Sunday, April 24, 2016

Trail crosses North Shore’s only black beach

Topo map for Onyx (Black) Beach in Silver Bay, Minn.
Hikers can walk the only black beach on Minnesota’s North Shore in Silver Bay.

The trail across secluded Onyx Beach runs 0.45 miles round trip. Though long off-limits to the general public (which didn’t keep locals away), the little-known beach opened to the public in 2015.

To reach the trailhead, head north from Split Rock Lighthouse State Park on Minn. Hwy. 61. In Silver Bay, turn right/east onto the gravel E. Lakeshore Drive. Go left/south onto Water Plant Road. Watch for a trail heading down to the beach on the road’s left/east side. You can park your vehicle off the side of the road.

The access trail through the birch trees to the beach is rough. There is no marked trail on the beach itself.

Though much of the billion-year-old basalt along the North Shore is black hued, the beach owes its coloring entirely to man. For a quarter century, taconite tailings – the remains of a low grade iron ore mined deep beneath the surface of the Iron Range more than an hour away – were dumped into Lake Superior. The practice stopped in 1980 after those concerned with water quality protested.

By the mid-1980s, the lake water grew clearer and fish returned to the area. But fine grains of the tailings washed onto the half-mile long crescent-shaped beach, transforming the stones’ appearance. Beneath the water, the settled tailings shine as if onyx, hence the name of the beach (It previously was called Black Beach). Onyx is a black volcanic glass, however, and there’s none in the water or on the beach.

Indeed, a quick look at the island just off the mainland shows its red hues beneath the trees. Contrasting the black beach with the red island, blue lake, and white birch makes for an exotic experience.

After taking in the sights, retrace your steps to where you parked.

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