15 Best Things to Do on the Gunflint Trail From a Local

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Taking a trip up to northern Minnesota and wondering about the best things to do on the Gunflint Trail in Minnesota?

From watching massive moose to taking in the northern lights and embarking on a hike to a magical rock, there’s plenty to do!

I worked together with Ada from Beyond the Yellow Brick Road to put together this list. Ada lives on the Gunflint Trail, so she knows all of the best local tips and recommendations!

She’s visited and done all of these activities on the Gunflint Trail and shared them here, so you too can get out and enjoy the magic of this area.

Things to Do on the Gunflint Trail

A female moose grazing in a river with bright green trees behind her.

1. Watch for Moose

Ever wanted to spot a moose in Minnesota? Then you’ll love visiting the Gunflint Trail! It’s known for being one of the best places in the Lower 48 to see them! Keep your eyes peeled for these massive mammals.

The best way to spot moose is to drive the Gunflint Trail and dirt sideroads at dawn and dusk in the winter. Moose head deeper into the forest in the summer months.

One of my best Gunflint Trail tips is to practice proper “moose etiquette” by letting others around you if you pull over, not blocking the road, respecting private property, and giving moose plenty of space.

I always joke that the best way to see a moose on the Gunflint Trail is to really not want to see a moose. If you’re driving the Gunflint Trail in a snowstorm, the likelihood of happening upon a moose on a corner or hill is surprisingly high! 

2. Eat Breakfast at Trail Center

No trip up the Gunflint Trail is complete without stopping at Trail Center, which is located in the “Mid-Trail” area. It’s one of the best hidden gems around.

Inside the log-sided restaurant, you’ll find showy antique décor, a small store offering everything from t-shirts to homemade pickles, and friendly staff. 

While they’re known for their malts and creative hamburgers (the Goober burger famously tops a hamburger patty with mayonnaise and peanut butter), I personally love their breakfast!

My favorite part is that they serve a diner-style breakfast with things like eggs, biscuits and gravy, and pancakes. Just be warned, their pancakes are massive. Bet you can’t eat three!

Myself holding a cup of coffee on a black table at a coffee shop.

3. Grab Coffee at Loons Nest

Just down the road from Trail Center, you’ll find Loons Nest Coffee. For several decades, this location hosted a gift shop but in 2022, it got a new lease on life as the Gunflint Trail’s first and only coffee shop

Let me tell you, Gunflint Trail residents like myself are ecstatic to finally have a coffee shop in our backyard. Trust me, it’s not our excitement clouding our judgment here: the coffee is really good.

The shop is a sister location of Carlson Roasting Company in Houston, MN, and Loons Nest coffee is brewed with Carlson Roasting Company beans. Try one of their famous cardamom rolls during your visit! I love them!

Tyler kayaking down a lake at sunset.

4. Explore the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

The Gunflint Trail’s biggest claim to fame is the access it offers to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW).

Thousands of lakes and portages fill this 1-million-acre wilderness area. It’s such a peaceful location with motorized vehicles not being allowed.

While planning an overnight Boundary Waters trip takes a little effort and forward-thinking, a day trip allows for more spontaneity.

A day trip in the BWCAW is a great way to build up your confidence in a canoe. You can easily rent a canoe for a day from any Gunflint Trail canoe outfitter such as Tuscarora or Voyageur. 

Some of my favorite Gunflint Trail Boundary Waters day trips include Seagull Lake, Rose Falls, and the Snipe Loop.

5. Visit the Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center

As you drive up the Gunflint Trail, you’ll probably notice that the road passes by numerous resorts and homes. This road doesn’t just provide access to the wilderness, it’s also a community where people like myself live!

To learn more about the history of Gunflint Trail and what makes this region of northeastern Minnesota so unique, swing by Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center.  

You’ll learn about the area’s history through films, exhibits, and hands-on activities. The property also features a network of short hiking trails. I highly recommend the 2-mile round-trip hike to Blueberry Hill for fantastic views of Saganaga Lake and Canada beyond.

The large Magnetic Rock that you can see on a hike, one of the best things to do on the Gunflint Trail.

6. Hike to Magnetic Rock

Easily the most popular hike on the Gunflint Trail, the Magnetic Rock Hike is a 3-mile round-trip hike that takes you to a massive glacial erratic boulder deep in the forest. 

Yes, this three-story-tall rock really is magnetic. If you bring a magnet, you can stick it to the rock by finding one of the magnetic veins running through the huge stone.

The last time I visited, someone had subtly left a magnet on the side of the rock, so it’s okay if you forgot yours.

