Minnesota’s Gunflint Trail is sandwiched on either side by one of America’s most unspoiled wilderness areas, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Located in the northeast corner of the state, this 56-mile road begins in the coastal town of Grand Marais (recently voted “Best Midwestern Small Town” by USA Today readers). It winds its way northwest to end at the crossroads of Seagull and Saganaga Lakes, near the Canadian border.
Well-known for its many entry points into the Boundary Waters, the Gunflint Trail is also home to private homes, several outfitters, lodges and campgrounds, and many beautiful hiking trails.
Seven of them are well-suited for your whole family and offer gorgeous views. We’ll start closest to Grand Marais and work our way out from there:
1. Northern Lights Lake Trail
The trailhead for this hike is about 13 miles from Grand Marais, well-marked, with a small parking area on the right side of the road.
The trail ascends Blueberry Hill, which will be obvious if you hike from mid-July to mid-August. The last time we were there the blueberries weren’t nearly as abundant and healthy as we’ve seen them in the past. (If you’re seeking these tasty berries, there are better hikes to come…)
The ascension is quite steep, but well-worth the effort with great views of Northern Lights Lake and the surrounding ridges. A half mile total unless you also take the hike to Northern Lights Lake, then add another half mile.
2. Honeymoon Bluff Trail
This short but steep trail is found about 27 miles “up the Trail” (the Gunflint Trail, that is). Take a right on Clearwater Road and drive the dirt road 2 miles to the trailhead parking area on the left, directly across from Flour Lake.
Honeymoon is most popular for sunset hikes—you’ll see why when you get there! The high bluff overlooks Hungry Jack Lake looking west, the perfect setting for lovely sunset photos. Bring a flashlight if you plan to stay until the last rays disappear so you can find your way back down. (The header image on top is the Honeymoon Bluff overlook.)
Keep your young children and dogs close-at-hand once you get to the overlook. The steep cliffs are fenced off, but not kid or dog proof! 1.5 miles total.
3. Caribou Rock Trail
In the same neighborhood as Honeymoon, the Caribou Rock trailhead is just another mile or two up the Gunflint off the Hungry Jack Road. Turn right and drive down a couple miles to the trailhead on the left.
This short, moderately steep trail leads you to an overlook above West Bearskin Lake. Since it faces northeast, this is your sunrise photo op trail if you’re a morning person!
For more adventure, continue on this trail for another 3+ miles (it becomes the Split Pine Trail) and you’ll reach the Stairway Portage/Rose Falls area. This is one of the most popular canoe day trips in the Boundary Waters and, honestly, it’s easier to reach by canoe!
If you stick to the Caribou Rock Overlook and back, it’s 1.5 miles.
4. Gunflint High Cliffs Trail
Continue up the Gunflint Trail and, about 45 miles from Grand Marais, take a right on the road to Gunflint Lodge. Stop in the Lodge and ask for a map for the High Cliffs Trail. The staff there is very friendly and helpful.
The trailhead begins behind the Lodge property and climbs up to a cliff high above Gunflint Lake, looking over to the Canadian shore (Ontario). Simply stunning! And another place to keep your young children and dogs close by.
I can’t find a trail length anywhere, including from Gunflint Lodge’s website, but it’s in the neighborhood of a couple miles round trip.
(Gunflint Lodge has great food if you need nourishment after your hike!)
5. Centennial Trail
3 miles past the Gunflint Lodge road is the trailhead for the Centennial Trail, on the left. This trail follows the beginning of the 37-mile Kekekabic Trail, too—so be sure and pick up a trail map there and watch for your turn-off, so you don’t end up deep into the Boundary Waters!
I advise going in mid-July to mid-August as this trail is loaded with wild blueberries and raspberries! This end of the Gunflint Trail sustained a major forest fire in 2007, and the ashy soil and full sun make for prime growing conditions for large, juicy berries.
The Centennial Trail follows an old railroad line in a loop through forest, onto a high ridge with gorgeous views, and down again. A very small section is very steep going down, but otherwise is easy-to-moderate difficulty. 3.3 miles total.
6. Magnetic Rock Trail
Just a mile past the Centennial trailhead and on the right is the trailhead for the Magnetic Rock Trail. We love the terrain here. It was affected by the Blowdown of 1999, where millions of trees were leveled by straight-line winds, then a controlled burn and then the 2007 fire.
As a result, much of this trail is currently out in the open with tons of wildflowers, berries and views. The small trees are growing up again now, and someday this trail will be in forest again.
There are beautiful overlooks along the way, then suddenly you’re faced with the 60-foot high Magnetic Rock. Absolutely loads of raspberry bushes there, too, if you’re there at the right time of year. 3 miles out-and-back.
7. Blueberry Hill Trail
55 miles from Grand Marais—nearly to the end of the Trail—is the Chik Wauk Museum, and several lovely hikes. I recommend the Blueberry Hill Trail for stunning views of the area including Seagull Lake, Saganaga Lake, the Boundary Waters and Canada.
And, again, get there at the right time of the summer and you’ll be rewarded with the Trail’s namesake berries. 2 miles total.
While there, the Chik Wauk Museum is a definite must-see for a peek into the cultural history of the Gunflint Trail. It’s very well done, and is housed in a historic stone and log building once used as a fishing lodge. Only $4 for adults and $2 for children over four (2017 prices).
So there you have it. The next time you’re on the Gunflint Trail camping or at one of the many fine lodging places, check out one or more of these hikes. Bring bug spray during the summer months, water and light snacks and you’re set to go.
8. BONUS: Pincushion Mountain Trail
(I’m adding this one later, 11/2018, because I finally hiked it, so have something to say!)
First I’ll say I haven’t hiked the entire 5-mile loop—just from the trailhead to the summit and back the same way (4 miles?). The hike to Pincushion Mountain itself is, honestly, a little boring. The woods are always pretty, but it’s nothing to write home about.
(Although what makes it a fairly boring hike is also what makes it a great cross country ski trail! It’s one of the most popular ski trails in that area.)
BUT Pincushion Mountain itself and the views you get from its broad summit are gorgeous! Especially on a day when Lake Superior is blue-blue, like it was the day my friend and I took the hike. You can see far along the shore to the northeast as well as back to Grand Marais to the southwest.
The only strenuous part is a major scramble up a granite face of maybe 25 feet. As long as it’s not wet or icy, you’ll be fine!
The trailhead starts about 3 miles up the Gunflint from Grand Marais. Look for the brown Pincushion Mountain sign on your right coming from town.
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Sharon is the founder and publisher of Active Outdoor Women. She loves getting outside in beautiful places to hike, paddle, camp, snowshoe, ski, ride—and encouraging others to come along! Besides maintaining AOW and her other website, Twin Cities Outdoors, Sharon writes and designs websites, newsletters, blogs, emails, books and other marketing tools for clients.