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Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Trail of the Month Archive


Trail of the Month: July 2005
Willard Munger State Trail, Minnesota

In east-central Minnesota, approximately 100 miles north of the Twin Cities area, lies one of the most impressive trails in the nation. Spanning three counties and traveling from Hinckley to Duluth, the Willard Munger State Trail highlights the state's scenic countryside while embracing its local history.

The Willard Munger State Trail was named after a 43-year Minnesota legislator who pushed for creating long-distance trails on former rail lines. While at first, he was met with much resistance, Mr. Munger persevered. Today, thanks in part to his dedication, Minnesota has some of the most impressive trail systems in the nation and continues to be one of the leaders in the rail-trail movement with more than 13,000 rail-trail miles.

The trail can be broken down into three different segments: the Boundary segment, which is unpaved and caters to snowmobilers in the winter season; the Alex Laveau Memorial Trail, a short but scenic route leading to the Wisconsin border; and the Hinckley-Duluth segment which is one of the longest paved trails in the nation. Each of these segments provides bicyclists, hikers, walkers and equestrians with an exciting adventure.

Before you begin your journey along the Hinckley-Duluth segment visit the Hinckley Fire Museum located five blocks west of Interstate 35 in downtown Hinckley. This museum provides visitors with the historical background of the Willard Munger State Trail by highlighting the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad—the former rail line that saved many lives in the Hinckley and Cloquet fires. According to the museum, the fire swept through six towns—Hinckley, Sandstone, Finlayson, Rutledge, Willow River, and Moose Lake—on September 1, 1894, killing more than 400 people in just four hours. It was that day the town of Hinckley went from being a highly successful lumber trade area to relying on the post-fire fertile soil to become a prosperous farming community. The museum is open from May 1 through mid-October, Tuesday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday noon-5. It is closed on Mondays.

Beginning at the Hinckley trailhead travel 13 miles northeast toward the town of Finlayson amid massive rolling farmland. This section of the trail passes near Banning State Park, an area that attracts canoeists and kayakers for the turbulent rapids found at Kettle River. Finlayson has a rest area and plenty of parking, and is a great place to grab a quick bite to eat, as there are several restaurants located just off of the trail.

From Finlayson continue 23 miles along the Willard Munger State Trail towards Moose Lake, passing through the towns of Willow River and Sturgeon Lake. Those who enjoy small town events don't miss the annual Willow River Days in July. A small parade, antique car show and log sawing contest are some of the highlighted events at the celebration. Just past Willow River ride through the General C.C Andrews State Forest. Named after a Civil War general and Minnesota's first chief fire warden, this magnificent forest is covered with jack and red pine, alongside stands of birch, aspen and oak. (ATV's and dirt bikes are permitted on a few of the forests trails.)

Continuing along the trail toward Moose Lake, you'll pass Sturgeon Lake on your right, one of the top 10 most popular lakes in the state. Moose Lake is the mid-point of the Willard Munger State Trail. This town welcomes visitors with a variety of restaurants and museums to amuse and entertain. The town also has many of places to stay including a campground located right off of the trail.

Heading northeast toward Carlton, you'll travel 23 miles past the small towns of Barnum, Mahtowa and Atkinson. When you arrive in Carlton make time to visit the Jay Cook State Park. Located on the shores of the St. Louis River, the area attracts visitors looking to set out on both water and land adventures. According to a Minnesota visitor's guide, one of the park's most popular attractions is the swinging suspension bridge above the St. Louis River, and many people flock to the park in the spring to check out a colorful array of wildflowers.

From Carlton you can branch off toward the Wisconsin border on the Alex Leveau Memorial Trail. This is an eight-mile trail (six paved) that is named after a former county commissioner and dairy farmer who was a strong advocate of turning old rail lines into public trails. It heads southeast through rural countryside and passes Wrenshall on the way to the border.

The 15-mile Carlton to Duluth segment of the Willard Munger Trail is the most popular portion of the trail, providing scenic views of Lake Superior. It is common to see heavy traffic here at all times and in all seasons, so please be careful and use proper trail etiquette. At the Duluth trailhead you'll notice a plethora of amenities including restroom facilities, and restaurant and lodging options, so feel free to jump off of the trail enjoy the town. The area attracts many visitors with its Aerial Bridge, charter fishing, casinos and museums.

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