Kid-friendly hiking trails in the Northland
After asking a handful of area hiking trail experts their opinion on child-friendly treks in the Northland, you’d think we’d get a wide array of answers. We did, but they were mostly in concert with each other.
Some of the suggestions are obvious, places like Duluth’s Lakewalk or Gooseberry Falls State Park. Others may be off your radar, like Sugarloaf farther up the shore or Magney-Snively on Duluth’s west side.
Taking any trail requires precautions, especially with children in tow. What makes Northland trails so spectacular are the views, so, as signs say on many of the trails, keep children in hand.
Andrew Slade, author of the invaluable “Hiking the North Shore,” writes about the 10 essentials The Mountaineers first described in the 1930s to keeping a walk in the woods from turning into disaster: map, compass, sunglasses and sunscreen, food, water (and a way to purify it), extra clothes, flashlight, first aid kit, matches or a lighter and a knife.
Add to that repellents for bugs and a cellphone in case you can get a signal.
Know your child’s limits. There’s nothing wrong with hiking in and just turning back when you feel you’ve gone far enough. There are no medals for finishing a loop. Be wary of sunset to not get caught in the dark and watch the weather forecast.
As Slade and the others will tell you, the Twin Ports and the North Shore are home to some of the greatest trails in the world. Take advantage and introduce them to a child for lifelong treasure.
Here is what we gleaned from the authors, following in a geographic pattern from just south of Duluth and all the way to the Canadian border. Most of the parks are public with no access fees. Those within state parks might require a vehicle permit.
East Ridge Trail: Jay Cooke State Park Rob Bignell, author of “Hikes with Tykes,” calls the famous swinging bridge above the often raging St. Louis River is an instant thrill for kids. The 1.5-mile East Ridge Trail runs over rock that is nearly 2 billion years old. There are more than 50 other trails in the park between Duluth’s western edges and Cloquet.
Magney-Snively Natural Area: Western Duluth The drive along West Skyline Parkway north of Fond du Lac off Becks Road is enough to entice a person to this 1,800-acre park. This is a great spot for fall color with stunning views of the St. Louis River and the western neighborhoods of Duluth. There are long loops off several entry points from the road, so don’t overdo it. Children will also take delight in the refurbished, snaggle-tooth Stewart Creek Bridge and the reclaimed Snively Monument.
The quick way to trail parking is on Skyline off the Boundary Avenue exit of Interstate 35. Follow your way past the Spirit Mountain Recreation Area.
Western Waterfront Trail: Western Duluth This trail runs along Spirit Lake and St. Louis Bay from West Duluth to Morgan Park. Mike Link, co-author of “Grandparents Minnesota Style: Places to Go and Wisdom to Share,” with his wife, Kate Crowley, says the trail has “easy walking with lots of variety, including marshes with lots of birds. The couple walked this trail in preparation for their circling Lake Superior in 2010. The paved Munger Trail links up with this trail, and it will soon be linked through western Duluth to the Lakewalk.
Duluth Lakewalk: Canal Park-eastern Duluth An easy pick as the closest you’ll get to Lake Superior on a walk. “There are ships, rocks to toss and ducks in the water,” Link said. And as it hugs Canal Park and businesses on East Superior Street, there’s always a way to answer the calls of “I’m hungry” or “I’m thirsty.”
Bagley Nature Area: University of Minnesota Duluth
Take the simple loop around the pond and into the woods. For a bit more arduous trek, get to Rock Hill. Ladona Tornabene, an author of “Gentle Hikes of Minnesota’s North Shore: The North Shore’s Most Scenic Hikes Under 3 Miles,” said it offers a great look at Lake Superior. Parking is available off Buffalo Street on the north side of the campus.
Do a daily double and hit nearby Chester Park Bowl, which, for now, offers the quixotic sight of the old ski jumps and has a popular playground. There are some easy trails along the creek if you stay west of Skyline parkway.
Hartley Pond, Tischer Creek loop: Hartley Nature Center Tornabene said the sunsets over the pond are spectacular from the Tischer Creek loop. A one-mile round trip spur of the Superior Hiking Trail at the southeast corner of the pond leads to Rock Knob and a beautiful view of the city by the lake and the wooded uplands.
Hartley also has a top-notch visitor center where you can pick up a map. You’ll need it, the trails here can be tricky to navigate. Enter the park off Woodland Avenue. With map in hand, you’ll find other entry points to trails through neighborhoods.
Hawk Ridge: Lakeside Home of the raptors and spectacular views, this is a favorite for Bignell. Hawk Weekend is in mid-September, when thousands of migratory birds can be spied. Take Skyline Parkway off Glenwood Street from Lakeside. Trails can be found off Skyline or to the northeast and down the hill near Amity Creek. Seven Bridges remains closed while flood damage work is completed by the end of the month. The road has been a secret paved walkway for many since the flood in 2012. Don’t walk it if construction signs say to keep out.
Lester Park: Lakeside If you can pry the kids off the playground here, there are some nicely wooded trails to explore along the river. Parking is off Superior Street on the Lester River Road.
