Call me crazy or call me Minnesotan, but I look forward to winter. In fact, when the first snow falls, I find it oddly satisfying. I love living in a state with four seasons, even though sometimes winter overstays its welcome. Which is why it’s important to book fun trips for these particularly cold months. After all, the winters here are long, so you might as well make the most of them. Of all the places to go for a winter getaway in Minnesota, my favorite location will always be the Gunflint Trail.
No stranger to the Gunflint Trail, I spent the earliest years of my life on Devil’s Track Lake. We lived in a quaint 2-bedroom home with lake property. The house had an open concept floor plan with a rock clad fireplace, a deck overlooking the water, a sauna, and a small guesthouse. Although a toddler at the time, I can still picture our cozy home nestled in the woods. I can still feel the slivers I used to get in my legs from the old wooden dock. I remember my younger sister being born at the small hospital in Grand Marais. Although we’ve long since moved to a more populated part of the state, we always make a point to return.
For those unfamiliar with the area, the Gunflint Trail is a 56.6 mile road that begins near Grand Marais, MN and takes you almost to the Canadian Border. It is absolutely stunning to drive, especially in the winter when the towering pines are covered in thick snow. It is a popular route taken to enter the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, so the majority of its visitors will make the trek in the summer. But what most people don’t realize is how special the Trail is in the winter.
Winter Gunflint Trail Resorts
If you’re planning a winter trip on the Gunflint Trail, then it’s important to know that not all properties are open in the winter. However, I can confirm a handful are winterized and take good care of their off-season customers.
For cozy cabins with great personality, I recommend staying at the Poplar Haus. I love their quirky themed cabins such as the Northern Gnome or That 70’s Cabin. Not to mention, the owners and staff are super friendly and personable. They take good care of us every time we stay and so we are frequent customers. In addition, Poplar Haus is in a great location. It is near the Trail Center and our favorite ice fishing spots. The property also has a fun bar and restaurant.
Rockwood Lodge & Outfitters
For those with a larger group looking for some peace and quiet, I recommend staying at Rockwood Lodge & Outfitters. Only one of their cabins is available in the winter and it sleeps 10 people. The cabin has a spacious living room that is perfect for gathering. Also, the cabin is further back from the Gunflint Trail Road. As an anxious dog mom, I appreciate when I can let my dog out and not have to worry about him running near moving vehicles. Rockwood is also in a great location for ice fishing. It is just down the road from Poplar Haus.
For a wide range of cabin sizes and amenities, I recommend staying at the Gunflint Lodge. In addition to their nice cabins, gift shop, and restaurant, they also offer winter activities such as dog sledding, guided ice fishing, interpretive naturalist programs, massage therapy, and several other experiences (for a fee). They offer different package deals for a variety of winter activities. The Gunflint Lodge has winter equipment for rental like snowmobiles, fishing gear, and cross country skis. It is definitely a luxurious experience in such a peaceful, untouched part of the state. The Lodge is much further down the Trail and located around mile marker 45.
The Gunflint Trail has several winter properties to choose from, so definitely do your research for places to stay in proximity to your planned activities. However, the thing I love about the properties listed above is their dog friendliness. As owners of a playful golden retriever who loves frolicking in the snow and chasing frisbees on a frozen lake, we don’t have the heart to leave him behind.
Poplar Haus Restaurant
Though limited in restaurant options, there are great places to eat on the Gunflint Trail. As I mentioned above, both the Poplar Haus and Gunflint Lodge have restaurants on their properties. The Poplar Haus restaurant is newly renovated and has a fun, artsy vibe. They have trendy cocktails garnished with greenery native to the area. My go-to favorite? The spruce margarita. For dinner, I’m a big fan of the Haus Burger, with its juicy double patties topped with a secret house sauce. Order it with a side of fries and their homemade ranch.
Moreover, the Gunflint Lodge also has great food and drink options at their restaurant, Justine’s. They are open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, seven days a week. When we stay there and fish on Gunflint Lake, I love returning to the lodge for a warm cup of their famous Walleye Chowder.
My favorite place to grab breakfast on the Gunflint Trail is at the Trail Center. Their Logger’s Breakfast is a solid 10/10 after a long weekend of drinking and fun. The restaurant is open everyday for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and their menu has no shortage of options. We have a habit of stopping there for breakfast on our way home. On a side note, the Trail Center also has a small selection of groceries, lodging, and gas pumps.
