know, the New Scenic Cafe is one of Minnesota’s best dining experiences—and you can’t beat the view.
Further north in the charming town of Grand Marais, North House Folk School offers classes in traditional northern crafts and skills including pine needle basketry, fermentation, wood carving, fly casting, sailing, songwriting, storytelling and much more. Classes range from an afternoon introduction to a three-day workshop, with seasonal programs running year-round. Plan ahead and apply for the weeklong work-study program to take classes and stay in beautiful Grand Marais for free.
Along the North Shore, the biggest attraction is the land itself. There are many things to do along the way, but let’s be honest, you’re not headed to Grand Portage for the indie music scene. You’re headed there for the breathtaking cliffs and beaches, the rich Native American history, and the unparalleled riding. Experience it all when you reach Grand Portage State Park and National Monument at the northernmost tip of USBR 41. It’s worth it.
Brian Fanelli is a writer and editor for Explore Minnesota. When he isn't writing about life in The North, you'll find him browsing the sci-fi shelves in a local bookstore, biking one of Minnesota's spectacular trails or walking his Chihuahua around Minneapolis.
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