What to Do on the Gunflint Trail: Summer & Fall Edition

Minnesota’s Gunflint Trail is one of the most beautiful drives in the country, especially from mid-May through October. And this drive provides loads of fun things to do for the whole family.

narrow paved road surrounded by forest, fall
The Gunflint Trail: A National Scenic Byway

“The Trail” begins in Grand Marais and stretches 58 miles northwest to dead-end at (aptly named) Trail’s End Campground.

For those who’ve been in the mountains of the East or West, the drive feels vaguely familiar with long, winding ups and downs, spectacular overlooks and mile upon mile of forest.

Being surrounded by both the Superior National Forest and Boundary Waters wilderness, it feels wild and remote—because it is!

And yet there are plenty of things to do including world-class canoeing and kayaking, hiking, delicious dining and fun shopping.

The summer months are the busiest around here, with fall weekends starting to become a close second.

During your stay at Okontoe, you may want just to kick back and enjoy your cabin or campsite.

But if you’re itching to see some of the countryside around us, here are some of our favorite places and things to do (in no particular order):

Drive the National Scenic Byway

To get a feel for the entire 58 miles of this National Scenic Byway, it’s a lot of fun to drive the entire Gunflint Trail from Grand Marais to Trail’s End. Take your time and enjoy the gorgeous scenery.

Gunflint Trail in the fall
The entire Gunflint Trail is a gorgeous drive

Keep your eyes open and you may spot some of our local wildlife including fox, deer, lynx, bear, moose and wolf. 

September and early October are an especially lovely time for this drive. In the first few miles nearest to Grand Marais there are plenty of maples in the woods along with birch and aspen.

Peak fall color is astonishing! As you continue north and west, you’ll feel like you’re driving through a tunnel of gold with the birch and aspen surrounding you. The deep greens of the firs, spruce and pines beautifully accent the hardwoods.

Even later in October when the rest of the trees have lost their leaves, you’ll see bright gold tamarack in patches along the way.

Allow about 75 minutes for the whole drive, plus the time needed to drive back to Okontoe.

Travel to the End of the Gunflint Trail

Once you’re at Okontoe, you’re already halfway to the end of the Trail. A fun half-day adventure is to turn left out of our driveway and drive until you can’t anymore. You’ll have reached Trail’s End Campground.

It’ll take you about 40 minutes, as the last few miles are slow-going with all the twists and turns.

A cow moose and her calf run across the road
Drive carefully and keep your eyes open for local wildlife!

The landscape is quite different the closer you get to the end, partly because that area is still recovering from the Ham Lake Fire that occurred in 2007. 

While you’re there, be sure you take some time to visit the Chik-Wauk Museum…

Peruse the Chik-Wauk Museum

The Chik-Wauk Museum is based on the property of a former fishing camp, built in the 1930s. It’s now open to the public as a museum and nature center highlighting all the goodness of the Gunflint Trail.

There are several buildings as well as a trail system on the 50-acre property that’s nestled in an arm of Saganaga Lake.

Entrance prices are very reasonable and there’s a cute gift shop, too.

The longest (just 2 miles out and back) and best hike on their property is the Blueberry Hill hike. The trailhead is right off their parking lot road and eventually climbs up to a 360º overlook of the entire area. Simply gorgeous!

Be sure you check Museum hours before you head out. As of this writing, they’re open July through MEA Weekend in October each year.

Paddle in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

There are many Boundary Waters entry points along the Gunflint that offer some wonderful day canoe or kayak trips. 

You’ll need your own boats or can rent canoes at one of several canoe outfitters on the Trail (Okontoe’s canoes and kayaks need to stay on our property). Day trips require a self-issuing permit but no fee is required. (If you rent, the outfitter will handle the permit and loan you a map.)

people in a couple of canoes paddle next to high cliffs
There are many great canoe day trips you can access from the Gunflint Trail

If you’re looking for suggestions, we highly recommend the day trip to Stairway Portage for a fun half-to-three-quarter-day trip. Or you can canoe or kayak on Gunflint Lake, Saganaga Lake, Seagull Lake, Hungry Jack Lake, Clearwater Lake, East Bearskin Lake…these are just some of the many possibilities. 

If you’re heading out with your own canoes or kayaks, we can’t recommend highly enough to purchase the BWCAW map that coincides with your destination. You’ll find them at Stone Harbor Wilderness Supply or The Trading Post in Grand Marais, or at Trail Center Lodge just a couple miles down the road from us.

Get on a Hiking Trail

The Gunflint Trail is also home to many wonderful hiking trails—from a mile to dozens of miles. Some of our favorites are Caribou Rock Trail, Honeymoon Bluff, Magnetic Rock Trail and Blueberry Hill Trail (already mentioned). 

We have an entire blog post on this you can check out: 8 Short & Scenic Gunflint Trail Hikes.

woman overlooks a big lake in the rain
Hiking around here is even beautiful in the rain

Order a Malt at Trail Center Lodge

Trail Center has been locally famous for its yummy malts for years. They offer traditional flavors as well as some unique offerings like rhubarb and pumpkin. Of course, their food is delicious, too.

