The most scenic bike trail in Minnesota – Gitchi-Gami State Trail

Gitchi Gami State Trail North Shore Bike Trip
The scenic Gitchi-Gami State Trail along the Minnesota’s north shore. All photos courtesy Holly Scherer.

My lungs were burning as I tried to keep up with my spouse as we climbed the never-ending hill between Beaver Bay and Silver Bay on the Gitchi-Gami State Trail. Although I was struggling to keep up, I was happy as could be, pedaling the most beautiful bike trail in Minnesota, if not the whole United States.

When you think about visiting Minnesota’s North Shore, what places first come to mind? For many, it’s the quaint towns like Two Harbors or Grand Marais. For others, it’s the recreational opportunities found in the State Parks, National Forests, the BWCA, and on the Superior Hiking Trail. And while I too love all of these places, one of my favorite places to spend a long weekend up north is also one of the least used.

The Gitchi-Gami State Trail—while still a work in progress—is the most beautiful, challenging, and fun paved bike trail in the state. And considering the growing popularity of the region, it is very lightly used. On the busiest days, we’ll pass four other groups of cyclists. And many days we have it all to ourselves.

Although there are several challenging sections, like the rollercoaster of hills through Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, there are other sections that are much easier. I’ll cover all of that and everything else you need to know to plan your ride on the Gitchi-Gami.

Biking to Gooseberry Falls State Park
Gooseberry Falls State Park

Gitchi-Gami State Trail in detail

As I mentioned, The Gitchi-Gami State Trail is a work in progress. When finished, the 89-mile paved trail will connect Two Harbors to Grand Marais. As of the day I write this, 34 miles are complete, with additional construction happening now.

The longest section is 17 miles one-way, running from Gooseberry Falls State Park to Silver Bay. This section runs through two wonderful small communities—Beaver Bay and Silver Bay. You’ll also pass through two state parks—Gooseberry Falls and Split Rock Lighthouse—as well as Iona’s Beach SNA (Scientific and Natural Area). Of all the sections, this is the longest and the most challenging. But be sure that all of your hard work will be rewarded with endless scenic vistas and quiet hidden gems to explore.

Roundtrip, this section is about 35 miles but the abundance of trailheads makes it one of the most modifiable. If you’d like to explore this section, you’ll find parking at Gooseberry Falls State Park, Iona’s Beach SNA, Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, Beaver Bay Wayside, and near the Rukavina Arena in Silver Bay. Parking in the State Parks will offer you the best facilities with restrooms and water but they do require a parking permit. But at just $35 annually, they’re one of the best recreation values in the country.

There’s so much to see and do in this section you could make an entire day of it. If you’re planning to start at Gooseberry, note that with nearly 800,000 visitors counted in 2021, this is Minnesota’s most visited state park. I parked at Gooseberry for a mid-week backpacking trip recently and even with extensive knowledge and experience in this park, I was blown away by the number of people in the falls area. If you’re on a bike, you’ll want to be sure and start early. Gooseberry Falls State Park is a wonderful place to start and finish with its expansive picnic area and beautiful beach that you’ll enjoy even more if you get an early start and take it slow as you pass through the area near the falls.

About halfway between Gooseberry Falls and Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, you’ll pass Iona’s Beach SNA and you’ll want to plan a stop. Iona’s Beach is a 300-yard crescent beach made up of pink stones that are known to sing when the waves are hitting just right. Just after Iona’s Beach, on your way to Split Rock Lighthouse, is a beautiful bridge passing over a cliff–a perfect stop for a photo op.

Iona's Beach SNA
Iona’s Beach SNA

A short ride up the trail and you’ll find yourself at the mouth of the Split Rock River and another stunning beach. It’s a great place to take a rest before the section that we refer to as the Split Rock Rollercoaster. You can see the elevation profiles for each segment of the Gitchi-Gami State Trail here. This section is a lot of up and a lot of down, but don’t worry, they’re short hills and many people simply hop off and walk their bikes up when they can’t muster one more pedal.

You may want to stop at Split Rock’s meticulously maintained Trail Center for restrooms and water before another big climb that’s longer but less steep. After that, it’s smooth sailing along breathtaking Lake Superior all of the way to Beaver Bay. There are plenty of places to stop in Beaver Bay for photo ops or a bite to eat. Please use caution when crossing Highway 61. Whether or not you choose to continue on to Silver Bay, be sure to ride past the wayside rest and check out the falls of the Beaver River.

The greatest change in elevation of all the completed sections of the trail is between Beaver Bay and Silver Bay. But like the Split Rock Rollercoaster, it’s a beautiful ride and lots of fun. We never skip this section and take it all the way to the pizza oven at the high school where we enjoy a snack while admiring the students’ creative handmade tiles.

Beaver River Falls

Easier sections of the trail

If you’re looking for something shorter, check out the 5-mile section between Grand Marais and the Cut Face Creek Wayside. We also enjoy the section between Schroeder and Lutsen’s Ski Hill Road. At just over 12 miles oneway, this section is relatively flat and almost as scenic. From the trailhead in Schroeder, you’ll pass through the beautiful Temperance River State Park. There’s a small gap in Tofte where you’ll need to ride the road. The speed limit drops in this section but you’ll still want to use a great deal of caution. Right now, the trail ends at Ski Hill Road but a new section is under construction here. At Ski Hill Road you can turn around and go back or test your endurance riding the road up to Lutsen Mountain. The ride back down is exhilarating but make sure your brakes are in good working order before attempting this one.

Like the section from Gooseberry to Silver Bay, there are lots of wonderful stops along this section of trail. Temperance River State Park has a breathtaking overlook into the river gorge right from the trail. You can even ride the trail into the main park to check out more waterfalls and the fabulous beach. The Tofte Town Park is another nice stop and if you’re looking for something to eat or drink, you’ll be able to find anything you want in Tofte. If you’re wearing shoes you can walk in, check out the trails along the Onion River at the Ray Berglund State Wayside. Again, there are plenty of places to park on this section as well so you can tailor the distance to fit your comfort level.

Looking for a longer ride?

If you don’t mind riding on roads, you can extend any of these sections using the North Shore Scenic Drive (Old Highway 61) and Highway 61. With low levels of traffic, the North Shore Scenic Drive is a wonderful place to extend your ride. We’ve ridden every mile from Brighton Beach Park in Duluth to Grand Marais. There are wide shoulders along most of 61 but you’ll still want to use caution.

The Gitchi-Gami State Trail is often overlooked by visitors exploring the North Shore. But with so many route options and epic scenic vistas, you’d be remiss to not consider it on your next trip. It’s one of the best ways to experience the big lake with fewer crowds.

Temperance River State Park
Temperance River State Park

Learn More About the Gitchi-Gami State Trail:

Biking the Gitchi-Gami Trail Bridge near Iona's Beach
Bridge on the cliffs near Iona’s Beach

Holly Scherer is a Minnesota-based writer, photographer, outdoorswoman, and guide. She’s most at home in the great outdoors; camping, hiking, paddling, cycling, and gardening. When she’s not on an adventure, she and her husband live in the Twin Cities where they’re fond of saying, “home is where we store our outdoor gear.”

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