I admit it, I had trouble planning the first day of this trip. I worked many hours for several days and still managed to screw it up. That's just the way I am. But, you don't want to plan these tours in infinite detail because there needs to be those random moments to complete the experience. It's part of the whole tour.
I see my dentist every spring and fall. I tell him about my plans to ride to the end of the Gunflint Trail. He asks if I know about the hill at the beginning of the Gunflint Trail. I ask him about how long this hill is and he says, "it feels like 20 miles."
I decide to write to a local Duluth Bike Club and ask them if there is anyone that knows about riding the Gunflint Trail. I get many responses and several mention the hill but all tell me that although it's a significant hill, it's doable. The also tell us where to find food and water along the way.
Also, a couple glasses of wine really helps add some excitement when planning the ride.
It's raining in the early morning when I wake up and we decide to wait until the rain stops before starting. I read the paper and drink coffee while Jim goes straight back to bed. After Jim sleeps another hour or so he gets up and we have a nice pancake breakfast. We start riding at 10:15am and the roads are still wet. We ride the ten miles over to Bob's place to pick him up and really get started. The pavement is getting drier now and the sun is shining as we follow Shepherd Rd on our way to downtown St. Paul.
Our first stop is Rice Park to see Snoopy characters. In Minnesota this seems perfectly normal.
The sun is shining brightly on Rice Park.
Our ride through downtown St. Paul takes us by the farmer's market. Eventually we find the Bruce Vento bike trail (named after a local politician who died in 2000 and was an advocate for the homeless). This trail passes by a number of industrial complexes like the Hamms Brewery and 3M. Soon we get on the Gateway Trail that heads toward Pine Point Park.Gateway Trail
The trail is in good shape and the sun is shining brightly.
Soon we pass through N St Paul - home of the Polars. When I was a kid this suburb was wiped out by a tornado but look how well it has rebounded.
We get onto county road 55 after leaving the Gateway and soon we see a deer and fawn by the side of the road. Our lunch is at the local bar and grill in the pretty St Croix river town of Marine on St. Croix. Our server informs us that there are no onion rings, no pronto pups and no reubens today. I have a taco salad. There is a nice babbling brook running nearby our table, which is also near a table of screaming children. It's still a beautiful sunny day.
There's only one way out of a river town and that direction is up. We climb up county road 4 passing through a tunnel with William O'Brien State Park on the north side of the road. Before too long we turn onto Olinda Trail and head north. It's getting hot and we stop in the quaint town of Scandia for some Gatorade.
After leaving town we stop by the Scandia Monument dedicated to the first homestead by a Swede in Minnesota. This was by no means the last homestead by a Swede in Minnesota. All I can say is uff-da. The road is nice and smooth and the biking is great as we stop into the DQ in Lindstrom for a tasty treat. It's already 5pm and we've gone 66 miles so far. It's becoming apparent to me that my first day distance calculations are very wrong. Today's Bike touring lesson is that it's important to be in good biking shape, because you never know when someone will say to you, "there is a slight change in the distance we will be riding today." At this point I didn't know it would turn out to be 114 miles instead of just 88. I did know that unless we started riding a little faster and longer it'd be dark by the time we finished. I say honesty is the best policy and these little changes bring some excitement to what is currently a typical and routine bike tour. Who wants that? I just can't understand why Jim and Bob are getting annoyed with my mere 25% mileage calculation error. This is fun.
We leave Lindstrom on county road 14 and head to North Branch. Once again this is a nice smooth road.
