The Lost 40

Hiking through the Lost 40 SNA in Chippewa National Forest

Minnesota can be divided into roughly three distinct ecosystems - the deciduous forest of the southeast, the prairie of the west, and the coniferous forests of the north and northeast. When the White settlers first came to the state, these ecosystems were vast and pristine - millions of bison roamed the delicate tallgrass prairie, oaks and maples hundreds of years old grew in the deep shade of what was known as the Big Woods, and towering white pines stretched from central Minnesota hundreds of miles north into Canada. 

Old Growth White Pines at the Lost 40 SNA

Only tiny pockets of these ecosystems remain today and those largely by accident. There are groves of the original maples in valleys too inaccessible for farming or virgin prairies on slopes too steep for the plow. The Lost 40 is one such place. During the early 20th century, loggers efficiently clearcut the extremely valuable old growth white pines - destroying an ecosystem that for many native people was synonymous with "the good life". If these trees were replaces at all, it was with fast growing jack or red pine, leaving the majestic white pine as the exception rather than the rule for northern Minnesota. Luckily for us, one section had a couple of apparently incompetent surveyors, and in what is now Chippewa National Forest, they marked a 40 acre stand of old growth pines as a lake. Logging companies, closely following the surveyors reports, skipped over this section, leaving us the benefit of getting a sample of what the entire north used to look like. 

A 400 year old White Pine at the Lost 40 SNA

The trail through the Lost 40 Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) winds around red and white pines that are between 300 and 400 years old - trees that were seedlings when the pilgrims first arrived in America. These trees are massive and provide wide open space on the forest floor. Lumberjacks used to say that they could drive a team of horses and a cart easily between the natural gaps between trees. It is easy to see how different the state looked just 150 years ago. The back section of the 40 acres area succumbed to wildfire in the early 20th century, so those trees are only about 100 years old, but any white pine forest of that age still has the old growth feel to it. While a little bit out of the way, this is definitely a pitstop worth making. 

Superior National Forest

A typical river scene in Superior National Forest 

The national forests of Minnesota are home to some of the most remote and wild places in the state. They are vast areas of dense woods with few roads and fewer towns. In one of my first posts for the Great Minnesota Road Trip, I wrote about Chippewa National Forest in the Drive section of Scenic State Park. Although there are many destinations in Chippewa, for me the forest was a mostly a point of passage from civilization to wilderness (the road through Chippewa is literally called "Edge of the Wilderness Scenic Byway"). Even so, if there is one place I wish I would have spent more time in, it would be Chippewa.

Superior National Forest would have ended up in the same category as Chippewa, a beautiful drive between state parks, if I had come a different time of year or ignored road signs. As it was, I was there in Autumn and noticed a little sign off of Hwy 61 that said "Fall Color Route". I made the decision to explore this mysterious road and in an afternoon Superior National Forest went from a throughway to a destination.

A canopy of gold on Superior National Forest's Fall Color Route. 

The 6300 square mile forest (the fourth largest in the nation including Alaska) contains more than 2000 lakes, 3400 miles of streams and rivers, the largest wolf population in the lower 48, and some of the best hiking and canoeing in the world. Although is would take weeks to even begin to explore this vast wilderness, it only takes a day to drive the fall color route. Following a series of forest roads taking you into the Sawtooth Mountains between Two Harbors and Grand Marais, the route is designed (unsurprisingly) to bring you through some of the best displays of fall color in the state. You'll drive though golden canopies of aspen, fiery swathes of maple, and to points overlooking virtually uninhabited wildernesses.

Dirt road through the fall colors in Superior National Forest. 

If you go on a weekday, you'll be virtually alone except for locals, but on the weekend, it won't feel uninhabited. The North Shore gets about two weekends of good color each year and people take advantage of it. You won't run into any traffic jams like you might in a New England fall color route, but you'll have to be patient if you want pictures without other cars in them. However, this is still hundreds of miles from the nearest large city, so if you're used to crowds, you probably won't even notice.

If you manage to hit the right time (late September / early October), take the time to explore Superior National Forest. If you come too early or too late, still take the time because wilderness is always worth it.

Jeffers Petroglyphs

Do you see the bison on the rock in the corner? 

