Local Exploration: Backside of the Sawtooth Mountains
Not far from Duluth, on the backside of a forested spine of the Sawtooth Mountains, sits the small town of Finland, MN. Here is a great place to start an adventure. The USFS Finland Campground sits right at the edge of town along the East Branch of the Baptism River. In town, you have a real general store, The Finland Coop, and cafes like, "Our Place," all within walking distance of each other. Cutting through town is state Hwy 1, running north/south from Hwy 61 on the shore to Ely, the town at "the end of the road." But starting from Finland is the reason to be exploring this neck of the woods. County Road 7, or the "Cramer Road" (many roads in Northern Minnesota have two and maybe three names.) This is my recommendation for a beautiful vein on which to begin your explorations. CR 7 heads generally east, northeast, then north starting from Finland. It is a wide, gravel road at its start. You could probably park in town or, ask the folks at the Finland Community Center (1.2 miles east of Finland) if it would be OK to leave a car there (the Superior Hiking Trail passes very close to this area, as well.) Heading east from here, one of the first things I noticed is the beautiful Baptism River running parallel to the road. Behind the river are the forested hills that gradually build into the spine of the Sawtooth Mountains (these are Minnesota mountains to be sure, but real topography nonetheless.) The road courses through pine stands, following the river until about 7 miles up, George Crosby Manitou State Park enters from the east. This is another amazing state park with walk in sites that tend to feel more remote than the usual MN state park. As the road curves more northerly, mile 19 offers one of Minnesota's funkiest, backroads tavern, the Trestle Inn. This is a perfect spot to grab a mid-ride beer and burger. Parking your bike on the front of the tavern feels like hitching your horse would a hundred years ago. Eventually, CR 7 branches at mile 38 to begin CR 3 "Perent Lake Rd" and FR 168. Stay right, heading east on Perent Lake Rd. At mile 45, CR 3 crosses CR 2 "The Sawbill Trail." Taking that spur another few miles north will have you at another end of the road location, Sawbill Outfitters and the USFS Sawbill Campground. But making the quick jog south then easterly tun onto FR 165 "The Grade" will open up another long stretch of northwoods miles as you head toward the harbor town of Grand Marais. I have ridden this route in both the Winter and Summer. Each season has impressed me with beautiful scenery, a fair amount of route flexibility and great places to camp for the night. If there was one route I would recommend to not only Duluth natives but also visitors from around the region, this would be it.