By Jesse Walters
Northern Minnesota hosts outdoor opportunities like nowhere else. Whether you’re into hiking, biking, camping, kayaking or bird watching, you can probably find it in Superior National Forest. In my view, dual sport motorcycle riding
compliments almost any outdoor hobby. What better way to arrive at a hiking trail or fishing hole than via motorcycle? Two hobbies, one stone, beautiful.
A quick introduction, I’m Jesse Walters, a resident of Little Marais, MN, and an all-around North Shore enthusiast. Little Marias is a former fishing and logging community on the Lake Superior North Shore, just outside Superior National Forest. I’m relatively new to the area but in short order I’ve come to cherish and respect what the forest has to offer, as well as the people that call it home. From old growth white pines, to relics of CCC camps, logging communities, lakes and rustic taverns tucked in the forest, there is a lifetime of exploring to be had in these parts. And, of course, it’s a perfect place for dual sport motorcycles!
While most of the MMM readership has ridden the scenic North Shore Highway 61 from Duluth to Grand Marais, I’d like to share some other scenic roads in the area often overlooked.
Last Saturday, I found my calendar free of commitments. My cabin chores were mostly finished, and a full tank of gas sat in the KTM 990 Adventure mocking me. I decided to lash a fishing pole to the KTM, fired it up, and headed to Finland, MN, to grab breakfast at Our Place restaurant. Local loggers and fishermen are always in fresh supply at Our Place and In short order I had a rundown on which lakes were biting.
Armed with the latest fishing intel, three cups of coffee and a full gas tank, I headed northeast on the Cramer Rd into Superior National Forest. The Cramer road (Lake County 7) is a well-worn gravel road and, in my opinion, one of the most scenic roads in all of Minnesota, with the sweet smell of the Aspen groves and pine trees and the beautiful lake views and vistas. To date, I’ve seen black bear, moose and wolves on this stretch of county road.
About 25 minutes out of Finland, I arrived at the Trestle Inn, a bar/restaurant made from the old-growth timber of a railroad bridge and a must stop for anyone riding these parts. Gas is available next door, so be sure to ask if you are running low. In the summer, they serve breakfast and tend to get a lot of fishermen hanging around. Knowing this, I stopped in to chat up the locals and get more fishing tips.
Back on the bike, I decided to take County 7 north towards Isabella and the Wanless Road – a big-bike friendly, well packed gravel road with lots of elevation change and curves that flow around Northwoods lakes. After about 20 miles, I arrived at Dumbell Lake, but I was reluctant to stop. Frankly, I was enjoying the cool crisp weather and riding too much to hit the kill switch on the big Austrian V-Twin. “Maybe they’ll be biting tomorrow”, I told myself as I kept my right hand on the throttle and front wheel pointed towards Isabella.
With fishing sidelined for the day, I decided to hit one of my favorite spots in Ely, MN. Instead of riding Highway 1, I opted to stay on gravel roads as much as possible. About one mile east of Isabella, I turned off the Wanless and onto FR-369 and then FR-373 towards the Tomahawk Road. Once on the Tomahawk, I cruised the gravel road across the new section of HW1 over to Babbit, MN, where I was able to head north into Ely.
In Ely, I stopped by Front Porch Coffee and watched other riders cruise by on Main Street. There seems to be an endless parade of backpackers, campers, mountain bikers, motorcyclists and adventurists in Ely. One such passerby noticed the fishing pole on the back of my bike and asked if they were biting. I said with a grin, “I’m not sure.” We both had a laughe at my laissez faire fishing attitude, as I sipped an Americano on the Front Porch’s front porch. It was about 2pm now and I needed to figure out what I was going to do with the rest of the day. “Well hell”, I thought, “as long as I’m in Ely, I might as well ride around the Echo Trail”.
Another must-ride gravel road in the Minnesota Northwoods, the Echo Trail is a logging road that hosts many trailheads and canoe portages into the BWCA. The first 10 miles of pavement leading out of Ely eventually give way to hard-packed gravel roads that wind around lakes, resorts and Forest Service campgrounds. It was just after the trail turned to gravel, when I came across two moose calves and their momma grazing in the ditch. After watching the moose for a few minutes, I continued onward, enjoying the Trail’s elevation change and blind corners. Towards the end of the trail, I stopped for a late lunch at the Sportman’s Bar and looked at the map to figure out my way home. Instead of following the paved highway 23 west towards Orr, I took the Crane Lake gravel road shortcut into Cook, MN.
At this point it was getting late in the afternoon, so I decided to follow Highway 1 back to Finland. I passed several cruisers and sport bikes on my way home. While they appeared to enjoy their ride as much as I, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them. Relegated to paved roads, they miss out on much of the forest’s beauty. I arrived back in Little Marais as daylight faded. I laughed as I pulled into the garage and put the bike on the center stand, the fishing pole patiently sitting on the rear luggage rack unused.
Maybe next weekend I’ll catch my limit…
• Know your gas stops. Many of the gas stops are not conventional gas stations. Know ahead of time which restaurants, resorts or bars have gas. Some only have gas seasonally.
• Be prepared. Have tools to change flat tires and travel with some water and maps incase you have to hike your way out.
• Don’t skimp on tires. Worn tires spin more in the gravel, increasing the odds that you’ll pick up a nail or some other puncture. Spoon on some new tires before heading into the remote woods.
• Ride in groups for safety!
• Anticipate traffic and wildlife at every corner. Even the most remote forest roads can and will have activity on them.
• Check out Minnesota North Shore Shindig for their annual dual sport event and GPS tracks of the area. http://northshoreshindig.com