Check their hours before heading out! And summers can be crazy busy. If you’re going on a weekend for dinner plan on waiting for a while to be seated.

Buy Coffee at Loon’s Nest 

Loon’s Nest Coffee is a newer establishment on the Trail, and has made a hit from its first season! Enjoy great coffee and their delicious cardamom rolls. Best of all, they’re just a couple miles down the road from us.

Explore Some Side Roads

And there are a LOT of them along the Gunflint Trail! They’re all gravel and wind around o’er hill and dale, so plan to take your time. Some dead end at a lodge or lake, others loop back to the Gunflint, some head toward Highway 61. So best have a map along so you know where you’ll end up!

lake with a hillside full of trees in the fall
Side roads off the Gunflint can get you views like this

Some favorite scenic side roads near us are the Clearwater Road, Hungry Jack Road and East Bearskin Road. Down a ways are the Iron Lake Road and Gunflint Narrows Road.

Then heading towards town there’s the Lima Mountain Road, the South Brule Road, Greenwood Lake Road, Pine Mountain Road and Trout Lake Road.

None of them are shortcuts to anything, but all are scenic!

Hit the Beach at Seagull Lake

While you can certainly swim here at our little Bow Lake beach, for a grander and sandier experience try the public beach at Seagull Lake.

It’s about a half-hour drive towards the end of the Trail. Look for the sign on the right that points across the road soon after you pass the Seagull Ranger Station.

The beach is on a small bay in this huge lake and the water is very shallow for quite a ways out. It’s perfect for families with young kids. There are vault toilets on-site and a picnic table or two.

Visit a Historic Lodge 

If you’re looking for some tasty restaurant dining or fun gift shops, almost all the lodges along the Gunflint Trail offer both. Many of these have been in business for several decades by one family or another and have the quintessential Up North lodge look.

A few we’ll mention are Clearwater Historic Lodge (the oldest), Gunflint Lodge, Bearskin Lodge, Hungry Jack Lodge and Loon Lake Lodge.

Check Out Some Local Shops

You never know what you’ll find in the local gift shops—an especially fun outing if the weather turns sour on you.

Besides the five lodges we just mentioned, Trail Center and Nor’wester Lodges are close by and have nice gift shops (as well as staples if you forgot something or need to resupply without going all the way into Grand Marais!).

Local apparel, caps, books, gift items, food and beverages, trinkets, art, coffee mugs and thermoses—you’ll find it all.

Throw in a Line

There are many fishing opportunities along the Gunflint outside of our three small lakes here at Okontoe. Many of the lodges rent motor boats or pontoons if they’re on a lake that allows them.

man with a walleye he just pulled in, sitting in the bow of a canoe
There’s plenty of good fishing all along the Gunflint Trail

These northern lakes are known for northern pike, walleye, lake trout, perch and smallmouth bass. You’ll find live bait at The Ugly Baby Baits & Boats just down the road from us (or pick it up before you leave town at Buck’s Hardware like my husband usually does).

Go Berry Picking

July through early-mid August (depending on the year) are super for berry picking. It can be a challenge to find spots, though, as serious berry pickers are notoriously secretive about their favorites. Some of the places we picked years ago are now too grown over. 

Blueberry Hill by the Chik-Wauk Museum has loads of blueberry bushes along the trail—hence its name! But anytime you’re out hiking, be sure to keep your eyes peeled alongside the trail as you’re bound to see some if you stay with us during berry season.

Some common delicious wild berries in our area are blueberries, raspberries, Saskatoon berries (also called Juneberries and serviceberries) and thimbleberries. Any of them make a great addition to pancakes or oatmeal for breakfast!

blue tin cup full of wild blueberries
Wild blueberries are abundant in our neck of the woods

Horseback Ride the Wooded Trails

Gunflint Lodge has a stable of horses they keep for trail rides throughout the summer and fall seasons. These rides are open to anyone, not just their guests. Fall is especially nice since the nights are cooler and there’s less chance of the flies and mosquitoes annoying both you and your horse!

The minimum age for riding is 7 years, and kids under 13 must have an accompanying adult ride, too.

Zip Along the Towering Pines Canopy Tour

Another fun adventure Gunflint Lodge offers is their Towering Pines zip line tour. Get a bird’s eye view of the boreal forest from eight different zip lines. “Spend a little over two hours gliding high amidst old-growth white pines and spectacular wilderness vistas.” 

The Canopy Tour is open from June through October. The minimum age for kids is 10 years.

See Northern Lights

Of course, no one can guarantee you’ll see the Northern Lights during your stay here, but there’s always a chance on clear nights! Being up near the 40-degree latitude line puts us just south of the Canadian border—almost as far north as you can get in the Continental US. 

Many of the best Minnesota Northern Lights photographs you see on Facebook and Instagram were taken somewhere along the Gunflint Trail area.

Even here at Okontoe, we have several good spots that face due north with a wide-open view, especially over Bow Lake.

This list will take you many visits to Okontoe to accomplish them all!

So come on up and enjoy the beautiful north.

Article and photos by Sharon Brodin

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