Willard Munger State Trail (Hinckley-Duluth)

Minnesota

At a Glance

Name: Willard Munger State Trail (Hinckley-Duluth)
Length: 70 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Inline Skating, Wheelchair Accessible, Mountain Biking, Snowmobiling, Walking, Cross Country Skiing
Counties: Carlton, Pine
Surfaces: Asphalt
State: Minnesota

About this Itinerary

The Hinckley-Duluth segment of the Willard Munger State Trail stretches nearly 70 miles between central Minnesota and the state's gateway to Lake Superior. The trail follows the historical 19th-century route of the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad that carried goods and passengers between the Twin Cities and Duluth as well as saved many lives during the notorious Hinckley and Cloquet fires. As it's completely paved and relatively flat, the pathway is perfect for bikers, walkers and inline skaters in the warmer months, and snowmobilers and cross-country skiers in the winter. Along the way, trail-goers will enjoy stunning natural scenery interspersed with numerous rustic towns. You will travel by rocky cliffs and over the St. Louis River gorge, skirt the northern edge of the Jay Cooke State Park and pass through the gently rolling terrain of General C.C. Andrews State Forest.

The Hinckley-Duluth segment is one of three trails that comprise the Willard Munger State Trail, a total of 160 miles named after a Minnesota legislator who pushed for the rehabilitation of old railroad lines into long-distance trails. The northern terminus of the Hinckley-Duluth segment (HD) is near the city of Duluth. Visitors from out-of-town can rent bicycles in Duluth at Continental Ski and Bike (E. 1st Street). Though the trail is paved, there may be occasional patches of rough gravel, in which case a hybrid bike would be useful. Check the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website for current trail reports and conditions. Travelers arriving by plane at the Duluth International Airport will have a short 6-mile commute to city center.

We suggest planning for 3-4 days to cycle the trail, round-trip, beginning and ending in Duluth. Our 4-day itinerary allows plenty of time for off-bike exploration of the museums, parks and rivers in the area.

Nestled on the banks of Lake Superior, Duluth has long attracted visitors and residents alike. The immense inland harbor and the railroad began ushering in iron ore, copper, lumber and settlers by the late 1800s and today you still see remnants of the industries upon which Duluth was founded. The iconic Aerial Lift Bridge, beautiful seaport scenery and numerous historical landmarks, parks, trails, boutiques and museums add to Duluth’s appeal— not to mention the enticing opportunities for recreating near or on the water. Duluth’s visitor center hosts an interactive online map of town which is well-worth a look and may help you decide how you want to spend your time and where you want to settle in for the night.

Lodging choices are equally abundant, including historical inns, B&Bs and camping. The A.G. Thomson House is a high-end, luxurious 1909 Dutch Colonial B&B that is centrally located for many of Duluth’s attractions (though with the beautiful gardens, gazebo and hammock, you may not want to leave). For a more rustic feel, the Willard Munger Inn offers rooms that are nearly on the trail itself. Complimentary bikes are available for guests as well. Campers will find many campgrounds in the area, including the Indian Point Campground, also located right next to the HD trailhead.

Lake Superior Railroad Museum

In your wanderings about, make sure to visit the Historic Duluth Union Depot, circa 1892, which at one time served seven different rail lines and accommodated 5,000 passengers. It still is an active place, currently housing the Lake Superior Railroad Museum, the Duluth Art Institute, the St. Louis County Historical Society and several performing arts organizations. Rail buffs will be interested in the museum’s extensive collection of railroad equipment and may want to allow time for a train excursion on the North Shore Scenic Railroad (operating during the summer and fall months only).

Before visiting Duluth, check the schedule for the Art in Bayfront Park Art Fair, Bayfront Blues Festival and the Bayfront World Music Festival— just three of the many events that draw crowds to this lively and interesting town. Not to be out done, Duluth also has a diverse range of dining choices, by far the most you will encounter on the HD trail, so don’t hesitate to take full advantage of this at the beginning and end of your rail-trail adventure.

Day 1: Duluth to Moose Lake (38 miles)

The northern trailhead of the Hinckley-Duluth segment of the Willard Munger Trail begins 6 miles south from Duluth’s city center. Parking and restroom facilities are available at the intersection of Grand Avenue and 75th Avenue West. Once on the trail you are quickly surrounded by trees though you parallel Grand Avenue for 3 miles (anticipate crossing this major road on an overpass in 1.5 miles) and remain close to residential neighborhoods. You may encounter heavy trail-use on the first 15-mile portion of the trail, between Carlton and Duluth. It is a popular segment of the trail and you will soon see why.

The trail passes through northern hardwood forests full of pine and spruce fir trees. Be on the lookout for wildlife that lives in these woodlands, such as whitetail deer, raccoon, red fox, porcupine, beaver and muskrat. Imagine the St. Louis River, defining part of the state border, winding its way south of the trail as you ride near the boundaries of Magney-Snively Natural Area and Fond Du Lac Park. With the exception of one or two road crossings, the trail feels remotely tucked away in the woods and you may not see many reminders of the large city you just left behind.

By mile 10, the trail begins to skirt the northern edge of the Jay Cooke State Park. With its pristine forests, waterfalls and swinging suspension bridge above the St. Louis River, it is definitely worth a slight detour into the park. After you cross Jay Cooke Rd, travel another 1.5 miles to a bridge that takes you over an inlet of the Thompson Reservoir. You will see the trail fork at this point. The left trail takes you another mile to the park’s visitor center. To remain on the HD trail, continue straight at the junction instead for 2 miles to the town of Carlton. On the way, you will encounter rugged rocky cliffs and the beautiful St. Louis River gorge. A high trestle bridge takes you over the gorge; savor the stunning views and look for paddlers below you.

