Sunday, September 30, 2007

In one of those "you mean I'm not the only one?!" experiences, I just stumbled across the slackpacker website. It is a great resource for finding the perfect trail for a day in the wilderness. It is also designed especially for people like me who want to get a little off the beaten path, but who also want a hot shower and a good meal at the end of the day.

From the website:

You've seen unwashed, malnourished through-hikers on the Appalachian Trail. You've heard about the grizzly bear wandering through the backcountry camp. You've encountered backpackers with tons of gear, pots, pans, and a folding stove -- eating some gritty greyish paste and raving about it.

And you want no part of it.

But you love hiking. In fact, nothing suits you more than a day in the wilderness, except perhaps, a day in the wilderness followed by vitello saltimboco in a four-star restaurant. You'd enjoy weeklong expeditions, if only you could jump in a car at the end of the day and head off to a comfortable bed.

Congratulations, you are a confirmed Slackpacker.

Friday, September 28, 2007

North Shore Details

We followed state highway 61 from Duluth through Grand Marias and then switched to the Gunflint Trail (County Road 12).

Since this is a prime tourist destination, information on the area is readily available. A couple sources to get you started include:
  • The NorthshoreVisitor includes information on both hiking and driving tours that let you make the most of the fall colors. It includes adequate road maps.
  • Many of the best roads for fall color viewing are forest roads, so a map with a sufficient level of detail is necessary. Much of this information is also available in printed form as a tourist flier called "America's North Coast" that is available in many locations - pick one up, as it has the easiest to follow routes and maps you will find (although bear in mind that the scale and specific location of some locations on the map is only proximate and that the website doesn't seem as informative).
  • Mile by Mile's page on highway 61.
  • The printed book Nina's North Shore Guide by Nina Simonowicz is a bit difficult to use (it is almost impossible to find the exact information you want quickly, but includes a lot of really good in-depth information and is peppered with lively illustrations by local artist Betsy Bowen. Simonowicz also maintains the very useful online Northshore Visitor site referenced above.
In any season, expect to pay a premium for lakeside - or even lake view - accommodations anywhere along the shore.

Duluth - We stayed at the new Canal Park Lodge, which replaced my old favorite, the Park Inn (which was a dump, but cheap and close to the water and canal park). The Lodge is located at the far end of canal park, but it has waterfront views and large rooms and it isn't far from the main activities in the Canal Park area.

The rooms are large and attractive with windows that open on the top, allowing you to fall asleep to the sounds of Lake Superior. Wireless is supposed to be available in the room, but in reality one must stand in the hallway to connect. (Don't ask me, but the desk suggested trying and it did work.) After you've connected to the network you can work in the room - unless, of course, you drop the connection, in which case it is either back into the hallway or down to the desk to get a cable. Just get the cable when you check in and save yourself some hassle.

Although probably one of the fancier mid-range hotels, it didn't seem to be much more expensive than any of the other waterfront options.

North Shore - We stayed at the Cascade Lodge mostly because it was in about the right location along the shore and I could get a bit of a lake view for a not too ridiculous price. It is a friendly enough, family-owned place, but nothing special. Apparently wireless access is available in the lodge. (They didn't tell us that when we asked at check-in, but when I checked-out I noticed a sign on the counter.) I could actually sometimes pick it up a connection from the sitting area in Cabin 1.

I didn't know that the lighthouse in Two Harbors is a bed and breakfast. (Ok, I didn't even know there was a lighthouse here.) It is a little too far south for me, but looks like it would be a lovely place to stay if you weren't going very far north.

Next time I will probably try to book at the Best Western Cliff Dweller in Lutsen. It is affordable, on (well, above) the water, and in a great location along the shore. That is, of course, if I can't get a friend (Hi, Joyce and Jerry!) or a friend of a friend or even a relative of a friend of a friend (Hi, David!) with a house or condo on the shore to let me stay at their place. That would be best :-)

Grand Marais has a number of lodgings, but keep in mind that the bulk of activities along the shore are located in the Lutsen area and southward.

