Skiing Minnesota's Gunflint Trail

A New World Answer to Telemark, Norway

I'm a northern Minnesota native and so take pride in being impervious to cold, but I have yet to make a smooth transition from truck to trailhead when I ski the Gunflint Trail. Last time I was there, my husband and I drove five hours from Minneapolis and were in a serious state of road trip coma by the time we hit Grand Marais. We were snuggled into the cozy cab of the Toyota, blaring Nat King Cole Christmas carols, pumping body heat, and happily rolling past the snow-heaped scenery. As we started our final ascent to Bearskin Lodge, I got that familiar little pit in the bottom of my stomach—soon only a microscopic layer of lycra would separate me from the frigid northern air and, as usual, I'd be chasing my once-nationally-ranked-biathlete husband up and down the trails, watching the distance between us increase with every stride.

Well, I froze for about a kilometer and my husband broke away from our little pack in about a minute's time, but after my legs stretched out and I could feel my fingers again, it didn't take me long to appreciate another long pilgrimage up to the Gunflint Trail. Where else in the United States will you find snowfall averaging 125 talc-dry inches of snow per year, trails packed by state-of-the-art groomers, potential moose sightings around every curve, and Scandinavian-chic lodges nestled in snow drifts and birch groves?

A Winter Wonderland
The 52-mile paved Gunflint Trail (Cook County Road 12) begins in Grand Marais on the shore of Lake Superior, a picturesque town with a large resident-artist colony. It forges off into the woods, slicing through the Sawtooth Mountain Range and dead-ending just before the Canadian border. Today it is an all-season gateway to the million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness; spaced along its length are about two dozen lodges, resorts, campgrounds, and adventure-trip and canoe outfitters. Used to be, the Gunflint was a major canoe- and foot-travel thoroughfare for Chippewa trappers, transplanted Scandinavian loggers, and frontier folks like Justine Kerfoot, who moved to the Gunflint Trail in 1927 and, at 94, has weathered 72 harsh Minnesota winters chopping wood, guiding all-male hunting parties, and harvesting ice from frozen lakes. These days, rather than hardship, the Gunflint Trail corridor is synonymous with slightly rustic, yet luxurious dabbles into the finer things of winter life—namely, cross-country skiing.

Skiers will have to come to terms with an unusual facet of local conditions while skiing the Gunflint's spidery 200-kilometer nordic-trail network—moose don't have any qualms about messing up your coveted, freshly groomed tracks. But if you can stomach a few piles of scat, an occasional run-in with Bullwinkle, and temperatures that rarely rise above 20 degrees, you'll be privy to the best skiing this side of Telemark, Norway. After even the smallest accumulation of snow—which, in the deep-freeze of a northwoods winter, generally stays on the ground until the end of March—the grooming machines are deployed, shaping the powder into perfectly regular diagonal and skating trails. Antlered giants, seemly snows, and natural refrigeration aside, the real inspiration behind skiers' five-hour pilgrimage north from Minneapolis is the area's unencumbered northern-frontier ambience: cozy lodges nestled in snow drifts and birch groves, frozen wilderness lakes lined by jack pines and spruce-fir forest, and kilometers upon kilometers of pristine and hilly terrain.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 11 May 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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