There were no screaming crowds or bands playing as we completed our trip down the Munger Trail from Duluth to Hinckley, and then when we returned home the next day the crowds didn’t turn out on the other end of the trail either.
The Munger Trail is only 70 miles from Duluth to Hinckley, Minnesota, but on the first day we managed to rack up 112 miles by biking across town to get to the paved bike path, and we also doubled back much of the way. The first day was spent in the hot sun pushing 90 degrees, and we forged into a hot wind out of the south that felt like it came out of a blast furnace.
We camped in Willow River in a state forest campground so my buddy Brian wouldn’t have to pull the baby buggy carrying all our camping gear the whole way. Then we made a nearly 50 mile round trip journey that evening to Hinckley for dinner at Cassidy’s Restaurant, ate rather hurriedly, and turned around to bike 24 miles back to our campsite on the same trail. Unfortunately we didn’t beat the darkness, which pulled over us like a sheet. The last five miles or so were spent in virtual darkness, with the path emanating a slight lightness and everything else enshrouded by the night. Of course we had no flashlights or anything useful. The sun had fried our brains, so we had left everything at our campsite within the Willow River Campground in the General C.C. Andrews State Forest. It was an interesting experience, because there was no point of reference after the meager twilight disappeared. We just hoped we wouldn’t hit a deer.
By 9 pm we made it back to our campsite, and it was pitch black as we walked our bikes through the gravel road that winds its way through the campground. A little more rest would have been desired at the end of the day, but some days are like that. High heat and a stiff breeze = a much slower ride than anticipated, so we used all the daylight available for riding and eating. Now the ride on the Willard Munger Trail can indeed be monotonous, being a classically straight rail to trail endeavor. Additionally, all the reviews were very clear that the most scenic area, by far, was on my side of the trail between Carlton and Duluth, which I had already ridden. Knowing all that, Brian and I still pressed on with this as our choice for our annual epic adventure this year. The distance, and the adversity experienced, definitely qualified this trip as epic. Additionally, I was pleasantly surprised to discover how vast the undeveloped lands are in my adopted state of Minnesota. A very large percentage of the trail goes through forest and wetlands that are imbued with a subtle beauty. Hours and hours on bike gives you eyes to see and ears to hear it. Sweeping overlooks are lacking, but beauty abounds along the way in whispers if you pause to listen and observe (if even in your mind and heart as you continue to pedal on).
A percentage of the Munger also parallels farm fields, but that’s about as developed as most of the surrounding landscape gets (outside of the extreme northern terminus in Duluth). It was surprising to literally get all the way to the end way down south in Hinckley and see that it felt remote even 500 yards from the trail’s end. I was then surprised to discover how much the downtown area of Hinckley has suffered. This is one of those towns that appears to be bustling to travelers coming down the freeway, with all the restaurants, gas stations, and casino near the expressway. The original downtown has very little going on, and is in serious decline unfortunately.
I don’t know that I’ll ever ride it again unless I choose to bike to Minneapolis or something larger like that, but this is just one of those experiences that Minnesotans should check off their bucket lists. If you do, make sure to fill up on water when you’re able, because there were relatively few amenities along the trail. The water spigot was broken in Carlton, and the 17 mile stretch from Carlton to Barnum is a bit of a test under the strain of a hot sun. It isn’t until you reach Moose Lake (if you skip Carlton) that you have options for lunch or water near the trail. My recommendations for meals, which all worked for us anyway, are the Lazy Moose Cafe in Moose Lake, Peggy Sue’s Cafe in Willow River, and Cassidy’s near the freeway in Hinckley (about a mile from the end of the trail). The first two are quaint hometown diners with good local fare, while the latter had a great all you can eat Friday fish fry buffet that really met my significant caloric needs that night.
That evening I thought I’d sleep like a baby, but once again I was reminded why I make it a policy to avoid campgrounds on weekends. Folks driving through the gravel road all night, and a neighboring “camper” starting a campfire at 4 am followed by a few rounds of firecrackers, have a way of robbing the weary traveller of sleep.
The next day, following a fabulous breakfast at Peggy Sue’s Cafe, we enjoyed a 60 mile ride back on the same trail to our homes in the far eastern end of Duluth. This time the headwind shifted to the northeast, so we got to battle it again! It was especially difficult when we entered Duluth. It had been 90 degrees or so on top of the hill up in Carlton, but the temperature quickly dropped into the 60’s in Duluth with winds whipping off Lake Superior with its white capped waves. All through town we attempted to pierce through the persistent gusts, but the buggy Brian was pulling behaved like a sail. Anyhow, we made it, and my butt is as sore as ever.
For an annual trip, usually just a day, we need the challenge of adversity to make for a sufficiently epic journey. Previous years have seen us paddle the last 20 miles of the Brule River with it’s significant rapids and ledges to shoot with the canoe, separate 60 mile bike trips through Wrenshall and Carlton, and last year’s bike from Gooseberry State Park to Finland, MN. Once, on a very long day trip, we drove to Snowbank Lake north of Ely, as an entry point to the Boundary Waters, and paddled into Disappointment Lake, and then ran quite a number of miles down the Kekekabic Trail to explore the Old Pines loop. These virgin pines, which were spared by the loggers axe at the end of the 19th century, remain a secret hidden from nearly everybody due to its distant location. Generally we tend to overdo it a bit, but it is supposed to be epic, and it is just once per year. Eventually we’ll dial things back a bit, because a well planned rest in a quiet hammock can also be pretty awesome too. Until then, butts can expect to be worn raw and sore.
Back to the Munger Trail. This thing is 70 miles long, and NOT 63 as indicated on some state websites. Other signage on the trail, and mileage distances available in trail maps and elsewhere make clear it’s a 70 mile trail. It’s just a bone I have to pick, so I wanted to get that out there. It’s crazy that nobody seems to agree on the length.