Historic Trails of Minnesota’s Arrowhead

The Gunflint Trail c. 1925. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Gunflint Trail

Angler and outdoor writer Shawn Perich calls the terrain found along the fifty-seven-mile Gunflint Trail “the most spectacular landscape in Minnesota.” That’s probably not what trader and prospector Henry “Hayes” Mayhew was thinking when he reportedly began removing rocks and trees to clear the trail back in the 1870s—he was searching for silver, as the region was thought to be rich in mineable ores. Mayhew’s trail was a wagon road that reached just twenty-four miles to Gunflint Lake (named for the flint found in the rocks that surround it) and eventually reached further north to Rove Lake, where Mayhew set up a trading post in 1875. The trail was called “Mayhew’s Road” or “Rove Lake Road.” Cook County voted to have the trail extended westward near East Bearskin Lake along an old wagon path beginning in 1891, hoping to aid the local economy by creating infrastucture. By 1893 the trail stretched forty-four miles to just past Gunflint Lake, ready to assist the efforts of the Gun Flint Lake Iron Company, which set up the Paulson Mine. Unfortunately, the Panic of 1893 doomed the enterprise. Since that time the road has been washed out, repaired, rebuilt, rerouted, and constantly improved. Today the entire Gunflint is paved and stretches all the way to Seagull Lake near the Canadian border; only portions of the first twenty-four miles of the modern Gunflint Trail follow Mayhew’s path.

Arrowhead Trail

The Arrowhead Trail runs from McFarland Lake on the northeastern edge of the B.W.C.A.W. down to Hovland on the Lake Superior shore eighteen miles south. The Trail was originally named the McFarland Road for John McFarland, a settler and mining prospector who arrived in Cook County in 1868 and began building his road in the 1890s when Hovland was still called Chicago Bay; the road was later renamed to promote tourism.

Sawbill  Trail

The Sawbill Trail (Cook County Road 2) is a primarily gravel road that roughly follows the Temperance River twenty-three miles from Sawbill Lake at the edge of the B.W.C.A.W. to the town of Tofte on the Lake Superior shore. In 1924 the people of Tofte (see page 47) passed a $20,000 bond to build roads to Sawbill, Cascade, and Caribou lakes. At the time the township reached from the North Shore to the Canadian border, and the success of the Gunflint Trail had city leaders thinking tourism (and the road construction itself) would aid the local economy. Since logging companies still worked the area—and paid taxes—raising the money wouldn’t be too much of a problem. It took until 1932 for workers to reach Sawbill Lake. Built in part through areas of marshy land, the trail was often impassable during spring thaws. Today the first six miles are paved, then the road transitions to gravel; the last six-mile stretch remains in its original condition.

Caribou Trail

The Caribou Trail (Cook County Road 4) is much less travelled than the Sawbill. It runs twenty miles from Cascade Lake (about eight miles from the B.W.C.A.W.) to Tofte on the shore, passing Caribou Lake along the way. The stretch between Lutsen and Caribou Lake is paved, but the rest is gravel. It may be a rough ride, but taking the Caribou Trail to its terminus at Forest Road 170 leads to Eagle Mountain. At 2,301 feet above sea level, it’s not really a mountain, but trekking there from the Lake Superior shore on the Superior Hiking Trail takes you from Minnesota’s lowest point to its highest. Along the trail you’ll also find White Sky Rock, named in memory of White Sky, an Ojibwe who lived near Lutsen and worked as a forest ranger.

The Honeymoon Trail connects the Sawbill Trail with the Caribou Trail. Legend has it the trail earned its romantic name after John Mulligan, Superior National Forest’s first ranger, walked the trail on the way to the Four Mile Lake Ranger Station (he named nearby Grace Lake for his wife and several other area lakes after his daughters).

Vermillion Trail

In the summer of 1865 geologist Henry Ames travelled to Lake Vermillion to look for valuable minerals. By the time he arrived in St. Paul on October 28, 1865, rumors were already swirling about a valuable gold strike on the lake’s shores. Ames reported finding signs of gold and he had a small sample with him, and that was all it took: the rush was on. Mining companies organized, and at least one St. Paul newspaper sent a correspondent to the region to report on the gold rush.

In the winter of 1865–1866 these mining companies hired gangs of men—many recently discharged veterans of the Civil War—to break a road along a path used for centuries by the local Ojibwe and Dakota before them. They began near today’s First Avenue East and Washington Avenue, one block above the Fitger’s Brewery Complex, and worked their way eighty-five miles north to Pike Bay on Lake Vermillion (roughly following a path traced today by County Road 4 and State Highway 135. Mining began in 1866, but very little gold was ever extracted.

The road, later known as the Old Vermillion trail, was improved between 1868 and 1869 under the direction of surveyor George Stuntz. According to the town of Tower’s website, the Vermilion Trail was “no picnic. It took three days and two nights to cover the more than 100 miles by wagon. Only in the winter could teams be used. In the summer, the swamps were many and long, and no horse could negotiate the trail, so the only way north was by foot.”

Echo Trail

A former logging road, the Echo Trail (St. Louis County Road 166) runs seventy-two miles northwest from Ely to Echo Lake, allowing access to the B.W.C.A.W.’s western lakes. Described as a “rollercoaster ride on asphalt and gravel,” the trail developed from the old Ely-Buyck Trail that reached the town of Buyck. It was originally just twelve feet wide, and much of it was built on solid rock, so it drained well and was rarely impassable.