Another fun trick to try near the rock is to pull out a compass and watch the needle spin around, confused by this new magnetic field. 

I’m not really sure why this hike is so popular when there are so many great Gunflint Trail hikes to choose from, but it is a must-see when you’re on the trail.

A view of endless green trees from a Gunflint Trail hiking trail.

7. Hike the Centennial Hiking Trail

Kitty-corner from the Magnetic Rock Trail parking lot, you’ll see another small trailhead parking lot – this time for the Kekekabic Hiking Trail.

While the Kekekabic Trail is a 42-mile long-distance hiking trail that connects the upper Gunflint Trail with Snowbank Lake outside of Ely,  the first 1.2 miles of the trail on the Gunflint Trail end also serve as the start of the Centennial Hiking Trail. 

The Centennial is my favorite Gunflint Trail hike because I love getting to see the old mine shafts and tailing piles as I walk along the abandoned railroad grade. Plus it’s pretty short at only 3.3 miles.

There’s a brochure at the trailhead that explains what you’re looking at as you hike. There’s also an option to take a spur trail up to an old fire tower site which has some of my favorite views on the trail!

Blueberries on a branch before being picked.

8. Go Wild Blueberry Picking

The best things in life are fleeting and wild blueberry season on the Gunflint Trail is no exception! You can get out and pick wild berries starting in late July through August!

Don’t expect anyone to tell you exactly where to find wild blueberries. Berry picking spots are sacred and I keep mine secret so they’re still there when I go back!

You’ll find wild blueberry plants whenever you wander through the Gunflint Trail forest, but they’re especially prolific towards the end of the Gunflint Trail. You’ll find the best berries on sunny, south-facing slopes. 

If you’re looking for spots, stop in at the Gunflint Ranger Station outside of Grand Marais and ask for areas along the Gunflint Trail that were recently logged or burned.   

Just grab a container (I like to bring one with a tight-fitting lid to avoid any heartbreaking spills) and head into the woods. You can pick (and keep) berries anywhere on Gunflint Trail’s public land! Score!

Just make sure that you’re on public land by checking out a map of where the Superior National Forest is at.

A person fishing off of a boat in the Boundary Waters, a Gunflint Trail activity.

9. Go Fishing

Walleye is king up here on the Gunflint Trail, but anglers also target lake trout, northern pike, smallmouth bass, and various sunfish.

You can rent a boat from a Gunflint Trail resort for a day of fishing, or head out with an experienced guide from Seagull Creek Fishing Camp or Gunflint Wilderness Guide Service. 

Fishing is an activity enjoyed year-round on the Gunflint Trail, but make sure to check which fish are in season before you head out!

And always remember that keeping every fish is a thing of the past. Keep only what you can eat and practice catch and release with any large fish you catch so they can live long and create lots more fish!

Ada cross country skiing down a path on the Gunflint Trail at sunset.

10. Go Cross-Country Skiing

Visitors on the Gunflint Trail taper off as snow falls, but there are still plenty of things to do on Gunflint Trail in winter. One of my favorite activities is exploring the extensive ski trail system!

You can access the Central Gunflint Cross Country Ski System from Bearskin Lodge and Golden Eagle Lodge. Towards, the end of the Gunflint Trail, the Upper Gunflint Cross Country Ski System is accessed from Gunflint Lodge, Gunflint Pines, and Heston’s Lodge.

Personally, I’ve spent the most time on the Upper Gunflint Cross Country Ski System. I highly recommend it for beautiful views of Gunflint Lake and a good variety of trails that can be enjoyed by skiers of all skill levels.

The Big Pine Loop behind Gunflint Lodge and Gunflint Pine is a great, easy loop that takes you through towering white pines and below High Cliffs. For a longer ski, check out the Ham Lake Loop.

Myself sitting on a snowmobile before going off for a ride in the forest.

11. Go Snowmobiling

Another fun winter activity on the Gunflint Trail is snowmobiling. It’s the perfect way to take advantage of Minnesota’s winter months!

While there’s a network of snowmobile trails that parallel the entire 57-mile length of the Gunflint Trail, the best snowmobiling is in the Midtrail area which is one of the snowiest areas in the entire state! 

You can rent snowmobiles from various Gunflint Trail resorts including Hungry Jack Lodge and Gunflint Lodge. I’d recommend renting from Hungry Jack to access scenic (and forgiving) trails for first-time riders.

Tyler and I love riding snowmobiles, and the beauty around the Gunflint Trail is one of our favorite areas! It’s so peaceful and quiet!

A view from Honeymoon Bluff during the fall when the leaves are changing.

