I may be wrong, but I believe most of us outdoor adventurers tend to gravitate towards our own kind. We may not share the same passion, but we appreciate someone who understands the sheer joy of challenging our bodies and immersing ourselves in nature’s bountiful offerings (and let’s face it, sometimes merciless harshness). At least I am one of those people. Insert my friend, Annie. Annie and I met several years ago now at a recreational dodgeball league. Yes, even as an adult, hitting people with balls is still extremely satisfying. We later worked together at a food shelf and when I left to continue growing my business, she took over my position. I never let her forget this by endlessly teasing her that she “stole my life.” Dodgeball wasn’t our only shared interest, we also connected over the love of the outdoors; my passion lies in cycling and hers in hiking. In 2017, Annie took a sabbatical and did her first thru-hike of the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT), the Border Trail and then hopped over to Isle Royal. Later, she wrote this guide on thru-hiking the Superior Hiking Trail.
Currently, Annie is making a thru-hike attempt of half of the North Country Scenic Trail starting in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to North Dakota. She’s already come ~1,400 miles and I was fortunate enough to be able to join her for a 40-mile section hike (this part is on the SHT ), from Oberg Mountain to Grand Marais, MN. Then I planned on biking myself and my gear back to the trailhead – because why not?
I don’t know if Annie realized, but this was my first ever multi-day hike. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into and I wasn’t quite sure what to pack – although I had some idea from my bikepacking trips. I did my best and packed as light as possible, hoping I had most the appropriate items and that Annie would be able to back me up when I realized my failures (she always did, of course). I felt pretty good when Annie later told me I was one of the few people she would have agreed to come along on this section because she knows I’m a determined human. Thanks for the vote of confidence, my friend.
Annie and I set out on our hike knowing we had a weather forecast of 40-50F temperatures and rain. Eek. Nonetheless, we were both confident enough in our abilities and experience that we knew we’d survive alright. Annie planned our hikes as follows: a ~12.5-mile day, followed by a 14-mile day, and another ~12.5-mile day. It didn’t quite pan out that way based on terrain and weather so we ended up with ~12.5, ~12.5 and a 16-mile day. Despite getting rained on during all of our dinners, being wet most of the time, and walking through mud pits and marshes, it was still a marvelous time. Apparently, mud pits are always present on this stretch of the SHT – rainstorms or not. Still, we were rewarded with some of the most amazing views; creeks, rivers, streams, forests, and falls. There truly is no lack of beauty on this section of the SHT.
I picked up Annie from Oberg Mountain trailhead and we drove to Grand Marais so she could have a rest day. I took the day to explore the city and figure out the best route back to the trailhead. I stopped at Fireweed Bike Cooperative where I spoke with David. I knew if I traveled down the highway, that would be a straight shot and the shortest distance to the trailhead. But, as most cyclists would agree, traveling along highway next to noisy vehicles on a narrow shoulder is not the most fun experience. I knew there was a lot of gravel riding to be had but it all depended on how much longer it would make my ride as I had a time restriction. (I had to be back to Minneapolis to work in the afternoon.) David and I reviewed Google maps and he gave me a paper map of the local area as a backup. I had several different options to choose from depending on the pace I was keeping and I had some good bailout points to head to the highway if needed.
Given that my bike was locked up outside for a few days, I didn’t want to leave my Salsa Warbird out and risk it being stolen. Instead, I opted to use my less spendy Surly Steamroller that is my daily cruiser in town. It is a single speed with mustache handlebars, caliper breaks, a White Industries freewheel, and standard 700c wheels. Because of Surly’s “FFF” (Fits Fatties Fine) feature, I was able to put 700×35 tires on (can fit up to 38s) to handle the gravel a little more easily. This is my trusty steed that gets me everywhere I want and need to be. The one difficulty I knew I would be facing was that I was running a 46×16 gear ratio. Not exactly ideal for the North Shore which sits in the Sawtooth Mountains (especially being fully loaded with all of my camping gear). I figured I’d have to do some hike-a-bike during the ride but thought it would be mostly doable. Plus, Minnesota “mountains” aren’t quite comparable to the Rockies.
In total, my route was roughly 35 miles; a nice little start to my day. I surprised myself by not having to walk up near the amount of hills that I thought I would given my setup. Also, it was starting to enter full-blown autumn colors when I left; a beautiful time to complete this pedal. I started my route by biking out 5th Street (County Road 7). It is a nice paved road with a wide shoulder which sees a fair amount of elevation gain but rewards you with views of Lake Superior and creek overpasses.
I turned right onto Pike Lake Road (County Road 45) where the gravel portion of my ride commenced. County Rd 45 also gives you some overlooks of Lake Superior. Primarily, this is country scenery with rural homes and typical Minnesota gravel rollers. A few hike-a-bikes took place here.
