Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Hike past site of Minnesota’s only gold mine

Map of trail Little American Island sites. Courtesy of Voyageurs NPS.
Day hikers can explore the only authentic gold mine discovered in Minnesota.

The Little American Island Trail loops 0.25 miles in at Voyageurs National Park’s Rainy Day area. In summer, a boat is needed to reach the trail on Little American Island, but you can hike, snowmobile or ski there in winter.

If you need to hitch a ride there, the Grand Tour, a ranger-led boat tour, heads to and from the island in a Rainy Lake bay three days a week each afternoon during summer. Along the way, you can see active eagle nests and a commercial fishing camp. The tour does charge admission separate from the park entrance fee.

From the dock on the island’s north side, the trail heads about 100 feet inland. At the first junction, go right/west on the trail. This loops over an adit, a passage that leads into a mine, usually built for access or drainage.

In 1893 while prospecting on the island, George Davis discovered the gold in a six-foot wide vein of quartz. He crushed some of it and an analysis found about 25 cents worth of gold in the sample.

With that news, the island's owner, Charles Moore, sold the land to some Duluth businessmen, and mining began in earnest. To support the operation, Rainy Lake City sprung up on the east side of Black Bay Narrows about a mile southeast of the island. At its height, the mining town boasted a population of a few hundred with 17 saloons (which sold whiskey at 15 cents a glass), a dry goods store, lumberyard, bank, furniture store, bank, hotels, bakery, brick factory, post office and even a school.

At the next trail junction, go right/south. This spur leads to another shaft and a pile of tailings. Most of the mine’s tailings were used to construct nearby International Falls’ main street, causing many to jokingly nickname it the “city whose streets are paved with gold.”

Returning to the main trail, go right/east. You’ll pass a large pulley wheel that was attached to a winch for hauling gold-bearing rock out of the mine. After that is another adit.

During the height of the rush in 1894-95, a 200-foot shaft the trail passes was dug with about $5600 of gold mined.

Magma pushed the gold up to the surface about 2.1 billion years ago when a fault line ran through the area. The fault was similar to today's San Andreas Fault, caused by two tectonic plates sliding past one another, as this region was near the southern edge of the Canadian Shield, the beginning of the North American continent we know today.

In the late 1890s, many other mines, both shafts and exploratory pits, across the “Rainy Lake Gold Fields” were dug, but no more gold was found. The boomtown soon went bust and became a ghost town by 1901.

At the next junction, turn right/east. In about 200 feet is an overlook of scenic Rainy Lake. Once you’ve taken in the view, return back to the junction except continue walking straight/west. The trail at the intersection that follow heads back to the dock; turn right/north onto it.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.


Friday, January 20, 2017

Trail links Voyageurs to International Falls

Rainy Lake Recreation Trail. Photo courtesy of Voyageurs NPS.
Visitors to Voyageurs National Park looking for an easy trail to hike or bike will enjoy the new Rainy Lake Recreation Trail.

Opened in 2015, the fairly flat, paved trail covers 1.7 miles one-way in the park’s Rainy Lake area. If looking for a longer walk or bicycle ride, the trail conveniently connects to the International Falls Bike Trail, which runs for another 12 miles.
Trail map. Map courtesy of Voyageurs NPS.

To reach the trailhead, from International Falls take Minn. Hwy. 11 east. Turn on County Road 96 and follow the signs to the Rainy Lake Visitor Center. Park at the center.

Before heading out onto the trail, stop at the center to enjoy its exhibit, children’s activity center, and small theater for enjoying a film about the park. Rainy Lake is the only one of the park's three visitor centers that operates year around. A bike rack, picnic table, and benches are available at the visitor center plaza.

From the visitor center, the trail runs alongside the park road and County Road 96, dipping into the woods and curling around rock outcroppings.
The trail reaches the International Falls Bike Trail at the junction of County Road 96 and Hwy. 11. Running 12 miles, the bike trail offers views of Rainy Lake, heads through woodlands, and passes vibrant marshes and lakefront neighborhoods. A portion of the bike trail is in Koochiching State Forest.

At Jackfish Bay, the Bike Trail becomes a designated on-road shoulder route, which is fine for bicyclists but not so great for hikers or walkers. It turns back to an off-road trail after passing through Ranier.

After passing the Voyageurs National Park Headquarters in International Falls and running alongside Rainy Lake’s southern shore, the trail ends downtown. Parking is available in the Chamber CVB lot (301 2nd Ave.), close to where U.S. Hwy. 53 meets Minn. Hwys. 11/71. The trail is a quarter mile east of the CVB office.

Accessible to the disabled, the connected trails are open to walkers, bicyclists, runners, and snowshoers. Pets are allowed but in the national park must be leashed of no more than 6 feet and attended at all times.

Learn about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Trail leads to great Yellowstone Lake vista

View from atop Yellowstone Lake Overlook Trail.
Photo courtesy of Allan Harris/Flickr.
Day hikers can enjoy a beautiful vista of Yellowstone Lake and the mountain range beyond via the Yellowstone Lake Overlook Trail.