After 14 we follow county road 30 north to Rush City. It is here that Bob lays down for a rest and almost lies in dog poop. Because we're guys, Jim and I laugh at him. Jim and I look at the map again and figure it's eleven more miles to Hinckley (remember, our map has been scanned and there is no mileage key, so we have an out here :). It turns out it's 22 miles to Hinckley - more exciting fun ahead. We bump into a brief 15 minute rain shower just south of Pine City and wait it out under a leaky train trestle. It's getting dark. I think I hear a werewolf howl in the distance. snicker
We stop in Pine City for one last Gatorade before taking the final leg to Hinckley. So far all the roads have been nicely paved, smooth, and lightly traveled. North out of Pine City on county road 61 we ride on a rough road but at least there is still no traffic. The sun has nearly set at this point. We're exhausted. We get to Hinckley about 10pm and it's definitely dark. The mosquitos are out in swarms. We have a little trouble finding the Whispering Pines Motel.Whispering Pines
Jim and Bob have come to the conclusion that I'm a complete incompetent idiot with no planning skills whatsoever. So, I treat them to dinner at Toby's Restaurant - open 24 hours.
What a great day!
In the morning we have breakfast at Cassidy's and can't help noticing that you can get bananas in milk for breakfast. We had also noticed bananas in milk on the menu at Toby's last night too. This must be a local favorite dish. We have to admit that Cassidys is a fine place for breakfast. We start riding at 10am and head for the Hinckley Fire Museum.Hinckley Fire Museum
It turns out the museum is closed on Mondays (as are so many museums). We somehow miss the trail head of the Hinckley Fire Trail and catch the trail about two miles from the start. Soon we come to a memorial to the 248 people who died in the Hinckley Fire. Trains saved over 400 people. Very dry conditions, unregulated timber cutting, and high winds all contributed to the fire. For us the trail is green, straight, and flat initially.
We come across this gem of a rabbit along the trail.
Soon we see a deer a short distance off the trail. It's cloudy with temperatures in the 70s and a slight north wind (head wind). The trail is not busy at all and we see almost no other riders. We are riding through a scrub forest with bogs and swamps. There is no agriculture visible.
We stopped for snacks in Willow River at a park along the trail. Not too much farther we stop for lunch at the Blue Bear Cafe in Moose Lake. After lunch some sun breaks through the clouds. We pass by the descriptively named 'Joe Jitters Coffee Bar' as we ride through Moose Lake. After lunch we stop for a short break and hear a cat bird sing. Next we come to the small town of Barnum and discover that Barnum is the agriculture center of Carlton County. I didn't know that.
We stop for some Gatorade in Carlton and a little later we take this picture by Unlimited Lumber. In Carlton it starts to rain a little, and we stop under a picnic pavilion but the rain doesn't last very long.
Soon we're riding by Otter Creek and this scenic overlook from an old trestle. There are yellow bikes appearing on the trail meaning some organization provides some free bikes to anyone that needs one.
Soon we notice that the landscape is prettier and it's not as flat as the rest of the Willard Munger Trail.
We see that Canadian Shield rock formations are now visible. The creeks have a red tint indicating the presence of iron. We come upon a spot where we can pick wild raspberries and eat several handfulls - delicious. We have started down a hill that we learn goes for ten miles all the way to Duluth. There are more bike riders appearing on the trail now as we see more riders coming from Duluth.
Once we reach the end of the trail we follow the bike route signs that eventually lead us to Downtown Duluth. Some of the roads are a bit rough and wind through industrial neighborhoods. An unfriendly bus driver cut us off at one point and I'm sure he will burn for eternity in Hell. As usual in Duluth there is a steep hill to climb just before we reach our motel.
That evening we walk to dinner through a confusing skyway system that several people tell us will allow us to avoid walking outside. As we are following their directions we're not sure why we don't want to be outside. Oh well! We eat dinner at Bellisio's, a nice Italian restaurant in Canal Park. After filling our empty stomachs we walk back to our motel making sure to stay outside and enjoy the evening as the night settles in over Duluth.
Today, Lance Armstrong wins a mountain stage in the Tour-de-France after falling down near the end of the stage, thereby adding to his legend.
We start the day with a terrible brunch at our Best Western. After breakfast we start riding north through Duluth.
The old Duluth Central High School is a nice architectural treat.
I knew it was a high school because of all the broken glass on the steps. Though, now it is used for administration purposes only. Its style is Richardsonian Romanesque and was built in 1892 by architects Lucien P. Hall and Emmet S. Palmer.
