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Happy Trails: Lost in backcountry of George Crosby Manitou State Park

The Humpback Trail is a moderately difficult hike, with steep climbs and descents, but a stunning waterfall.

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The Middle Falls at George Crosby Manitou State Park as seen July 21.
Laura Butterbrodt / Duluth News Tribune
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FINLAND — My outdoors expert cousin from Pennsylvania came to visit me in the Twin Ports last week, and I knew I had to take her on some hikes so she could really experience the North Shore and its charms. She was only in town for a few days, so we dedicated a day trip to heading up north.

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Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

We decided to visit George H. Crosby Manitou State Park near Finland on July 21. It was the perfect location for a single-day tour because it passed other must-see North Shore attractions like Gooseberry Falls, Split Rock Lighthouse and Palisade Head.

Living on the North Shore of Lake Superior has tons of perks. Beautiful views, friendly people and plenty of activities. But one thing I don’t love is how crowded the parks get during the summertime. I’d read that this park is much quieter than the parks right along the shore, but it isn’t that far out of the way.

From Duluth, we followed state Highway 61 to Tettegouche State Park, then headed toward Finland on Highway 1. From Finland, we followed Cramer Road — which is mostly gravel — for about 7.5 miles until we came to the park entrance on Benson Lake Road. We arrived around noon on a Thursday, but we saw maybe a total of around 10 people the whole afternoon. After a picnic lunch at Benson Lake, we embarked on the Humpback Trail — a 1.6-mile trail that started at the parking lot.

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The entrance to George H. Crosby Manitou State Park near Finland, as seen July 21.
Laura Butterbrodt / Duluth News Tribune

Before I get into details, I’m going to start by saying I don’t necessarily recommend the Humpback Trail to everyone. Instead, I’d advise people to take the Middle Trail as a down-and-back hike to the waterfalls on the Manitou River.

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In my opinion, Humpback Trail was more effort than it was worth and because it wasn’t well-marked, there was a risk of getting lost. The orange blazes that marked the path were few and far between. However, it was a good challenge and the time I spent hiking there was in good company, so it was still fun. The trail is part of the Minnesota Hiking Club and offers a lot of elevation change in a short distance, if that’s your cup of tea.

The Humpback Trail at George Crosby Manitou State Park
The Humpback Trail at George Crosby Manitou State Park as seen July 21.
Contributed / Kristen Locy

I’d read on AllTrails app that this hike was moderately challenging and overgrown in places, and I definitely found that to be true. True to its name, the Humpback Trail was pretty nonstop with straight-up and straight-down steep elevation changes. There were a few moments where the path, which was extremely dry with loose gravel and pine needles, caused some slips and shuffles.

In some places, ferns were covering the trail or a tree had fallen across the path, but it was nothing that impeded our passage. It wasn’t unexpected, because the park isn’t managed by on-site staff, and camping consists of backpack-only sites.

Established in 1955, Crosby Manitou State Park was a gift from iron mining magnate George Crosby and has been intentionally left largely undeveloped. An employee at Tettegouche State Park, which manages Crosby Manitou State Park, said the wilderness park resembles the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness with its peaceful, backcountry camping and quieter but more rugged trails.

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Our biggest issue with the Humpback Trail was after the halfway point, when the path became a hopscotch game across a long stretch of loose rocks and boulders. It felt like a game of “the floor is lava,” and it was hard to tell whether the rocks were marking a path or not. We followed the rocks for quite a while because there were no trail blazes telling us otherwise, and we found ourselves in a completely wooded area with what kind of looked like a trail, but it was questionable.

Under our feet, there were some pretty deep pits and holes between rocks and roots. The woods ahead looked dense and dark, and we were blocked by cliffs on our right that we definitely couldn’t climb.

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A point along Humpback Trail in George Crosby Manitou State Park where the trail breaks to the right. Kristen Locy, of Canonsburg, Pa., indicates where hikers should follow the path up a rock.
Laura Butterbrodt / Duluth News Tribune

We doubled back three times before we decided to backtrack all the way to the last blaze we’d seen to try to figure out where we were supposed to be going. After about five to 10 minutes, we found the last blaze and tried to follow the trail along the rocks again. My cousin spotted the real trail up a boulder on our right that wasn't marked, and we were so relieved that we weren’t lost in the woods. We celebrated with some juneberries from along the trail, which were ripe and delicious.

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Ripe juneberries as seen July 21 on Humpback Trail in George Crosby Manitou State Park near Finland.
Laura Butterbrodt / Duluth News Tribune

The end of the Humpback Trail converges with the Middle Trail, which creates a loop back to the parking lot. They meet at a beautiful triple-waterfall along the Manitou River, which was a wonderful place to take a break and enjoy the view. There were some flies and mosquitoes in the area, which were worse when we were sitting down by the water. My cousin took a dip in the river and said the water was pleasant, but the rocks were slippery.

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Kristen Locy, of Canonsburg, Pa., and Duluth News Tribune reporter Laura Butterbrodt at Middle Falls in George Crosby Manitou State Park.
Laura Butterbrodt / Duluth News Tribune

We took Middle Trail back, and it was a lot more maintained and traveled than the Humpback Trail. There was an offshoot trail for an overlook that gives you a little sliver of a view of Lake Superior, which was fun to see and a good reminder that we weren’t far from the lake at all, despite not seeing it from our vantage points on the Humpback Trail. Humpback Trail had several views from the tops of the peaks – mostly showing the forested hills surrounding us, and partly obstructed by trees. I bet it would be great in the fall for views of changing leaves.

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Views from a peak on the Humpback Trail in George Crosby Manitou State Park.
Laura Butterbrodt / Duluth News Tribune

Middle Trail is also a Hiking Club trail, and is part of the Superior Hiking Trail. It’s an eighth of a mile long, making our hike 2.4 miles in total. However, because of the elevation changes and the backtracking when we got lost, it felt a lot longer and took us about two hours. We only saw three other hiking groups during our time on the trails.

Some things to note if you are planning to try out the Humpback Trail or any other hikes at George H. Crosby Manitou State Park:

  • The only restroom facilities are primitive toilets at the entrance to Middle Trail by the parking lot and at the start of the Benson Lake Trail.
  • Other paths are more dog friendly than Humpback Trail, but if your dog is agile, I read that it can be done. I personally wouldn’t recommend it because there are some steep climbs and descents.
  • All campsites are backpack-only, and their availability will depend on the fire danger levels in the area.
  • The shelter on Middle Trail was completely collapsed. An employee at Tettegouche State Park told me the shelter was slated to be decommissioned this year anyway, but it collapsed either due to heavy snow or human intervention.
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The shelter on the Middle Trail in George Crosby Manitou State Park has collapsed.
Laura Butterbrodt / Duluth News Tribune

Overall, I loved our day at this park and definitely want to return and check out some of the other trails we didn’t have time for. I was especially impressed by Benson Lake, and want to take the lake trail, which is just under a mile loop. I’d recommend the Humpback/Middle trail loop to experienced hikers who are looking to work up a sweat, but I recommend the park overall to anyone. Just don’t all go at once! The quiet and seclusion is part of the appeal.

Laura Butterbrodt covers health for the Duluth News Tribune. She has a bachelor of arts in journalism from South Dakota State University and has been working as a reporter in Minnesota and South Dakota since 2014.
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