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'Gitche Gumee' getaway'Gitche Gumee' getaway

Grand Marais, MinnesotaGrand Marais, Minnesota

Gordon Lightfoot’s classic song aside, it may seem odd to suggest a wintertime visit to the farthest reaches of Minnesota, but a flight to Grand Marais (mar-AY) can indeed be the launching point of a fabulous cold-weather vacation. The town sits on the northwestern shore of Lake Superior (called Gitche Gumee by the native Ojibwe), surrounded by the Superior National Forest and backed by the Sawtooth Mountains. In winter the area becomes a rugged, frozen wonderland with miles of trails for snowmobiles, Nordic skis, and snowshoes. Pilots can take a scenic flight over the Gunflint Trail for a chance to view moose, wolves, and other wildlife.

  • Snowboarding with an ocean view? No, it’s Lake Superior, the world’s largest freshwater lake (by surface area), as viewed from a slope at the Lutsen Ski Resort. Stephan Hoglund Photography.
  • A floatplane circles over the frozen Grand Marais harbor. About 5 nautical miles north of the harbor you’ll find the Cook County Seaplane base (0G5) in the northeast corner of Devil Track Lake. The lake is generally open May through November; the dock goes in by Memorial Day weekend. Planes with skis may land on the lake in the winter although the seaplane base is not maintained. Fuel is available during open water season. Photo courtesy Gary Siesennop.
  • The Roy family operates Roy Aero Services at the Grand Marais/Cook County Airport. In addition to their usual airport management and FBO duties, they’ve won numerous awards at Sun ‘n Fun and Oshkosh for their restorations of antique aircraft. This “Shell/Doolittle” Stinson was restored by the Roys between 2000 and 2005. Built for the Shell Oil Company and delivered on Aug. 12, 1938, it was flown by aviation great Jimmy Doolittle. For nearly 140 flights from 1938 to 1940, Doolittle flew it around the U.S. while serving as Shell Oil’s Aviation Manager. Photo courtesy Roy Aircraft.
  • “Artist’s Point” and the Grand Marais lighthouse. If you flew in low along the Lake Superior shoreline between Duluth and Grand Marais, you may have noticed a magnetic disturbance of as much as 18 degrees. It’s caused by iron in the ground. Beginning in the 1800s, iron ore extraction was a major contributor to the area’s economy. But Lake Superior (called “Gitche Gumee” by the native Ojibwe), can be fickle, as immortalized in the classic Gordon Lightfoot song “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” The Great Lakes freighter sank during an early November gale in 1975, with the loss of her entire crew of 29. Photo courtesy Gary Siesennop.
  • A Nordic skier enjoys a sublime Northwoods winter day. Photo courtesy Cook County Visitors Bureau.
  • A group of snowshoers explore a narrow trail in the Sawtooth Mountains near Grand Marais. As a courtesy, when using wide, groomed trails, snowshoers should stay to the side to avoid spoiling the carefully groomed Nordic tracks. Photo courtesy Gary Colvard.
  • Snowshoeing along Lake Superior’s north shore feels like you’re walking beside a great northern ocean. Photo courtesy Cook County Visitors Bureau.
  • A snowmobiler pauses on the Gunflint Snowmobile Trail beside a huge rock, likely deposited there by a long-gone glacier. Photo courtesy Cook County Visitors Bureau.
  • Snowmobilers enjoy the scenery along the Gunflint Snowmobile Trail. Photo courtesy Explore Minnesota Tourism.
  • Snowshoes stand at the ready in front of the Gunflint Lodge, first opened in 1925. Inside, Justine’s serves hearty Northwoods breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. Photo courtesy Gunflint Lodge.
  • If you’re looking for trophy lake trout, it’s tough to beat ice fishing on Gunflint Lake. Gunflint Lodge offers ice fishing packages starting in mid-January when lake trout season opens. They’ll set you up with a portable shelter, ice auger, heater, bait, and tackle, plus help you find the best spots on the lake. When you return with your catch, they’ll help you fillet it and cook it up for you as appetizers with your dinner. Back inside, you can warm up in front of your cabin’s fireplace or with a sauna, soak in your private spa tub, and then savor dinner in front of the fireplace at Justine’s. Photo courtesy Gunflint Lodge.
  • East Bay Suites offers luxurious condos right on the Grand Marais harbor. Studios to three-bedroom suites are fully stocked with cookware, linens, and supplies. Most units offer electric fireplaces. Grab some firewood and s’more fixins and build yourself a beach bonfire. Photo courtesy East Bay Suites.
  • Seared sea scallops at the popular Crooked Spoon Café. Photo courtesy Crooked Spoon Café.
  • A student makes his own birchwood Nordic skis at the North House Folk School. The list of classes offered throughout the year is staggering. Photo courtesy North House Folk School.
  • There’s a real satisfaction in crafting your own snowshoes and then using them. Photo courtesy North House Folk School.