Sonju Trail, Agate Trail: Two Harbors Just off of downtown is this city’s industrial Agate Bay, where you can spy an ore ship and the Edna G tugboat. The concrete breakwater takes you out into the lake. The trail here leads to the Two Harbors Lighthouse, a great spot for a picture. The trail goes all the way to the other harbors here, from Agate Bay to Burlington Bay, which offers a wading beach.
Link enjoys the great variety here, from the woods near Burlington to the impressive rocks of the shoreline.
Gooseberry Falls State Park: Castle Danger What kid, or adult, isn’t mesmerized by a waterfall? This is by far the most popular state park in Minnesota, and for good reason. Aside from exploring the five falls here, you might want to take a different view by crossing to the north side of the river and exploring the trails that offer great views into the gorge.
Split Rock Lighthouse State Park: Mile marker 45, Highway 61 Just up from Gooseberry is another popular park that features the oft-photographed lighthouse. The Little Two Harbors Trail heading south of the icon is Tornabene’s favorite because it features the “most amazing stands of birch on the shore.” You can also reach a pebble beach that offers a view of the lighthouse from below.
Shovel Point: Tettegouche State Park Boardwalks that begin on the trail shortly after entering off rest area parking guide your way up to Shovel Point, with steps that children will have to take slowly and surely. The effort to get up (and it’s all downhill on the way back) is surely worth it with unmatched views of Lake Superior and its heart-stopping shoreline. You’ll see Palisade Head and can rest on many perches built to take in the view. The new visitor center rivals the one at Gooseberry with lessons on the area geology.
Sugarloaf Cove: Mile marker 73, Highway 61 A mile-long interpretive trail lies within the state scientific and natural area. Link likes the lava exposures near the lake and the cobblestone beach.
Lower Cascade Falls: Cascade River State Park It’s a quick tenth of a mile to the falls here, with a maze of challenging trails along the river to choose from for the more experienced hikers.
Artist Point: Grand Marais Walk right out to the lake, then enjoy the amenities of this bustling harbor town.
High Falls: Grand Portage State Park An easy walk from the new visitor center leads to the highest falls in the state. Great overviews on railed decks.
ON THE WISCONSIN SIDE Rob Bignell, who lives on the St. Croix River in Wisconsin, offers two places to hike in the state that are less than an hour away from Duluth.
Big Manitou Falls Overlooks Trail, Pattison State Park This is the home of the highest waterfall in Wisconsin and the fourth-highest east of the Mississippi River. Big Manitou Falls drops 165 feet at Pattison State Park south of Superior. The Big Manitou Falls Overlooks Trail runs a mile round-trip to the lip and then the base of the grand falls.
Amnicon Falls State Park Circle Some 500 million years ago, a fault line stretched from what is now Ashland to near the Twin Cities area, leaving rocks at 50- to 60-degree angles. Today, four waterfalls — Snake Pit Falls, Lower Amnicon Falls, Upper Amnicon Falls and Now and Then Falls — sit on the fault line, all accessible via a pair of unnamed but well-groomed trails (1.5 miles round-trip) that includes a covered bridge across the Amnicon River at Amnicon Falls State Park east of Superior.
GRADUATION The hikes in Slade’s “Hiking the North Shore” list only trails that are more than 2 miles long. While the above trails are suited for the very young, Slade said the following trails offer something for the experienced 4- to 8-year-old. “They have just enough challenge and variety to inspire,” he said.
Crow Creek Valley Just after mile marker 36 on Highway 61, just before the Gooseberry River, turn north on West Castle Danger Road go 2.3 miles and end up on Silver Creek Township Road 617. The 2.5-mile portion of the Superior Hiking Trail offers some rocky and steep challenges at the start but then levels off, Slade said. “The view of Lake Superior gets better as you climb,” he writes, especially at Wolf Rock.
Eighteen Lake This is in a remote area of the Superior National Forest near Isabella. Take Minnesota Highway 1 off Highway 61 through Finland and then 16 miles to Isabella. Turn right on Forest Road 172 (Wanless Road) and in just less than a mile, turn left on Forest Road 369 (Sawbill Landing Road). Look for signs for Eighteen Lake and a rustic campground and trailhead. The 2.7 loop around the lake is a favorite for those camping here, Slade said and provides a “great adventure” among a stunning pine forest.
Oberg Mountain One of the most popular hikes on the North Shore, Slade writes. Between Tofte and Lutsen, take Forest Road 336 (Onion River Road) off Highway 61 just after mile marker 87. It’s 2 miles to the trailhead parking area on the left. Slade calls this 2.2-mile trail a great one for beginners with “big scenic payoffs and with spectacular fall colors.”
Magnetic Rock This trail is 48 miles up the Gunflint Trail from Grand Marais. You’ll see remnants of the 1999 blow down and fires here in the 2000s. Lots of bare rock on this 3-mile trail makes following it a bit tricky. “This is a geologist’s dream setting,” Slade writes.