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Boulder Lake celebrates 30 years of outdoor education, recreation

With 18,000 acres of forest and lake and 22 miles of trails, Boulder Lake Environmental Learning Center mixes outdoor recreation with outdoor education 30 minutes from downtown Duluth.

people and dog enjoy outdoors
Sam Hale, from left, Pippin and Rose Hale, all of Duluth, ski at the Boulder Lake Environmental Learning Center on Jan. 26 north of Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

ON BOULDER LAKE — We had snowshoed across a narrow bay, on a cold but sunny January day, back to the Wolfski Welcome Center, where we found John Bogen suiting up to head out skiing.

“You aren’t going to write a story about this place, are you?” asked Bogen, of Flagstaff, Arizona. “I don’t want more people to know about it.”

Bogen was only half-kidding as he headed out onto the 22 miles of Nordic ski trails at the Boulder Lake Environmental Learning Center which, along with the 18,000-acre Boulder Lake Management Area there, celebrate their 30th anniversary this year. It's maybe the best outdoor recreation opportunity many Northlanders have never heard of.

“This is my favorite place to ski,” said Bogen, who was in the midst of a multi-week, Duluth-centered Nordic ski vacation. “I ski other places when I’m up here. ... But I’m probably out here three or four times a week.”

Boulder Lake Management Area.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

Less than a half-hour’s drive out of downtown Duluth, the Boulder Lake complex offers trails for winter cross-country skiing; fat-tire bicycling; skijoring with dogs; snowshoeing; ice fishing access; and 22 remote campsites open to winter (and summer) camping.


people and dog enjoy outdoors
Sam Hale, of Duluth, skis with his Australian blue heeler, Pippin, at the Boulder Lake Environmental Learning Center on Jan. 26.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

“We’ve been out here at least five times already this month,” said Sam Hale, of Duluth.

Hale was skiing the Boulder Lake trails while leashed to Pippin, the family dog, while Sam’s wife, Rose Hale, was skiing under her own power.

“This is such a beautiful place,” Rose Hale noted.

The couple said they often bring their 2-year-old son, Jude, to ski with them here. But on this trip it was just Pippin.

“We only come on dog days,” Rose Hale noted, which are Thursdays and Sundays at Boulder Lake, when dogs are allowed on the trails.

In the summer, 10 miles of trail is open to hiking and the center offers kayaks, canoes and a pontoon boat.

And, if you have your own gear, all of it is free. There is no access fee for any trail activity. You don’t even need a state ski sticker because Minnesota Power handles all the trail grooming. Even camping is free (although if you want to guarantee a reserved site, there is a $30 fee.)

people and dog enjoy outdoors
Ryan Hueffmeier, director of Boulder Lake Environmental Learning Center, kneels in the entry of a canvas wall tent Jan. 26.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

“We’re really trying to push winter camping this year. We have these great sites you can ski or walk out to,” said Ryan Hueffmeier, a University of Minnesota Duluth professor and director of the Boulder Lake Environmental Learning Center. “It’s a great place to come if you want to go winter camping for the first time. Maybe for a practice run to go up into the wilderness.”


Mixed mission

Since it was formed in 1993, Boulder Lake Environmental Learning Center has been teaching students, and teachers, using the forest and lake in the Boulder Lake Management Area as an outdoor classroom. Buses of K-12 students come often, and summer day camp campers, as do van loads of college students, to learn about the sustainable, multi-use forest.

The center operates under the umbrella of UMD’s College of Education. UMD undergraduate students carry the brunt of duties here now, and dozens of graduate students have helped run the program in the past. The Minnesota Master Naturalist program also holds classes here.

There are cabins big enough for a class or meeting to be held. But, unlike better-known environmental learning centers like Wolf Ridge and Deep Portage, there isn’t much of a campus, per se, on-site at Boulder Lake. But that doesn’t seem to be a problem. More than 11,000 people visited the center in 2022; about 5,000 of those attended formal programming.

people and dog enjoy outdoors
Jody Peterman, of Duluth, prepares a warm drink after Nordic skiing at the Boulder Lake Environmental Learning Center on Jan. 26.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

“And we’re probably going to blow past that number this year,” Hueffmeier said.

