Edge of the Wilderness Scenic Byway Phototour

October 9, 2016 at 1:48 pm | Posted in Highway Phototours | Leave a comment
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First Published Fall, 2001

MN 38 was authorized by the legislature in 1933, and runs from Grand Rapids, in the middle of a resort and logging area, to a sparsely settled area miles north of town. For most of it’s history it served primarily as a logging road. Although it is still used as such, with the growth of tourism in Minnesota it is now serving as a tourist attraction because of it’s scenic beauty (and being the home of Judy Garland.)

A number of years ago, MN 38 was designated the Edge of the Wilderness Scenic Byway, It was one of the first scenic byways designated in Minnesota, and the only one reckognized by all three of the state and national byways council and the national forest service. It is also one of the most promoted, At shelters at major entrances you can pick up a brochure listing information corresponding to numbered turnoffs along the route.


Mile 0: The Byway Begins:

Minnesota Route 38 and the byway begin at US 2 in Grand Rapids. Although you can’t see it, I’m standing in the parking lot of Blandin Paper, the town’s largest employer. Judy Garland grey up here, and the school she attended is now a museum and cultural center. Grand Rapids also marks the start of the Mesaba Iron Range, which supplied much of the steel to the US starting in the late 1800s and through both world wars.

The second photo is a closeup of first northbound reassurance shields for MN 38 and the byway in Grand Rapids. Signs that have been colored in, similar to the monument sign, are shown on official documents, so I think that they will eventually be installed on the road itself.

Note the motif of the eagle and evergreen trees, a theme repeated on other scenic byway highway markers. Both have become somewhat iconic of the state. Spotting eagles isn’t an everyday occurance, but if you live here long enough and travel, you’ll see a few of them. Evergreen trees are of course extremely common, although they’re only native to the northeast and virtually all of the old growth is gone. One of the best remaining old growth stands is in Scenic State Park, only a few miles from the byway.


Mile 3: Leaving Town

MN 38 passes by this lake on the north side of Grand Rapids.

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Mile 13: Chippewa National Forest

About 10 miles north of town, the byway enters Chippewa National Forest. Years ago the Chippewa Indians moved into this region from the eastern part of the continent, in the process driving the  Sioux out of the forests into the prairie.Eventually the boundary became near what is now I-94.

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Sidetrip: Camping in the Wilderness

By this time on my trip I had been driving all day from the cities (you can see how it’s getting dark in the previous pictures), and it was time to pull into camp for the night. This was at a State Forest campground. State and Forest campgrounds are typically just a gravel drive and a pair of latrines, but they’re inexpensive and usually in very attractive settings.

I’ve been camping about two dozen times, everywhere from among 20,000 people at Cornerstone Music Festival in the mud and heat of downstate Illinois over the fourth, to having to scrape ice off my tent during a backpacking trip on the Superior Hiking Trail, to canoeing in both the BWCA and Quetico. I’ve tried camping alone a few times, this being the first.

As much as I like to think of myself as an outdoors person, I can’t say I really like the experience. It’s OK with friends in remote areas, or at Cornerstone, but if a motel is an option I’d rather do that. If the goal is to save a few bucks, camping is simply not worth the hassle. As it turns out here I I brought all sorts of food along I planned to cook for breakfast, but never could get a fire going and drove back to the McDonalds in Grand Rapids.

2016 Update: And 15 years later Cornerstone Festival is done, I travel with my sister who has zero interest in camping, have more money, and I’m not as young as I once was, so I’ve camped for the last time


Mile 23: Laurentian Divide

Besides the major continental divide in the west, there are an number of smaller ones. This hill marks the Laurentian divide. Water to the left flows to the Gulf of Mexico, and water to the right flows to Hudson Bay. In many places along the byway, including here, there are pullouts or waysides at points of interest.


Mile 30: Rolling Road

One of the straighter sections, but indicative of the many little dips along the road.

The forest of birch and young pines is very typical for northeastern Minnesota. Originally northeastern Minnesota was covered with towering red and white pines, but around the turn of the century loggers cleared virtually every last one. Farmers moved in and attempted to make a living, but the acidic soil which is good at growing coniferous trees is terrible at growing crops, and the farms were abandoned.

“Weed” trees like birch and aspen grew up, and are slowly being replaced by white pine and spruce. Red pines, however, need fire to grow, and since fires are still artificially supressed they haven’t made a comeback.

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Mile 39: Bigfork

Bigfork, population 469, is the only incorporated town along the byway.  Like the rest of the area, it got it’s start and still primarily functions as a base for logging, but is trying to diversify into tourism. Not the fieldstone accents on the bridge, to match fieldstone accents on other structures along the byway.

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Sidetrip: Scenic State Park

Bigfork is the turnoff to visit Scenic State Park. The 3,000 acre park, which was originally to be called Sandwick Lake, was created in 1921 out of land that was predominantly state-owned. The park contains one of the few remnants of old growth forest remaining in the state.

Scenic is one of the best units in the state park system. It’s large and unique enough to be worthy of a state park (unlike Monson Lake), not overcrowded (unlike Interstate), and has worthwhile scenery (unlike William O’brien).  It’s going to stay serene and seculded too, as most of the land surrounding the park is also owned by the state and federal governments, and the distance precludes day trips from the metro.

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Mile 47: The Byway Ends

This whimsical scupture in the town of Effie, made of a culvert and rebar, pays homage to the unnofficial Minnesota state bird, the mosquito. If you must know, yes they’re bad up here, but like Seattle’s rain or Florida’s humidity, they’re just something that you get used to that comes with the territory.

The second photo shows the ending of the byway; the mosquito is in a park off to the left. This photo, taken just a few weeks after the 9/11 attacks is a personal favorite of mine. Showing flags flying even in this remote corner of the country, it somehow captures the essence of America.

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