We ride north on Superior Ave. by Congdon Park. After hitting some road construction we dropped down to London Rd. We pass Glensheen mansion where the Congdon murder occurred on May 25, 1977.
We continue north and head to the North Shore Drive. You can see Duluth in the distance in the picture above. The scenic North Shore Drive to Two Harbors is definitely the preferred route for cyclists.
There is quite a bit of construction along the way. We even hear a blast as this picture is taken. There is so much rock that blasting is necessary for most major construction.
Before long we pass by the Buchanan Monument dedicated to the former town of Buchanan. The poor monument is a bit of a crumbling monument. If you want to see it, you better hurry on up here. The scenic North Shore Drive is 20 miles and ends in the pretty town of Two Harbors. We ride a ways past Two Harbors until we get to Betty's Pies where we have lunch. Here's where we meet a motorcycle rider who is riding around Lake Superior. He's in the Iron Butt Club and tells us he prefers some padding in his cycle pants too. Betty's is crowded as usual but we enjoy a nice lunch and dessert.
Shortly after lunch it starts to get cloudy and cool. Jim decides to put on a jacket. The problem is, Jim left the jacket in the closet back at the Best Western. But Jim doesn't care because he borrowed my old biking jacket. We call them up and they find he jacket and promise to hold onto it until we return in three days. We do pick it up on our way back to Minneapolis and all is well. For a moment there I thought I was going to have to break Jim's kneecaps.
The first stop after lunch is Gooseberry Falls where we explore the falls and then lock up the bikes and hike down to Lake Superior. Skipping stones at Agate Beach is a must, though there aren't as many rocks as I remember from my last trip here (many years ago). Back at the Visitor Center a Ranger tells us about the Gitchi Gumi bike trail that will eventually extend all the way from Canada to Duluth. We make a mental note of that and head north with Lake Superior once again on our right. The sunlight hitting the birch trees is especially brilliant and there are some impressively large birch trees in the Gooseberry Falls area. It's sunny with blue skies but still cool with temperatures in the high 60s. Soon we reach the Gitchi Gumi trail and ride part of this short segment of the smooth new bike path. We arrive at Split Rock Lighthouse but decide not to pay the $8 admission (I've seen it before). Another segment of the Gitchi Gumi takes us to Beaver Bay where we buy some Gatorade. A conversation with some local friendlies starts up when they enquire where we're riding to and where we came from. One guy tells us he's never seen anyone ride up that big hill at the beginning of the Gunflint Trail before. He also tell us to ride to the top of Palisade Head for one of the best views of Lake Superior. We thank them and ride on.
Before long we pass by a taconite industrial area run by Northshore Mining. Then we ride into the town of Silver Bay and pass by Rocky Taconite, a monument to the taconite industry of the North Shore. This town has a sterile company town feeling to it in contrast to the other quaint tourist oriented towns along the North Shore. No tourism here. There is one shopping center in the center of town where we go looking for a restaurant. We also decide to buy some food for breakfast tomorrow to avoid backtracking in the morning. The carry-out boy at the local grocery store tells us the store is open until 8:00pm. He looks like a high school kid and has a hat on that says BONG. Anyway, we know there is time to have dinner before buying some food for breakfast. It turns out to be Mexican night at Northwoods Cafe in Silver Bay. I have some fajitas and chimichangas. We buy some fruit, muffins and nuts for our breakfast and leave Silver Bay behind.
Palisade Head is a short distance past Silver Bay. The climb is steep and end up 350 ft. above the Lake with a crystal clear view.
The local friendlies were right on - fantastic view. The Apostle Islands are visible to the southeast at a distance of 30 miles. We coast back down the hill and ride to Ilgen City finding our lodging, the Whispering Pines Motel. Our arrival is at 8:15pm and there is still some sunshine left in the day. The proprietor is a former pilot now motel operator. We shower, clean the bikes, and visit with some other guests (who are also bike riders) at a campfire that evening.