The 1.8-miles round-trip lollipop trail at Yellowstone National Park is fairly level though the loop consists of a moderately strenuous 400-foot elevation gain to the overlook.

More than a mile above sea level, the trail is accessible only from about May until October.

To reach the trail from Grand Loop Road, at the U.S. Hwys. 89/191 and U.S. Hwy. 20 intersection, head north on Hwy. 20, taking the first right into the West Thumb parking lot.

The path begins at a trailhead marker on the West Thumb Geyser Basin parking area’s southeast corner. Head southwest onto the trail, which is fairly wide for the first quarter mile.

This section of the trail crosses a burned woodlands, though new growth forest is taking root there. Between small groves of spruce and pine forest is a mountain meadow that boasts beautiful wildflowers from spring through summer. Among them are purple harebells and yellow Rocky Mountain helianthella. Sometimes, you’ll be able to spot elk or hear their bugling in this area.

After crossing the South Entrance Road (Hwys. 89/191) and about 0.3 miles from the trailhead, the trail’s loop begins. Go left/southwest onto it and begin your steady climb up.

A few minor hot pools and vents can be found as you near the summit. For your safety, stay on the designated trail to avoid burns from the hydrothermal features.

The overlook sits atop a treeless hill. Because of the trail’s direction, you’ll first see the Red Mountains to the southeast, but the real treat is to the east – Yellowstone Lake and the majestic Absaroka Mountains beyond.

The national park's largest lake, Yellowstone Lake covers 136 square miles with 110 miles of shoreline. It's deep, too, averaging 139 feet. The lake sits atop the caldera formed when a magma chamber beneath the region collapsed about 640,000 years ago.

Often snow-capped, the Absaroka Mountains rising over the lake is a sub-range of the Rocky Mountains. The range stretches about 150 miles into Montana, and are 75 miles at their widest, sitting on the park’s eastern boundary. An incredible 47 peaks in the range top 12,000 feet in elevation.

To the northeast in front of Yellowstone Lake is the West Thumb Geyser Basin hydrothermal area. You’ll notice steam billowing and even hear some gurgling from it. The West Thumb Geyser Basin Trail, which can be picked up from the parking lot, rambles through the hydrothermal area, allowing you to get up close to them.

The loop is about 1.1 miles long. From the overlook, head downhill back to the stem trail. Once there, go left/southeast onto it and retrace your steps back to the parking lot.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.


Thursday, January 12, 2017

Trail passes wild river, 400-year-old trees

A section of the West Manitou River Trail.
Photo courtesy of Minnesota DNR.
Day hikers can enjoy rustic North Shore landscapes on a scenic loop at Minnesota’s George H. Crosby Manitou State Park.

The 3.3-mile Middle-West Manitou-Misquah-Yellow Birch Loop combines four trails as it winds through the highlands overlooking Lake Superior. Along the loop, day hikers can experience a river rumbling over ancient rock and an old growth forest boasting centuries-old trees.

George H. Crosby Manitou State Park is perfect for hikers and campers who prefer a primitive nature setting. The park has no developed facilities, in accordance with the wishes of its namesake, a famous Minnesota mining executive who was an avid outdoorsman.

To reach the park, from Silver Bay travel north on Minn. Hwy. 61, turning left/northwest onto Minn. Hwy 1. In Finland, go right/northeast onto County Road 7 (aka Cramer Road). Take a right/east into the park, using the lot where the road loops back on itself.

Superior Hiking Trail
The first leg of the loop, the Middle Trail, starts on the lot’s north side. This portion of the trail also is part of the Superior Hiking Trail.

In keeping with the park’s primitive nature, the gently rolling dirt trail is narrow and crosses several small stones and tree roots. A boardwalk runs over a wet, boggy area, then the trail climbs a rocky slope.

After 0.3 miles, a side trail heads to an overlook. The view is worth the few extra steps. Past the overlook, the side trail rejoins the main route; at that junction, go right/north onto the Middle Trail.

Among the interesting sights following the overlook is a birch tree growing atop a boulder with roots clinging to the rock as breaking into the ground. The trail next passes an open log shelter that is a great spot for a break.

At 0.9 miles, the Middle reaches the West Manitou River Trail. Go left/northwest onto the latter.

River views
An overlook is 0.15 miles from the intersection. The rock knoll offers great view of the river valley below. The vista is stunning in autumn, when the changing leaves paint the forest in a rainbow of harvest colors. From there, descend several wooden steps to the Manitou River’s cascades.

After taking in the rapids, turn back, following the trail southwest along the river, which can be seen through several tree breaks. The Manitou River rushes over basalt set down in lava flows some 1.1 billion years ago. The water is the color of frothy root beer due to the dead leaves, grasses and other organic material that drain into the waterway; the hard rocky river bottom causes the water to tumble and aerate. Manitou means “spirit” in Ojibwe.

In 0.6 miles, after passing several spurs to campsites, the Superior Hiking Trail splits to the left/north where it crosses the river. Instead, go right/south onto the Misquah Trail and away from the Manitou.

This section of the loop heads through an old growth forest for a half-mile with a couple of overlooks just off the trail.

