From the leisurely lakewalk of downtown Duluth to the rugged Sawtooth Mountains to the gentle Laurentian (north-south continental) Divide, the North Country Trail offers a cache of contrasting hiking experiences in Minnesota. Historic marks include the remnants of iron mining along the Mesabi and Vermilion ranges, Native American historic sites, and remnants of Paul Bunyan’s logging era. Also, keep your eyes open wide for “Northwoods” wildlife icons, including moose, whitetail deer, black bear, Canada lynx, timber wolf and bald eagles.
The North Country Trail enters Minnesota near Jay Cooke State Park, where the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) begins. This famous 280-mile trail takes hikers first through the City of Duluth before following the ridgeline of Minnesota’s scenic “North Shore.” Reaching the end of the SHT, the NCT follows the aptly-named Border Route Trail (BRT) which heads 65 miles west paralleling the U.S. – Canada border. Upon reaching the end of the BRT at the famed Gunflint Trail (Cook Co. Hwy 12), the NCT picks up the Kekekabic Trail (“Kek”), which heads 38 miles west toward Snowbank Lake northeast of Ely. Note: Both the BRT and Kek traverse the million-acre Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness and should be attempted only by experienced backpackers or wilderness travelers because of the wilderness conditions found there.
From Snowbank Lake the NCT hiker must roadwalk into Ely and either continue roadwalking southwest to Grand Rapids or they can walk the Mesabi Trail, an incomplete multiple-use trail that traverses the Mesabi Iron Range to Grand Rapids. Leaving Grand Rapids, the hiker must roadwalk southeast to Remer where they can pick up a long, contiguous NCT segment. This includes the 70-mile NCT segment within the Chippewa National Forest that heads west toward Walker. Leaving “the Chip” west of Walker the NCT enters Hubbard County, the Paul Bunyan State Forest, traverses the scenic Itasca Moraine landscape, and comes close to Akeley and Lake George. Upon reaching Itasca State Park, the NCT is “in the neighborhood” of the headwaters of the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca and historic Douglas Lodge, both of which can be reached via side trails. West of Itasca, the NCT turns south and follows the Laurentian Divide before reaching the end of the completed trail just north of Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge. South of Tamarac, the route heads toward Frazee, Vergas, Maplewood State Park, Pelican Rapids, and Fergus Falls before turning west and heading toward the Red River and North Dakota. The original route entered North Dakota at Breckenridge-Wahpeton.