Does the idea of chucking your Facebook account sound appealing? How about going days without being able to make a call on your cellphone? While the idea might cause a tightness in your chest at first, I can assure you that once you get past the initial shock, it’s the most freeing feeling in the world.
That’s the appeal of staying at Clearwater Lake, just off the Gunflint Trail in the northeastern corner of Minnesota. It’s just you, the trees and the water. Your Instagram followers will just have to wait for you to return to civilization before seeing your breathtaking photos. Meanwhile, you can drink in the serene views, unencumbered by the Jet Skis that plague lakes farther south.
My family has been making the trek to Clearwater Historic Lodge for more than 15 years. Before that, we used to stay along the Whitefish Chain of Lakes near Brainerd, but moved farther north because the crowds of tourists made us feel like we weren’t heading into nature anymore. This summer was our last stay at Clearwater — not because we have any complaints about the experience; it’s just that the five-hour drive to get there takes a little too long. That’s why I don’t feel bad about giving away our “secret” spot.
When to go
July and August are ideal times to visit this area to escape the heat, and you’re likely to find delicious raspberries or blueberries then. September is a great time too, as you’ll encounter less traffic on the way up. It’s the perfect weather for cozy campfires, languorous mornings admiring the water while sipping coffee, and adventurous hikes without the humidity.
There are plenty of wonderful hikes in the area, such as a short walk up to Honeymoon Bluff, where you can catch a gorgeous vista of the pristine lakes below. The summit is a beautiful spot to watch the sunset, and it only takes a few minutes to walk back down once twilight hits.
If sunrises are more your thing, wake up before dawn and paddle across the lake to hike the Palisades. It’s a difficult climb up the bluff, but well worth it for the spectacular view. The shortness of breath you feel at the top just adds to the feeling of accomplishment as you look down at the water below.
Or you can hike into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area itself. Rose Lake Falls provides a gorgeous day trip for the ambitious hiker; you’ll find yourself just a few hundred feet from the peaceful Caribou Rock. For a tamer hike, turn around once you hit the first couple of overlooks.
Staying just outside the BWCA means you’ll retain some vestiges of civilization, while at the same time benefiting from the remote wilderness with its solitary beauty.
In between hiking and canoeing, if you’re staying for a week, you’ll probably need to make a run to Grand Marais at some point for groceries and beer. Clearwater is about 45 minutes from town, and there are some quaint restaurants and coffee shops along the way where you can hang out and catch up on what’s happening in the real world while reading the newspaper. Definitely stop by the Joynes Ben Franklin (105 Wisconsin St.), a peculiar store that supplies all of your basic Up North needs.
And while it’s more than an hour’s drive from Clearwater, it’s well worth it to drive to Devil’s Kettle Falls, a mysterious oddity of nature. The waterfall dumps into two different receptacles — the Brule River, as well as a mysterious pothole. Nobody has ever figured out where the water goes from there. The hike to Devil’s Kettle through Judge C. R. Magney State Park is gorgeous and not too difficult.
Where to eat
Pick up groceries in Grand Marais, because you’ll likely be making most of your own meals. Like any hiker worth his or her salt, show off your mean trail-mix skills, but remember when you’re hiking, you have to “leave no trace,” which includes biodegradable apple cores.
Where to sleep
The lodge at Clearwater Historic Lodge & Canoe Outfitters was built in 1926, and there are also a number of cabins of different sizes. If you’re staying in a cabin, the lodge is a great place to hang out during the day or evening, with its weird taxidermy, historic photos and large covered porch where you can sit on comfy wooden chairs and look out at the lake. There’s also a fire pit for storytelling and s’mores in the evening. The lodge provides yummy breakfasts at a decent rate, and baked goods to take on your adventures. The cookies are to die for. (774 Clearwater Rd., Grand Marais. 1-218-388-2254.)
Clearwater is about 300 miles, or a five-hour drive, from the Twin Cities. Take Interstate 35 to Duluth and follow Hwy. 61 along the North Shore. At Grand Marais, hang a left on the Gunflint Trail (County Road 12) to Clearwater. To break up the drive, stay in Duluth for a night on your way.
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.