Along the Gunflint - Gunflint Lodge has been welcoming guests since the 1920s. Set on the shores of Gunflint Lake, it is located 43 miles and a world away from Grand Marais. The lodge is not cheap, but our cabin was lovely and it is a great place to stay. If you want to find out what is going on up at the resort, or just keep up with what sound like a really nice and interesting family, the Kerfoots and their staff maintain a nice blog.

Duluth - For a city with as much tourism as Duluth, there ought to be better dining options.
  • We often end up at the Lake Café in the back of the Dewitt Seitz building, where the Mediterranean-inspired food is fresh and a little creative. Service there is usually good too.
  • Northern Smokehouse, across the hall from the Lake Café, now serves sandwiches. With the fabulous meats and cheeses available here, their sandwiches should be out-or-this-world. (It's also a great place to load up your cooler with healthy road snacks. . . a little smoked lake trout, anyone? Yum, yum.)
  • This time we ended up eating dinner at the Lake Café because my first choice, the cranky but excellent Boathouse wasn't open on Sundays (see below) and the staff at Little Angie's Cantina was too busy (despite a large number of open tables) to actually serve us. (And now that I see that Little Angie's is part of the Paulucci empire, I realize I probably shouldn't eat there anyway. The Paulucci's have done great things for Duluth - heck, Canal Park as it exists today probably wouldn't otherwise, but a thousand pound gorilla is still a thousand pound gorilla - and best avoided.)
  • Our plans for breakfast worked better, with a great meal at the newly opened Hell's Kitchen just a couple blocks from Canal Park. The food (with the exception of the horrid buffalo sausage) and service were both excellent. We both highly recommend the porridge (really!) and the lemon-ricotta hotcakes. I can't wait to return.
  • Amazing Grace is a nice, folksy bakery and coffee shop located in the "garden level" of the Dewitt-Seitz building
  • Avoid Grandma's (the flagship restaurant of the Paulucci empire) except as a bar. The location is the best in the city, however, the food is not only over-priced, but actually pretty bad. The bar, however, can be a great place to hang out.
  • My new "Duluth" favorite is the Boathouse at Barker's Island -- despite my recent bad experiences. It is a tough place to get into and they aren't very nice about it. Still, if you can get in, the food is wonderful. (I actually got in for dinner when I was in town for a business meeting earlier this year.) Be sure you have a reservation!
  • I really, really want to eat at the New Scenic Café someday, but it is just too far out of Duluth to easily visit for dinner and not far enough out to be near another destination.
  • I'd also really like to try the very new Nokomis restaurant, but haven't done so for many of the same reasons. Location, location, location!

Grand Marais - There are a lot of dining options in Grand Marais, some are very good, may are less so.
  • The Angry Trout is a local favorite that specializes in seafood and other local goodies. The food is good and the restaurant supports all the right things - all the things I support (locally grown food, local artists, sustainability), but somehow it seems really pretentious. Maybe it's just me. At any rate, they have a great patio over looking the lake and the smoked herring (smoked next door) is to die for.
  • Relatively new on the scene is the totally fabulous Chez Jude. I loved everything about this place and wish I could try every item on the menu. The food was interesting and beautifully prepared and the service was top notch. Anytime chef Judi Barsness wants to open a restaurant in my neighborhood, I'll be first in line to eat there!
  • As noted, the design of the dining room at Naniboujou is totally over-the-top. The food is ok, a little overpriced, but it's not horribly so. The house salad is splendid and, while the bread on which my walleye sandwich was served was totally boring, the fish itself was lovely and perfectly cooked. (Just don't eat the bread. Who needs those extra carbs anyway?)
Along the Gunflint Trail - I packaged dinner with my room at the Gunflint Lodge. The dinning room is very pleasant and our meals were good, although not incredible. Knowing now how short the chef was on ingredients (we found out at breakfast that they had actually created a special menu for dinner because they were out of so many things), I'm impressed with the chef's ability to improvise. I wouldn't have guessed it was either an ad hoc menu or that the usual stock of ingredients was a bit short. I would like to see what comes out of the kitchen on a normal night - I suspect it would be pretty impressive.

