Trail Pairings: North Shore Double

Apr 7, 2020Skiing, State Parks, Trail Pairings

A Trail Pairing like no other

This one’s a little longer, so hang in there. I usually recommend one trail with one visit to a brewery, but our recent trip to the North Shore called for more.  There’s so much to do that it’s hard to choose just one place. The miniature cabin we rented in Tofte was also a convenient launchpad for exploration. It was the perfect setup for an epic Trail Pairing blog over four days.

While we had a lot of fun exploring the trails and visiting breweries, it was before COVID-19 had locked down our state and forced us, the social animal, into social distancing. That being said, we all need to be safe and keep this virus from spreading until we get the green light to “move about the cabin freely”. In the meantime, use this blog post as a mental bookmark for your next visit.

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Pincushion Mountain Trails

Jen and I arrived at the Pincushion Mountain Ski Trails just when they were finishing up the races for their annual Pincushion Ski Festival. The Pincushion Mountain Trail system is just a short drive up the Gunflint Trail from Grand Marais, in fact, you can see the city and the lake from the parking lot. Pincushion Mountain is bounded to the west by the Gunflint Trail and to the northeast by the Devil Track River and has trails from easy to advanced. Its 25-mile multi-use trail system is maintained by members of the North Superior Ski and Run Club and lovingly groomed for skate and cross-country skiing and fat bikes in the winter. (See my interview with club president Chris O’Brien “Still Going Strong After Forty Years”, on page four of the 2019/20 Winter issue.)

We were bummed to have missed the races, but there was just enough time for a little exploration on our own before the Skijoring demonstration. We checked in at the Chalet and took off in search of the easy trails. Neither Jen nor I practice what you’d call competition skiing. It’s more like aggravated walking with boards on our feet.  But our ancient, waxless skis have carried us to some cool places, and that’s what it’s all about.

The trails were nice, broad swaths through the woods, flanked with green conifers and the nude, white trunks of birch. West Overlook, Lower Snowman, Upper Snowman and Lynn’s Loop make a series of interconnected loops and were fun to ski with their rolling ups and downs. There was plenty of room for a huge skate lane and a nice ski track. With the sun out and no clouds in a bright, blue sky, temps edged close to 30 degrees that day. It was a very welcome change from the deep freeze we had the week before. You know, the kind of sunshine that recharges your batteries instantly. At one point we took off our coats and hats, it was that warm.

Part of the Pincushion Ski Festival was a Skijoring demonstration. The basic idea is that you attach a dog to yourself via a harness and have it pull you while you’re on skis. At the start, near the Chalet, a crowd had gathered to watch the event. Dogs were barking and yipping in anticipation of what was to come. Smoke from a bonfire drifted across the field, kids were running or skiing around, and it was a carnival atmosphere. One by one, the dog-person teams took off, staggered about a minute or so apart. Some dogs bolted down the trail on command, the skier in tow. Others didn’t have a clue what was going on and had to be coaxed by the racer and the cheering crowd until they finally sauntered off, weaving back and forth. Did I mention the weather was just fantastic?

I learned a couple of things that day. First, if you stand along the trail to take skijoring photos, the dog will head your way to check you out and that’s not where the skier wants to be. Second, if you try to get out of the way and sink up to your belly button in snow while carrying a camera, it takes about three minutes of one-handed flailing to get back up.  You will also scoop up about nine pounds of snow, most of which will go straight into the tiny flap where your base layer came un-tucked while flailing.

We will definitely come back to Pincushion to check out the rest of the trails and bring the mountain bikes. (The fat bikes stayed home this time, because the door to the shed at home was frozen shut.) With the sun getting low on the horizon, we moved on to check into our cabin in Tofte and settled in before dark.

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Cascade River State Park

The next day it was time to visit Cascade River State Park. At the Cascade River Wayside we took in the scenery and the water falls.

It was another sunny day with bold, blue skies and the view across Lake Superior was great. Way off in the distance, Wisconsin and Michigan were shrouded in a bank of clouds, otherwise it was clear. The breeze from the lake was a little chilly, and at only about 15 degrees we didn’t hang out at the Wayside very long.

Across the road, we took the hiking trail for a short trek up to the falls. It wasn’t like summer hiking, because the stairs leading up to the vista were completely covered in ice and snow and resembled a bobsled run. It’s well worth the effort, but I highly recommend traction cleats for this. Ours were safely tucked away at home with the fat bikes.

