Bikepacking the North Shore

To celebrate both America and Cory’s birthday, we decided to pack up our bikes and do our first off-road bikepacking trip. We selected this route from bikepacking.com based on the fact that it’s in Minnesota, has re-supply opportunities, and goes past one of my favorite places (Sawbill Outfitters) and Cory’s (World’s Best Donuts).

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We headed up a day early and slept in my car at a Superior Hiking Trail trailhead. Technically you can’t “camp” at these trailheads, but considering all we did was eat a bag of salad and go to bed, I think we were okay.

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We woke up the next morning to some fellow bikepackers organizing their gear in the truck next to us. Turns out they were loosely doing the same route as us! We were all planning on camping in the same place so Cory and I waved goodbye and pedaled on.

The first 5 miles or so are all climbing so be ready to immediately wish you’d packed less stuff. After that, the road mellows out quite a bit. From here my memory of the route itself diminishes because I was distracted by a typical came-out-of-nowhere north shore storm. Cory and I pulled over and took cover under some trees while the worst of it raged on. It was this moment that Cory learned the importance of packing your rain jacket in an easily accessible spot.

 

As the storm began its decrescendo, we mounted our bikes once again and, driven by hunger, pushed on to the Trestle Inn. Constructed from discarded railroad trestle timber, the Trestle Inn is a hidden north shore staple. The food is pretty good — mostly standard bar fare — and the beer selection is okay, but what makes this place so cool is its atmosphere. I feel like you could be a regular here and find some new, interesting knickknack every time you visit.

 

After polishing off our lunches, Cory and I rode through intermittent rain showers, mud, and insane humidity to arrive at Silver Island Lake Campground. This was by far my favorite camping spot. I’d even drive up here sans bike some time and stay here again! There are only a handful of sites, but they’re all nestled right on the lake next to a small boat launch and fishing dock. Facilities-wise there’s a covered pit toilet and each site has ample trees for hammocking. I didn’t actually go looking for potable water since we brought a Steri-Pen.

That night we fell asleep to the sound of loons calling and woke up the following morning to watch a gorgeous lakeside sunrise on the fishing dock. After waving goodbye to the only other two people at the campground (our fellow bikepackers), we set our sights on Sawbill Outfitters, where we’d have access to beer and ice cream.

 

Day two was the day of the flies. They were HORRIBLE. Several times throughout the day I removed my helmet to find crusted up blood on my head from where they had a feast. Eww. For some reason they were even more attracted to Cory. This just pushed us to ride faster.

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The ride to Sawbill felt like it took a long time, but we realized on the way out, it was because the grade going to Sawbill is mostly uphill. I promise it’s way more chill on the way out. Visiting Sawbill is always really fun for me since my sister worked there for a handful of summers while she was in college and I know a couple of the crew members. It’s also where we’d usually launch when we’d go to the BWCA growing up so I have a lot of fond memories of eating ice cream after five days in the wilderness, seeing the northern lights for the first time, and trying to throw rocks onto “mouse island.”

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We rolled out from Sawbill after catching up with some crew members and picking up some snacks (they also have a couple options for freeze-dried meals if you were planning on re-supplying here) and made it to Lake Clara pretty quickly. Lake Clara was not my favorite site. It’s a ways to get to the actual lake and the sites are practically on top of each other, right next to the bathrooms (which were pretty stinky).

 

Because of the humidity, out tent was really wet in the morning so I dried everything out by hanging it on signs next to the bathroom. Gross, but effective. After everything was dried out, we set off for Kimble Lake Camp.

The penultimate day was by far my favorite day of actual riding. The bugs chilled out a bit and the route itself is INCREDIBLE. It included one long, sustained climb with a gorgeous view at the top and some of the same doubletrack that we rode during Lutsen 99er. By the time we got to the Devil Track General Store (where we were planning on getting more food), we were debating rolling down into Grand Marais for dinner instead of camping another night. After seeing the options at Devil Track (a single bag of chips that expired in 1983, a liter of vodka from the Soviet Union and some stale Mike and Ikes — Okay, I’m exaggerating but you get the picture) our decision was sealed. We tightened our bag straps and sped down the blisteringly fast and flowy descent towards Lake Superior.

 

Upon arriving in Grand Marais we hit up the mayor who also happens to own Fireweed Bike Co-op for camping suggestions. I ruled out the one that involved climbing back up from the way we came, and we both ruled out stealth camping on the beach, so we ended up staying at the municipal campground right in town. Sure you’re surrounded by retired folks with RVs, but it’s cheap, has showers, and is just a short ride down a bike path from downtown. If you ask nicely, the owners will lock your bikes in their shed overnight, too.

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And here’s where I wax poetic about all of my favorite things in Grand Marais. It’s truly one of my favorite towns in the midwest. For food, hit up Hughie’s Taco House, which serves basic, but hunger-quenching fry bread tacos. If you want pizza, head over to Sven and Ole’s which is probably Grand Marais’ most well-known restaurant. If you want to soak up some north shore sun, go to Voyageur Brewing where you can munch on smoked salmon and sip a local brew on their scenic rooftop patio. Spend the evening walking along the shore, watching the lights of fishing boats bob on the horizon or pop into a local bar where someone is probably playing live music. If you’re staying near the shore, remember to bundle up as the temperature will drop much lower than the campgrounds farther inland.

 

On the final day we grabbed donuts (World’s Best Donuts is another must) and real breakfast at the local greasy spoon. Then we loaded up our bikes and set out along the Gitchee-Gami trail, which runs parallel to Highway 61. I’m not normally one for high-viz clothing and daytime lights, but this is one instance where I think it makes sense. You’ll be forced onto Highway 61 several times where the Gitchi-Gami stops and starts up again a few miles later. For the most part, there’s a decent shoulder, but the problem is that a lot of the traffic is massive RVs, campers, and trucks pulling boats. If you need to decompress after being inundated with traffic for the first time in 3 days, stop at Fika Coffee in Lutsen for a mid-ride break.

 

The ride ends with one of my favorite portions of the Gitchi-Gami, then a short climb back up to the trailhead. By the end of the trip, both Cory and I were ready for a real shower followed by a bath in calamine lotion so we loaded up pretty quickly and headed back down to the cities.

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Tips:

  • Cory and I both had 3” tires, but just about any mountain bike (suspension or rigid) would be fine.
  • Be sure to bring the strongest bug spray you can find.
  • Pretty much every campsite is on a lake. Bring a swimsuit unless you want to skinny dip or swim in your underwear.
  • Daytime lights for riding on Hwy 61 is a good idea.
  • Practicing hanging a food bag before doing this route if that’s a new skill for you. You’re in bear territory!
  • Water is plentiful, but I’d still bring some kind of filtration system.
  • If you want to extend your trip by a day, I highly recommend staying at Sawbill Outfitters and renting a canoe to do the Kelso Loop. It’s a fantastic little day trip that is totally BWCA newbie-friendly.

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