Minnesota doesn't really have any mountains, which was one of the worst parts of my "forced" move here. But, the state does have some good hiking, and also has some hills big enough to be "real" terrain features. Fortunately, one of those hills happens to be the highest point in the state, Eagle Mountain. Although just the 37th highest state highpoint, a club that shall remain nameless, but does keep track of such things, rates Eagle as the 19th most challenging highpoint. In fact, Eagle seems to be the lowest state highpoint that requires what one could actually call a "real" hike. After finding out that the hike is interesting, I had it in the back of my mind to give it a shot during my limited stay in the state.
Eagle is located in Cook County (the tip of the "arrowhead" of Minnesota), about 15 air miles northwest of Grand Marais. Interestingly enough, the lowest "point" in the state is the shoreline of Lake Superior, part of which forms the southern border of Cook County. For such a large state, the highest and lowest points are quite close together!
Our 10-week per term course schedule at my "independent and highly selective liberal arts college" makes it challenging to take a weekend off (for both students and faculty). But, after getting into the swing of things, I made plans for this weekend. My Friday class ends at 3:20pm, so I planned to hurry home as soon as possible, throw everything in the car, and drive up to Duluth where Motel 6 was leaving the light on for me. The extended weather forecasts were looking great, and I knew I would be catching the tail end of the peak of leaf season. I had to drive through/around the Twin Cities metro area during Friday rush, which was execrable, and traffic was still moderately heavy most of the way to Duluth. It had also just rained that evening, which was not in the original long-term forecasts; fortunately, that was clearing out rapidly for Saturday.
It was after 8pm by the time I reached the motel, so I didn't have time to sample any of the delights of Duluth (ha, ha). I also didn't sleep very well due in part to a lot of noise from the room above me; probably kids. (Note to self: make a bigger effort to get upper floor rooms in motels in touristy areas.) So, with breakfast thrown into the mix, I didn't get out of Duluth until after 8:30am, and also stopped for gas on the drive, which lost a little more time.
The drive is along state highway 61, which parallels the Lake Superior shoreline, with many nice views of the lake. There was a lot of nice fall color along the road. When I got into Cook County, I made a special note to look for likely spots where I could get down to shoreline later in the day. I don't have much experience with large bodies of water and what struck me about Superior was that in the calm conditions the perfectly flat water horizon looked apocryphal. (Lake Superior would be my 3rd state lowpoint, having touched the ocean in Washington and Florida. Alas, touching the ocean in California doesn't count.)
The "standard" driving route has you going all the way to Grand Marais and approaching the Eagle Mountain Trailhead from the east. But, a quicker way, still with excellent roads, is to leave the North Shore on the east side of Lutsen and turn left onto highway 4, the Caribou Trail. It is initially paved, then turns to good dirt after a while. Follow this road for just over 17 miles until it dead ends at a "T" junction and take a right onto "The Grade". I don't remember seeing any signs for Eagle Mountain until that point. Just over 3.5 miles later, at a road junction, the parking lot is immediately on the left. I read some reports that suggested significant road construction on the Caribou Trail, but it seemed to be in tip-top condition. (Speaking of roads, if you don't happen to make it to a ranger station to get a good map of the backroads in this area, check out the precinct maps at the Cook County website.) Even though the leaves are in great color, traffic wasn't really anything to write home about; maybe I'm just jaded from traffic jams getting home to Boulder from the Colorado mountains on a weekend afternoon.
It was a very scenic drive at this time of year, and the weather was perfect, but it took 2 hours from Duluth. I was about the 8th car or so at a little after 10:30am. Hardly an alpine arrival, but hardly an alpine hike either, and Mother Nature delivered with temperatures in the 50s and a light breeze under sunny skies. Not too long into the hike, you enter the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), and you are required to fill out a permit form at the trailhead. In theory, if you were stopped by a ranger and did not have your copy of the permit, you could be fined.
The first 2.5 miles of the hike gets you to Whale Lake, the major landmark on the route. Many areas along the route are boggy, but there are boardwalks in the appropriate areas. With the previous day's rain, the trail was damp with a few muddy spots, but the overall water level is low this late in the year. The trail is somewhat rocky and rooty, especially near the Wilderness boundary, but it is also pretty flat. I had my low-topped Gore-Tex boots in case it was wet, but could have done the hike in running shoes. I was surprised that all of the fall color was being provided by aspen trees, which was a bit of a disappointment because I was hoping for something different than all of my previous autumns in Colorado and Wyoming. Some of the trees had shed a lot of leaves already, too. But, it was still pretty.