We eat our delicious fruit, muffins, and nuts for breakfast, and start riding at 10:00am. First we swing through the Baptism River State Park. It's a bit of a steep climb and the road is a little rough road but scenery is nice. The ride back down is much easier. There is an overlook that looks out over Lake Superior at the bottom and we stop to enjoy the view of Lake Superior one more time. Then it's time to once again head north on highway 61 ("God says, 'Out on Highway 61.'" - Bob Dylan).
Our first stop is at a wayside rest to enjoy this babbling brook to wonder how on earth Bob can be comfortable in this position? We head north again and stop to see Taconite Harbor Energy Center. The road is smooth with a nice shoulder until we reach Cook County. Then the road gets a little rough and the shoulder narrows. The riding is not quite as nice from here to Grand Marais. All along Lake Superior we often experience these cold air rushes off the lake that keep us nice and air conditioned. The weather is perfect. For most of the ride along the North Shore we seem to be 50-100 ft. above the lake. We stopped at a bakery in Schroeder for some treats but they were out of everything (waiting for the delivery truck). We move on with our next stop being the Cross River and we take a quick peek at the Falls.
Next we stop at the Temperance River and skipped stones where the river runs into lake. The Temperance creates a stream that travels way out into the lake. A few good tosses allowed us to skip stones across the entire river. We hiked up the path that lead us up to the falls.
Here is where I remind Jim that I'm counting on him to get that jacket back to me. The Temperance runs through a very narrow gorge causing the river to crash and churn everywhere. There are many separate sections each with a spectacular waterfall.
There are numerous potholes (cauldrons) that are carved by the water right into the rock.
Here's a tree that seems to be growing right out of the bedrock.
Our next stop is in Tofte for lunch at Bluefin. This place has a very nice view of Lake Superior for our dining pleasure. Once again there is nice sunny weather with comfortable temperatures in the 70s. Bluefin has a book of statistics on Lake Superior stating the length is 350 mi (563 km), breadth is 160 mi (257 km), average depth is 489 ft (149 m) and maximum depth is 1,333 ft (406 m), shoreline length (including islands) is 2,730 miles (4393 km), volume is 2,935 cubic mi (12,232 cubic km), and water surface area is 31,700 square miles (82,097 square km). There is more water in Lake Superior than all the other Great Lakes combined and it also has the largest surface area of any freshwater lake in the world. Only Lake Baikal in Siberia and Lake Tanganyika in east Africa contain a greater volume of fresh water. Cook County has the highest point (Eagle Mountain, 2301 ft), and the lowest point (Lake Superior, 602 ft.) in the State of Minnesota.
We pass by the North Shore Power Plant. Stopped at Popla River and admired the deep gorge. Next we stop at Cascade River State Park. We meet another fellow biker who was headed south. A friend of hers had recently been killed when a tree fell on her in the BWCA. Sad story and it reminds us we need to do some living for the moment.
The Cascade River has violently rushing water above the highway that eventually flows gently into Lake Superior.
Those there root beer like bubbles are normal and don't you forget it! Shortly before our arrival at Cascade State Park the shoulder disappears and we do about 10 miles of white knuckle riding on busy highway 61 (We'll just put some bleachers out in the sun and have it on Highway 61 - Bob Dylan). After Cascade River State Park we soon arrive at a geology marker that described Lake Superior's geology. To put it simply - there are lots of rocks. We even see a nice rock formation a short distance out from the Lake Superior shoreline. It is difficult to escape the beauty of the North Shore. We hit some nasty road construction just before Grand Marais and it appears there is more construction on the Gitchi Gumi trail in this area.
Our ride into Grand Marais is quite memorable as you see the beautiful bays that surround this town. We arrive at the Best Western Superior Inn and Suites at 5:45pm. We decide to have dinner at the Gunflint Tavern where the food is good, the service is slow, but you don't mind because it all feels like a throwback to the late 1960s. After dinner, as the sun sets on Grand Marais, we skip stones in one of the bays after dinner.
