Pine needles blanketing the ground crunched beneath our feet as we craned our necks to the sky, searching to spot the tops of the towering 200-year-old trees in a forest once mysteriously lost from the map. Now called the Lost 40, this unusual tract in northern Minnesota offers a rare glimpse of pines, some of which took root before the U.S. became a nation — a walk through time, to an era before lumberjacks left their mark on the landscape.

These majestic red and white pine trees are some of the largest recorded in Minnesota and owe their survival to something unexpected: human error.

On a snowy November day in 1882, Josiah King and his three-man crew were working on one of the first land surveys of northern Minnesota. But they plotted out a lake farther northwest than it really was, effectively hiding acres of trees from loggers in the years to come.

Nearly eight decades later, officials finally realized the surveying mistake but opted to preserve the land. Today, the Lost 40, which is about 230 miles north of the Twin Cities in Itasca County, represents a dwindling example of an old-growth forest, which in the late 1880s made up a third of the state's forests and now make up less than 5%.

"This is the kind of a place with a lot of lore and a lot of mystery to it," AmberBeth VanNingen says.

She sees a lot of tree-huggers when she walks the 1.4 miles of smooth trails here. Visitors can't resist wrapping their arms around the massive tree trunks, unable to reach the other side.

"Big trees are charismatic. People want to go see them," says VanNingen, the acting resource management coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' (DNR) Scientific and Natural Areas Program. "It is that link to the past, that kind of imagination of 'what if the whole northern Minnesota looked like this?' "

Experts say some of the trees in the Lost 40 could be traced back to the 1740s, and a 307-year-old red pine was once recorded there until it fell. The oldest tree still standing is a record holder, a 250-year-old red pine that's 120 feet tall and 115 inches around.

The pines have miraculously escaped both human and natural destruction. The Lost 40, which likely got its name from the fact that 40 acres is the smallest subdivision in the land survey, is actually much larger and is co-managed by the state and federal governments. The DNR manages 114 acres as a Scientific and Natural Area, one of more than 160 in the state. Another 169 acres are managed by the U.S. Forest Service, part of the Chippewa National Forest.

Because it's free to visit, the two agencies don't track official visitor numbers. But Michelle Heiker, the national forest's environmental education specialist, estimates that more than 5,000 bird-watchers, hikers and others trek to the Lost 40 each year.

While the area doesn't draw crowds like many state parks, and didn't experience a spike in interest during the pandemic, it's still among the most popular Scientific and Natural Areas in Minnesota and one of the most visited spots in the Chippewa National Forest, the smaller of the state's two national forests.

"Just the name, it makes it seem like a secret spot," Heiker says. "There's something special, almost magical about seeing trees that have lived for centuries and are still standing tall. ... There's not a lot of places in Minnesota you can go and see large trees like that."

You won't find many amenities at the Lost 40, just picnic tables, benches and an outhouse off a gravel rural road. New educational signs were installed last year, adding Anishinaabe terms for plants and flowers. The Leech Lake Indian Reservation, one of seven Ojibwe tribes in Minnesota, shares miles of land with Chippewa National Forest.

Summer attracts the most visitors, but in the monochrome landscape of winter, the giant trees stand out even more, VanNingen says, providing a quiet refuge for snowshoers or hikers on the ungroomed trails.

"Not a lot of our old-growth [forests] in general — but especially our old pine — is left in this state," she says. "That's what again makes it special. ... It's also just really important to us as people to remember and have these places that represent a different time period."

The forest is exceptional and unique — and those aren't just superlatives. The U.S. Forest Service designates it a "biologically unique area," which prioritizes conservation of the land. At the DNR, Scientific and Natural Areas have the highest level of protection of state public land, selected as exceptional because of the rare species there.

Besides the special pines, the Lost 40 is also ecologically significant for its esker, formed some 14,000 years ago by glaciers, leaving behind sandy soil perfect for growing those red and white pines.

As we walked the trail that winds through the serene woods, birds called out as the wind whistled through the canopy. A couple passed by, then stopped at the base of a mighty red pine, marveling at the deep grooves of its ancient trunk. 