Carlton(mile 15) was incorporated a decade after the Northern Pacific Railway/Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad broke ground here in 1870 to begin building the rail line that would connect Minnesota to North Dakota, thanks to the financial backing of Jay Cooke. What is now Carlton was originally known as “Northern Pacific Junction,” little more than temporary shacks for railroad workers. Today Carlton, as the gateway to the state park and so near the river, is a destination place for whitewater enthusiasts and outdoor recreationalists.

Once you reach Carlton, take time to replenish your food and water supplies. If you take a right on 3rd Street to Chestnut Avenue you will find several eateries. To remain on the HD trail, head left on 3rd Street (Highway 1) briefly until you see the trail resume on your right. At this junction, you can also branch left toward the Wisconsin border on another segment of the Willard Munger State Trail, the 8-mile Alex Leveau Memorial Trail.

A view of the trail

For the next 23 miles to Moose Lake, you will travel past through several small towns including Mahtowa (mile 26) and Barnum (mile 32). The trail largely parallels Highway 61 but you can still see and hear the sights and sounds of central Minnesota’s farms and forests. Logging and the railroad were two major early industries for Carlton County, both slowly giving way to a burgeoning agricultural industry. In fact, the Carlton County Fair is held annually in Barnum each summer, should you be tempted to get a closer look at the barnyard occupants you may have spotted from the trail. To get into Barnum proper, leave the trail at Main Street and head left till you reach Front Street where you will find food and water.

Today’s destination is Moose Lake, the largest town along the HD trail. Campers will find Moose Lake City Campground a half mile from the Moose Lake trailhead (head southwest on Arrowhead Lane and turn left on Birch Avenue toward 4th Street). The Moose Lake Motel is a mile south of the trailhead on Arrowhead Lane. If you have spare time and energy, there are plenty of opportunities for more recreating nearby: Moose Lake, Moose Lake City Park and Moose Lake State Park are all in the area (as well as more lodging and camping options near the state park).

Moose Lake, known in some circles as the Agate Capital of the World, happens to be host to an agate that weighs 108 pounds and to an annual Agate Stampede, a gem and mineral show in which rocks and quarters are dumped down Elm Avenue for the hunt. Stay clear or put on your running shoes (and knee pads?). The Depot and Fires of 1918 Museum, once the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Sault Ste. Marie Depot, is now a museum (open April-September) that shares the story of the tragic 1918 Cloquet fire, caused by sparks from a passenger train combined with very dry conditions, as well as local rail history. There is a market and several restaurants in town to choose from for dinner and replenishing supplies for tomorrow’s cycling.

Day 2: Moose Lake to Hinckley (32 miles)

You continue to parallel Highway 61 for much of today’s route, through woods, wetlands and rural, open space. Numerous lakes comprise a majority of the landscape to the southeast of the trail. Coffee Lake and Sand Lake are two lakes you will encounter not far off the trail as you make your way to the first town, Sturgeon Lake, 6 miles from Moose Lake’s southern trailhead. Anglers may want to allow extra time to explore these popular fishing spots. Between Sturgeon Lake and Willow River (4.5 miles) you pass through the General C.C. Andrews State Forest, named after a Civil War general and Minnesota's first chief fire warden. Enjoy the diverse forest of jack and red pine, birch, aspen and oak. A segment of the Kettle River, a popular white water river, winds its way through the western edges of the state forest, briefly paralleling the trail to your west.

Soon the trail crosses over Willow River, indicating the mouth of the Willow River Reservoir to your east and the town of Willow River (mile 47) less than a half mile farther. The railroad was a major contributor in settling this part of Minnesota, facilitating the growth of the lumber industry and villages, such as Willow River, that developed once lumber companies were established. If you need lunch, you can’t miss Peggy Sue’s Café on County Highway 61, next to the trailhead which has restroom facilities and picnic tables.

In 3.5 miles, you will travel cross the Kettle River and soon after move through the outer edges of the small town of Rutledge. Finlayson(mile 57) is another 5.5 miles and a good place to stock up on any needed food and water supplies. The town borders the western side of the trail and there is a rest area at the old Finlayson rail depot. The Banning State Park, a popular destination for kayakers and canoeists and a possible side trip, is situated several miles to the east of town.

Continuing south, the rail-trail continues another 13 miles through woods and farmland to end at the southern terminus of the HD trail in Hinckley. Look for the Skunk Lake historical site marker on the way, signifying the spot where the last train out of Hinckley carried people to safety during a fire storm that swept through the area in 1894. The section of the HD trail from Barnum to Hinckley is a memorial to the devastation caused by this fire. At the trail’s end in Hinckley, carry on a block farther on Highway 61 to the Hinckley Fire Museum (open May-October). Located in the former Saint Paul & Duluth Railroad depot, this museum provides another opportunity to learn more about this devastating fire which burned a quarter-million acres in just four hours, resulting in hundreds dead and thousands displaced.

You can find an Americas Best Value Inn and a Days Inn nearby if you stay on Highway 61 until you reach Fire Monument Road. If you are in Hinckley the first weekend after the 4th of July and want a taste of small town celebrating, stay awhile to enjoy the annual Corn and Clover Festival, featuring pageants, parades and live music.

Days 3-4

Now it’s time to return the way you came and stop to see anything you missed on the way here!

Attractions and Amenities

Restaurants, Wineries, Ice Cream, Pubs
Outfitters/Bike Shops

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