Things to do
Northern Minnesota is the perfect place for a fall hike - great scenery, comfortable weather, and no bugs! If you get tired of the great outdoors (or if it is raining), most of the towns along our route have an abundance of cute shops and galleries that cater to tourists.

Grand Rapids - There is an almost endless supply of lakes and hiking trails in this area, particularly within the Chippewa National Forest. As noted, the Tout Lake area is gorgeous (follow the trail further and it takes you into the picturesque Joyce Estate area), but we also have fond memories of past hikes in the Suomi Hills. Take your pick - in the fall they are all wonderful!

The Laurentian Divide Wayside on Highway 38 (the Edge of the Wilderness Scenic Byway) has a short loop trail that is very scenic in the fall.

Duluth - This is the major city of northern Minnesota and offers lots of options for residents and tourists alike.
  • If you arrive in Duluth via I-35, stop at the Thompson Hill Visitor's Center as you come into town. On the other side of glass wall inside the lobby is an amazing view of the city. If you keep following the road just below the visitor's center, it becomes Skyline Parkway. Follow this for a scenic tour of the city from above.
  • If it is spring or fall when you arrive in Duluth, stop at nearby Hawk Ridge to see who is traveling through overhead.
  • If you want to watch the lakers (the giant cargo ships that ply the Great Lakes), Canal Park is a great place to do it. The Shipping News provides a list of who is expected in and when. (Ships wait outside the inner harbor until they are ready to load or unload, so often there will be a couple of them anchored out beyond the light awaiting their turn.) Information on many individual ships can be found on Boatnerd.
  • Canal Park encompasses both the entrance to the inner harbor, a museum, and the fabulous Lakewalk, which winds along Lake Superior's Shore for more than three miles. Besides the lake itself, the Lakewalk features sculpture and a large rose garden that sits (literally) on top of the freeway.
  • We wanted, but didn't get to check out the Seven Bridges Road on this trip. It is a great mini-tour any time of year.
  • Of course, Duluth is a tourist town, so there is plenty of shopping to be had. We are partial to Sivertson's, Northern Smokehouse (located in the Dewitt-Seitz building, but not listed anywhere), and the Duluth Pack Store (all just off Canal Park). Of course, I also have to put a plug in for Obscurousity, a funky vintage store on 4th (just past the Whole Foods Coop) owned by the little girl who lived next door when I was growing up. (She's all grown up now and quite a business woman.)
  • While I don't agree with all of their recommendations, SuperiorTrails has a lot of good information on things to do in Duluth. The Visit Duluth tourism site also has a good listing, with links to attractions such as Glensheen (a cool place to tour), the Duluth Huskies baseball team (a GREAT way to spend a summer evening - even if you don't like baseball), the scenic railway (which we've never done, but sounds like it might be fun), and lots of other things.
The North Shore and Gunflint Trail - Although most of the scenic sites along the North Shore are actually in state parks, the state has done a very nice thing and provided wayside rests and pull-offs where one can take in some of the state's most spectacular scenery without even paying for a park pass. Even at the cost of a pass, the chance to gawk at this scenery would be an amazing bargain, so slow down and take advantage of the fact that it is all there for your enjoyment - totally without charge!

Some of my favorite parks include:
Besides the state parks, the area has numerous other hiking trails, including the Superior Hiking Trail. The NorthshoreVisitor identifies some of the best of these for viewing the fall colors, including Bretton Peak, Oberg Mountain, and Honeymoon Bluff. Slackpacker also has a good list of trails suitable for day hikes, as does the Gunflint Trail site.

Fall is a perfect time to take a leaf tour. The Sawtooth Mountains, just inland from the lake, are known for their lovely fall colors. A maze of local and forest roads lets you get a close look. The best guide I found for the local road system was in the local tourist publication America's North Coast.

Grand Marais has a picturesque location on the lake. Along with a number of nice galleries (including another location of Sivertson's), Grand Marais is also home to North House Folk school, a really cool place where you can learn traditional crafts like canoe and other boat building, basketry, bread baking, sailing, and much more.