County Rd 45 later turns into Murmur Creek Road. This area is much more remote and you may lose phone signal during some of this stretch. If you are concerned about losing your way, I suggest downloading an offline Google map on your phone, as I did. It was on Murmur Creek Road that I realized I was biking back through some of the areas I had previously hiked. In fact, at a road crossing, I ended up running into a group of folks who had camped at the site where Annie and I slept the first night and we got to say hello once again. This area is quite beautiful with rivers, creeks, dense forests and other lake views. You will run into few cars as well as people; a truly remote ride if escaping crowds is what you seek.
Murmur Creek Road comes to a T with Caribou Trail where I took a left. At first, it was gravel and later turned into a paved road. I was told it was mostly downhill which I started to doubt after several downhill to uphill climbs. I may have even briefly cursed David in my mind. (It was a windy day and now I was headed right into it.) Soon I was singing his praises again when I reached the downhill portion of the road (and I mean downhill). This was an enjoyable segment coasting down Caribou Trail, freewheel singing, and Lake Superior right in front of you getting closer and closer by the second.
Soon I was at Highway 61 where I took a right. David informed me that there was some double track (track for snowmobiles) in front of the houses that ran along 61 and I could ride on it with no concerns and the homeowners wouldn’t mind. Yet again, a helpful tip. I passed people checking on their fall apple crops and doing yard work who cast me nods, smiles, and waves. When that ended, I took the shoulder of Highway 61 to Onion River Road to make my ascent to the Oberg Mountain trailhead. I had one big oversight here; I did not realize that at the next road after Caribou Trail (County Road 5,) I could have ridden the Gitchi Gami Trail. It would have been much more pleasant than riding the highway, but you can learn from my mistake. The route I’ve included follows the trail.
Given that I had driven Onion River Road three times, I knew what I was in for with this stretch. All uphill, some inclines greater than others. This was the spot I hiked my bike more than other areas. When there was less incline, I hopped on and rode. If you had a more agreeable gear ratio for your ride, it would be a nice climbing workout.
This trip was beautiful and eye-opening. It was an exceptional way to have a look into Annie’s world, participate in her passion and learn from her wealth of experience. While she indicated she’d likely not be getting involved in a long-distance or endurance bike ride, I also surmised I wouldn’t be attempting a thru-hike anytime soon. However, a new thing added to my bucket list will be an end-to-end hike of the SHT. How could I not appreciate this amazing trail in my home state? If this is too much distance for you and you desire a shorter hike, you can follow the Oberg Mountain Loop for great views instead of the SHT route and bike this route in reverse to Grand Marais and shuttle back with a shuttle service. David also offered to connect me with one of those. Your options are wide-open for a fun fall biking and hiking trip. Before you leave town, be sure to visit Lutsen Mountain and ride the gondola for amazing fall leaf views.
Route options to the Oberg Mountain Trailhead:
Option 1: County Road 7. Right on County Road 45. Continue onto Murmur Creek Road. Take a left onto Caribou Trail. Ride Caribou Trail to Highway 61. Turn right onto Highway 61 till County Road 5. Take a right and a short distance from where you turn you will see the Gitchi Gami Trail on the left. Take a left onto the trail and bike till Onion River Road. Take a right on Onion River Road climb to trailhead parking. Total distance: 35 miles. Elevation gain: 2756 ft. See map.
Option 2: County Road 7. Right on County Road 45. Continue onto Murmur Creek Road and then take a left onto Ward Lake Road. This turns into Hall Road/County Road 41 and you will run into Highway 61. Follow 61 to County Road 5. Take a right and a short distance from where you turn you will see the Gitchi Gami Trail on the left. Take a left onto the trail and bike till Onion River Road. Take a right on Onion River Road climb to trailhead parking. Total distance: 31.55 miles. Elevation gain: 2465 ft. See map.
Option 3: County Road 7. Right on County Road 45. Continue onto Murmur Creek Road to Caribou Trail. Turn left onto Caribou Trail and then right onto County Road 164/Honeymoon Trail. Turn left onto Barker Lake Road. Continue on Barker Lake Road for approximately 3 miles. Where there is a fork in the road, take a right to stay onto Barker Lake Rd. After turning, on your left, you will see an entrance to the CJ Ramstad Trail. This is a double track trail. Follow this trail to the Lutsen Trail (another double track trail) and take a left onto Lutsen Trail. This will lead you to Onion River Road where you take a right and bike downhill to the trailhead parking lot. Total distance: 32 miles. Elevation gain: 2246 ft. See map.
**Warning: Snowmobile trails are generally not maintained. What I found in hiking this portion is they tend to be muddy or flooded. I did not have time to explore this route nor the equipment to do so. This may be a tricky route to navigate.**