Unfortunately, I made one horrible tactical error on the hike; I forgot to bring any water!! I brought everything with me in the car that I wanted, but was so off of my usual Colorado routine that I forgot to pull the two 0.5-liter water bottles out of the cooler. I realized this about 35 minutes into the hike, and really didn't want to hike all the way back to the trailhead and come back. I seemed to be hiking at a very strong pace and thought that my optimistic 3 hour round-trip time for a "casual" hike might even be too long. Unlike my normal Colorado summer hikes, I didn't have high altitude, dry air, or warm finishing temperatures to worry about. So, I decided to see if I could get to Whale Lake in well under an hour.
That indeed happened, and the view here suddenly opens up to reveal the lower slopes of Eagle proper, but more prominently, a 2230-foot high point just east of Eagle. This forested peak was in good color, set against a blue sky. I shot a bunch of still photos and some video here, and decided that I should go ahead and do the rest of the hike without water. I was carrying iodine tablets, although I would have had to improvise a storage container for lake water. I ran into quite a few people coming or going, and could have always asked for some if necessary. It turned out that I didn't have any problems making it through the hike, but I certainly enjoyed that first drink of water back in my car!
Anyway, after that brief view over the lake, you continue around the west side in the forest until reaching a signed trail junction. You can angle to the right on the Brule Lake Trail, or left to start the 500-foot climb up Eagle's east ridge. The early parts of the trail are actually moderately steep and include switchbacks, but as soon you start getting into a rhythm on that, it levels out and the upper part of the climb is more gradual. You remain in forest all the way to the summit, except for a small viewpoint about 2/3rds of the way up, and a major viewpoint just below the summit. The views are indeed very nice, looking out over thousands of acres of forest in fall color (plus evergreens) and several lakes. You can also see Lake Superior on the horizon, and with the 20x zoom on my camcorder I could pick out an ore carrier making perhaps one of the last runs under such good weather before the gales of November kick in on old Gitche Gumee.
From the overlook, you want to turn around 180 degrees and start going straight up the hill to where you will see a few cairns to lead you up the last couple hundred yards to the summit. I missed this turn at first because the overlook is actually a bit off the trail. I wasn't the only one, as there was a social trail continuing beyond the overlook and then angling back to the summit trail. In any case, it is obvious enough at this point that you are close to the high point and want to gain elevation, even if you get off-route. I arrived on the summit just before noon, only taking about 1:15 for the ascent, including several photo stops and the little summit area adventure.
The summit has no views, but has a large plaque describing the history of the highest point in the state, which was originally though to be elsewhere. The Minnesota Society of Professional Surveyors recently placed a marker indicating an elevation of 2298.15 feet which may very well be more accurate than the value of 2301 given by the USGS. I had obviously (and accidentally) chosen brilliant timing for this hike because there weren't any mosquitoes! This is one of those places that is the inspiration for the joke about the mosquito being the state bird. But, there have been several hard freezes up there and they seemed to be gone for the year.
I didn't stick around on the summit for too long because it's not a particularly interesting place. I did linger at the major overlook for a while on the way down. The hike down was uneventful, with more people on their way up to the lake or the peak than I saw when I was on my way up. The parking lot had overflowed with vehicles (it holds about 20), which is more like what I expected given the timing and the beautiful weather.
I ended up driving around some more, looking for access points for some of the other 2000-foot peaks in the area, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. If this fall turns out to be relatively snow-free, I might go back up there in December to bag a couple more peaks. I didn't really notice it coming up from Lutsen, but the last bit of the Gunflint Trail (highway 8) coming down into Grand Marais is pretty steep. Basically, in this area there is the lakefront, a fairly steep rise, and then rolling terrain around 1500-2000ft punctuated by higher hills as you head progressively farther north. (BTW, the USGS map has the "major" ski hill just north of Lutsen labeled as "Eagle Mountain". This is not the same Eagle Mountain farther north that is the highpoint of Minnesota.)
I stopped at a major road turnout in Cascade River State Park between Grand Marais and Lutsen to stand in a very calm and cool Lake Superior. All the other tourists were on the other side of the road at a waterfall, so I had the tiny beach all to myself, except for a gull perched on an exposed rock a few yards at sea.
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File last modified: 31 March 2005