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Volunteer group forms to keep Isabella ski trails open

The Flathorn-Gegoka cross-country trail system is one of many in the Superior National Forest.

kiers on a segment of the Flathorn-Gegkoga Nordic ski trail system near Isabella
Skiers on a segment of the Flathorn-Gegoka Nordic ski trail system near Isabella. A new nonprofit group, Friends of the Flathron-Gegoka Trails, has formed to keep the trail system operating after a local lodge closed to the public.
Contributed / Friends of the Flathorn-Gegkoa Trails
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ISABELLA — Ely has the Hidden Valley trails. Brule has After Hours. Grand Marais has Pincushion. Duluth has Korkki and Snowflake. And of course Isabella, has Flathorn-Gegoka.

Wait, what does Isabella have?

The Flathorn-Gegoka ski trail system in the Superior National Forest may be one of the best classic Nordic ski trails you’ve never heard of. It’s also the oldest ski trail in that part of the forest.

The 29.6 kilometers of trail, more than 18 miles, run across national forest land. But it’s now maintained by a new nonprofit group, a classic example of northwoods volunteerism and activism that has kept the trails open.

“We’re learning as we go. But we’ve got a good group to start,” said Ben Wolfe, a retired University of Minnesota Duluth professor who spends much of his time with his wife, Barry, at their cabin on an Isabella-area lake.

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A few miles past Isabella if you are going up Minnesota Highway 1, the Flathorn-Gegoka trails (named after nearby lakes they pass) are easily accessed from a parking area off the Mitawan Lake Road, also called Forest Road 177. There’s another trailhead with limited parking just off state Highway 1 at Jensen Trail, an unplowed road groomed as a ski trail.

Flathorn-Gegoka Trail sign
The Flathorn-Gegoka Nordic ski trail system near Isabella is in one of the snowiest parts of Minnesota, as evidenced by this snow plow berm at the entrance to the trail access.
Contributed / Friends of the Flathorn-Gegoka Trails

The trails were just a couple miles from last summer’s Greenwood forest fire, but were not impacted by the flames. It’s one of the snowiest parts of Minnesota most years, and this winter is no exception, with perfect conditions for skiing. So far this winter, some 62 inches of snow has fallen in the area with 2 feet on the ground as of Monday, the National Weather Service reports.

There are many loops, some in open areas and some under old white pine. Difficulty varies from expert to easy. Trails are groomed for classic skiing only; there are no skate skiing trails. And while snowshoes and fat bikes had at one time been allowed on some segments, they are no longer allowed.

The trails are part of the statewide Great Minnesota Ski Pass system managed by the Department of Natural Resources. Skiers must have the pass to ski there, as they do at most trails statewide. The DNR then allocates money from pass sales back to local groups and municipalities to maintain the trails, based on miles of trail.

For years, the Flathorn-Gegoka trails were maintained by the nearby National Forest Lodge, a private resort where many skiers stayed overnight. The lodge accepted the state trail grant and groomed the trails. But the lodge was sold last year and the new owners are not going to open it to the public. So there was no local entity to accept the state grant and groom the trails.

Bridge on Flathorn-Gegoka classic Nordic ski trail system
Barry Wolfe skis onto one of several bridges located on the Flathorn-Gegoka classic Nordic ski trail system near Isabella. A new group has formed to take over maintenance of the trail.
Contributed / Benjamin Wolfe

Enter Friends of the Flathorn-Gegoka Trails, the newly incorporated, nonprofit group made up mostly of local home and cabin owners. They will now accept the $2,900 annual state grant to keep the trails groomed in winter and clear them every autumn of downed trees and brush. Much of the money goes to keep the old snowmobile groomer running.

Wolfe and his wife enjoy skiing on the trails and didn’t want to see them fade into oblivion, and there were many skiers in the area who felt the same way.

“We figured we had to step up or nature would reclaim those trails in a hurry,” Wolfe said. “The Forest Service just doesn't have the staff or the money to keep all the trails groomed and open.”

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The friends group is looking for more members, Wolfe noted. Despite the fact the closest lodge is no longer open to the public, Wolfe said there are still lodging options not too far away. Ely and the North Shore are each less than an hour's drive away.

Flathorn-Gegoka Trail signs
The Flathorn-Gegoka ski trail system in the Superior National Forest near Isabella is in one of the snowiest parts of Minnesota. This winter has been no exception.
Contributed / Friends of the Flathorn-Gegoka Trails

Jonathan Benson, assistant district ranger for recreation and wilderness for the Gunflint and Tofte districts of the Superior National Forest, said the Flathorn-Gegoka trails are one of a half-dozen similar Nordic trails on the eastern half of the national forest. All of them except one are maintained by local groups using the state ski-pass grants. (Some Gunflint Trail-area trails operate on national forest land, but are maintained outside the state pass system and, while open to the public, require a daily fee paid to local lodges that groom the trails.)

The narrow, heavily wooded trails at Flathorn-Gegoka offer varied terrain, but are more commonly skied by recreational skiers rather than racers because of the lack of skate-skiing. There are no crowds, less Spandex and more wool, Benson quipped.

“Flathorn-Gegoka is the oldest in our area. … It goes back to the mid-'70s at least, maybe older,” Benson said. “It’s a really nice trail system that maybe doesn’t get the exposure or the crowds you see at some of the trails closer to” bigger towns like Ely or Grand Marais.

Flathorn-Gegoka Ski Trails.jpg
Flathorn-Gegoka Ski Trails map
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

Friends of the Flathorn-Gegoka Trails seeks more friends

For more information on joining the Friends of the Flathorn-Gegoka Trails group or on the trails themselves:

If you go

There’s no separate fee to ski the Flathorn-Gegoka trails, but a Minnesota State Ski Pass is required, as is the case for hundreds of trails across Minnesota.

  • Cost: $10 daily, $25 for a year, $70 for three years.
  • Where to purchase: dnr.state.mn.us/skiing/skipass/index.html or 888-665-4236.
  • You can get a confirmation number and ski immediately after your online or phone purchase.

Superior National Forest has many winter trails

The Flathorn-Gegoka Nordic ski trail is just one of 16 winter trail systems in the Superior National Forest open to the public with the Great Minnesota Ski Pass.

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For details on each Nordic trail system, as well as additional snowshoe trails and winter walking trails, go to fs.usda.gov/activity/superior/recreation/wintersports and pick the type of trail you want. Maps and directions are provided for each trail.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, environment and natural resources for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at jmyers@duluthnews.com .

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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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