The Gunflint Trail - Country Road 12 begins in Grand Marais and heads north, following the border lakes. The Scenic Byway runs for 57 miles.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

At the Rainbow's End

Previous Post: The Two Harbors Lighthouse

It is about dinner time and Lane would like to eat something, so I tell him to keep a watch out for the Scenic Café. We miss it and he doesn't seem that eager to eat there, so I keep going - I'm ambivalent about stopping for dinner anyhow. However, as we drive through Duluth it occurs to me that this would be a good time to (once again) try to get into the Boathouse in Superior. (It was closed when we stopped there for dinner on Sunday). It is a bit of a detour, but not too far out of our way.

Of course, once we get to the restaurant, they refuse to seat anyone who doesn't already have a reservation. They don't seem interested in my pleading and I vow never to eat there again. (A vow I probably won't keep since there really aren't that many fabulous restaurants in the Duluth-Superior area.)

Back on the road, I decide it is time to just get out of here and go home, but as we near the exit for the Duluth rest area, Lane reminds me that I wanted to stop to check out the view.

I can see by the rear view mirror that the light on the harbor looks good, so I exit.

When we stop, I can see the end of a rainbow far to the north. Sweet!

The Two Harbors Lighthouse

Previous Post: Honeymoon Bluff

After a stop to check out the house a friend is building in Little Marais (Hi, Jerry!), we are planning to drive pretty much straight through so we can get home at a reasonable hour tonight. However, sitting at the light in Two Harbors I notice a sign with an arrow that says "Lighthouse." I ask Lane what the lighthouse here is like and he mumbles something incoherent, so I make the turn.

The route is a little serpentine, but I can see a classic brick lighthouse in the distance.

Who knew?

The parking lot by the lighthouse is filled with cars and people - how odd that there are so many people here on a Thursday afternoon. Is this some kind of high school hang out?

When I get out of the car I realize that a laker is coming in, positioning itself to dock and everyone is scurrying to the pier to watch.

We skip the pier and circle around the lake side of the lighthouse, admiring the lighthouse itself, the shoreline, and the rapidly changing clouds (we just missed one rainstorm, but it appears another is building). It is an enticing scene.

By the time we return to the car, the laker has almost slid into its spot to load. It is amazing to see how fast and smoothly a behemoth like this can slip into such a small space.

Honeymoon Bluff

Previous Post: Morning on Gunflint Lake

We take a break on our return trip to Grand Marais in order to hike at Honeymoon Bluff.

Like most here, this trail starts with a steep climb, but it is a short climb and soon we know that good views are just ahead!

Good views indeed!

Morning on Gunflint Lake

Previous Post: Happy Anniversary!

Despite good intentions, we do not get up early.

I am hoping to have a quick, light breakfast at the lodge, but the full-service restaurant is the only option and it is busy. (The larger parties who had been seated just before us at dinner last night have apparently stayed just ahead of us for breakfast as well.) I'm a little let down, but we are seated next to a window and I decide it is ok to wait if I have a view like this!

The waiter greets us first with a long list of what is not available: waffles, hashbrowns, mushrooms, onions . . . It is a long list. Apparently the geologists have been particularly hungry. This probably explains the abundance of brussel sprouts at dinner last night (something that had perplexed our waitress). At any rate, they have both French toast and pancakes, so we place our order and settle in to watch the lake for awhile longer.

Our order arrives with the "last serving of real maple syrup" in a little silver pitcher. As we finish eating, another couple is lamenting the imitation syrup they have been served. We have only used a small amount of our allotment, so I quickly bring it over to them. My good deed for the day :-)

Now it is time to get out on the water.

Not having with appropriate clothing for kayaking or canoing, we opt for a little motor boat with which to visit the narrows located directly across the lake. We are given some quick direction while Lane takes stock of the motor. Then we are off.

It is a beautiful morning, cool and still, the near shores aglow in the morning light.

