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'GITCHE GUMEE' GETAWAY: Cook County from a Pilot's Perspective

Dec 02, 2017 06:17AM ● Published by Editor

Gordon Lightfoot’s classic song aside, it may seem odd to suggest a wintertime visit to the farthest reaches of Minnesota, but a flight to Grand Marais (mar-AY) can indeed be the launching point of a fabulous cold-weather vacation. The town sits on the northwestern shore of Lake Superior (called Gitche Gumee by the native Ojibwe), surrounded by the Superior National Forest and backed by the Sawtooth Mountains. In winter the area becomes a rugged, frozen wonderland with miles of trails for snowmobiles, Nordic skis, and snowshoes. Pilots can take a scenic flight over the Gunflint Trail for a chance to view moose, wolves, and other wildlife.

Fly to Grand Marais/Cook County Airport, where the Roy family operates Roy Aero Service. They may loan you a vehicle for a quick trip; otherwise, rent a car. Devil Track Lake and the Cook County Seaplane Base are about a mile southwest of the airport. Skiplanes may land on the lake in the winter, but the seaplane base is not maintained. Rent a cabin, cottage, or lake home at the Skyport Lodge, which offers airport pickup and a restaurant.
To explore this great northern wilderness, you can drive along the Lake Superior shoreline, rent a snowmobile from Steve’s Sports and Auto (where you got your car), or rent snowshoes or skijoring or Nordic ski equipment from Stone Harbor Wilderness Supply. They offer guided tours as well, which can include ice fishing, ice climbing, and winter river skiing.

You can use those snowshoes or Nordic skis on hundreds of winter trails around town and in the Sawtooth Mountains. Six miles north of Grand Marais, the George Washington Pines Winter Recreational Trail is an easy, 3.3-kilometer looping trail that passes through a thick grove of Norway and white pines planted by Boy Scouts in 1932. The well-marked trail is open 24/7 so bring headlamps for an unforgettable Northcountry night experience. The Pincushion Trails, two miles north of town, offer beginner to expert trails for both classic and skate skiing. A warming house is located at the parking lot off the Gunflint Trail. You’ll need a Great Minnesota Ski Pass, $6 daily, to ski or snowshoe on any groomed trail. The 286-mile Superior Hiking Trail loosely follows the Lake Superior shoreline, with parking areas every 5 to 10 miles, no permits needed. A challenging hike to the 1,178-foot summit of Pincushion Mountain offers panoramic views of Lake Superior.

There are plenty of roads and trails for motorized sightseeing. The North Shore State Snowmobile Trail begins right where you’ll rent your snowmobile. Head into the woods, along the shoreline, or connect to the Gunflint Snowmobile Trail. By car, take County Road 12, also known as the Gunflint Trail, a 57-mile National Scenic Byway. Buy gas and pack a lunch before leaving town. You’ll enter a true boreal forest wilderness; look for gray jays, moose, and grouse, and listen for wolves if you stop to snowshoe. A nighttime drive might even reveal the aurora borealis. Forty-three miles down the road you’ll find the Gunflint Lodge; if you’re looking for the ultimate Northwoods hideaway, you’ve found it.

If you’d rather stay at Lake Superior, East Bay Suites offers luxurious condos on the harbor, while Anderson’s North Shore Resort has small cabins. Good eats can be found at My Sister’s Place and the Crooked Spoon Café; groceries can be purchased at the Cook County Whole Foods Co-op.

Seventeen miles east of Grand Marais, Lutsen Mountains Ski Resort boasts 90 alpine runs on four interconnected mountains, plus a terrain park, ski-and-stay packages, and concert/event packages. For something completely different, check out the North House Folk School, where they teach traditional Northern crafts. You can take classes in everything from Scandinavian cuisine or Adirondack chair-building to beading, cheesemaking, birchbark canoe building, or haberdashery.

When visiting a new area, I usually save my flightseeing for last. After exploring the area at ground level, I know what to look for from the air. Be aware that Canada is only 20 nautical miles north of Grand Marais and that the huge Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is marked as Prohibited Areas P-204, P-205, and P-206, where flights below 4,000 feet msl are prohibited. Happily, you may fly at any altitude within a corridor over the Gunflint Trail. The Northwoods are beautiful year-round, but as winter sets in, frozen water in every form turns this corner of the Gitchee Gumee into a fairytale land of wonder.
See the entire photo essay by following this link.

Crista Worthy

Crista Videriksen Worthy

Crista Videriksen Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association. To suggest future destination articles, send an email to
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