Each December, the center offers a popular wreath-making class that teaches the sustainability of harvesting balsam boughs along with the rewards of making your own Christmas decorations. (Classes this past season were held on-site, at the Glensheen mansion and at Bent Paddle Brewing Co. in Duluth, and the effort raised more than $13,000 to help pay for programming at the center.)

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“We’ve had people who have skied out here for years and didn’t know what Boulder Lake Environmental Learning Center was. ... They thought it was just a ski trail,” Hueffmeier said, pointing up to a stand of big white pines. “I try to tell people that this is the learning center, this 18,000 acres of forest. It’s not a building — it's an experience.”

Hueffmeier, who has served as director for nearly four years, said his goal is to have every visitor leave having learned something about sustainable natural resources. That could mean a kid seeing a rabbit track in the snow; a city resident seeing the galaxy for the first time in a dark sky through a telescope; or a skier learning about the value of clear-cut logging of aspen forests not just for paper mills, but for habitat for grouse and deer.

“The paneling in here (the warming shack) are from white pines that were cut to clear the trail system and milled locally at Lester River Sawmill,” Hueffmeier noted. “There’s a lesson in sustainability right there.”


The former owner said the small sawmill is in good hands.

There are two packs of wolves in the area, and lynx and fishers, too. Deer, snowshoe hares, ruffed grouse and red squirrels are common. A pair of nesting bald eagles has stayed all winter. Animal tracks in the snow provide another canvas for wide-eyed students and visitors to learn from.

“We try to sneak a little natural resource lesson in for everyone who comes,” Hueffmeier noted.

Public recreation use of the center increased dramatically during the pandemic rush to get outdoors, Hueffmeier noted. But he said there is still ample room for much more use.

The center's budget is less than $50,000 annually, with Hueffmeier and Caleb Weirs, program director, the only full-time staff.

people and dog enjoy outdoors
Program coordinator Caleb Weiers hikes into a winter camping site at the Boulder Lake Environmental Learning Center on Jan. 26.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Any money charged for rental gear or for special events, like a night ski by torchlight set for Saturday, Feb. 4, go to defray the cost of bringing more kids to the center. That included a busload from Duluth’s Myers-Wilkins Elementary School recently. The entire class got a day to play, and learn, outdoors.

“And we paid for everything, including the bus. It didn’t cost the school, or the kids, anything,” Hueffmeier noted. “We were able to get kids out there who, even though they have grown up in Duluth, have never experienced what the forest is like in the winter.”

Hueffmeier said his biggest reward is seeing teachers respond when a student has an aha moment, when something taught in the classroom unfolds in front of them in the wild.

“That smile on the teacher’s face, and on the student’s, that’s what we’re all about,” Hueffmeier said. “That tells me we’re doing OK.”


people and dog enjoy outdoors
Jody Peterman, of Duluth, Nordic skis at the Boulder Lake Environmental Learning Center on Jan. 26.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Keeping it wild, keeping it open

Much of the land around 3,750-acre Boulder Lake Reservoir’s shoreline is controlled by Minnesota Power as part of the utility’s hydroelectric water storage system that also includes Fish Lake, Wild Rice Lake, Island Lake and Whiteface Lake reservoirs. All of the lakes were either created or enlarged a century ago by the forerunner of what is now Minnesota Power with the water running down the Cloquet and St. Louis rivers to electric generating dams near Duluth.

Back in the 1980s, there was talk of parceling out shoreline lots around Boulder Lake to lease for new cabins, much the same as the other reservoir lakes in the system and a potential source of revenue for the Duluth-based utility.

But a few Minnesota Power officials at the time, including John Paulson, of Duluth, proposed a different plan: Why not keep the lake and the forest around it a wild, undeveloped, publicly accessible, multi-use natural resource conservation area?

people and dog enjoy outdoors
A view of Boulder Lake at the Boulder Lake Environmental Learning Center.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

That idea prevailed, and the 18,000-acre Boulder Lake Management Area was created in 1993. Reserving the land for public access, education and recreation helped satisfy the Duluth-based utility’s “public good” requirements as it sought federal approval to re-license its hydroelectric system of dams and reservoirs.

