Hike Up to Minnesota’s Edge Along the Gunflint Trail

Memories and recommendations for exploring up near the Canadian border
The modern, paved version of the Gunflint Trail, also known as Cook County Road 12

Photo by Stephanie Herington

“Want to go for a drive?” I raised my eyebrows at my niece, Ella, mischievously. I had proposed we take a drive up the Gunflint Trail the night before. It was a windy late July afternoon.

“OK,” she said, smiling but visibly nervous, running her fingers through her fluffy pink hair. I handed her the keys as we headed out of the cabin to my car.

We were staying along with the rest of our family at Clearwater Historic Lodge & Canoe Outfitters, which became the Gunflint Trail’s first resort in 1926. This sweet little spot at the edge of the Boundary Waters overlooks the glassy Clearwater Lake with palisades in the distance. My parents, siblings, and their kids stay in cabins here every summer for a week of hiking, canoeing, reading, berry picking, and sharing meals together.

Ella already had her permit and had been practicing, but she had me turn the car around in the gravel driveway lest she back into the raspberry patch. Once my Toyota Corolla was facing the right direction, we were off on our adventure. Our plan was to take the road all the way to the end of the state, of the country, until we could see Canada.

A canoe set to embark at Clearwater Historic Lodge & Canoe Outfitters

Photo by Stephanie Herington

In the mid-18th century, the Gunflint Trail started out as a footpath used as part of the fur trade between the French and the Ojibwe. It was partially paved by the late 19th century to aid the mining industry and is now known as Cook County Road 12. Today, it runs about 55 miles from the vacation destination and artist town Grand Marais at the banks of Lake Superior to the Trail’s End campground just shy of Canada.

There’s not much civilization along the road. Between a bait shop here and a secluded fishing resort there, there are some awesome trails for a northern adventurer. On one family visit, Ella, my brother-in-law, and I took a magical hike to find Magnetic Rock, named after a giant piece of rock that really does have a magnetic attraction. The not-too-strenuous hike begins at about 45 miles up the Gunflint Trail and weaves through a marshy landscape. Along the way, the woods have many clearings, partially because of past wildfires, so you can see the glimmer of blue lakes in the distance. It culminates with Magnetic Rock itself, an old relic from the glacial age, good for photos and perhaps a little bit of climbing.

Hiking trail on the Gunflint Trail

Photo by Joshua Feist

Another pretty hiking area near the end of the Gunflint is by the Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center. My family for years would spend our breakfast hike-planning session at my parents’ cabin trying to remember which hike was called “Blueberry Hill.” Many of our favorite hikes along the Gunflint involve climbing a hill and encountering many blueberries. (For more on berry picking in northern Minnesota, read here) Chik-Wauk’s official Blueberry Hill Trail culminates in a stunning vista overlooking the intricate patterns of lakes and trees.

Chik-Wauk Museum


For our drive to the end of the trail, Ella and I rolled the windows down and let the pine-tree smell waft in the car as she steered my car north.

The farther along the Gunflint we got, the fewer cars we saw, until it seemed to just be us and the wilderness. Finally we reached the Trail’s End Campground where we peeked in the Way of the Wilderness Canoe Outfitters’ Trail’s End Cafe. It’s a tiny little place that from the outside looks like a camp director office cabin. The plastic-covered menu lists things like burgers and pizza.

We drove the rest of the way to the parking lot, which has a lookout spot, and a sign that informed us we were observing Canada. I peered at the various banks past the lakes in sight. “Do you think that’s really Canada?” I asked my niece.

She pressed her lips together, thinking for a moment in the sort of erudite manner she has. “Close enough,” she said, and we made our way home.

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