Weekend report: Backpacking and bagging Minnesota’s highest peak.

Warning, no bike content whatsoever.

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Boundary Waters entry point, Eagle Mountain Trail.

My friend Jeff had contacted me a few weeks ago. He needed to get out on a overnight adventure. I seem to be the one he calls for bike and backpacking get-aways. This time he wanted to backpack. Plenty of backpacking opportunities in the region. For shorter overnights I tend to head up the north shore of Lake Superior and do a section of the Superior Hiking Trail. Jeff asked if I’d ever gone to, or knew anything about Eagle Mountain. Yes and yes. Eagle Mountain is Minnesota’s highest peak. At 2,301 feet above sea level it’s nothing to brag about. But, it can only be reached on foot. It’s located in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW).

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Me at the Boundary of the Boundary Waters.

The BWCAW is a designated Wilderness and lies within the Superior National Forest. It is one of the most remote areas in the lower 48 states but is one of the most visited National Wilderness areas.  The attraction of the area is the hundreds of lakes contained inside this area that is on the border with Canada. The Wilderness itself is over one million acres in size. It can be navigated only by canoe through a system of portages that connect the lakes. A few hiking trails also give access. As a designated wilderness, no motors of any type are allowed into the wilderness.

The hike to the top of Eagle mountain is about 3.5 miles in length. The first three miles is mostly flat. The climb up Eagle mountain is not very steep and only gains about 500 ft. The most difficult part is the footing. The National Forest Service ranks this trail as “Difficult” due to the rough trail. Rocks and tree roots fill the trail the entire way. So a 3.5 mile hike with a 500 foot elevation gain sounds easy. It’s not easy, but very do-able for any one with some basic fitness.

There are two designated campsites by Whale Lake at the base of the climb. An overnight permit from the National Forest Service is required to stay there. We stopped at the Tofte Ranger Station for our permit. One was available. From there it’s about a 20 mile drive into the the Superior National Forest via gravel forest service roads to the Eagle Mountain entry point. Despite the hike to the campsite being only 3 miles, by the time you make the drive and walk in you are nearly 25 miles from the nearest main road and any services. It feels very remote. The Forest Service warns any rescue from this area is very difficult.

We navigated the rocks and roots and arrived at Whale Lake around 2 pm. Both sites were taken. That probably meant one group was camping without the proper permit. We didn’t try to “police” the situation ourselves. We were able to share the best campsite of the two with a father and his three sons (who had a permit). They were gracious enough to let us encroach on their weekend in the woods. After we set-up camp we decided it would be a good time to make the climb up to the peak of Eagle Mountain.

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The hike up was not steep, but very rugged with lots of rocks and a stream running down the trail most of the way. The area had received 2 inches of rain the previous night.

The mountain is mostly tree covered with a few openings in the trees near the top. The actual peak is hard to find if you haven’t read about it or heard about it from someone else. The trail that runs the last 100 yards or so to the peak is not marked (signage is kept to the absolute minimum in Wilderness areas) and is not obvious if you’re not looking for it. Here’s some of the views from the overlooks. All of these views are looking Southeast or East. Trees and lakes as far as you can see:

After marveling at the view we found our way to the summit. A geological marker and plague mark the spot.

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It says the rock composing the mountain is over a billion years old.
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Me on the summit.

I have to say how nice the weather and conditions were for this trip. Daytime in the high 60’s/low 70’s. Night time temps in the upper 50’s. It can get below freezing this time of year. And it probably did a few days before our trip because there was not a single mosquito around. Minnesota north woods with warm weather and no bugs is like heaven. And very rare. We did have a few clouds spitting rain at us during our dinner. But it was a minor inconvenience. It mostly cleared off by sunset. Sunset on Whale Lake was very nice. After dinner we assisted our campsite mates with their attempt to start a fire. Like I said earlier, 2 inches of rain the night before. It left everything extremely damp. We almost had a fire going twice, but eventually failed.  The family retired to their massive 6 or 8 person tent they had brought with them while Jeff and I sat at the edge of the lake until well after the sun was down. I snapped quite a few shots of the lake as the sun slowly fell below the tree line.

After sunset we sat at the edge of the lake in near darkness for a while until the moon came up. It’s hard to describe, but we sat and listened to the sound of silence. The Boundary Waters is known as one of the quietest places in the lower 48 states. Quiet being defined as the lack of human made sounds, like car traffic for example. There are very few places left where you can experience this. Even here our silence was broken a couple of times by far off planes. It can almost be disorienting to try and hear something when there are no sounds. It was a still night with few animal sounds, so there wasn’t even the sound of the wind in the trees. There are three places I have personally experienced this kind of silence. Here in the Boundary Waters, on a backpacking trip down in the Grand Canyon, and on a backpacking trip in to the desert and Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park in Southwest Texas.

As always, I slept great in my tent. I tend to sleep better in a tent in the woods then I do in my own bed at home. I was anticipating the lack of bugs, or at least hoping there wouldn’t be many. I had heard a freeze had happened in this part of the state. In order to pack a little lighter I left the body of my tent at home. I only use tents for rain and bugs. If there’s no rain or no bugs I prefer to sleep under the stars, even in winter. But since we had a slight chance of rain I brought my ground sheet, tent poles, and rain fly. Without the tent body it’s more like a tarp tent then a tent. No bug netting.

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My tent off in the woods about 20 yards from the others.
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Morning at the campsite on Whale Lake. The family tent on the left, Jeff’s tent on the right down by the water.
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Morning light on Whale Lake.
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Good Morning Whale Lake.

I think I slept about 10 hours. Something I can never seem to do at home. We took our time with breakfast and packing up. Sometime around mid-morning we headed out for the rugged three miles back to the car. Our route took us about half way around the lake.

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The view from across the lake looking back towards the campsite we stayed at.
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Jeff up ahead navigating through the rocks.
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Beaver dam and pond.

It was a great overnight backpack trip. We drove a longer way out of the National Forest then the way we came. But basically it’s drive south till you hit Lake Superior, turn right and drive about 90 miles of scenic highway along Lake Superior to Duluth.

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A hint of Fall color in Superior National Forest.
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Sawbill Trail. This road goes thirty miles deep into the National Forest. It used to be all gravel. This summer they paved over nearly 10 miles of it. Nice road, but I miss the gravel.

Near Finland, Minnesota along the North Shore we stopped to check out the views from Palisade Head. Palisade Head is a 1.1 billion year old lava flow. It has some dramatic cliffs along Lake Superior. It was a perfect day to be up there. Quite a few rock climbers thought so too.

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Spot the rock climber! He’s wearing a yellow top and black pants. And he appeared to be climbing alone. No one at the top or bottom.

What a great trip.

 

 

3 thoughts on “Weekend report: Backpacking and bagging Minnesota’s highest peak.

  1. anniebikes September 20, 2016 / 6:33 am

    Very beautiful and -wow – there’s quite tricky footing on those trails. I can see that Autumns is definitely in the air!

    Like

    • fourseasoncycling September 20, 2016 / 8:26 am

      I mentioned to my friend the trail reminded me of the Appalachian Trail in Vermont….rocks, roots, and endless mud. Hiking poles highly recommended.

      Like

  2. Jeff Crowe September 21, 2016 / 7:35 pm

    Nice write up, almost as good as being there 🙂 thanks for coming with!!!! (and driving)
    Amazing pictures!!!

    Like

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