Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Trail crosses billion-year-old lava flow

Picnic Flow Trail. Photo courtesy of Minnesota DNR.
Map, Picnic Flow Trail, courtesy Minnesota DNR.

Often overlooked trail offers
unique sights at Minnesota's
Gooseberry Falls State Park


Day hikers can walk an expansive cliff of billion-year-old lava rock overlooking Lake Superior via the Picnic Flow Trail.

The 3-mile round-trip heads to an impressive part of Gooseberry Falls State Park that most visitors miss. The Picnic Flow, is worth the hike, however. It’ll give you the feeling of being on the moon – or if a good wind is blowing off the lake, of being on newly formed volcanic rock in Hawaii.

Gooseberry Falls sits along Minn. Hwy 61 northeast of Two Harbors. Upon entering Gooseberry, park in the second lot (or the northeastern one of the pair), near the visitor’s center. Leave from the lot’s northeast corner, heading into a birch and spruce woods, in which the trail veers south, and in short order crosses Camp Road near the camp registration pullout.

Once on the road’s other side, continue south into a grassy area of asters, buttercups, daisies, hawkweed and Metensia. The varied colors of these wildflowers – white, yellow, orange and blue – can make for a nice show amid the green grass.

At the grassy area’s south end, cross a second road. From there, a thin dirt path heads through the woods and comes to a parking lot for the Bird Ridge Group site where campers unload their vehicles. A path leads from the lot’s southeast side to just north of where Pebble Creek flows into Lake Superior. Go right/southeast at the trail intersection.

Arriving at the flow
In about 400 feet, the path opens onto the Picnic Lava Flow. About 1.1 billion years ago, red hot lava spread across this area in smooth and ropy swaths called a Pahoehoe flow. Such flows are common in Hawaii today. Follow this ancient basalt northeast along the lakeshore; sometimes the trail winds into the woods, especially at small bays.

Looking down at your feet, keep an eye out for amygdules, which usually are banded blues and creams and reddish-whites. These round rocks were weathered out of the basalt and can be up to a quarter in size. The white crystals in the rock are feldspar that can be up to 2 inches wide. Remember to look up, though – a steep cliff overlooks Lake Superior to the east.

Water puddles here may look like tidal pools that are common on Pacific Northwest coasts, but they’re not formed the same way. Instead, splash water gets trapped here during storms and remains until evaporating.

Despite a moon-like barrenness, the Picnic Lava Flow is home to plants including harebells and cinquefoil.

Once the lava flow ends, the trail heads through a grassy area and grove of mountain ash. It then comes to Agate Beach II, where orange lichen covers the bedrock. Tansies, wild roses and raspberry bushes also flourish here.

Sea stack, sand spit
Take the stairs to the rock picnic shelter. On the shelter’s right is a sea stack in the making. Common in the Pacific Northwest, wave action creates sea stacks by separating chunks of rock from the mainland.

The overlook with the picnic shelter sits amid red pine. It offers a good view of the lake with its waves striking black basalt. When windy, the waves turn a frothy white.

A spit to the shelter’s north comes and goes seasonally as the lake’s breaking waves carry sand and pebbles beyond the bar while the Gooseberry River’s currents bring their own sediment downstream. The two mix, forming the bar in summer through autumn with the river’s heavier flow in spring washing it away.

After taking in the sights from the shelter, turn back here and retrace your steps to the parking lot.

Learn about more day hiking trails at and near Gooseberry Falls State Park in my Day Hiking Trails of Gooseberry Falls State Park guidebook.