We had a plan.
Not a good one.
But we did officially have a plan.
We would go on a four-day bikepacking adventure on gravel north country roads and hope that every single person we talked to on the phone was wrong.
That was the plan.
How Did I Get Here?
I got into bikepacking because I’ve always loved the challenge and freedom I feel with every other kind of packing: backpacking, canoe-packing, hitchhike-packing, bike-canoe-packing, and scooter-packing (kidding about the scooter).
Here’s why I was attracted to bikepacking. It gives you the ability to enjoy outdoor adventures at a faster pace than canoeing and hiking and in a more remote way than traditional bike touring on paved roads.
We heard about a bikepacking route in Northern Minnesota called “Straddle and Paddle” from my favorite website, bikepacking.com.
It promised everything I could want: endless gravel roads, thick lake-y forests, and the world’s best donuts.
So seven buddies and I spent a year researching, buying gear, and generally overanalyzing the entire trip.
But planning is half the fun, right?
There was only one problem.
No, campsites themselves weren’t the problem. I mean, we found campsites, but the vast majority were booked, and the few remaining were non reservable. It was the weekend of several very large tourist events in the area. The events were cancelled because of Covid but the crowds still came en masse.
I refreshed the reservation websites every day for months. And we made phone calls. Lots of phone calls. We called the forest service, campgrounds, bike shops, and churches. Over the phone, they all had the same answer.
“We’ve been booked for months and haven’t had one single cancellation.”
One kind-hearted person even told us, “You literally chose the worst weekend of the year. This is our single busiest weekend and you’re not going to find a campsite.”
“What if we just show up to campgrounds?” I asked.
“You can try”, she said. “There are a few first-come-first-serve sites, but I doubt you’ll get one”.
With eight hearts full of unfounded hope, we embarked on our trip despite having not just one, but three nights with nowhere to stay.
Night One: After navigating the winding gravel roads and eating a greasy burger at The Tressle Inn, it was time to find our first place to sleep.
There was one single non reservable campsite in the vicinity of our first destination. That’s right. You didn’t read one campground; you read one campsite. Not good odds, I’ll admit. But we had no choice. So we got to the end of the trail and the forest broke open to a stunning campsite on gorgeous Windy lake...and no one else was there! We got our first campsite.
We swam, we fished, we ate freeze-dried meals, and we couldn't believe that the prettiest campsite we’d seen was just waiting for our group of hopeful bikepackers.
Night Two: Our odds would improve but the circumstances wouldn’t. Our bike ride for the day included a lunch swim on Mistletoe Lake as well as a friendly bear sighting. For the night, we were aiming for a tiny campground of four sites at the Cascade River Rustic Campground. More sites than the previous night, but we’d be arriving on a Friday which is the hardest night of the week to get a campsite during the light season and this would be the peak of the busy season.
We rolled in after a tiring day on Minnesota’s loveliest and crunchiest gravel hoping that just one site would be open. Here’s what we found. Site 1: taken. Site 2: taken. Site 3: taken. Site 4: Open! We got lucky again and our band of bikepacking brothers just barely scored a second campsite in two days.
Night Three: Beautiful Grand Marais. This would be a tricky one. If we didn’t find an open site at the municipal campground (which they assured us we wouldn’t) then we’d have to bike 4 miles back up the Gunflint Trail (Gunflint Trail? More like Gunflint Mountain...) to look for dispersed camping in the dark, dense National Forest. It was technically an option, but nobody wanted to do it.
We rolled up to the campground in the pouring rain and they let us know that they were almost completely full for the night...except for 2 campsites. Luck was on our side again as we completed 3 nights in a row of extremely unlikely campsites.
We woke up the last morning and stopped at The World’s Best Donuts on our way out of Grand Marais. We enjoyed those sugary rings of dough as the waves lapped onto the shoreline. Our final day of biking treated us to lakeviews, river gorges, and many wonderful miles on the Gitchi-Gami Trail before making it back to our vehicles.
Thank you, Minnesota, for the incredible trails, delicious donuts, and enough luck to get 8 guys through 3 nights without a solid plan.
Bikepacking Cook County: If You Go.
Bikepacking Northing Minnesota is wild. The gravel roads and mountain bike trails are abundant and the options are endless.
If you’d like to embark on our route, start at bikepacking.com/routes/straddle-and-paddle/. There are many different variations you can take and the trip overview gives fantastic suggestions for campsites, burger joints, swimming holes, and an optional paddle in the Boundary Waters.
The route is best accessed between May and October and can easily be adapted to be anywhere from an overnighter to a 5-day epic week on the trail. If you go on this route, please take extra care in following leave-no-trace principles. There are many visitors to the National Forest and it’s important to preserve the outdoors for future generations.
My last suggestion? You guessed it.
Plan ahead and make sure to set up at least one or two campsite reservations.
Want more? Check out the adventure film, “Gitchi”, that we made of this trip to see our exact trip and the great experience that we had.