It’s winter and even though the winter paddling on Lake Superior is still great, I do like to explore the snowy aspects of Minnesota. I’ve never hiked up Eagle Mountain, Minnesota’s highest point, in winter before, so I decided it was about time. Eagle Mountain is part of the Misquah Hills in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. And at 2,301 feet, it’s the tallest mountain in Minn. It’s also only 15 miles from Minnesota’s lowest point on Lake Superior. In the summer, some people race the Minnesota Lowest to Highest Duathalon Challenge from the lake near Grand Marais’ bike shop to the summit and back — first on bikes and then on running shoes. In the winter, it’s doubtful that you’ll see anyone on the hiking trail.
Eagle Mountain Minnesota Hiking Info
- Distance: 7 miles round-trip.
- Trip Rating: Expert. Rugged and remote hiking into a wilderness area with limited access. Rescue is a long way away.
- Trailhead: The hike starts in a parking lot on The Grade near Bally Creek Road.
- Permits: Because the hiking trail enters the Boundary Waters, you need a permit. Get a free day permit at permit station in the parking lot. For overnight permits from May 1 to September 30, you need a paid permit. Get it at the U.S. Forest Service office in Grand Marais.
My Winter Hike Trip Report
The first part of the hike is relatively flat and because of the new snow on my winter hike, I ended up having to break trail through fresh powder — I could see a slight indentation where others had gone ahead. I expected a tough hike, but breaking trail slowed me down to about a 2 mph crawl. The trail stretches 3.4 miles from the trailhead to the summit, which meant for me just under two hours of hiking each way. The longest time span by myself with no distractions that I’ve had for awhile.
After a lovely hike through pines and spruces hanging low with branches loaded with fresh powder, I made it to the border of the BWCA. A sign marks the entry. I always love entering Wilderness Areas, because I know that as a country we decided to protect it as a place “where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” – The Wilderness Act of 1964
I snowshoed on. Many smaller trees and several blowdowns blocked the way. At each, I ducked under and felt snow drop into the crack between my back and backpack. My body heat, now a furnace even with only a Marmot Driclime Windshirt — the best coat ever made — melted the snow and coated my back with water.
By Whale Lake, I was hot, but taking a break flashed the water from my back and quickly cooled me off. I skirted the lake, watching it for signs of movement. I had seen big moose prints on the trail just south of the lake. I hoped to spot a moose trudging across the flat snow-covered surface. Or a pack of wolves. Or best, a pack of wolves hunting a moose.
North of Whale Lake, the trail starts its 600-foot climb to the summit of Eagle Mountain. Each step work. My thoughts one by one. The recent southern winds hit the exposed southern side and covered the trail with deep drifts. At points, the drifts obscured the trail completely. I didn’t pull out the map, but instead hiked on, post holing at times up to my waist.
Almost a two hours into the hike, my thoughts were running wild, thinking about this and that, but nothing important. Nothing that mattered here. Almost like my thoughts didn’t have much to do here, so they just thought. I acknowledged them and my stomach now growling for a late lunch. I thought of the cold pizza and hot chocolate in my backpack. I knew of a great view up ahead. I’d stop there for lunch. And when I got there, I told myself I’d stop at the next view. And then that I’d stop at the summit.
summited eagle mountain
even here my thoughts
are too loud
On the summit plateau, the trail disappeared under drifts and then completely at the first great view of Shrike and Zoo lakes. In the summer, rock cairns mark the path, but under the snow, I saw no sign. Because the elevation climbs here, I turned to north and followed the open area up towards summit. Then after awhile, I saw signs of the trail — just a slight indentation in the snow.
I followed the indentation until it ended and then walked forward. A plaque marks the summit, but it was covered by feet of snow. I felt like I was lost, but I noticed a slight bump in the snow. I dug and hit rock. I dug further and found the flat even edge of the summit plaque. I felt like I was on top of the world — or, at least, Minnesota.
For lunch, I quickly ate my frozen pizza and finished two cups of hot chocolate. While I ate, the blue skies disappeared and snow began. At first, the flakes glimmered in the sunlight. Then dark skies moved in and I decided to move on. The broken trail made the hike back down Eagle Mountain go quickly. My thoughts even quieted down.
I finished at the parking lot with fresh snow falling around. A great hike!
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