Easily the oldest historic site in Minnesota, the first petroglyphs (rock carvings) on Red Rock Ridge in Southwestern Minnesota were produced between 7000 and 9000 years ago. Since the most recent were produced at late as 1800, some people consider Jeffers Petroglyphs to be the longest continually used sacred site in the world.

The petroglyphs were carved on the same Sioux Quartzite formation that forms Pipestone and Blue Mounds. According to the Minnesota Historical Society, the American Indians who created the pictures believed that places where this rock emerged from the prairie were spiritual places of connection - a link between the spiritual and physical world.

The images are incredibly hard to make out on the stone, especially on a rainy day like when I was there, but interpretive signs outline them decently. And apparently you can go out with a guide, but I missed that part. Even self-interpreted however the site really is amazing. It is crazy to think about people on this same rock creating the images I'm looking at 9000 years ago - before the pyramids were built, when mammoths still roams the plains. A mammoth could have stepped on these drawings and I'm looking at them. Talk about a link to the past.

The Jeffers Petroglyphs site also has a small section of virgin prairie - a rarity in Minnesota. It might be worth exploring  the trails through the prairie, but since it was pouring rain, I forwent that pleasure. This is another must see Minnesota road trip site.

Touch the Sky Prairie

Touch the Sky Prairie in western Minnesota 

As I was driving out of Blue Mounds State Park, I noticed a sign that said "Touch the Sky Prairie" with an arrow. I was in a hurry because I was meeting my cousin in Worthington and had several other parks to hike that day, but I was on a road trip. The whole point of road trips is to explore and discover. So naturally, the only possible thing for me to do in this situation was to follow the signs. I passed no towns and drove down back gravel roads in the middle of nowhere until I came upon the Fish and Wildlife sign proclaiming Touch the Sky Prairie.

Prairie as far as the eye can see at Touch the Sky Prairie 

Touch the Sky Prairie is part of the Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, which consists of broken up patches of preserved prairie throughout Minnesota and Iowa. Now a critically endangered ecosystem, tallgrass prairies once covered nearly a third of the great plains. Touch the Sky is one of the last remaining remnants of native prairie left in the state (although there is much more restored prairie). It gives you a sense of the what the prairie would have been like when settlers first broke ground, but at only 800 acres, it simply cannot give a true sense of the expanse of the original prairie.

Jim Brandenburg did a photo project with Touch the Sky Prairie that is worth checking out. His pictures are better than mine.

Touch the Sky Prairie National Wildlife Refuge near Luverne, MN. 

Touch the Sky Prairie National Wildlife Refuge near Luverne, MN. 

Pipestone National Monument

The distinctive red Sioux Quartzite cliffs of Pipestone National Monument. 

Since I was driving through southwestern Minnesota anyways, I thought I'd take the chance to stop at one of the state's two national monuments. Pipestone National Monument is series of pipestone quarries, both historical and in current use. Minnesota Pipestone, which is the second softest rock in the world, must be mined out from under layers of Sioux Quartzite, which happens to be the second hardest rock in the world. Even today, only traditional hand tools are used in the quarries meaning it takes a long time to even reach the rock, which had long been used by the American Indians to make pipes. 

Pipestone National Monument has some of the last virgin tallgrass prairie in Minnesota 

The monument museum includes a workshop where Native American craftsmen demonstrate how they carve the stone into pipes. The stone is so soft that they can often just use a knife or even wooden tools to hollow out the bowl. The craftsmen were getting pretty creative with their pipes. Some carve elaborate eagles or bison; one fashioned his into a model of the U.S.S Enterprise.  

The reason to visit the site is for the short trail that mazes its way through a series of Sioux Quartzite cliffs. The red and pink outcroppings jut straight up from the flat prairie, providing an important landmark in the grassy sea. I was also able to visit some active quarries where registered members of local tribes still come to mine the sacred Catlinite. But enough description - just check out the pictures and make sure to make a stop there when you're in the area (actually it's good road trip practice to stop at any National Park or National Monument that you pass by). 

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

Pulling in at sunset after a long day paddling is always a great feeling. 

