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Happy Trails: Brule River State Forest offers quiet retreat

The Historic Bayfield Road Hiking Trail is a rustic trek through history in Douglas County, Wisconsin.

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The Historic Bayfield Road Hiking Trail, near Maple, is a 2.25-mile loop that starts at a parking lot off Clevedon Road. It includes a connecting trail to the Cooper Range Campground. (Katie Rohman / krohman@duluthnews.com)
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If you seek paths less traveled, Historic Bayfield Road Hiking Trail fits the bill. Never heard of it? That’s the whole idea.

About 45 minutes southeast of Duluth, between Maple and Brule in the Brule River State Forest, off Clevedon Road, this trail is where you head to after growing weary of the tourist traffic on the North Shore and sharing space on Duluth’s multiuse trails.

My husband and I arrived at the trail on Sunday afternoon with one dead cellphone, another at 10% and a nearly dead camera battery. That’s a whole other story, but important to note for those of you who rely on GPS and phones — my iPhone also had one bar of service. However, a map isn’t critical for use of this loop trail.

Find a restroom before you head to the trail, or plan to use the Great Outdoors. The porta-potty in the parking lot was padlocked. And bring bug spray.

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The Historic Bayfield Road Hiking Trail loosely follows a section of Bayfield Road, which served as the first road between Superior and Bayfield. (Katie Rohman / krohman@duluthnews.com)

The 2.25-mile trail begins at a gravel parking lot. There is an interpretive display that explains the history of the trail. Another sign shows that no horses are allowed, but rogue riders had left behind ample horse apples along the trail, so step carefully.

The Historic Bayfield Road Hiking Trail is not like “rail trails,” where the path of former train tracks is clear. This trail is rustic and maintenance is minimal. It’s a mix of dirt and boardwalk. Thick deciduous trees, small creeks, berries and wildflowers line the trail. Toads hopped across it during the hot, muggy afternoon we hiked there. The trail is also packed during the winter for snowshoeing.

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Ferns and other vegetation covered parts of the Historic Bayfield Road Hiking Trail on Sunday, July 18, 2021. (Katie Rohman / krohman@duluthnews.com)

Before my hike, I researched Bayfield Road and learned about its critical role in transportation as the first route between Superior and Bayfield, and this trail follows a section of that route. The road, built in 1870, transported freight, mail and passengers between the cities until it was replaced by the railroad in 1885.

In my search for old-timey photos or materials related to the road, I contacted the Brule River State Forest Headquarters in Brule. Visitor services associate Mitch Pauly and other folks at the ranger station looked for photos, but came up short.

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Toads hopped along the Historic Bayfield Road Hiking Trail near Maple on Saturday, July 18, 2021. (Katie Rohman / krohman@duluthnews.com)

However, Pauly helpfully explained that the trail includes one of the highest elevation points in the river valley, a fire tower and remnants of Percival Mine.

About a half-mile in, a 1.6-mile connector trail leads to the Copper Range Campground. According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, this intersection was a layover stop on the two-day journey between Superior and Bayfield. Two taverns reportedly existed at one time at the crossing; one had rooms for travelers and could accommodate up to eight teams of horses.

Continue on the trail a short way, and if you look closely to the left, you’ll see remnants of Percival Mine. The thick trees may have camouflaged other remains, because the mine shaft is all we could find that day. We actually missed the mine during our initial hike, so after we arrived back at the parking lot, we went back to search for the mine.

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This mine shaft along the Historic Bayfield Road Hiking Trail is one of few visible remnants of the Percival Mine, where copper mining exploration started in the 1870s. (Katie Rohman / krohman@duluthnews.com)

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The Percival Mine shaft in Brule River State Forest at one time reached a depth of 90 feet. (Katie Rohman / krohman@duluthnews.com)

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Exploration started at Percival Mine around 1873, when a copper vein was located 15 feet underground. There were several additional attempts to mine there from 1899 through World War II. At one time, the mine shaft reached a depth of 90 feet. Today, the shaft is filled with water and surrounded by an unmarked wooden fence and rocks.

Further on the trail is the lookout. Haze from the Canadian wildfires blocked the view of Lake Superior on Sunday.

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This lookout on the Historic Bayfield Road Hiking Trail, where haze from Canadian wildfires could be seen Sunday, July 18, 2021, is located at one of the highest points in the river valley, according to the Brule River State Forest Headquarters. (Katie Rohman / krohman@duluthnews.com)

Shortly after the lookout is the fire tower, which hasn’t been in use for many years. Pauly confirmed the tower is not open to the public. The ladder is blocked to prevent people from climbing it.

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This fire tower is located on the Historic Bayfield Road Hiking Trail near Maple. The public is not allowed to climb it, however. (Katie Rohman / krohman@duluthnews.com)

The Historic Bayfield Road Hiking Trail is rustic and jarringly quiet. It’s rare to find a trail in the Northland where all you hear is the sound of your shoes crunching the leaves and the birds chirping in the trees — true solitude in nature.

For more about the Historic Bayfield Road Hiking Trail, visit p.widencdn.net/zkvn0z/BayfieldRoad .

Have a favorite trail you want us to check out? Drop us an email at outdoors@duluthnews.com with the subject line “Happy Trails.”

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Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune


Katie Rohman has served as the managing editor of the Duluth News Tribune since 2019. She started with Duluth Media Group in 2017 as regional editor of the Superior Telegram, Pine Journal, Lake County News-Chronicle, Eastern Observer and Western Weekly. She has worked in newspapers around the Midwest since 2004.
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