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Fall magic on the Gunflint Trail and the North Shore — planning the perfect autumn trip to Bearskin Lodge

Early October on East Bearskin Lake

Years ago, when we first became owners of beautiful Bearskin, fall was a very quiet season at the resort. A small group of savvy travelers, mostly couples, had discovered the secret that fall on the Gunflint Trail is the best season of the year, but being up north in autumn was not a “thing.”

As our summer staff gradually left, we mostly had the resort to ourselves. September and October were glorious times for our family to hike the trails, paddle our lakes, and watch for the re-emergence of moose and other wildlife. There weren’t many tourists in town, and we never had to wait for a seat at Trail Center or jockey for a parking place at a local shop. A handful of our cabins were booked by quiet couples who were enjoying the solitude of Bearskin just as much as we were, but we weren’t overly busy.

We often marvel at the idea that over Labor Day weekend in 2007, Quinn came up from college and helped Bob rebuild the dock for Cabin 3. There was so little going on at the resort that a noisy, pounding project was not an issue.

Those days are over. Fall has been discovered, in a big way, especially fall weekends. Cabins are booked non-stop; travelers flock to the Gunflint Trail and the North Shore. Restaurants are busy, often at a level matching peak summer season. Sunday “going home” traffic heading south can rival a Twin Cities rush-hour scene. Our secret best season has become ultra-popular.

None of that diminishes how perfect fall on the Gunflint Trail and the North Shore can be for getaway trips. When you’re here in a cabin during the fall, it’s stunningly beautiful and amazingly quiet. You’ll see wildlife that rarely appears in the summer and stars that reignite your sense of wonder about the universe. You’ll listen to the haunting calls of loons and wolves; follow moose, fox, and lynx tracks on the hiking trails; and, with a little luck, possibly see all of these remarkable creatures.

Lodge swing on a September day

So when is the best time to come to Bearskin in the fall?  Most people would answer that they want to be here “whenever the colors peak.” “Peak color” is an artificial concept, one that entirely drives the new fall tourist season. It shouldn’t; that day doesn’t actually exist. We have a long extended color season in NE Minnesota, due to a range of elevations and climate zones. The best color date will vary by many weeks from location to location. The truth is that the forest changes on a daily basis in the fall, and anytime from mid-September to mid-October will be colorful somewhere along your route to the north country.

On the Minnesota map below, Bearskin is located near the top of Zone 2. No matter where you’re starting from, the drive all the way to Bearskin will offer a variety of vibrant foliage for most of the fall season.

The climate is warmer near Lake Superior, so the leaves along the North Shore change later. As you gain altitude driving up the Gunflint Trail to Bearskin, cooler temps create earlier fall color changes. Color usually peaks during the last week of September on East Bearskin Lake, but the color begins to change in spots along the Gunflint Trail almost as soon as September starts. (Certain Gunflint Trail maples are famous locally for being the first to turn – if you come up near Labor Day, watch for these trees!)

There is a commonly held belief that the weekend closest to October 1 will always be the peak color dates. As a result, that weekend traffic can be obscenely busy all along the North Shore. Parking at the waterfall waysides extends far down Highway 61 and the hiking trails along the shore are mobbed (although the Gunflint hiking trails are not that way.) It’s true that the color is usually nice, but the trade-off is a quantity of people everywhere that might take some of the fun out of your trip. For perfect fall weather, we prefer the weekends before or the weekend after the popular October 1st busy date. Or come mid-week — this trending color obsession is a bit of a weekend thing.

You are always going to have a better fall trip if you can travel mid-week and indeed, in our experience the real “peak” has never occurred exactly on the weekend.  You will also have a nicer fall trip if you can avoid traveling home on Sunday afternoon on any fall weekend. Come Thursday, leave Monday, and you’ll never even notice there were busy days in between. If you have a flexible schedule, stay mid-week instead of the weekend. Mid-week in the fall is much like the autumns of our olden days – quiet, no restaurant waits, low traffic on the drive up and back. Of course, it never feels busy at Bearskin, but the quality of your trip up north is nicer if there is less traffic and fewer people.

Colorful leaves usually remain on the trees well into October up here, until the day we get a major windstorm. After the leafy trees lose their color, our tamaracks still display vivid shades of orange and yellow for much of the fall. All of fall is beautiful in its own way.

Tamaracks over Oxcart bog in mid-October

Once the leaves are gone from the trees, some of the finest days of fall begin. This is when the wildlife viewing is at its best, because you can see into the woods so much more. Moose are very active and often are much more visible. Grouse are everywhere. It’s easier to hear a wolf howl. And as the leaves fall from the trees, the improved visibility of the night sky to the north means that if the Aurora Borealis is active, there are more opportunities to snap a northern lights photo.

Fall moose photo from the Gunflint Trail by Nace Hagemann. See more of Nace’s fall moose photos here.

Fall usually becomes winter sometime in November, but we never really know for sure when that will happen. We have experienced November with 20 inches of snow and November when the temperatures felt more like early October. Anything is possible. We consider November to be a great undiscovered secret on the Gunflint Trail, along with May in the spring. This is when you get the great moose and wildlife pictures; this is when you truly feel the seclusion and serenity of our beautiful area.

Dreaming of a fall trip? Choose your date based on what’s most important for your ideal trip. If taking photos with peak color is your primary motivation to be here, the end of September may be the right time. It is also, by far, the busiest time on the entire North Shore, especially during whichever weekend is closest to October 1. If your goal is to experience more summer-like temps, but with cool nights and no bugs, then choose the end of August or the first half of September. (This is probably our family’s favorite time to enjoy this wonderful place — we can’t imagine why you aren’t all here then!) We always think the nicest summer days occur when everyone imagines summer is “over.”  If you are coming for pleasantly cool fall temperatures, vibrant landscapes, excellent hiking, and a chance of seeing a moose or other wildlife, all of October is great.

To help you plan, we regularly post availability updates here. Updates are posted somewhat erratically, but it is an easy way to get a fast, bigger picture of possible availability options. You can also use the “Check Availability” box in the upper right hand corner of the web page. This is usually accurate within a few days, but doesn’t have the flexibility that arranging dates with an actual human being often has. For the most current info and the best help, call us at (800) 338-4170 or email:  We’ll help you plan a fall trip to remember.