I say the "near" shores not only because of the angle of the light, but because much of the shore across the lake (in Canada actually) is spiked with bare, blacked trees. A map of the route taken by this summer's fire as it raced through.

From the water it is easy to see how close the fire came to the Gunflint Lodge and why last night's waitress had feared losing her home and her job all at once. (She still has both.) The capriciousness of forest fires is also obvious - acres of blackened hillsides, interrupted by a home or two or a small patch of forest that the flames somehow missed.

As we near the narrows, we can see that all of the landscape beyond has been blackened.

While fire is a natural part of the cycle in these forests, we'd rather enjoy the brightly colored fall leaves, so we turn back, trying to remember to stick to the inlets on the American side - although it seems hard to believe we will meet anyone on border patrol out here! The larger world feels far away.

But, of course, we really aren't out in the "wilderness." As remote as this area feels, there are homes hidden in the tress all along the lakeshore. This may be a respite from the larger world, but it is not a place apart from it.

Next Post: Honeymoon Bluff

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Happy Anniversary!

Previous Post: Gunflint Lodge

We stop by the lodge on our way back to the cabin. There don't seem to be any geologists in the bar, but we had put a bottle of champagne on ice before leaving on our hike, so the geologists can have the bar. (Today is our wedding anniversary and we came prepared.) As I anticipated, the restaurant manager loans us a couple of champagne glasses to take back to our cabin.

It is dusk now. Outside the window the birds are making their final, nervous, forays to the feeder as the darkness falls. Inside, Lane pours the champagne, lights a match to the logs waiting in the fireplace and we settle in to relax until dinner.

Life in the northwoods at its very best.

Happy anniversary, dear!

Gunflint Lodge

Previous Post: Blueberry Hill
Our destination today is the Gunflint Lodge, which has welcomed visitors to the shores of Gunflint Lake since the 1920's. It is a Minnesota classic, so I wanted to check it out for myself.

The lodge itself doesn't look very fancy, but the view from the window is lovely. Hmm. . . maybe we should check-in, drop our luggage in the cabin, and then sit here taking in the view along with a nice glass of wine.

The otherwise helpful woman at the front desk gives us the bad news: A group of geologists is staying at the lodge and they have reserved the bar for a private party. It will close in five minutes.

Darn geologists.

Our cozy little cabin almost makes up for the disappointment. While our view of the lake is mostly obscured by trees, the well-stocked bird feeders ensure a continual variety of bird, squirrel, and chipmunk antics. There is also a fireplace, which is stocked with wood and ready to be lit.

Since we can't sit in the bar and since the sun has reappeared, maybe we should do another hike.

We pull out the trail map and start off.

The sign showing the trails is easy to find, but kind of vague. Where does the trail actually start?

It takes a couple of false starts and an equal number of encounters with a man who is (apparently) pulling the same boat back and forth, but finally we are following a trail through open meadows toward the wooded hillside beyond.

From the meadows the trail heads along the lower ridge, leading to a look-out over the lake. The sun is low in the sky, making the poplars on the hillside below glitter almost blindingly.

It is a beautiful place to enjoy the close of the day.

Next Post: Happy Anniversary!

Blueberry Hill

Previous Post: Peak Experiences

The Gunflint Trail (County Road 12) heads mostly north out of Grand Marais and then runs along the Canadian border lakes for just under 60 miles.

It is a beautiful drive almost from the very beginning, with a mix of deep green pines and brilliant yellow poplar under a sometimes blue sky.

We make one stop along the way, choosing the short hike up Blueberry Hill (the Northern Light Overlook Trail) over Honeymoon Bluff because of the location of the sun.

There are no cars at the pull-off. Perfect. We climb the steep trail in solitude.

Through the trees we have an occasional glimpse of wonderful brilliantly colored scenery stretching away in all directions.

However, there are also interesting things right at our feet.

Still alone here, we take our time drinking in the scenery at the top of the trail.


We descend carefully, concentrating so fully on the slippery leaf and pine needle-covered rocks that we almost don't notice that we are not alone here after all.

Next Post: Gunflint Lodge