Sunday, October 12, 2014

Bluffside heads through North Shore forest

Quaking aspen grove. Photo courtesy of Minnesota DNR.

Lutsen Access
Trail follows
old forest road

Day hikers can head through a forest of aspen and birch overlooking Lake Superior near Lutsen, Minn.

The Lutsen Access Trail serves primarily as a snowmobile route (Some maps will show it as the Lutsen Access Snowmobile Trail.). The 3.33-mile round trip segment of the trail described here can be hiked during other seasons, though. By midsummer, however, you’ll want to wear pants and even long-sleeved shirts as the undergrowth flourishes.

From Lutsen, take County Hwy. 5 (aka Ski Hill Road) north. In about 1.5 miles, you'll come to a ditch crossing the road; park off the road here (If no parking is available, drive north and park on Moose Mountain Drive.). The trail, which used to be a forest road, heads east into the woods of Superior National Forest, skirting the bluffside with Lake Superior to the southeast while Eagle Mountain rises in the northwest.

Aspen-birch forest
Within short order, the trail enters an aspen-birch forest. The nearly pure stands of the two trees – popular in the making of paper and particleboard – dominate here, though balsam fir also can be found.

After a half mile, the trail crosses into the Lutsen Scientific & Natural Area. As with other SNAs, the Lutsen unit preserves three undisturbed woodland areas: the bluffside’s aspen-birch forest in its southern portion; a paper birch-sugar maple forest in its central section; and predominantly sugar maple forest across the rest.

The NF-1230 Ski Trail intersects the trail within the SNA. Continue heading straight/east.

Bigtooth aspen can reach up to 80 feet tall while the quaking aspen is a bit shorter at 65 feet. The three varieties of birch found in Minnesota can grow 60-70 feet high. Their leaves turn a golden yellow in autumn.

Perfect soils
About 800 feet from the NF-1230 Ski Trail intersection, the trail re-enters Superior National Forest. It curves northeast and in about 1600 feet comes back into the SNA.

Aspen and birch prefer limestone-derived soils, so they thrive on the bluffside, whose bedrock layers once formed the bottom of an ancient tropical sea. The moist but well-drained soils, typical of the North Shore blufflines, is an added bonus for the trees.

In about 3200 feet, the trail reaches an intermittent stream crossing. This marks a good spot to turn back, though the trail does continue northeast back into the Superior National Forest.

A final note: Scientific and natural areas typically don’t contain amenities like state parks do, and the Lutsen unit is no exception.

Read more about day hiking Northeast Minnesota in my Headin’ to the Cabin: Day Hiking Trails of Northeast Minnesota guidebook.