Gunflint Trail National Scenic Byway

Details

  • DesignationNational Scenic Byway (2009)
  • Intrinsic QualitiesNatural
  • LocationMN
  • Length57 miles
Byway Visitor Information
USDA Forest Service
Statewide Byway Partners
Downloadable Minnesota Byways Map
Explore Minnesota Tourism
The North Brule River in high water flows between alder and spruce trees on its bank. A series of shallow rapids form ripples on the river.
Sue Weber Photo

Overview

The Gunflint Trail Scenic Byway runs approximately 57 miles along the Gunflint Trail from Grand Marais to Trail's End Campground and the Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center. Along the way you'll pass through history - the paved road which was originally a trail to a source of flint on Gunflint Lake, pines planted in the 30's by the CCC, a railroad and mine that vanished, signs of a meteor impact a billion or so years ago, and a forest regrowing from a fire in 2007.


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Story of the Byway

The Gunflint Trail is a corridor of contiguous land surrounded on both sides by the Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). Visible from each side of the two-lane highway are forests, sweeping vistas across miles of glacier-sculpted terrain, calm lakes, and rushing waters. Sightings of moose, deer, fox, bear, wolf, or bald eagle are common. The roadway is free of modern intrusions such as billboards and fast food establishments.

Unlike other parts of Minnesota that have been developed with densely populated tourism-oriented businesses, the national scenic byway passes through a landscape of protected forests, federally designated wilderness, pristine border-country lakes, wildflowers and berries, habitat for a variety of mammals, and a significant number of bird species, and small “mom-and-pop” businesses. Homes and businesses blend discreetly into the forest, and none advertise their presence with much more than a mailbox or a small sign on their building. Along the Gunflint Trail National Scenic Byway, one can find lodging varying from bed and breakfast inns to cabins to campgrounds, some in historic buildings. While some local businesses have changed hands over the years, many are in the care of second and third generations’ family owners, and all preserve the tradition of small entrepreneurs.

The Gunflint Trail is located within the Superior National Forest; the Gunflint Ranger District is headquartered in Grand Marais, MN. The forest was established in 1909 by the proclamation of President Theodore Roosevelt. One-third of the Forest is designated the BWCAW. The forest’s 3.9 million acres contain over 2,000 lakes, including many lakes that provide good fishing for walleye, northern pike, smallmouth bass, and lake trout.

The Gunflint Trail is surrounded on either side by the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). The 1,098,000-acre designated wilderness occupies the lower portion of the geological Canadian Shield and is part of the Superior National Forest. Motorized travel is prohibited in nearly all areas of the wilderness.

The Gunflint Trail represents one of the most geologically and botanically unique areas in Minnesota. Volcanic activity and glaciers created the basis of the many lakes, river bottoms, and rocky cliffs. A variety of environments support a distinctive combination of forests, including northern conifer, northern hardwood, tamarack, and spruce bogs.

The Gunflint Trail began as a footpath in the 1800s or earlier and was first used by Ojibwe, surveyors, and trappers. The footpath was developed into a dirt road and eventually became the 2-lane black-topped county road it is today.

The Gunflint Trail (County Road 12) begins in Grand Marais, in Cook County, Minnesota. Grand Marais is a community of about 1,400 people nestled on Lake Superior’s coast against the dramatic backdrop of the Sawtooth Mountains. It is surrounded by millions of acres of lush forests graced with rocky cliffs, serene inland lakes, streams, and thundering waterfalls that empty into Lake Superior. Grand Marais is accessed via Minnesota Highway 61.

As one travels north along the Gunflint Trail from Grand Marais they will ascend nearly 1,200 feet in a matter of miles. This ascent provides beautiful overlooks of Lake Superior and the City of the Grand Marais. From Grand Marais to its end, the Gunflint Trail winds 57 miles through an undeveloped forest of pine, aspen, birch, and maple stands and alongside lakes and streams. The Gunflint Trail terminates at Gull Lake and the Trails End Campground, just five miles from the Canadian border. Over the past 100 years, the Gunflint Trail has evolved into a modern two-lane highway.

Gunflint is a lovely drive, full of scenery, but more importantly, it has a strong “sense of place”; it is a place in the heart of those who live and visit the area. The air is clean and pure. The forest comes close to the roadway. Literally, hundreds of crystal-clear lakes are accessed through the Gunflint Trail.

To many, this area is a prime American wilderness destination.

Driving Directions

The Gunflint Trail (County Road 12) begins in Grand Marais, in Cook County, Minnesota. From Grand Marais to its end, the Gunflint Trail winds 57 miles through undeveloped forest of pine, aspen, birch, and maple stands and alongside lakes and streams. The Gunflint Trail terminates
at Gull Lake, and the Trails End Campground, just five miles from the Canadian border.

Points of Interest

  • Kettle Mountain Northern Light Lake Hiking Trail

    Hiking.

  • Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center

    First named the Rove Lake Road, Cook County Commissioners authorized road construction of the Gunflint Trail in 1884. Prior to that it was a walking trail used by Native Americans, trappers, surveyors, and prospectors. Looking back further, archeologists have discovered evidence of human inhabitants from the Paleolithic period. Dakota, Cree, and Anishinaabe lived on the land well before Europeans appeared. Where once the land was owned by all, the Treaty of 1854 ceded the land and private ownership soon followed.

    Native Americans, fur trappers and traders, Voyageurs, miners and loggers, fishing camps, resorts, campgrounds, and individual residents are all part of Gunflint Trail history. Natural history of the land and water is inseparable from the stories of people. Take a journey through time. Experience the cultural and natural history of the Gunflint Trail at Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center.

  • Laurentian Divide

    Also known as the Northern Divide and separates the Hudson Bay, Gulf of Mexico, and Great Lakes- St. Lawrende watersheds.

  • Mayhew Lake Historic Site
  • Little Iron Lake and Ham Lake Fire

    Great variety of fish species.

  • Magnetic Rock Trail
  • Kekekabic Trail
  • Pincushion Mountain Overlook
  • Gunflint Lake (overlooking Canada)
  • Cross River Pull Over

Itinerary

  • Minnesota's Natural Wonders

    Start at the Grand Marais’s Gunflint Trail Scenic Byway entrance and take Minnesota Route 12 north through the rolling Minnesota countryside. Keep an eye out for moose and birds as you drive through this Globally Important Birding Area.

    There are many places to stop along the way for a hike. Shortly after you enter the byway, discover the Wildflower Sanctuary just past the Little Devil Track River. Check out the Wooded and Riverbank Trails, the Norquist Rain Garden, and the Lupine Fields. As you continue north, look out for the Stand of Gunflint Pines and the Kettle Mountain/Northern Light Lake Hiking Trail. Try to spot a moose at the Moose Viewing Area and Trail Parking near Swamper Lake.

    Soon, you will reach the Laurentian Divide, which separates the Hudson Bay Watershed to the north from the Gulf of Mexico Watershed to the south. As you wind through the Superior National Forest, look over to Canada as the byway travels along the waters.

    At the end of the byway, you’ll discover the Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center, where you will experience the cultural and natural history of the Gunflint Trail. Head back where you came to return home and scope out any places you might have missed on the drive up!

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