A little while later we drove to the warming house inside the park and hit the ski trails. Cascade River State Park has a 27-mile classic, single track trail system ranging from beginner to advanced. Trails inside the park connect to the Bally Trails in the east, and the Cascade Trails to the west. We decided to first go northeast through the group camp, then cross Highway 61 and come back going west on the ski trail that’s right along Lake Superior, a trip of about three miles.

The trail started out as a wide, easy path through the forest, then turned a bit more intimate the farther east we went. At the easternmost point we came into a clearing where a steep descent dropped us down to the road. Walk this one, if you’re prone to popping out of the tracks on downhills.

On the other side of the road, we hopped back on the trail and continued along the shore past the backpacking sites. We took off the skis and walked down a footpath to the campsites on the lake. Very carefully, we negotiated the ice-covered rocks on the shore -not an easy task with hard-bottomed ski boots- and found a sunny spot out of the wind to have lunch.

There’s nothing quite like sitting down on a rock to eat your sandwich on the shores of Lake Superior on a sunny afternoon in February. We looked out onto the lake, watched the waves wash over the glazed rocks, enjoyed the warming rays and talked about how days like these make all the drudgery of winter worth it.

The next one-mile stretch followed the shore of Lake Superior and came close to the edge of the cliffs at times. We were told that the tracks in this section frequently get windblown, but were lucky that day.  They were in great shape and made for a very scenic one-mile ski with fantastic views.

Back on the north side of HWY 61, we found our way back to the warming house, a lovely cottage tucked into the woods. A fire was going in the wood burning stove and a half a dozen other skiers were inside, swapping stories. We joined in the conversation to warm up and dry out a little.

Socializing is great, but we had to cut it short and collect our reward for all of this hard work.  It was time to visit Voyageur Brewing in Grand Marais.

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Voyageur Brewing

The brewery is just off Highway 61 in downtown Grand Marais. The tan and brown wood beam building has a deck out front and a rooftop terrace overlooking Lake Superior, which is only 400 feet away. I’m sure it’s hopping during the summer, but on this cold and clear day all the action was inside.

Stepping into the taproom was like walking into a log cabin. Even though the interior is open and has high ceilings, it felt cozy with its wood-paneled ceilings and beam construction. Large windows to the south let in lots of natural light and someone was continually feeding the stone fireplace with logs.

It was a busy Sunday afternoon, but we managed to find a spot near the bar.

Besides their five flagship brews they were offering six seasonal beers and we kicked things off with a flight to get a taste. I ended up torn between the Brunette on Nitro and the Palisade Porter, but ultimately the Porter won. I had had it before, in a bottle from my local liquor store, but it was even better straight from the source. I came back to an old favorite and it was the perfect cap to a great day of skiing.

Jen went back and forth between the Brule River Blonde and the Pfarrweiser, because she was thinking ahead to next summer when we plan to come back, sit on the rooftop and watch the ships roll in. Her finalist ended up being the Pfarrweiser, a light, refreshing lager, which should work well for sipping on a hot day.

The Beers

Palisade Porter: 5.3 ABV, 35 IBU. Chocolaty and definitely not too sweet Pfarrweiser 4.7 ABV, 18 IBU. Refreshing and goes down easy.

It was time to return to HQ to rest up for another day of exploring, this time in the Two Harbors area.

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Erkki Harju Ski Trail

This trail is named after a local resident who came up with the idea for a ski trail right in town, just south of the Lake County Fairgrounds. Its 10.5km of broad, groomed skate and classic trail make several interconnected loops and are rated intermediate. The longest loop around the perimeter has a couple of expert spurs. About 3km of the system are lit. The trail is very well marked with signs at all intersections.

As soon as we hit the trail, it started snowing lightly, which added to the experience. When you’re on the Erkki Harju Trail it’s easy to forget you’re never far away from town or Highway 61. It’s a wonderful, undulating trail through birch and conifer forest with some fun, rolling hills to keep it interesting. The snow picked up and started to wash out our tracks, but that didn’t take away any of the enjoyment.

Part of the trail system crosses the Lakeview National Golf Course. Unfortunately for us, Sloppy Joe’s, the shed turned fairway bar, wasn’t open.

We did run into a gentleman rolling the trail on a snowmobile. He told us he had spotted a moose here earlier in the day. I forgot his name, but we thanked him for grooming. He passed us a couple more times while he was setting the track. It’s not every day you get last tracks and first tracks in the same day, and we enjoyed every minute of it. After completing the 5km loop, we moved on to the leisure part of the day: A visit to Castle Danger Brewery.

