Eagle Mountain Trip Report
Eagle Mountain Trailhead, 07/06/12
The plan was simple enough: budget a day during a mammoth family road trip to hike Eagle Mountain, the highest point in the state of Minnesota. During a week which included visits to Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore, Devil's Tower, the Ingalls Homestead and Lake Itasca, a few days on the north shore of Lake Superior would be welcome respite in the middle of 9 days of driving. Although the hike is around seven miles long, we thought our 3- and 5-year-old children would be up for it after so much time in the car (while the younger ones road in backpacks).
The drive up Highway 61 on the North Shore was absolutely fantastic. Even though we were a bit behind schedule, we got to see the sunset and subsequent moonrise over Lake Superior. Several areas looked interesting, and if we weren't on a schedule, I think it's an area I would have enjoyed exploring a bit more. We ended up staying at a little motel a few miles out of the town of Grand Marais. During the drive, my Heather and I concluded that given the length of the hike, it might be best for me to do it solo, while she watched the children, and I resolved to do so the next day.
The next day, Friday dawned overcast and dreary (though it dawned early: the sun rises around 5:30am at that latitude). Since I wouldn't have children in tow, I didn't expect the hike to take very long, and was more concerned about the weather than getting an early start. The rain moved in off the lake and came in fits and starts. Compared to Texas rainstorms, it wasn't as heavy, but it was long-lasting.
A break in the rain finally arrived around 11am, and I decided to give the trip a chance, figuring that I could at least drive the trailhead and then make a decision there from the comfort of my car. Getting there took a bit longer than I thought, but using the directions on SummitPost I at least didn't have a problem finding the trailhead. The rain continued to come down, occasionally heavily, and when I got the trailhead there was only one other car there (also with Texas plates, oddly enough).
At that point, even though it was raining lightly still, I decided that since I'd come all that way, I might as well give it a shot, so I filled out a self-issue permit and started up the trail. The trail itself was well-marked but rocky. I went up and down, occasionally crossing streams and bogs on wooden bridges. The rain kept coming, and in spite of my best efforts, I was soon soaked. Because of our road trip, I hadn't brought all of my normal hiking gear, and sorely missed my Goretex boots and other wet-weather clothing. Fortunately, the temperature was only in the mid-fifties, and I was making good time which kept me warm.
The other thing I'd forgotten was bug repellant. Minnesota may be the land of 10,000 lakes, but it's also the land of 10 billion mosquitos. Even the rain didn't dissuade the little fiends from snacking on my exposed skin, and I spent lots of time batting them away. The rocks in the trail became slick in the rain, and I kept imagining myself slipping on one, breaking a leg, and waiting in futility for help to come. I reasoned that the faster I got up the hill, the faster I'd get down and back to a dry and safe car.
After following the trail's undulations, I eventually reached Whale Lake, and followed the trail around its perimeter to a well-marked split. The sign pointed left and uphill for the summit of Eagle Mountain, so that's the way I went, over an initially steep section with larger and more rocks. The grade of the trail, combined with the continued rain meant I was now walking through a small stream, rather than a simple trail. At a couple of locations, the vistas opened up to reveal a rather misty forest landscape below.
I knew I was getting close to the top when I could fill the chill of the wind blowing on my now-soaked T-shirt, and soon found the summit in the middle of a heavy rain. I also discovered my forerunner: a retired gentleman from Iowa who had just completed his fourteenth highpoint. We conversed while I took a few pictures and then both headed down. I'm sure in better conditions, the summit area is a beautiful place, but at that point I was thinking more about getting to my dry car than enjoying the scenery.
The way back to the trailhead was uneventful. It felt shorter because I was able to maintain a conversation with my new found companion, and I was so drenched that I no longer attempted to walk around puddles in the trail. The rain kept coming off and on, but the trees dripped enough that we had a steady stream of water falling on us. The last couple of miles of such a hike always feel like the longest, and so it was with this one: when I finally got back to the car, I was ready to be done.
Another group, a family with three children, was just hitting the trail as I departed, and I wondered how they would fair in the conditions. As for myself, I had neglected to bring a spare change of clothes, and realized I'd be driving back to our small rented cottage in wet clothes. Fortunately, I had an old table cloth I could lay over the seat of the car to protect it, and I was glad when I finally got back and took a nice, hot shower. While my hike was a bit wetter than hoped for, the scenery was great, and our stay along the North Shore was fantastic. I don't know when we'll get back, but I hope to again some day.