Awaiting You: Banadad, Gunflint, & Heaven on Earth
Editor’s Note: George Pastorino is an avid and experienced wilderness traveler and has been enjoying the Banadad and Gunflint areas in winter since the early 1990s.
In extreme northeast Minnesota lies a ski trail that could be what skiers hope heaven would be like when their time comes. The Banadad Ski Trail System is a public ski trail managed by the Banadad Ski Trail Association, in agreement with the Gunflint Ranger District (USFS) and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. When the Forest Service reopened the then-impassable Tucker, Finn, and Lakes Logging Roads that ran through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA), the Banadad Trail was created.
Andy Jenks, President of The Banadad Trail Association, (https://www.banadad.org/) said, “A few years later, Ted and Barbara Young, of Boundary Country Trekking and Poplar Creek Guesthouse, took over the maintenance and promotion of the trail. They have been the backbone of the trail’s success ever since. Ted and Barbara built Mongolian-style yurts along the trail and skiers could ski yurt to yurt, spending nights quite warm while in the wilderness. Ted also ran dog sled trips along the trail. Ted and Barbara are considered Banadad Trail angels.”
Hard Stats of Exceptional Beauty
27K of wondrous wilderness-skiing meander through the BWCA. Another 14K of ski trails start off from the Banadad’s eastern end, the 6K Lace Lake Trail, 4K Tim Knopp Trail, and the 4K Tall Pines Trail. All trails are intimate singletrack. An eerie quiet on the trails proves as hard to describe as it is impossible not to love. Cross-country skiers from all over the country say they feel this way. And while every ski area has its beauty, the Banadad Trails always cause skiers to feel as though they have come home.
Perhaps the remoteness creates this magical feeling of peace and serenity. Deep in the Arrowhead of Minnesota, off the legendary Gunflint Trail and not far from the Canadian border, the area gets fewer winter visitors than most. The Banadad Ski Trails, being in the over-1-million-acre BWCA wilderness, gets even fewer.
The BWCA is a true roadless designated wilderness area located deep within the 3-million-acre Superior National Forest, where motorized travel of any kind is not allowed. This leads to a deep and haunting silence that touches one’s soul. A lot of Banadad skiers hardly speak during a day’s long adventure because the deep, untouched snow and amazing scenery speak for themselves, and human voices detract from the magic.
The name “Banadad” is Ojibwa for “lost,” so appropriate as skiers certainly enjoy the wonderful feeling of being lost in the wilderness. And skiing happens differently here compared to the area’s groomed trails. Most of all, only classic technique is possible due to the narrow singletrack width of the trails. Trail users very rarely encounter another skier. When they do, one party must step aside to let the other pass. The forest is so close to you that you can feel its life force.
Stands of tamarack hang over the trail, creating a tunnel-like effect. It is so tranquil that even the fastest skiers slow down to soak in the enchanted, healing forest. Many skiers make an entire day of traveling a portion of it as an out-and-back, bringing a tasty lunch, including hot soup, to add to a spellbinding nourishment stop that is never to be forgotten.
Getting Appropriately Prepped
Skiers must be more prepared and equipped when they ski the Banadad because of its remoteness deep in the BWCA area’s wilderness and lack of cellphone service. A great place to get geared up is at Stone Harbor Wilderness Supply (www.stoneharborws.com/), with an experienced staff that goes far beyond just the gear and clothing. You should plan to bring extra clothes, good first aid kit, fire-starting equipment, and a portable tent or space blankets if there is an injury or storm; it’s unlikely rescue would come soon. Carrying a device with an emergency locator beacon and the ability to use satellites to send text messages is highly advised. It could save your life. My recommendation is the Garmin InReach Explorer plus satellite communicator.
Also, tell a responsible person what your route will be and the time of your expected return. These precautions will not only help in case of an emergency, but will also create a more relaxed and enjoyable trip, knowing that you can help yourself if need be.
From Grand Marais, Minnesota, turn west up the Gunflint Trail (Cook County Rd 12). Drive 29 miles to Lima Grade Road, turn left, drive one mile to Little Ollie Road, turn right. Then drive one mile to the eastern trailhead. Parking is free. A Minnesota Ski Pass and a free BWCAW Entry Day Permit is required. The Western Trailhead is off the Gunflint Trail, 1/4 mile south of the Loon Lake Public Landing. Other trail access is across Poplar Lake at the Swamp, Lizz, and Mead Lake Portages. The ski trail is open generally from November to April.
Banadad is accessed off the stunning Gunflint Trail, which also offers over 200K of fabulous, world-class groomed cross-country ski trails. The Central Gunflint system is a private trail network maintained solely by 2 resorts, the Bearskin Lodge (http://bearskin.com/) and the Golden Eagle Lodge (https://www.golden-eagle.com/). And they do this without State or Federal funding. These lodges are fabulous places to stay, and their guests ski free. Folks not staying at either Lodge can ski the system by buying an $18 day pass. Trails are meticulously groomed by several Piston Bully/ Snowcat groomers.
At Gunflint, you will enjoy 80K of nicely groomed trails, 53K of which are also groomed for skate skiing. Both resorts have heated waxing rooms. Miles of groomed snowshoeing trails await you in this system, also with endless miles of ungroomed snowshoe opportunities. Adventurous people even use canoe portages to ski from one lake to another. You can recreate summer canoe routes in this manner. Both resorts also provide ice skating. Always check with the local resorts regarding ice thickness and be prepared for wilderness travel.
But Wait, There’s More Heaven
The Upper Gunflint System has 85K of pristine cross-country trails, of which about 30K are groomed for skate skiing. There are many snowshoe trails as well, including some that overlook Canada. This is also a private system that does not rely on state or federal funding. They are maintained via Piston Bully by three resorts: The Gunflint Lodge (https://gunflint.com/), Gunflint Pines Resort (https://www.gunflintpines.com/), and Hestons Country Store and Lodge (http://www.hestons.com/). Gunflint Lodge is a luxury resort while Hestons and Gunflint Pines & Campground are your more typical, nice and accommodating North Country resorts. Three warming huts are located on the trails. You can plan these into your route for a lunch or snack break. Ski passes are available at any of the resorts for $15.00.
The Pincushion Mountain Ski Trails provide the third groomed system on the Gunflint Trail. This area has over 25K of groomed trails on Pincushion Mountain, some with scenic overlooks of Lake Superior. Trails here are groomed for both skate and classic styles by the North Superior Ski and Running Club (http://www.pincushiontrails.org/). The club maintains a Piston Bully as well as a Snow Cat snowmobile groomer. And it provides a warming chalet and a waxing building at the Pincushion Trailhead. Snowshoe opportunities are available on parts of the rugged Superior Hiking Trail.
Sharing the Magic
For this writer, the Banadad and Gunflint Trails are wilderness gems not to be missed in any season. Winter, however, holds a special enchantment caused by the remote feel, silence, true wilderness, and unbelievable nighttime skies with a stellar show of stars, so much so that the International Dark Sky Association named much of the area a Dark Sky Sanctuary, one of just 13 designations in the world. The Association is a nonprofit working around the world to reduce light pollution, to protect night skies. People often come out of their cabins at night only to lay down on a frozen lake just to look at the stars.
To feel the amazement and enchantment of the area, let these words inspire you to go and find out for yourself. To leave behind sounds of the cities and suburbs, to instead hear the cry of wolves at night, and silence.