Driving north out of Duluth on US Hwy 61 along Lake Superior's Northshore, you could easily think you'd been transported to coastal Maine or Oregon. This scenic route sets the stage for an idyllic journey to one of the more enjoyable upper Midwest skiing experiences. While Cross Country Skier has featured the trails of the Northshore as a whole in the past, the Sugarbush Trail in Tofte, Minnesota, is worthy of singling out.
The Sugarbush Trail is actually a system of trails, all within the Superior National Forest. Trailheads—Moose Fence, Oberg Mountain and Britton Peak—provide access to this 65-kilometer trail network, where easy to intermediate trails connect to interior trails of greater difficulty. This is not a posh, resort-based trail; amenities are limited to a parking lot, pit toilet and entry to the trails. But the trail is where it's at.
The Sugarbush Trail is possible due to a partnership between the non-profit Sugarbush Trail Association and the Superior National Forest. From all indications, it appears to be a synergistic and mutually beneficial relationship. The association budgets over $24,000 annually to Pisten Bully groom the trail network. This year, they opened on a limited basis after only seven inches of snow. But annually, the area sees serious snowfall and can retain a formidable base through the month of March and into early April. As is common along the Northshore, the landscape at lake level can be near barren, but the trails at higher elevation only a short distance inland, can carry a significant snow base.
From the parking lot at the Moose Fence Trailhead, we skied last March on the Upland and Maple Loops, easy and intermediate respectively. Wide, but not overly so, with classic tracks on either side, these mellow trails, each about 2.5 to three kilometers, provided a nice intro to the Sugarbush. But as I quickly found out, the best was soon to come—the Picnic Loop. I don't actually know why it was named the Picnic Loop, for with pleasantly challenging skiing, it was hardly "a picnic." Beginning innocently enough with a 2.5-kilometer intermediate segment, it flowed into 1.8 kilometers of more difficult trail before reaching a central junction. To this point, we skied through fir and spruce-lined corridors that soon transitioned to a predominantly maple (also known as sugarbush) forest. Flat and rolling gave way to a few grunting climbs and long sweeping descents.
It immediately occurred to me that this had to be where the locals came to train for the Birkie, for the hills soon became regular and plenty long to give the most avid Nordic enthusiast a fun and beneficial workout. A sense of remote wilderness pervades the terrain, because that's pretty much what it is. Once you're into the loop, you have two options: ski the 9.2 interior segment--all "most difficult" trails which connect to the Homestead and Wood Duck Loops to exit at the Britton Peak Trailhead for a point-to-point excursion, or hook into the Homestead and begin a return loop for a substantial 25-km-plus outing. Or, if you're really ambitious, add in the Onion River Road and Oberg Loop for a full plate of skinny skiing.
Along the way, the realization sets in that "you are not alone in these woods," as frequent paw prints of Canis lupis—the grey wolf, punctuate the trail. We had a bonus sighting—a patch of scratched up snow in the middle of the trail with a pile of wolf scat. I don't know what it signified, but it sure was surely not your everyday doggie doo-doo.
The Picnic Loop gains a substantial amount of elevation and then offers up a delightful payback in long descents traversing steep hillsides with view of creeks and valleys below. It's the type of trail and skiing that you just don't want to see end.
A couple of new options are in the offing for this year as the Sugarbush Trail Association has recently announced the addition of a six-kilometer connector trail and a five-kilometer skijoring trail. After three years of overgrowth and non-use, the connector trail from the Sugarbush Trail system to the Lutsen Trail system has been opened again. This connector allows skiers to access all of the Sugarbush system, then proceed to the Lutsen/Tofte Nordic Center at Superior National Golf Course. From the Nordic center, skiers can then ski another 20 km to the Cascade Trails near Lutsen and access yet another 51 km of trails. The new skijoring trail, accessible from the Moose Fence trailhead, will undergo a one year trial period.
If you like deep woods skiing, varying terrain, good snow and grooming, the Sugarbush is sure to satisfy. Check it out if you get a chance to visit the Northshore of Lake Superior; you won't be disappointed.
For more skinny…
Sugarbush Trail Association
Lutsen-Tofte Tourism Association
Cascade Lodge 800/322-9543,www.cascadelodgemn.com