“That left 95% of the lake’s shoreline undeveloped,” Hueffmeier siad. “There’s really a deep-wood feeling up here. It’s very much Boundary Waters-esque.”

The management area is a mixture of land and lake managed by Minnesota Power, St. Louis County Land and Minerals Department and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

The land will remain undeveloped and open to the public for hunting, hiking, fishing access, skiing, snowshoeing, bicycling and camping (in designated areas.) But it’s also managed for logging to provide trees for local mills. There’s even an active gravel pit on the land.


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There are tall, old white pines and deep aspen, spruce and fir forests across the landscape here. But skiers and hikers will also see the evidence of clear-cutting in places along the trails and selective pine thinning in others. The trails take visitors through old pine stands and newly sprouting aspen trees that grow back fast after logging.

“It’s being actively managed for timber at the same time we use it for education and recreation, so it’s a great opportunity to teach people about sustainable natural resources,” Hueffmeier noted.

people and dog enjoy outdoors
The Wolfski Welcome Center at the Boulder Lake Environmental Learning Center.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

About the Boulder Lake Environmental Learning Center

Location: 7328 Boulder Dam Road, less than 30 minutes north of Duluth up Rice Lake Road (County Highway 4.) Turn left just past the Island Lake Inn on Boulder Lake Road and follow the signs, angling left onto Boulder Dam Road.

Parking: In three plowed areas just off the road. (Don't be dissuaded by the closed gate across the driveway in winter. There's a parking lot just off to the side only a few yards from the Wolfski Welcome Center.)

For more info: For events, maps and other info, go to boulderlake.org . For programming info, call 218-721-3731. For trail conditions, call the trail hotline at 218-355-3057.

Boulder lake ski trails
Contributed / Boulder Lake Environmental Learning Center
people and dog enjoy outdoors
A golden retriever enjoys a dog day on the trail system at the Boulder Lake Environmental Learning Center on Jan. 26.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune


Boulder Lake’s 22 miles of trails are open to all sorts of winter propulsion. Skiing is by far the most popular, but snowshoes are welcome as are fat-tire bikes.


“We just ask that the fat tire people come out only when the trails are set up and packed. For the most part they have been really good about that,” Hueffmeier noted.

Dogs are welcome only on Thursdays and Sundays, with a requirement they be on a lead if not actually pulling a skier. The trails are then meticulously re-groomed early Friday and Monday mornings for the Nordic ski purists. Trails are available for both classic, tracked skiing and skate-skiing and for all skiing abilities.

The Wolfski Welcome Center Center is a basic warming shelter for before and after trail jaunts. There’s usually hot water for coco. There are porta-potties on-site. The warming center is open from sunrise to sunset, as are the trails.

people and dog enjoy outdoors
Standing near a canvas wall tent, Ryan Hueffmeier, left, director of the Boulder Lake Environmental Learning Center, and program coordinator Caleb Weiers talk about winter camping opportunities.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Winter camping

Camping is free on a first-come, first-served basis, or make a reservation for $30 to guarantee a spot. There are vault toilets open at the multi-site campground across the bay from the Wolfski Welcome Center. Center staff can help answer questions for novice winter campers.

Upcoming fun at Boulder Lake

Torchlight night ski and snowshoe: Feb. 4
Several miles of the Boulder Lake ski trail system will be illuminated by both a full moon and flames from tiki torches for the annual night ski party from 6-8 p.m. Meet at the Wolfski Welcome Center. There will be a bonfire, hot cocoa and s'mores for after the ski.

Cost: $10 for adults and $5 for kids ages 6-16. All proceeds go to help pay for programming. Registration required at forms.gle/xZekq73SgtctrEjB6 .

Ice Fishing 101: Feb. 5 and 12
A family-friendly ice fishing program set for 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Feb. 5 and 12. Staff will go over beginner gear, techniques and ice safety that you need to be a successful angler in the winter. All participants leave with a homemade jig stick that they get to try out on the Boulder Lake Reservoir.

Cost: $10 for adults, children 15 and under free. Registration required at forms. gle/ Pco8ADu1vWe38P7V6.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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