We had a great breakfast at our luxurious accommodations and Bob and I get to watch Jim eat 4 bowls of cereal. Jim was now ready to climb the 'hill' we heard so much about. The hill starts at the beginning of the Gunflint Trail.
We start riding at 9:00am and we're going to ride the Gunflint Trail. We ride back a short ways on Highway 61, turn west, and head out on the Gunflint Trail. No doubt about it, this is a significant hill. We quickly encounter a "Road Closed" sign and follow the designated detour. It's a three-mile steady climb up to the top. It's a nice smooth road though, and it's still sunny with a blue sky, and pleasant temperatures. Along the way a few logging trucks pass by fully loaded if they're headed uphill and empty if headed downhill. This hill though is not as bad as several people have mentioned. Maybe just hearing about "The Hill" and seeing people's reactions to "The Hill" means it could never live up to its reputation. Swiss Hill is just west of Clarington, a town in southern Ohio along the Ohio River. Swiss Hill felt worse. It's not as long and just under a mile and a half long climb to the top, but it is a much tougher climb. The Bike Club guys had it right - it's significant but doable.
At the top, near the golf course (a golf course on the Gunflint Trail?), we stop to catch our breath. Jim gets a little too comfortable and is ready to spend the day there. We drag Jim kicking and screaming back onto his bike and head west into the heart of the BWCA..
Soon we come to a sawmill and this is obviously the destination of those fully loaded logging trucks. There are rolling hills everywhere and in some ways this is the best riding of the trip. It feels remote, there are nice rolling hills on a smooth road, and not much traffic.
We stop at the South Brule River for a break. There are remnants of the old dirt road that was once the Gunflint Trail. There's also a geology marker on this bridge. Don't remove under penalty of law. We start riding again and notice there's a good tail wind. We're riding at a pretty good speed now, which is good because there are also the dreaded black flies that are so annoying. They can't seem to manage to land on us at this speed (although they try). It's an unusual sight - as though the rider ahead of you is a nucleus with black flies electrons buzzing around in a not so concentric circle. Next, we ride to Swamper Lake and stop for another break. We can see some of the incredible tree blowdown area from a major storm five years ago. A few campers were killed, several injured, and many just stranded in a sea of trees that all fell over at the same time due to some incredible straight line winds.
We see this fine piece of advertising shortly just before lunch. We eat lunch at the Trail Center restaurant which is about the half way point of the Gunflint Trail. This place is a slow paced restaurant for 10 months a year and jam packed during July and August. Great food and malts. There is a "I Like Cats They Taste Like Chicken" bumper sticker on display inside. They have a 1959 map of the BWCA and the Gunflint Trail. This map has such historic locations as Little Asshole Lake and Big Asshole Lake.
Hey, you have to decide, either you're with Smokey or you're with the arsonists!
Above is a photo of some of the hills we ride by in the BWCA. We stop at an overlook that lets us see Gunflint Lake with Canada on the other side. The road has become much rougher after lunch. We too are becoming members of the iron butt club. Perhaps this is why we aren't stopping as much. There's the occasional forest service kiosk and trailhead and all this pretty scenery. If you stop the mosquitos and black flies might find you. It turns out that not many lakes are visible from the Gunflint Trail itself. The lakes are usually 1/2 to 3 miles off the trail. The end is near.
We reach the Trails End Cafe and have a beverage to celebrate.
At 4:30pm I get a bit nervous cause our ride is 1/2 hour late. I ride 5 miles out on the trail and then ride back to the Trails End. I'm starting to wonder if we will have to ride back to Grand Marais (which would have been a crazy idea). Our ride shows up pretty quickly after that. All turns out well and there was no need to worry.
We pack up the bikes and head back to Grand Marais. Another successful tour.
We shower and walk to dinner.
We have a great meal at the Angry Trout.
I see my dentist again in the fall. He wants to know if I rode my bike all the way up that hill at the beginning of the Gunflint Trail. I tell him I sure did. He asks how long the hill is and I tell him it's three miles. All he says is "three miles huh" and continues picking at my teeth looking for cavities and such.
Total Miles: 379.5