Northern Wilds Magazine
Biking to the hinterlands of the Superior National Forest brings great returns on your investment of time and muscle power. | CHRIS PASCONE

Bikepacking the Lake-Cook Counties Loop

Would you like to slow down and explore the Superior National Forest (SNF) without having to portage a canoe? Do you enjoy biking on gravel roads with very little traffic? Are you interested in trying self-supported bikepacking (carrying your camping gear on your bike for multi-day trips) at free, rustic campsites?

For those who answered all three questions affirmatively, a treasure trove of routes awaits you in northeastern Minnesota. Bikepacking is growing in popularity, and the Superior National Forest has all the prerequisites for a great trip: plenty of gravel roads to explore, very low car traffic, and dozens of self-serve SNF campgrounds to choose from, making for flexible routes.

For these and other reasons, I jumped at the invitation extended to me by friend David Demmer to try bikepacking in Lake and Cook counties this spring. David designed a loop route that took us through a sizeable chunk of the SNF, yet took under 48 hours. David calls the route the Gabbro Loop, after the rock outcrops one commonly sees on this route crossing the Laurentian Divide. The loop also connects rural Cook County (population 5,617 in 2021) with just as rural Lake County (10,986 people as of the same year). Here’s how to get out there and explore this bike-accessible wilderness for yourself.

Start your trip from David’s favorite trailhead: the North Shore State Trail parking lot 7 miles north of Lutsen on the Caribou Trail (Cook County Road 4). Parking our vehicle here for the weekend worked well for us. You get to spend more time behind the handlebars, and less time behind the steering wheel, when you start this close to Highway 61.

From the parking lot, load up your pannier bags (my style of bicycle camping), or your streamlined frame bags, seat bags, and tube bags (what the modern folks call bikepacking), and head up the Caribou Trail a short ways before turning left on Clara Lake Road. You are now poised to do an 80-mile loop of gravel glory over the next 48 hours.

Bikepacking with friends makes a great bonding experience. All the hard work is worth it for these endless views of the boreal forest. [Left to Right] David Demmer and Chris Pascone. | CHRIS PASCONE

Honestly, there are countless options in the area for making your own routes. The attraction here is the open easel you have in front of you. As David puts it, it’s the “freedom of the wheels, and the simplicity of being self-supported with everything you need, and nothing more.” Embrace the freedom!

Since we were looking for a little challenge right off the get go, we turned left from Clara Lake Road on to Pancore Lake Road and endured some rocky two-track with occasional tree falls to carry over. It was nothing as tough as our gravel road bike trip in northern Cook County in the spring of 2022 though, when we had to ford our bikes across streams where culverts had washed out in several locations.

After riding 8 miles on our first evening, we reached the Poplar River just as dusk was setting in. There was no campground in the immediate area, so we took advantage of the National Forest dispersed camping rules, and laid our sleeping bags on a grassy patch alongside a very large beaver pond. This open spot awarded us with a perfect view of the stunning northern lights display that turned heads all across the Northland on May 19, 2023.

The Poplar River was our source of water to filter for a longer day of pedaling on Saturday. Five hours and 45 minutes of pedaling, to be exact. Bring plenty of water bottles or other containers to fill with filtered water, as potable water sources are few and far between (our route didn’t pass a single store the whole weekend).

We broke camp Saturday morning and headed west towards the Sawbill Trail, having not seen a vehicle yet. Some of the SNF “roads” are more travelled by moose than machines.

We then climbed the Sawbill Trail for a few miles before turning left on The Grade. This long, straight, former railroad bed can feel endless, so we made a point of breaking up the ride by stopping in at all the SNF campgrounds we passed. Dropping in for 10-15 minutes gives you both a break from pedaling, and a respect for the quiet atmosphere these rustic campgrounds exude.

Finding roadblocks in the wilderness ratchets the sense of adventure up a notch. | CHRIS PASCONE

First, we ducked into Toohey Lake Rustic Campground, with seven campsites and plenty of snow along the lakeshore as of May 20. Then, we checked in at Fourmile Lake Rustic Campground—with three campsites, a nice dock, and potential for an easy dip on a hot day. Neither campground has a potable water supply, thus the “rustic” campground moniker (and free camping). No reservations are accepted at SNF rustic campgrounds—perfect for freedom-loving bikepackers.

Not long after passing Fourmile Lake, you’ll enter Lake County. Just don’t expect to see any signs—you’re smack dab in the wilderness. You’ll eventually reach Lake County Route 7—another gravel road—and can head north or south. We chose going north, and made it to Harriet Lake Rustic Campground in time for lunch. This campground—on the site of an abandoned farm—always triggers my respect for the brave souls who cleared the dense forest enough to farm this rocky terrain. That’s dedication!

We filtered more drinking water from Harriet Lake and fired up the camp stove for a hot lunch. There are plenty of good picnic tables to choose from in this sprawling campground, giving it what I consider a “Woodstock” kind of vibe (sadly, I wasn’t there).

With three campgrounds behind us, we kept moving north to a fourth—Silver Island Lake Rustic Campground. You’ll turn left from County 7 on to Forest Road 369 to get to this nine-site campground. You’re at your deepest point in the wilderness now.

Gather your strength here once more, because you’ll do your most intense climbing of the day, continuing up County 7 past Windy Lake. You’re skirting the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness at this point, and eventually swing back east into Cook County (not labelled on the road). With the end of Lake County, the road magically changes names—you’re now on Perent Lake Road.

Easy offshoots from here include Kawishiwi Lake Rustic Campground (turn up Forest Road 354—no water) and Sawbill Lake Campground (turn up the Sawbill Trail—with full amenities). Both campgrounds are frequented by Boundary Waters canoe campers starting or ending their trips, so we did not pedal to either.

The flooding of spring 2022 made fording creeks a necessary (and fun!) piece of the bikepacking puzzle in northeastern Minnesota. | CHRIS PASCONE

Now that you’ve gotten back to the aforementioned Sawbill Trail (we were on this same road, further south, about eight hours earlier), you have a lot of options. We chose to take the Sawbill Trail less than a mile south to return to The Grade, then continued east to Crescent Lake Campground for the night. Another option off The Grade would be the Baker Lake Rustic Campground (turn up Forest Road 1272—there is potable water here).

Fun fact for bicycle campers at Crescent Lake Campground—there are “walk-in” only campsites here that keep the human-powered vibe going strong.

By this time we were ready to call it a day—we had gone 58 miles by bike, taking nine hours total. That evening, the sunset was a bright red ball in a sky hazy with wildfire smoke.

We did our final stretch of David’s Lake-Cook counties loop on Sunday morning.

It was an easy 20-mile day, much of it downhill, taking us less than two hours to finish. We did take a break to check out Clara Lake Rustic Campground—our sixth of the weekend. This is a great campground to have as a retreat close to your starting point in the case of mechanical failures, or other unforeseen problems.

Clara Lake Rustic Campground doesn’t have potable water, but it does have brand new accessible vault toilets installed in fall 2022, using funding from the Great American Outdoors Act.

So, there you have it—two counties, six campgrounds, and a great way to experience the Superior National Forest using pedal power. As David says, “the wild landscape here is very approachable, yet can be challenging. It’s nearly all public land.” Make your own routes and go discover the flavor of bikepacking for yourself in this biker’s paradise.

Related posts

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More

Verified by MonsterInsights