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Castle Danger Brewery

The brewery is just over a mile away from the ski trail. It’s a red, steel-sided building that takes up about a city block at the very end of 7th Street. The taproom, a brown, wood-sided addition is attached to the front, and a huge, grey grain bin on the corner towers over both of them.

The first thing you see on the inside is an impressive lineup of tap handles at the bar, crowned by a massive slab of wood, bearing the brewery logo and their slogan “Dangerously Good Ales”. My kind of place.

Around the corner, large windows on the lakeside opened up to an outdoor seating area with views of the ore docks of the Canadian National Railway. At a previous visit during the summer I sat outside with a pint and watched the ships. It’s kind of a thing on the North Shore, and if you haven’t tried it, you should. It’s very relaxing. The day of our visit it was overcast, but Wisconsin was in full view across the lake.

Castle Danger has five year-round beers and five seasonals, topped of with a lineup of varying taproom-only offerings. I went straight for a taste of the dark beers, the Donker Dark Belgian, Dark Chocolate George Hunter Stout, the regular George Hunter Stout. I also tried the Vinland Pale Ale that’s only available at Pizza Luce in Minneapolis, and the taproom.
It ended up being a battle between regular George Hunter Stout and Dark Chocolate George Hunter Stout. The Chocolate variety finishes a lot sweeter, a bit sticky, and in the end regular George won. George on Nitro, that is.

For Jen it was the Castle Cream Ale, another flagship offering, with the Choice Pils coming in at a close second. She again imagined sitting out on the deck in the summer, sipping a pint and watching the ships. Always thinking of the future. Me, I live in the moment. It was cold out and I needed a beer to wrap me up like a warm blanket.

It was a slow day at the taproom and we struck up a conversation with our beertender Nick, who said that the taproom sees lots of national and international traffic. It turned out that the number one question people who aren’t from Minnesota or Canada ask is “Where do I go to see Moose?”

That’s an easy one, just ask the guy grooming the ski trails!

We sat around a while longer, chatted with Nick, and watched Wisconsin disappear from view across the lake. The weather was turning, and it started to snow again. By the time we left big, wet chunks of snow were falling from the sky. A haze had settled over the lake and began swallowing up the ore docks down the street.

The Beers

George Hunter Stout: 8 ABV, IBU: N/A. Warms you up after a cold day.

Castle Cream Ale: 5.5 ABV, IBU: N/A. Perfect for ship watching.

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Gooseberry Falls State Park

Our last day on the North Shore began with shoveling snow. Then, we started the long way home, but not without squeezing in one final ski at Gooseberry Falls State Park. The park has 19km of groomed skate and classic trails ranging from easy to intermediate, with some difficult stretches thrown in. Basically, the easy trails are near the lake, south of Highway 61, and the more challenging routes are on the other side of the road. (See Rudi Hargesheimer’s story about the park on page 35 of the 2020 spring edition.)

We headed toward the lake on the easy trails, which put us on a section of the Gitchi-Gami State Trail. It was very cold and the wind was getting stronger the closer we descended toward shore. At the Picnic Flow picnic area, we were rewarded with absolutely stunning views from the cliffs above the water. Lake Superior was surprisingly still and leaden, despite the biting winds. Blue-grey clouds raced above us, and small pockets of shrubs poked their dead twigs through the crusty snow here and there. It was rough and inhospitable, but beautiful at the same time.

During the summer, this is a hotspot of activity, but that day we were the only ones around (except the groomer, who started working just as we hit the trails.) If you want to experience the park without the 750,000 people who come here each year, a blustery February day is the perfect time.

We poked around the beach at the Lakeview Shelter for a while, and ducked inside the building to be out of the wind and have lunch. It was a quick affair, because we were starting to get chilly and wanted to move on.

The way back took us past a spot with great views of the river gorge and the Middle and Lower Falls. We could barely make out a couple of people who were ice climbing down there, but the wind blasting through the valley was so brutal and cold, we had to move on and make our way back to the car. It was getting late and it was time to make the four-hour drive back home, because we always meander down the scenic route. And just like that, our four-day trip to the North Shore came to an end. We turned our rig full of sweaty gear and sandwich wrappers toward home and arrived just before dark.

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About me

I’m Jan, the publisher of Minnesota Trails Magazine. I’m looking for that one trail, the next ride, a new discovery and other reasons never to sit still in Minnesota.


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