Skiing Minnesota's Gunflint Trail
|Long live the lake effect!|
There are four distinct nordic-trail systems ranged along the Gunflint's 52-mile length, and each has its distinct characteristics. Here's a look at what you'll find:Pincushion Mountain Area
The action begins two miles northwest of Grand Marais at Pincushion Mountain. This 25-km state-run trail system (15% beginner, 40% intermediate, 45% expert) is isolated from the rest of the Gunflint corridor ski-trail system to the northwest. Pincushion Mountain trails also have an entirely different feel than those farther along the corridor—they run along a 1,000-foot-high exposed ridgeline three miles inland from Lake Superior, with jaw-dropping views of this greatest Great Lake. To get your bearings, ski to the high point of the eight-km Pincushion Mountain Loop, where in good weather you'll have 360-degree views of Lake Superior to the south, Isle Royal National Park to the east, the Sawtooth Mountains to the west, and Lake Superior National Forest to the north. For skiers on a serious training mission, Pincushion's ten-kilometer racing loop is ideal with banked corners, wide uphills, and plenty of passing room.
Bearskin Lake Area
Twenty-four miles farther up the Trail, turn off at the sign for Bearskin Lodge, the southern anchor to the 70-km Central Gunflint Trail system. Here you'll find a balanced array of deep-woods trails (25% beginner, 50% intermediate, and 25% advanced), all of which wind endlessly around skinny fingers of silent, snow-covered lakes. Start with a long, slow, largely intermediate cruise on 10.7-kilometer Old Logging Camp Trail, which gently loops around skinny Flour Lake. Work your way on up to the quad-killing uphills and tear-jerking downhills of eight-kilometer Bear Cub World Cup. Moose Ridge, a 2.1-km one-way spur trail off Old Logging Camp Trail, is a hellish climb, but you'll be rewarded with views into Canada and, if you're lucky, signs of the trail's namesake.
Connecting the Central Gunflint Trail system to the Upper Gunflint Trail system is 40-kilometer Banadad Trail. Groomed by the only snowmobile allowed inside BWCAW boundaries, this single-track trail is the longest groomed wilderness ski route in the United States. You'll be utterly spellbound by the rocky, lake-riddled expanse as you circumnavigate shorelines, climb high ridges, and cross gaping clearings caused by the violent storm of July 4, 1999, which downed an estimated 12 million trees. Despite the mass destruction, Forest Service crews managed to clear the entire trail this fall, ensuring that you won't be picking your way through a horizontal forest. The southern end of the Banadad Trail is accessible via the Central Gunflint Trail system's 10.2-kilometer Poplar Creek Trail; the Banadad's northern terminus is Upper Gunflint's Ham Lake Trail. Unless you're into ultra-endurance skiing, reserve a yurt along the trail from Boundary Country Trekking (see Practicalities).
Upper Gunflint Area
The 100-km Upper Gunflint Trail system, 45 miles northwest of Grand Marais, borders Canada and centers around the steep, mountain-like shores of Gunflint Lake. Prior to last summer's storm, these trails were thickly forested with only a few coveted views of the lake and beyond into Canada. Thanks to the storm's hurricane-force windswhich snapped trees in half like toothpicksthere are some eerie spots where all you'll see for miles are topless birch and pine. With so many diverse miles of trail to choose from (10% beginner, 75% intermediate, 15% advanced) to choose from, you'll probably never ski the same trail twice, but be sure to squeeze in the 10-km Highland/Ham Lake/Overlook Trail loop. Starting at Gunflint Lodge, you'll cross over the Gunflint Trail to the west and ski a few hundred feet up a ridge overlooking Ham Lake and the moose yardsa prime spot for coming face-to-antler with a moose. And wherever there are moose, rest assured that wolves aren't far behindkeep your ears peeled for not-too-distant howls.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication