Monday, April 29, 2013

North Shore Waterfalls: Stay close to shore

Signs warning Gooseberry Falls visitor
Just in the last few days, the waterfalls of the North Shore, from Duluth to Grand Portage, have shed their curtains of ice and are starting to roar. Record late snowfall will feed these falls for weeks to come as the woods slowly release their snowy load.

River ice from the Gooseberry pushed up against an old cedar
The ice on the rivers must have just broken up in the last week. Along the banks of the Gooseberry River today, foot-thick chunks of river ice were piled up against the ancient cedar trees that hold the banks against the milky flood. 

Unfortunately for us fans of waterfalls, it will be tough going to see these torrents up close. The snowpack still reaches all the way to the lakeshore. At Gooseberry Falls State Park, where at least a foot of snow is found in the woods around the visitor center and much more inland, signs warn visitors to the most popular falls to use ice cleats (and "CAUTION"). 

How do I know?
I decided this morning to check out one of my favorite North Shore waterfall hikes. It's Hike #17 in my book Hiking the North Shore: 50 Fabulous Day Hikes in Minnesota's Spectacular Lake Superior Region. It's a three-mile hike that runs up one side of and down the other of the Gooseberry River, bringing you to all five of the park's main waterfalls.

Upper Falls, Gooseberry River
It was easy going on the wide paved path as far as Upper Falls, the blocky fall right above Highway 61. Then it got snowy. And slushy. And wet.

Andrew on Fifth Fall Bridge
Slippy through the slush along the southwest bank, I made it all the way to Fifth Falls, where I crossed the river on the incredibly scenic footbridge. The northeast bank of the river had more sunshine on it and was a bit less snowy. And a bit more muddy. It was tough going.

Other parks, same story
This pattern of snowy slushy hiking on North Shore waterfall hike is true all the way up the shore. The snow gets deep fast as soon as you head inland from the lake and from Highway 61. Another favorite waterfalls hike, the Split Rock River loop on the Superior Hiking Trail, is probably deep in wet snow along the west side of the river.

For the best waterfall hiking on the North Shore this week, stick close to the lake and on well-used paths. If you have cleats for your shoes, strap them on; last thing you want is to slip off the well-packed trail down the gorge and into the just-melted river water rushing away.

Broken up river ice below Middle Falls, Gooseberry River
In Gooseberry, the basic trail around Middle and Lower Falls is in decent shape. People were strolling around in shorts and sneakers, despite the warnings. The famous Middle Falls is as scenic as anything else in the park. The stacked-up pile of broken-up river ice near the base of the falls shows the power of the river at break-up. At Cascade River State Park, the short loop around the lower river is good for hiking, with some mud and some occasional ice spots.

So you should definitely go check out some North Shore waterfalls this week or next. By the time the great hiking trails dry up, the waterfalls might have dried up too.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

North Shore ski season: Sudden death overtime

At the Piedmont Ski Trail overlook, April 3, 2013
All good things must come to an end. Eventually, this amazingly late North Shore ski season will be over. But not yet. I skied three kilometers this afternoon on Duluth's Piedmont Ski Trail, and it was basically pretty okay. There is a lot of snow in the woods. As long as the night time temps keep going below freezing, we'll have skiing. But all it will take is a heavy rain or a few days in the fifties, and it will be over.

Here are a few updates for the committed North Shore skier:

City of Duluth trails
The city crews stopped grooming early last week. Positive reports are still coming in from Lester and Piedmont. 

Boulder Lake Ski Trails
The good folks at Minnesota Power are still out grooming the trails.  According to their phone hotline, skate lanes are in good shape. For the most recent updates, find "Boulder Lake Ski Trails" out on Facebook.

Sugarbush Trails
Up in Lutsen and Tofte, they're still grooming their terrific trails. Their reports say Fair to Good for virtually the whole system.

As for me, I'm out of here. For the next 10 days, we're off to explore the desert canyon country again. When we're back, the trails will all be mud and energy bar wrappers. I am done. My good ski season has in fact come to an end.