12. Catch Sunset at Honeymoon Bluff

If you want to enjoy a beautiful sunset on the Gunflint Trail, then check out the short and easy Honeymoon Bluff hike.

It’s so short, that I hesitate to call it a hike, but since the overlook is west-facing, it’s absolutely stunning at sunset.

There’s a small parking lot at the trailhead, and then you’ll take the 0.2 mile trail to the tall cliff where you’ll look down the length of both Hungry Jack and West Bearskin Lakes.

A view over High Cliffs during fall when the leaves are turning to a yellow color.

13. Take in the View from High Cliffs

Another short but rewarding Gunflint Trail “hike” is to the High Cliffs overlook.

To access this great vista of Gunflint and Magnetic Lakes, park at the Loon Lake Public Landing on the west end of Loon Lake.

Walk up the ski trail that ties into the access road just before the parking area. From there it’s about a half-mile hike straight uphill.

You’ll be rewarded with a spectacular view that’s also popular at sunset, although it faces due north.

14. Get Dinner and a Drink at Poplar Haus

Head to Poplar Haus for the best meal on the Gunflint Trail. If you’re able to dine outside, you’ll get a great view of island-filled Poplar Lake.

I recommend the duck wings and blood orange margarita. Other menu favorites include the Haus burger and Walleye Po’Boy. They’re our favorites, and we order these every time we visit Poplar Haus!

The restaurant is very busy during the summer high season, so call to make a reservation in the morning to secure a table the night you want to dine.

The northern lights seen on the Gunflint Trail with a line of black trees at the bottom of the picture.

15. Watch for Northern Lights

One of the most magical parts of the Gunflint Trail is that it makes the perfect spot to watch for the northern lights if you’re lucky enough to see them!

Personally, I’ve always had the best luck seeing them between October and March. Head out late at night when the sky is clear and there’s not a full moon for your best chance of seeing them!

The Gunflint Lake Public Boat Access offers a great chance to see them! It’s actually where I saw the northern lights for the first time!

Even if the northern lights aren’t out, you can enjoy unparalleled stargazing on the Gunflint Trail.

In fact, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a designated International Dark Sky Sanctuary. I love standing in the middle of a frozen lake on a still night and staring at the sky.

How Long Does it Take to Drive the Gunflint Trail?

The Gunflint Trail is a 57-mile, two-lane paved highway (Cook County Highway 12) that starts in Grand Marais and ends at the Trail’s End Campground on Gull Lake.

It takes approximately 60-70 minutes to drive the length of the Gunflint Trail in dry conditions. Expect the drive to take about 1.5 hours in the winter when the road is covered in snowpack.

The road is very windy with narrow shoulders, and you’ll often spot wildlife along the road like snowshoe hares, foxes, and even moose!  

Be sure to always use caution on the road, and pull over if there’s a line of cars behind you. The locals do have places to be!

Where to Stay on the Gunflint Trail

Now that you have all of the best things to do on the Gunflint Trail, you might be looking for a place to stay. After all, it’s a long drive to get back to Grand Marais.

Gunflint Lodge & Outfitters

This beautiful resort is located on the edge of the Boundary Waters and provides easy access to all of the best activities. They have a main lodge, cabins, an on-site restaurant, waterfront views, and so much more to enjoy.

Bearskin Lodge & Outfitters

Another special place to stay on the Gunflint Trail is Bearskin Lodge & Outfitters, which is located right on East Bearskin Lake. The cabins are cozy and have amenities like a hot tub, sauna, delicious dining, and more.


Where Do You Stop on the Gunflint Trail?

There are plenty of stops to make along the Gunflint Trail, from hikes to viewpoints, campgrounds, local restaurants, and more.

Can You Drive on the Gunflint Trail?

Yes! The Gunflint Trail is made for driving since it’s a paved road. Although it can be confusing since the name ‘trail’ usually means a dirt path.

What is at the End of the Gunflint Trail?

At the end of the Gunflint Trail you’ll find the SAGONTO Wilderness Resort, Trail End Campground, Chik-Wauk Museum Nature Center, and a few other establishments.

How Many Miles Long is the Gunflint Trail?

The Gunflint Trail is a 57 mile long paved road that leads you through the Superior National Forest and near the Boundary Waters CAW.

Wrap-Up: Gunflint Trail Activities

With so many activities including hikes, vistas, and the entire Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to explore, you’re seriously missing out if you’ve never driven up the Gunflint Trail during a trip up Minnesota’s North Shore.

It’s a gateway to Minnesota’s wilderness as well as a close-knit community of local businesses and residents. Get out there and explore this beautiful area! The moose and northern lights are waiting!

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