You can't pretend you've truly traveled around Minnesota unless you've been to the Boundary Waters. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) is a million acre stretch of interconnected lakes and waterways on the Minnesota/Canada border just north of Lake Superior. With no roads or even motorboats allowed in most of the wilderness area, the primary mode of transportation is the canoe.

A trip to the boundary waters is a quintessential Minnesota experience. You have to take the good - drifting over lakes as smooth as glass at sunset, eating fire fried fish that were swimming happily around an hour before, falling asleep to the sound of loon calls - with the bad - hauling the your gear in giant Duluth Packs, violently paddling against whitecaps on the water, portaging through insect infested bogs and over mountains, braving the storms that so often rip through the region. But it's an experience like nothing else in the state.

The forest floor in the BWCA is thick with sphagnum moss - a fertile ground for great mushrooms like these ones. 

Many excellent writers have already extolled the wonders of the boundary waters and canoe trips, so I am going to borrow the words of my favorite canoeing enthusiast Sigurd Olson here and I'll give you some more details about my trip in the captions to the pictures.

"The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness, and of a freedom almost forgotten. It is an antidote to insecurity, the open door to waterways of ages past, and a way of life with profound and abiding satisfactions. When a man is part of his canoe, he is part of all that canoes have ever known."

Freshly picked wild berries in our pancakes in the BWCA

"I remember long trips in the wilderness when food and tobacco were running low, when the weather for a week or a month had been impossible, and the joy that coming back meant in the satisfaction of long-thwarted hunger and comfort. In the light of reflection, that was the real harvest, something to remember whenever the going gets tough."

"In travelling great rivers and lakes, there are times when islands fade, hills and headlands recede, the water merges with the sky in a distant mirage of shimmery blue. These are the open horizons of the far north."

"The canoe was drifting off the islands, and the time had come for the calling, that moment of magic in the north when all is quiet and the water still iridescent with the fading glow of sunset. Even the shores seemed hushed and waiting for the first lone call, and when it came, a single long-drawn mournful note, the quiet was deeper than before." [About a loon call]

"The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness, and of a freedom almost forgotten."

-Sigurd Olson 

Hull-Rust Mine

View of the Hull-Rust Mine in Hibbing, MN - Largest Open Pit Iron Mine in the World. 

The goal of my road trips are to hike the state parks, but along the way, there are many other Minnesota landmarks that can't be passed up. When I found myself stopping for gas in the mining town of Hibbing, I decided to take the first of what I hope will be many pit stops.

Hibbing is famous for many things - well,  for three things at least. It's the hometown of both Bob Dylan, Greyhound Buses (actually all buses), and the Hull-Rust Mine - the largest open pit iron mine in the world. The first two abandoned the town as soon as they grew large enough to make it on their own and never once looked back. The mine grew large as well. In fact it grew so large, the town had to abandon it, moving a full two miles to the south to avoid being consumed as the land beneath the building was mined.

To get the scale - see that little line in the bottom right corner? That's a giant road with huge trucks running on it. 

Three and a half miles long, 1.5 miles wide, and 600 feet deep, the terraced red canyon would look more at home in the desert southwest than the fertile forests of Minnesota's lake country. And it's no wonder the mine is so massive. Part of the famed Mesabi Range, the largest of several iron ranged in Northern Minnesota, the Hull-Rust Mine alone provided a fourth a all iron ore used in the country during WWI and WWII, yielding over 50 million tons of iron. Considering the worth of the iron pulled from the northern ranges over the last hundred years is estimated at well over 15 trillion dollars and that over %75 of domestic iron still comes from these mines, the area is one of the more depressed regions of the state. The high quality ore is gone, the industry is fickle, and wealth for mining companies (many foreign owned) has never meant wealth for miners. 

One of the giant dump trucks used in Hibbing's Hull-Rust Mine. 

But if you ever find yourself in Hibbing, take the short drive to the mine. It has its own beauty, though many consider it nothing more than a scar across the landscape. I would also suggest that you check out the triple continental divide - one of only four on the continent - where the Laurentian and St. Lawrence Divides meet, but since the site is owned by the mines, the best you can do is squint across Hibbing's humongous pit and know that it's somewhere in the distance.

Bob Dylan singing about the iron mines in Hibbing, MN - the town he grew up in.