The alarm goes off and we begin to stir. This is Day 2 of the Duluth section, and we need to start establishing a routine. I make coffee while Alison gathers breakfast and throws it in the cooler. Then it’s out the door to do our self-shuttle, dropping one car off at today’s ending destination and then driving to the Grand Portage Trailhead where we ended yesterday and will begin hiking today.
It rained overnight, and there is still a heavy drizzle as we pull into the parking lot, so we read today’s trail description and drink a little more coffee, stalling for time. After 20 minutes or so, the rain subsides, and it’s time to hoist on the packs and get going. We plan to cover 14.4 miles today, so we need to get going, but we get distracted almost immediately by all the attractive rain drops on the ferns and other flora.
There is a heavy overcast as we begin hiking. The trail undulates frequently between climbs up to narrow ridges in the forest and down to tiny creeks with little water flow, only to repeat the cycle again. Looking at the slow flow of water, we are already concerned about the availability of that precious H20 during the current drought in Minnesota.
Despite the wet conditions, it’s a fairly rewarding morning with regard to the birds. We see a bright red Scarlet tanager on one of the ridges that looks into the canopy of many trees. Later we spy a female Golden-winged warbler and a male Canada.
After a few hours, the clouds begin to lift, and the sun peaks through, which quickly turns our hike into a hot and steamy jungle walk. As we suspected, we see no other hikers on the trail today. Apparently it is Monday out there and (fortunately) people are back to work.
At one point, we come to a small creek and encounter a wooden bridge whose best days are long behind it. We gingerly step across this twisting dilapidation one person at a time.
We hear a Black-throated Green warbler, courtesy of Song Sleuth, a new iPhone app that records bird calls and pairs them with likely matches—very helpful for novices like us. Then as we are looking back at the bridge we just crossed, a male Mourning warbler flies in for a quick look at us. We are taking so much pleasure in seeing birds in their summer territory that we usually only get a brief time to enjoy as they migrate through Chicago in May.
We emerge from the woods and cross a road before continuing onto a paved bike path that parallels a train line. We cross a bridge over the tracks and heading toward Ely’s Peak. Along the way, we hear a familiar buzzing and find two Cedar waxwings busy building a nest at nearly eye level in a spruce tree (unfortunately in a spot too shaded and contrasty for good pics). It’s cool to watch the pair fly in and shape the nest with their bodies for a few quick moments before flying off.
Eventually, the SHT departs from the bike path, and we begin to ascend 300 feet up toward Ely’s Peak as it twists around boulders and over smooth granite balds. We see ever-improving views of the valley and forest from which we came.
Once on top, we find a comfortable space to plop ourselves down and eat lunch while enjoying the view. There’s still heavy fog coming in off the lake, so the views are constantly changing. At 1219 feet, Ely’s Peak (apparently named after a Presbyterian missionary) is one of the higher points on the entire trail.
After lunch, as we descend back into the forest, the temperature turns cooler, which is a very welcome change. The trail meanders through deciduous and pine forests, crossing several small creeks. It also crosses the Skyline Parkway several times. This road, built back in the late 19th century, traverses Duluth on the high ridge and was designed as a scenic “Sunday” drive.
By mid-afternoon we reach Spirit Mountain, a year-round outdoor recreational area that is eerily quiet. In the winter, this is a popular ski area; in the summer, there is camping and loads of mountain biking trails, but, due to Covid, it is closed for the season. It’s too bad because it looks like there is a little restaurant at the bottom of the chair lift that would be the perfect place to enjoy a cold beverage right about now.
There is a spur loop on the SHT that would take us to a campground we might have stayed at if it were open. It’s a bit strange to cross this place that should normally be bustling with summer tourists. Instead, all we hear is the sound of the nearby county highway. We know we are getting to the end of the day’s hike.
Our last stretch descending alongside Kingsbury Creek turns out to be a pleasant surprise. The creek is still running at a good flow and has several attractive waterfalls along the way.
There is a detour around a wooden bridge that is no longer safe to cross. Finally, we make it to the bottom and walk into the small parking lot at the end of Waseca Road. As we make it back to Grand Portage Trailhead to pick up our car, a few raindrops begin to fall once again. We are lucky that most of the day remained dry.
Day 2 Stats
Starting Point: Grand Portage Trailhead
Ending Point: Waseca Street Trailhead
Miles Hiked: 14.4 (+ .2 bonus miles)
Miles to Canada: 269.7
Bird of the Day: Male Canada warbler