Lake Superior Adventures: The Gunflint Trail

Gunflint Lake

September 17th, 2022:

Fog covered Grand Marais in mystic setting over Lake Superior. I enjoyed a restful night’s sleep at The Best Western Superior Inn, which I highly recommend.

This hotel is right on the lake and my room has a view so close to Superior I can hear the waves as I write this post. The staff are friendly and the accommodations are top notch.

After a hearty hotel breakfast, I changed into my outdoor gear and plotted out my day. Locals recommended the scenic Gunflint Trail Road into the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness.

This fifty-seven mile scenic byway winds west from Grand Marais, into the interior of the Superior National Forest. It is one of the most scenic drives you will experience, with lakefront vistas and impenetrable forests.

I filled up my tank and hit the byway. As you move west from the rocky Superior coast, a thick lush forest invites you into a fairytale of dense woods, endless lakes and rolling hills of rock, birch and pine.

While no two regions are alike, the boreal forest reminds me of Glacier National Park – which while much rockier with alpine peaks, was also formed by glaciation – leading to dense forests and countless lakes. I was inspired to write my novel Solitude Lake after living near Montana’s own lake county, so traversing this wilderness was a song of peace for my heart.

I love lakes and waterfalls – there is nothing more peaceful than sitting on a lakeshore and talking to God and taking in the scenery for hours. I love to enjoy lakeside living at historic lodges and let the waters calm worry and weary away.

The Gunflint Trail is a place for peace and exploration. The fifty-seven miles is surrounded by dense wilderness and has more wildlife than people. The road winds through forests and crosses The Laurentian Divide, which divides water flow from the Hudson Bay in Canada and eastward into the Saint Lawrence Watershed.

You can hike along expose rock that is some of the oldest in the world…and also the sturdiest rock. Geologic lovers will find much to appreciate in this neck of Minnesota.

My favorite part of the Gunflint Trail is the mix of nature, history and community.

Similar to my beloved Montana or NC Blue Ridge, each mile you’ll find NFS (National Forest Service) turnouts and dirt roads leading to campgrounds and backcountry lakes and hikes. Exploration by foot, car and canoe abound here.

Canoeing is at the heart of Gunflint recreation. This area straddles the Boundary Waters Canoe Area – which protects 150 miles of natural waterways, including 1100 lakes in Minnesota’s north country. The BWCA runs from Gunflint as far as Voyageurs NP region and is a paddlers dream.

Camping abounds on the ‘trail,’ but if you want a bit more rustic elegance check into one of the many historic lodges that are just off the the main road (Gunflint Trail – Highway 12).

The oldest is The Clearwater Lodge. Unfortunately I didn’t reach the end of the road to the lodge as they were clearing the road from heavy rain, but I checked out their website and it looks AMAZING.

Many of these lodges have lakefront access and offer canoe rentals and guided paddle trips. If I had more time I would have gotten on the water.

The BWCA in total has over 1100 lakes and Gunflint has dozens of glacial lakes roadside or in the near backcountry.

I stopped for lunch at The Gunflint Lodge, which has been in business since 1925 – nearly a century. You can learn about the rich lodge history on their website.

The Gunflint Lodge sits on Gunflint Lake, an important stop for Voyageurs en route to Grand Portage. They would use the flint from the lakeshore for their flintlock firearms.

The lodge is a wooden structure with character and charm. The menu and service was top notch. As I ate my chicken sandwich (with gluten free bread – thank you GF Lodge) – I gazed into the peaceful waters as paddlers enjoyed the overcast day. In the distance you can see Canada – not often you can eat and look at another country!

Gunflint is a great family destination with tons of hiking and recreation right at the lodge. They even have a nature center with trail talks and a tree ropes course. Lodge staff told me they are open all year except on Christmas Day and it is a popular ski and snow mobile area in the winter (Brrr)

After a relaxing lunch at Gunflint I continued to the end of the trail, where the road literally ends in the Boundary Waters of Saganaga. This large lake is in the US and Canada.

At the end of the Gunflint Trail I was pleasantly surprised to discover Chik-Wauk – an old fishing lodge resort that has been converted into a museum.

The staff were beyond friendly taking time to personally walk me through the history of the Chik-Wauk Lodge from it’s origin in the 1930s to closure in 1988 and beyond. The lodge has several buildings including an interpretative center, nature center and boat house.

In the museum I enjoyed an informative video about the history of The Gunflint Trail, from it’s use as part of the Voyageur trading path to first being a paved road with the promise of iron ore in the area.

What’s in a name? It is called the Gunflint Trail because it is road or ‘trail’ travelers can take from Grand Marais inland to Gunflint Lake. In 1875, fur trader, prospector, land speculator and entrepreneur Henry Mayhew and his Ojibwe crew constructed a narrow wagon road between his two trading posts…He extended the road in 1886 when iron deposits were found at the west end of Gunflint Lake

While the iron was too expensive to mine, a new industry developed. By the 1930s the Gunflint Trail had become a popular recreation spot. The CCC – who carried the backs of America during the Great Depression in conservation and development of parklands played a role…as did many locals who created lodges and resorts.

I will definitely be returning to this beautiful stretch of Minnesota North Woods in the future.

Fast facts:

Boundary Waters Canoe Area: 150 miles and includes 1100 lakes and hundreds of rivers

80% of BWCA is boreal forests and 20% is lakes.

For more info:

Gunflint Trail

Boundary Waters Canoe Area

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