By Jim Umhoefer
Lake County. On County 7, 8 miles northeast Finland Highway map index: 0-8.
Trails are arduous and camping is for backpackers only at George H. Crosby-Manitou State Park. Minnesota's most primitive park flanks the untamed Manitou River in one of the deepest gorges on the North Shore.
Of the park's 21 backpack sites, 16 are stretched along the length of the Manitou River, while the rest are spaced around Bensen Lake. Not all of the sites are on the water; two at Bensen Lake are a short distance into the forest, and several are uphill from the Manitou River. One of the latter has a hilltop view of Lake Superior and the Wisconsin shore (on clear days). Campers work harder at these sites, however, having to tote water from the river or lake. Drinking water is available only at the park office, so campers must boil or treat the water they draw from Bensen Lake or the river.
The sites are popular among backpackers. The only sounds are wind and water and the occasional howl of a timber wolf. Most of the sites are separated enough that you probably won't notice other campers. Some sites have several tent pads that can accommodate up to 14 campers, and primitive toilets are provided at each camping area. Garbage cans are located only at the trailhead parking lot and at the park office. The smell of garbage and food attracts bears. To discourage unwanted guests, hang your food on the poles provided and pack out all trash. The nights can get cold at Crosby-Manitou when cool breezes off Lake Superior whistle up the river valley.
If you'd like to just hike or picnic here, several private and public campgrounds are located within 10 to 20 miles of the park. Day visitors can fill their canteens at the park office. There is a small walk-in picnic area on Bensen Lake next to the boat/canoe landing. If you like to fish, there are brook trout and splake in the lake, and brown, rainbow and brook trout in the Manitou River. No motors are permitted on the lake. There is not direct access to Lake Superior in the park, but boat landings are located in Silver Bay and Schroeder.
The 23 miles of foot trails at Crosby-Manitou pass through hilly, rocky terrain covered by forests of maple, birch and evergreens. The paths are steep in many places and the loops are designed for long walks by experience hikers. The hiking is difficult in spots, so plan to set a leisurely pace. The trail around Bensen Lake is the shortest, easiest path in the park.
The busiest trail follows the Manitou River, linking most of the backpack sites. Watch for thick-trunked white cedars on this route. Within the park, the river falls 100 feet in a series of cascades. Take the Humpback Trail toward campsite No. 2 for the best view of the waterfalls. Between Highway 61 and Lake Superior, the Manitou River cuts through a steep gorge before dropping into the lake. There is not public access to the lower river.
A few side spurs lead up to hilltops where you can see the energetic river as it tumbles down to Lake Superior. From atop Crosby Hill, I watched a squall blow inland from Lake Superior, streaking the gray-black sky with rain. Afterward, a lone sea gull drifted up the valley, darting and diving in the wind currents. The brief shower left a fresh smell in the air and added a luster to the thick, green foliage of the valley.
The uplands of the North Shore were partially formed by thick layers of lava that poured from ancient volcanoes. These flows are visible today in the rock outcrops that line the waterfall gorges along the Lake Superior coast. Arctic glaciers later crept over the land, gouging and dislodging the rock. As the last glacier melted, it formed an ancestor of Lake Superior. The Maintou River flows through a valley that glacier meltwater helped to form.
When the Indians lived here, woodland caribou were plentiful, but the animals later disappeared as heavy logging destroyed their habitat. Ironically, logging and fires have resulted in an abundance of wildlife in the park. The new growth that has sprouted since the logging era provides excellent food and shelter for deer herds. As the number of deer increased, so did the population of their main predator, the timber wolf. Hikers occasionally find deer kills in the park. Moose are also common in the forests of northeastern Minnesota. They are strong and can be dangerous, but they seldom attack.
The region surrounding George H. Crosby-Manitou State Park is loaded with public trails, campgrounds and trout streams. Teeegouche and Temperance River, nearby state parks, both have trout streams. Caribou Falls State Wayside also has a popular trout stream and a waterfall a mile upstream from Highway 61, but there are no developed facilities. You'll find primitive campgrounds and a network of trails in the Superior National Forest and Finland State Forest.
Because many people are lured by the backcountry experience that Crosby-Manitou offers, it's a good idea to reserve a site on the weekends. Call the state parks reservation number to reserve a site, then call the Tettegouche State Park manager (who also manages Crosby-Manitou) within 10 days of your arrival. Tell the manager how far into the park you wish to hike and an appropriate site will be designated for you. Midweek visitors may not need reservations.
The 11 miles of narrow, rugged cross-country ski trails at Crosby-Manitou State Park are designed primarily for intermediate and advanced skiers. All other trails can be snow shoed or hiked. Water is available at the office for winter campers and trail users. Ice fishing is permitted on Bensen Lake.
If you're lucky (depending on your perspective), you might experience the hushed beauty of a North Shore snowfall from a valley overlook. This is a feast of the senses: a tingling as big flakes bombard your face, a white wall of wind-driven snow, wet snow spattering against tree trunks and, after a snowfall, the piney scent of the northwoods and the icy blue of Lake Superior against the white-gray-green winter forest. This is a good time to scout for wildlife or identify their tracks. Deer, for example, gather in a winter yard along the lower Manitou River.
There are no snowmobile trails in the park, but several routes nearby include the Sawtooth Trail, Tolands Red Dot Trail and North Shore State Trail. The Finland State Forest and Superior National Forest both have snowmobile and ski-touring paths.