Ancient birch
After passing a spur to campground site 7, the trail curves west. In 0.4 miles from the spur, you’ll reach the Yellow Birch and Cedar Ridge trails. Go right/northwest onto the Yellow Birch.

This portion of the loop also runs through an old growth forest. Some of the birch trees here are around 400 years old, starting as saplings when the Pilgrims first arrived in America. Because of the thick forest, the trail here is rugged.

Wildlife frequently can be spotted along this part of the loop. Be forewarned that black bears are among the park’s denizens; should you see a bear, simply make loud noises to scare it off. Being noisy while you hike usually is sufficient to keep bears deep in the woods.

At 0.3 miles, the trail passes a connector to Bensen Lake. Stay on the main route. Then, in another 0.3 miles, you’ll reach the road to your parking lot. Follow it right/north to your vehicle.

Learn about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.


Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Hike across Midwest’s largest earthen dam

Eau Galle Reservoir, aka Lake George, from an overlook west of the dam.
Day hikers can walk across the largest earthen dam in the Midwest on the Eau Galle Dam Trail near Spring Valley, Wis.

The 0.8-mile round trip hike sits in the popular Eau Galle Recreation Area, nestled on borders of St. Croix and Pierce counties. To reach the trailhead, from Spring Valley, head west on Wis. Hwy. 29. In about a mile, turn right/north onto Van Buren Road then right/west onto Eau Galle Dam Road. Next, go right/southwest onto Overlook Road, which curves north; after climbing a hill, turn left into an overlook. Park there.

North of the lot is an overlook where you can take in a view of the 150-acre Eau Galle Reservoir, aka Lake George and on some government maps as Spring Valley Lake 64. The view is from the reservoir’s south shore northward across the lake’s center.

The lake boasts thriving populations of bluegills, crappies, largemouth bass, and sunfish. Anglers often can be spotted on boats and along the shoreline. Recreation here isn’t limited to fishing, though. A campground, playgrounds, beaches, and several hiking and equestrian trails also can be found. Many of those amenities are visible from the overlook, which sits at about 1100 feet elevation.

A dirt footpath runs west from the overlook through a wooded area then curves north to another vista of the lake. From there, follow the asphalt road south before curving onto the earthen dam itself.

A rolled-earth and rock-filled dam, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ construction holds back the Eau Galle River. The waterway rises out of farm fields just south of Woodville, Wis. Fed by a 64-square-mile drainage basin, the river’s floods frequently devastated Spring Valley until the dam was built in the mid 1960s. The controlled river eventually makes its way to the Chippewa, which in turn drains into the Mississippi River.

The trail runs the full length of the dam, which is almost 2000 feet. It’s fairly wide, but the sides are steep. If heights are a problem for hikers, instead take the footpath to the left/west before crossing the dam; that route heads along the dam's west side to the lake’s shoreline.

After crossing the dam, retrace your steps back to the overlook parking lot.

Learn about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.


Monday, January 2, 2017

Enjoy Voyageurs National Park scenery without heading deep into backcountry

Tilson Bay Trail map. Courtesy of Minnesota DNR.
Wild strawberry blossom.
Casual visitors to Voyageurs National Park often worry about hiking deep into the backcountry, where getting lost among black bears and gray wolves always is a possibility. One solution that allows you to enjoy the region’s scenery without straying far from civilization is the Tilson Bay Trail, located just outside of the park’s Rainy Lake area.

The 1.6-mile round trip trail consists of a side trail and a loop at one end. It’s near a major highway and surrounded by housing developments but is nestled far enough away from both to give you that back-to-nature feel, especially as part of it is in the Koochiching State Forest.

To reach the trail, from International Falls, take Minn. Hwy. 11 east. Immediately after crossing Tilson Creek, turn left/south into parking lot. Walk to the other side of the highway into the boat launch area for the trailhead.

The trail quickly climbs, crossing rock outcroppings to an overlook of the surrounding forest.

At the first junction, go left/northeast onto a side trail. You’re now officially in the state forest. At 567,985 acres in size, the state forest crosses three counties.

You’re certain to find a variety of trailside wildflowers. In spring, the white blossoms of wild strawberry and blueberry flowers as well as violets are common, and the bright green glow of new aspen leaves are particularly impressive.

The next junction rejoins the main trail. Go left/east onto it. You’ll then cross a few small boardwalks that’ll keep your feet dry in wet areas.

After that, the trail crosses County Road 137 and parallels that road, passing a Little Free library along the way and re-enters the woods. The trail then splits to form a loop. Which way you go on the loop doesn’t much matter; from either direction, the woods opens up to a view of Tilson Bay on Rainy Lake.

Upon completing the loop, retrace your steps back to the junction for the side trail. Rather than go on the side trail, though, continue left/straight west. You’ll soon pass the first junction for the side trail.

The trail again climbs past the first set of rock outcroppings you went over then descends to the parking lot.

The trees, flowers and rock formations along the trail resemble much of the rest of Voyageurs National Park’s Rainy Lake area. An entry to the national park is just a mile to the east.

Learn about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.