Tips for peakbagging in northern Minnesota

Timing

Although it varies from year to year, this is the coldest area of one of the coldest states in winter. The terrain is significant enough to enhance snowfall and there is typically snow on the ground from November through March or April. While Eagle Mountain is accessible and is climbed in winter with snowshoes, the more remote peaks that require bushwhacking will be very difficult with snowcover and the access roads may not be plowed. If that doesn't bother you, have at it. Otherwise, flying insects are your main problem during the spring and summer.

Probably the best strategy is to hike in May after the snow melts and before the insects hatch, or in late September or October after the first cold snap but before the snow starts to stick. The leaves change in late September or early October, too, which adds greatly to the scenery. However, if you go when the trees are leaved out, you may have more problems with your GPS signal (see below) than I did in my late October trip and subsequent early May trip when the deciduous trees were bare. I would highly recommend doing the trail hike up Eagle Mountain during the peak of the leaf season, however. (E.g., the background image for these pages.)

GPS, maps, etc.

If you have a GPS and really want to make good use of it, this is your project! I suppose one could do some of these off-trail hikes without GPS, but it would be rather difficult and perhaps stupid. On many of these rough bushwhacks, you simply can't see far enough, walk fast enough, or walk straight enough to follow a consistent bearing. You don't need a super-wizzy model; my $99 Garmin Etrex was sufficient. However, as noted above, you are probably better off if you hike when the trees are not leafed out.

Even with GPS, you will need a compass. If your GPS unit has a good digital compass, that might suffice, but you should have a physical compass, too. Digital compasses tend to be rather finicky in my experience. The problem with GPS is that you need to be moving for it to point you in the proper direction and with the severe bushwhacking you will experience at times, that won't happen. On my ascents, I kept my physical compass handy to keep me in the right direction when I got slowed down by a particularly rough spot. The GPS will accurately tell you the bearing you need to use, but it will get confused on what bearing you are actually headed at that particular point.

Use whatever maps you wish and program waypoints into your GPS before the trip. These waypoints should include the summits (which can be found on these pages), but also perhaps intermediate waypoints and trailhead locations. I have the waypoints I used, but other than the summits, I think I'm going to leave that as an exercise for the reader.

Finding the summit

GPS can get you close to the summit, but you still need to poke around to try to find the true highpoint. Unfortunately, on these heavily forested peaks, a hand level isn't necessarily very useful, a tactic people sometimes use on barren peaks. My strategy was to wander across all of the appropriate terrain so that even if my final "mark" for the summit was wrong, I still hit the summit. Usually, you can conclusively identify a point that is higher than other points.

However, in the many cases where there are multiple closed contours it is always the case for these peaks that you need to hit all of the contours to be assured of reaching the highest point. There is no way to be certain enough when it comes to differences of several feet that one highpoint is higher than another one.

Bushwhacking

In many cases, you will have a very frustrating walk through undergrowth, closely spaced trees and their branches, and deadfall. Patience is always advised. Wearing long sleeves and long pants is essential. After one of my trips, I had scars on my legs for a month even with long pants. Some sort of eyewear is also a good idea because you can easily get stabbed in the face by an unexpected branch or twig. A low-profile backpack can be helpful because you will have many opportunities to duck under low branches. No matter what, try to walk as gently as possible. Yes, it is true that there are few people on these off-trail ascents and the overall impact is small, but that's no excuse to break branches off of trees on purpose.

Apres-hike

This is a remote area! However, Grand Marais has most of the facilities that you might need. If you don't want to camp out during your entire trip, there are motels and restaurants open year-round here, although not as many in the pre- and post-summer seasons which I recommend above as the best times. (The high season is late May through early October.) I'm not much of a camper and I stayed in the Super 8 motel on my trips, which falls under the "you get what you pay for" category; no problems but nothing to write home about. One could try one of better motels or one the lodges along the Gunflint Trail for something different, or one of the small inns along the lakeshore.

The restaurants are a little overpriced, but the Blue Water Cafe is a good spot for a hearty breakfast (the "Sunrise Angler" - fried walleye - is soooo Minnesotan) and comfort food for dinner. Sven and Ole's does good pizza. The bar upstairs is supposed to be great, but I don't drink. There are other places, too, but some of them are only open during high season, and I did not get a chance to go to very many places. I will say that the dining is probably better than most remote towns with such a small population base. However, especially off-season, places close early in the evening.

The Holiday convenience store sells some basic hiking/camping gear if you forget something. There is a Radio Shack in town, which was nice because I needed batteries for my 35mm camera on one of my trips. Make sure you get down to the lakeshore somewhere. Lake Superior is truly amazing; the dead flat horizon off in the distance looks apocryphal. Not only that, but the shore of Superior is the lowest point in the state of Minnesota, a fitting spot to dip your toes after climbing Eagle Mountain!


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File last modified: 10 April 2006

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