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Tossing the final bite of raspberry muffin into my mouth, I flipped my hand over to check my watch for the time. 9:34 am. Scribbling the time, as well as date and anticipated return on the short form, I glanced at the large, posted Forest Service map one more time, dropped my permit into the box, and turned towards the trailhead. A wide dirt path lay before me, curving slightly left into the welcoming woods, with the babble of a yet unseen creek beckoning me in. Water, snacks, permit, check. A gentle tug at my backpack straps snugged the bag around my waist and I set off along the Eagle Mountain trail-
The hike to the summit of Eagle Mountain, which lies in the northern part of Minnesota, traverses 3.5 miles and ascends to just over 2,300 feet to mark the highest point in the state. The well signed trail winds through lush forests masked by moss, over wetland areas, and skirts around small lakes, revealing new ecosystems and scenery every few minutes. And while the trail is well traveled, it’s easy to get the sense of a true nature experience and remain uninterrupted by other hikers along the way.
While mostly gentle and quick to hike, the last mile of the trail boldly climbs to a culminating scenic vista with views over a large swath of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The BWCA, which spans over 1 million acres across northern Minnesota, is littered with glacial lakes, thriving forests, and hiking trails, and provides a spectacular landscape to see from a high vantage such as Eagle Point. Hundreds of campsites are available throughout the expansive and serene wilderness area, most only accessible via canoe routs that traverse across backcountry lakes and through remote creeks. But it’s not just backpackers and water craft enthusiasts that populate the BWCA, the area is known for its thriving wildlife, including moose, foxes, lynx, and a whole menagerie of small woodland creatures. Birds too, including loons, ptarmigans, grouse, and owls nest in the towering oak and maple trees.
While it may be one of the more spectacular views, the hike up Eagle Mountain is just one access point into the BCWA. Just a few miles north a National Scenic Byway, the Gunflint Trail, stretches 57 miles across the BCWA from Grand Marais to Seagull Lake. The scenic drive snakes through pine and oak forests and passes by a myriad of lakes. Given the sheer size of the BCWA, the Gunflint Trail is an amazing way to see the region and gain access to some of its more remote aspects via outfitters and launch points that are scattered along the roadway. Each outfitter and guide operation have access to unique terrain throughout the BCWA and offer different degrees of adventures and lodging. But despite the different spots along the Gunflint Trail, they all offer unencumbered access to serene wilderness the likes of which are found nowhere else in the country.
Prompted by the grumble from deep in my stomach, I glance at my watch again to realize its nearing lunchtime. With the summit only a half mile away, I pick up the pace. A few hundred vertical feet and two small stream crossings later, the trees suddenly break, and I stride into the clearing atop Eagle Mountain. While the summit elevation is modest, the peak itself is the highest point for over 400 miles, providing far-reaching views over a landscape littered with lakes and forests seemingly without end. I stand transfixed for a moment until my stomach once again grumbles, and I settle in the shade at the base of a tree for lunch. With the summit to myself and a brilliant view before me, its hard to image anywhere else I would rather enjoy a meal. Yet, the lakes in the distance yearn to be explored, and with my cheese and almonds devoured, I take in one more long look at the BCWA below and begin the adventure back.