Grip and Rip Instead of Dip

Peddlers meet paddlers in northern Minnesota’s canoe country

I had always intended to paddle the Timber-Frear canoe loop, a circle of remote lakes deep in the Superior National Forest. But good intentions never got me in my canoe. Now, I’m seeing Frear Lake for the first time—and I’m pedaling, not paddling.

The logging road, which forms an outer loop around Timber-Frear, quickly deteriorates from the fine gravel trail I left back at the parking lot. Basketball-sized rocks jostle the shock absorbers on my Trek 4900. “It’ll get a little rugged back there,” Jeff Lynch of Sawtooth Outfitters in Tofte had warned me. “You’ll see some wild country.”

Brush and birch trees encroach as the trail narrows. A grouse flushes from beneath my front tire. Then the trail steepens into a maple stand, and I spy moose tracks in the mud. My God, I think, this is a great place to bike.

Other pedalers are making the same discovery. There’s a biking boom in canoe country, sparked by a paved gateway bike trail along the shore of Lake Superior.

When completed, the Gitchi-Gami State Trail will be an 86-mile asphalt lane from Two Harbors to Grand Marais. More than 20 miles of it are already paved. According to Pat Christopherson of the Lutsen-Tofte Tourism Association, the best completed section runs 13 miles from Gooseberry Falls to Beaver Bay, through Split Rock State Park. “There are steep hills, but you’re rewarded with spectacular overlooks of Lake Superior, some of the best anywhere,” he says.

Many people ride mountain bikes on the Gitchi-Gami trail; as they look across Highway 61 into the Superior National Forest, they start feeling adventurous. “The Gitchi-Gami is the gateway drug to our inland-forest bike trails,” says Christopherson.

Beginners should try the Honeymoon Trail—a forest-service road of light gravel that slopes downhill from the Sawbill Trail. It runs under a thick canopy of birch and maple that is especially beautiful when the leaves change color in the fall. The Pancore Loop and the Timber-Frear Loop are more challenging backcountry routes of mud and rock. Hardcore mountain bikers prefer the Sugarbush Trail system, with a trailhead at Britton Peak. “If you want to get muddy, skin your knees, do some gripping and ripping, go try the Sugarbush,” Christopherson says.

Melinda Spinler, who co-owns the Superior North Outdoor Center bike shop in Grand Marais, says the Pincushion trails farther north offer biking for anyone who can pedal. “There are flat, smooth trails that we’ve had 6-year-olds do,” she says, “and there’s some really technical single track, too.”

Back on the Timber-Frear trail, a couple of grouse hunters tell me I just missed seeing a moose on the edge of an aspen stand. They stalk off after their game, and I finish my ride. I pull into the parking lot, drawing inquisitive looks from the ATVers, hunters, and canoeists in the parking lot. In a few years, they probably won’t be as puzzled to see pedalers. Because this is a great place to bike.

Gustave Axelson is a St. Paul-based freelance writer.

For more info:

Lutsen-Tofte Tourism Association

Sawtooth Outfitters—218-663-7643;
Superior North Outdoor Center—218-387-2186;

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