Gunflint Trail – Boundary Waters of MN

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Little Gunflint Lake at Sunset

Summering in Minnesota was truly a new adventure for us.  We knew no-one in MN, had never been there, and knew very little of where we were going. But the idea of Minnesota’s boundary waters had always intrigued us, and so here we are doing seasonal work on the Gunflint Trail.

It is truly a beautiful area and well worth the drive.  In fact, in all of our cross-country travels, I can’t recall a place that’s as pristine and untouched by civilization.  I say “worth the drive” because there’s really no way to fly here, unless you have the means to charter a private sea plane.  Otherwise, it’s a 3+ hour drive from Duluth.  Two of those hours are spent driving along Lake Superior, which is itself breathtakingly beautiful.  You won’t be able to take your eyes from the Caribbean-ish blue water as you drive.  When you get to the town of Grand Marais, hang a left on the Gunflint Trail and drive another hour north-west.

Grand Marais is your last stop… well, for anything.  So stock up.  Get your groceries, pharmacy items, etc.  Fill up your tank with gas.  (Some of the resorts up the trail do offer gas for your vehicle or boat, but it’s expensive. ) If you have time, stop and enjoy this adorable little town on Lake Superior.  (More later on Grand Marais in another post!)

The locals like to say “if you see 3 cars on the Gunflint Trail, it’s a traffic jam.”  They’re not far from the truth.  You can drive a long ways through the thick forests without seeing another car. After driving through the cities, it’s a striking change.  It hardly seems real and feels like you’ve driven back in time.  Don’t be surprised if, when you do actually encounter another car, they toss you a neighborly wave.

As you’re driving the trail, you’ll soon realize why they call this the land of 10,000 lakes.  Northern Lights Lake, Swamper Lake, Flour Lake. Bearskin Lake, Hungry Jack Lake, Poplar Lake.  Iron Lake.  Little Iron Lake.  Loon Lake.  Gunflint Lake… the list goes on and on.  It’s hard to keep them all straight.  If you’re planning to fish them, make sure you know which lake you’re headed to, and what regulations apply.  In this area, there are lakes that are governed by Minnesota regs, and some are governed by the BCAW (Boundary Waters) regs, and still some yet by international regulations.

It’s been an unusually rainy, cool and buggy summer (even by local standards), so we’ve not had as much opportunity to get out and play as we’d hoped.  But, there’s plenty to do here.

Fishing the Boundary Waters

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Imagine Catching this Northern Pike… from a Kayak!

The fishing’s been wonderful, but you do have to approach it differently than most of the tourists do.  First, research the lake.  Even though the lakes are connected up here, they carry different fish populations.  Know what you want to fish for, and plan for it.  What’s possible?  Northern Pike, Smallmouth Bass, Walleye, Lake Trout, Rainbow Trout, Brook Trout, Splake, and an array of panfish.  Secondly, research the lake (did I say that already?).  These lakes are all so very different in terms of depth, even though they’re in a close proximity of each other.  Some are only 15 feet deep, others 250 feet deep.  For example, if you’re fishing for Walleye in Gunflint Lake (that’s 250′ deep), you’re going to have a hard time finding them unless you have a trolling motor and depth/fish finder.

Note:  There are also several professional fishing guides that serve the area also.

With your fishing license, you also are allowed to trap for crayfish… a largely neglected but tasty delicacy up here.  Crayfish are considered an invasive species here, so the daily limit of what you’re allowed to take is ridiculously large.  A single trap left overnight will frequently yield enough for a meal for two or three adults.

Paddling the lakes of the Gunflint Trail and the Boundary Waters

Canoeing and camping the boundary waters is a popular activity up here.  You do need permits though in the boundary waters.  Also, keep in mind that you’ll be in very remote locations.  Come adequately prepared for your camping adventure.  You might also consider using an outfitter that’ll rent you canoes, assemble all the gear and meals for you, and drop/pick you up at your entry/exit lakes.  Many will even help you plot your canoeing trail.  Be sure to ask them for details about the portages involved though.

Pascal Bredin - grand portageNot all portages are alike.  Some are longer, steeper, rocky, blocked by debris, excessively swampy, through a stream with current, etc.  But that’s part of the challenge.  I’d just encourage you to mention your physical condition,  age, and any other physical concerns you have to your outfitter when making plans.

Hiking the Gunflint Trail and Superior National Forest

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Bridal Falls on the Gunflint

There is also plenty of opportunity for hikers to enjoy the forests, cliffs, numerous waterfalls, and lakeshores.  If you keep your eyes open, you’ll likely find (in season) blueberries, raspberries, thimbleberries, strawberries, and Saskatoon berries along the trail, along with wild mushrooms and other wild edibles.  Many of the hikes follow the cross country and snow mobile trails, but there are also designated hikes in the Superior National Forest.

Relax in the Peace and Quiet

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One of my favorite things to do here is just to relax in the stillness of nature, whether in the woods or on a lakeshore.  If you’re outside though, don’t forget the bug spray, or you’ll be sorry.

Note:  Don’t expect to have cell coverage anywhere along the Gunflint Trail (once you leave Grand Marais).

Other Things to Do on The Gunflint Trail

There’s not much in the way of commercialized entertainment up here, but there are a few things that you might find enjoyable:

  • Gunflint Lodge has a naturalist that offers educational and historical programs, a 2-hour canopy (zip line) tour, and guided (horse) trail rides
  • Most of the lake-front lodges offer boat rentals (fishing boats, canoes, paddleboards, kayaks, pontoon boats) to guests and non-guests alike
  • Swimming and enjoying a refreshing day at the beach.  Seagull Lake has a lovely and private sandy beach that the locals enjoy.  Go up the Gunflint Trail to the Seagull Lake boat landing.  Park and follow the unmarked path on the right just before (north of) the boat landing.

Dining on the Gunflint Trail

You’ll find few options for restaurant meals up here.  They are namely:

  • Hungry Jack Lodge
  • Trail Center (has delicious malts and will even add liquors to them!)
  • Gunflint Lodge
  • Trail’s End
  • Poplar Haus (opening soon, as of this post.  It’ll be fine dining)

Winter Things To Do

In the winter, we hear that this area is frequented mostly by ice fisherman, cross country skiiers, ice climbers, and snow mobilers.

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