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Michael Barnes

Tricky spring hiking in Minnesota

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A fresh dusting of snow made the Caribou Trail easier to negotiate.

A fresh dusting of snow made the Caribou Trail easier to negotiate.

Previously, we’ve hiked Minnesota in the bloom of summer and the dead of winter. Spring presents novel challenges. Snow and ice are melting, but unevenly. Six hikes this week taught us some valuable lessons.

The sun makes its mark on the ice and snow atop this small lake.

The sun makes its mark on the ice and snow atop this small lake.

1. Once the snowmobilers are done for the season, Minnesota State Trails are ideal for hiking. Wide, smooth and free from obstacles, they are safe and well-marked. We did a total of 12 miles on two separate hikes along the Caribou Trail above Lutsen on the North Shore of Lake Superior, then six miles on the asphalt-based Sakatah Trail near Mankato in Southern Minnesota. All three hikes, the first two on fresh snow, were excellent.

The last of the ice at Grand Marais near the Canadian border.

The last of the ice at Grand Marais near the Canadian border.

2. Cross-country skiing trails are somewhat less reliable in spring. We hiked five or six miles on the Norpine Trail, maintained by a community group, not the state. It proved uneven, rutted and plagued with fallen brush. To make it worse, quickly melting snow and ice fed fresh rivulets that blocked our way. Still, we got our workout.

Rob contemplates the iron-streaked snow melt on the Norpine Trail, reserved in winter for cross-country skiing.

Rob contemplates the iron-streaked snow melt on the Norpine Trail, reserved in winter for cross-country skiing.

3. Pay attention to signs about closed trails. One four-mile hike on the Minnesota Valley State Trail near Jordan, Minn. proved a muddy mess. We figured the sign at the entryway indicated it was unsuitable for horseback riding, but simple hiking turned problematic, too, as did an embarrassing medical panic attack. (All is fine.) Still, the wooded banks of the Minnesota River are gorgeous and full of wildlife.

The melting ice at the falls on the Cascade River creates eerie, temporary caves.

The melting ice at the falls on the Cascade River creates eerie, temporary caves.

4. Once the snow ices over, don’t try steep inclines. We discovered this in Cascade River State Park on the North Shore near Grand Marais, not far from the border with Canada. We had visited this spectacular spot during the summer to witness the roaring waterfall from fenced observation points. These fences lose their protectiveness when one is slipping up and down the canyon side. This turned into a very short hike.

Dawn at in the 1934 Sawbill Lodge, part of the family-owned Solbakken Resort on Lake Superior.

Dawn at in the 1934 Sawbill Lodge, part of the family-owned Solbakken Resort on Lake Superior.

5. Even in winter, bring water and sunglasses. Sunscreen optional. Most of our hikes were deep in the woods, during the morning or afternoon, so we often walked in the shade. Spruces and pines lined the way at higher elevations. Maples and birches lower down the mountains. I couldn’t identify the trees — still without leaves this time of year — along the Minnesota River or near Mankato.

A muddy track met us on the Minnesota River Trail near Jordan, Minn.

A muddy track met us on the Minnesota River Trail near Jordan, Minn.

6. Expect see these birds at the first note of spring: Bald eagles, American goldfinches, pileated woodpeckers, slate-colored juncos, meadow larks, American kestrels, American robins, Brewer’s blackbirds, black-capped chickadees, Canada geese, house sparrows, field sparrows, ravens, crows, plus various gulls, ducks and tiny forest birds.

By the time we returned to Southern Minnesota, the snows had melted on the Sakatah Trail near Mankato.

By the time we returned to Southern Minnesota, the snows had melted on the Sakatah Trail near Mankato.

7. Take advice when looking for food. We cooked or snacked in St. Peter and Lutsen, but also found, with help or research, four neat spots to sample: 112 Eatery (Minneapolis), Duluth Grill (Duluth), New Scenic Cafe (North Shore) and India Palace (Mankato). Near Lutsen, we stayed at the rustic, family-owned Solbakken Resort, which offers lakeside cabins, suites and motel rooms clustered around the 1934-era Sawbill Lodge.