For those that prefer to stay in to eat, any of the lodging options I listed above have fully furnished kitchens. When we stay on the Gunflint Trail, I prefer to make things that I can prepare ahead of time so I don’t need to cook while on vacation. Some hot, easy dishes that are perfect after a long day in the cold include tater tot hotdish, lasagna, enchiladas, chicken wild rice soup, or any warm meal you can cook ahead in a crockpot. For breakfast, my family loves a good egg bake to fill up before fishing. Around lunchtime, we’ll make sandwiches. Or on a nice day, we like to grill brats on a portable grill.
Winter Gunflint Trail Activities
The Gunflint Trail has endless opportunities for fun in the winter. From cross country ski trails, snowmobile trails, an abundance of frozen lakes for ice fishing, and beautiful winter scenery for a snowshoe session, there is something for everyone. The cold, fresh air hits the reset button on a cluttered mind.
Of all the activity options, my family is guilty of spending almost all our daylight ice fishing the lakes. One thing to know about ice fishing on the Gunflint Trail is you cannot access the lakes by vehicle. You’ll either need to walk on or take a snowmobile trail to get on the lake. We always bring our snowmobiles with us for this reason. The two lakes that we have the best luck on are West Bearskin Lake and Birch Lake. On these lakes, you can find nice sized rainbow and lake trout.
Cross Country Skiing
For cross-country skiers, the Gunflint Trail has over 400 kilometers of ski trails that are groomed for both classical and skate skiing. These ski trails are nothing short of stunning. Some of the best winter views are found on these routes. To plan ahead, you’ll need a pass to utilize the trails, which can be purchased at multiple spots in the area such as the Gunflint Lodge, or you can buy ahead online. Follow the “Cross Country Skiing” link below for trail maps, trail conditions, and ski pass information.
In a similar sense, the Gunflint Trail is packed with snowmobiles routes for all you slednecks out there. Incredible views can be appreciated on these routes as well. Be sure to watch out for other snowmobilers and dog sleds as you will cross paths with both. I’ve provided the link below for a map and route information.
The last, but certainly not least activity I want to touch on is relaxation. My favorite way to spend time on the Gunflint Trail in the winter is by curling up in the cabin and reading a book. There’s something so serene about reading in the winter while fresh snow falls outside. When I read at home, sometimes I feel guilty if there are other things I should be doing, like folding the overflowing pile of laundry or washing dirty dishes. During a winter getaway, nothing de-stresses me more than sleeping in, making myself a cup of coffee, and cracking open my next read. Although if you’re familiar with my blog, you probably already knew that.
Things to Pack for Winter on the Gunflint Trail
- Warm clothing is a must on the Gunflint Trail in the winter. Temperatures can be all over the place from a balmy 30 degrees Fahrenheit to well below 0. You want to be prepared for anything. I’m also a big fan of Hot Hands products for warming up mittens and boots.
- Be sure to have jumper cables in the back of your car. We’ve dealt with many frigid days where we had trouble starting vehicles.
- Pack gallon water jugs or bottled water. A lot of the cabins have well water, which is not very tasty.
- Pack an electric heater in case the cabin gets a little chilly. All the places I recommended are heated but sometimes even on the coldest days it’s nice to have a spare heater to warm up a room. For the same reason, it’s nice to have slippers and blankets along as well.
- Bring board games and puzzles for fun cabin activities.
Tips For First Time Gunflint Trail Visitors
- The Gunflint Trail does not have cell service. Once you’ve pulled onto the Gunflint Trail Road, you’ll lose cell bars quickly. My advice is to have maps already pulled up on your phone before you get to that point. Having paper maps also wouldn’t be a bad idea for snowmobiling and skiing in case you get lost. The cabins I’ve recommended have WiFi, but other than that, you won’t have any internet.
- Drive carefully, you’ll want to be aware of icy roads and wildlife. People are constantly spotting moose on the Gunflint Trail.
- Make sure you have plenty of gas before hopping on the Gunflint Trail. It is very secluded up there, and the only spot for gas I am aware of is the Trail Center.
- Give yourself at least 2 full days on the Gunflint Trail. You’ll want a couple of days to settle and take in all that the Gunflint Trail has to offer. Embrace the experience!