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Entries about Minnesota history from MNopedia are made available through a partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society and with funding from the Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

From trading to mines to resorts, the Gunflint Trail has long played a big role in northeastern Minnesota’s economy

historic photo of dirt road through the woods
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
A stand of native pines towers over the Gunflint Trail. Photograph by Norton & Peel, July 5, 1932.

The Gunflint Trail is a nationally designated scenic byway, also known as Cook County Road Twelve. It starts in Grand Marais and runs fifty-seven miles northwest to Trail’s End Campground near Saganaga Lake on the border of Canada. The trail, which cuts through parts of the Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, is a popular destination for fishing, camping, canoeing, hiking, and other outdoor recreation.

Indigenous peoples have inhabited the northeastern area of Minnesota for thousands of years. By the mid-1700s, Ojibwe people were living in the region, and French fur traders from Montreal had begun to trade with them. Lakes and streams provided transport routes for them to traverse by canoe. Travelling by foot, snowshoe, or sled was possible, but less ideal.

Local lore suggests the Ojibwe had developed a footpath — the forerunner of the trail — beginning at Biiwaanag Zaaga’igan (Gunflint Lake) and extending at least to Gichi Biitoobig (Grand Marais) by 1800. Around this time, the area got its name from the flint, or chips of chert, that French traders would gather for their flintlock firearms at the lakeshore where the path began.

In 1875, Henry Mayhew, a fur trader, prospector, land speculator, and entrepreneur, hired a crew of Ojibwe men to construct a narrow wagon road between two of his trading posts. The road started at Grand Marais and continued for twenty-four miles, turning sharply northeast at Hungry Jack Lake. It ended at Rove Lake — the site of Mayhew’s second trading post. Rocks, roots, brush, and stumps made the early trail nearly impassable except in winter.


Mayhew reported finding iron ore deposits at the west end of Gunflint Lake in 1886, which attracted investors from the state capital. The American Realty Company was then incorporated and purchased large tracts of land. In the early 1890s, construction of Paulson Mine began a few miles southwest of Gunflint Lake. Motivated by the potential economic development that mining would bring to the region, the Cook County Board of Commissioners approved funds for an extension of the Gunflint Road from milepost 24 to Gunflint Lake in 1891.

This majority of this new road construction took place between 1891 and 1893. By 1893, the logs and underbrush had been cleared out and the road was ten feet wide and forty-four miles long, allowing decent travel by wagon from Grand Marais to Gunflint Lake. However, Paulson Mine was abandoned soon after due to financial malfeasance and the poor quantity and quality of ore produced there.

An advertisement from 1938 describes the Gunflint Trail as “a wilderness drive unsurpassed for its wild and enchanting beauty” and boasts, “Now you enter the greatest canoe country in the world.” The land surrounding the trail is approximately 70 percent forest, 25 percent lakes and rivers, and 5 percent dwellings and road. Seven miles from Grand Marais, a grove of old-growth White Pines, left undisturbed by the logging industry, welcomes visitors to the northern wilderness.

On July 4th, 1999, a storm with ninety-mile-per-hour winds downed trees over 500,000 acres in the Boundary Waters, forcing the Gunflint Trail to close down at the peak of the tourist season. In 2007, the Ham Lake fire consumed over 75,000 acres in northeastern Minnesota and Canada, impacting parts of the Gunflint Trail. It caused more than $100 million in property damage and $11 million in firefighting costs.

In the twenty-first century, the Gunflint Trail remains a premiere destination for ecotourism. Popular activities include fishing, canoeing, wilderness camping, hiking, wildlife watching, blueberry picking, and other forms of outdoor recreation. Along the road are resorts, bed and breakfasts, canoe outfitters, cabin rentals, and guide services. The Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center is located near the very end of the trail. Clearwater Lodge was added to the National Register of Historic Places; as of 2020, it is still operating.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Dave Carlson on 03/07/2020 - 11:40 pm.

    Add Cross Country Skiing to the list of popular activities. There are hundreds of miles of beautiful interconnected regularly-groomed ski trails which are usually skiable from November to April, and lodges that are open year around for skiers and ice fishing and some snowmobiling, snowshoeing and even yurt camping.

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