Fly to Grand Marais/Cook County Airport, where the Roy family operates Roy Aero Service. They may loan you a vehicle for a quick trip; otherwise, rent a car. Devil Track Lake and the Cook County Seaplane Base are about a mile southwest of the airport. Skiplanes may land on the lake in the winter, but the seaplane base is not maintained. Rent a cabin, cottage, or lake home at the Skyport Lodge, which offers airport pickup and a restaurant.

To explore this great northern wilderness, you can drive along the Lake Superior shoreline, rent a snowmobile from Steve’s Sports and Auto (where you got your car), or rent snowshoes or skijoring or Nordic ski equipment from Stone Harbor Wilderness Supply. They offer guided tours as well, which can include ice fishing, ice climbing, and winter river skiing.

Whitetail deer forage amid the snow beside the Gunflint Trail. Photo courtesy Explore Minnesota Tourism.

You can use those snowshoes or Nordic skis on hundreds of winter trails around town and in the Sawtooth Mountains. Six miles north of Grand Marais, the George Washington Pines Winter Recreational Trail is an easy, 3.3-kilometer looping trail that passes through a thick grove of Norway and white pines planted by Boy Scouts in 1932. The well-marked trail is open 24/7 so bring headlamps for an unforgettable Northcountry night experience. The Pincushion Trails, two miles north of town, offer beginner to expert trails for both classic and skate skiing. A warming house is located at the parking lot off the Gunflint Trail. You’ll need a Great Minnesota Ski Pass, $6 daily, to ski or snowshoe on any groomed trail. The 286-mile Superior Hiking Trail loosely follows the Lake Superior shoreline, with parking areas every 5 to 10 miles, no permits needed. A challenging hike to the 1,178-foot summit of Pincushion Mountain offers panoramic views of Lake Superior.

There are plenty of roads and trails for motorized sightseeing. The North Shore State Snowmobile Trail begins right where you’ll rent your snowmobile. Head into the woods, along the shoreline, or connect to the Gunflint Snowmobile Trail. By car, take County Road 12, also known as the Gunflint Trail, a 57-mile National Scenic Byway. Buy gas and pack a lunch before leaving town. You’ll enter a true boreal forest wilderness; look for gray jays, moose, and grouse, and listen for wolves if you stop to snowshoe. A nighttime drive might even reveal the aurora borealis. Forty-three miles down the road you’ll find the Gunflint Lodge; if you’re looking for the ultimate Northwoods hideaway, you’ve found it.

Winter nights are the best time to catch the Aurora Borealis. Photo by T. Novitsy courtesy Cook County Visitors Bureau.

If you’d rather stay at Lake Superior, East Bay Suites offers luxurious condos on the harbor, while Anderson’s North Shore Resort has small cabins. Good eats can be found at My Sister’s Place and the Crooked Spoon Café; groceries can be purchased at the Cook County Whole Foods Co-op.

Seventeen miles north of Grand Marais, Lutsen Mountains Ski Resort boasts 90 alpine runs on four interconnected mountains, plus a terrain park, ski-and-stay packages, and concert/event packages. For something completely different, check out the North House Folk School, where they teach traditional Northern crafts. You can take classes in everything from Scandinavian cuisine or Adirondack chair-building to beading, cheesemaking, birchbark canoe building, or haberdashery.

When visiting a new area, I usually save my flightseeing for last. After exploring the area at ground level, I know what to look for from the air. Be aware that Canada is only 20 nautical miles north of Grand Marais and that the huge Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is marked as Prohibited Areas P-204, P-205, and P-206, where flights below 4,000 feet msl are prohibited. Happily, you may fly at any altitude within a corridor over the Gunflint Trail. The Northwoods are beautiful year-round, but as winter sets in, frozen water in every form turns this corner of the Gitchee Gumee into a fairytale land of wonder.

Far from civilization, you can take a dogsled ride with the folks at Gunflint Lodge. Photo by Debbie Decker.

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Crista Worthy

Crista Videriksen Worthy

Crista Videriksen Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association. To suggest future destination articles, send an email to [email protected]
Topics: US Travel

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