Minnesota Scenic Drive: Edge of the Wilderness

By: Melissa Arnold

Minnesota’s Edge of the Wilderness drive celebrates northern hospitality, hometown pride, and the treasures of our natural heritage. Minnesota, midway between America's east and west coasts, is home to 12,000 lakes. It is filled with beautiful country and all the pleasures of the four seasons.

The Edge of the Wilderness is the rustic slice of this great state, with more than 1,000 lakes and one mighty river, the Mississippi, all in landscapes of remarkable natural beauty. There are still more trees than people here, offering classic North Woods seclusion.


The Edge of the Wilderness begins in Grand Rapids with meadows and lakes and winds through mixed hardwoods and stands of conifers and aspens in the Chippewa National Forest. Rounding bends and cresting hills, you will find breathtaking views that, during the fall, are ablaze with the brilliant red of sugar maples, the glowing gold of aspen and birch, and the deep bronze of oak.

The Edge of the Wilderness route offers some of Minnesota's most popular sporting and resorting opportunities in its unique environment of clear lakes, vast shorelines, and hills blanketed in hardwood forests and northern pines. Recreation seekers will find hiking, camping, fishing, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling within the byway corridor. You will find that you are really living on the "edge."

Historical Qualities of the Edge of the Wilderness

At the height of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt formed the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to provide jobs and restore the environment. CCC camp crews often were called the Tree Army. They were responsible for planting more than two billion trees across the United States in nine years. Other tasks included road construction; site preparation; surveys of lakes, wildlife, and streams; and even rodent control.

The Day Lake CCC Camp was one of 20 camps established in Minnesota during the Great Depression. Day Lake was the only camp in the forest to host African-Americans in the segregated CCC program, and was one of only six that lasted past the CCC era; it became one of four camps in the Chippewa National Forest that housed German prisoners of war during World War II (1943-1945).

Today, on the west side of Highway 38 are the remains of a concrete shower. East of the highway and up the hill are the outside stone stairway and a chimney that are remnants of the camp mess hall. Many old camp foundations and sites are also visible. After its closing, much of the Day Lake CCC Camp was replanted with red pine, hiding many of the signs of its history.

Natural Qualities of the Edge of the Wilderness

Aspen, birch, pines, balsam fir, and maples blanket the rolling uplands of the forest along the Edge of the Wilderness. In between these trees, water is abundant, with more than 1,000 lakes, 920 miles of rivers and streams, and 150,000 acres of wetlands.

The forest landscape is a reminder of the glaciers that covered northern Minnesota some 10,000 years ago. From the silent flutter of butterflies to the noisy squeal of wood ducks, and from the graceful turn of deer to the busy work of raccoons and beavers, this place of peace is bustling with activity. Many travelers try to identify the laugh of the loon, the honk of the goose, and the chorus of sparrows, red-winged blackbirds, goldfinches, and crickets.

Look skyward to glimpse an eagle, turkey vulture, or osprey. There are more bald eagles on the Edge of the Wilderness than any other part of the lower 48 states. An eagle nest may measure up to ten feet in diameter and weigh 4,000 pounds.

Minnesota has the greatest number of timber wolves in the lower 48 states as well. (They are considered a threatened but not an endangered species in Minnesota.) Less often seen but still present in the area are coyotes, bears, and moose. White-tail deer, ruffed grouse, and waterfowl offer good hunting and wildlife viewing opportunities as well.

During the autumn and spring, woody white stands of birch lace the forest floor along the Edge of the Wilderness. If you are a longtime resident or resort vacationer, you may no longer notice this phenomenon. But to newcomers, the question arises, "What happened to make all these trees fall to the ground?"

Paper birch trees, which live only 40 to 80 years, are found throughout Minnesota's northern woodlands. As late as the 1900s, Chippewa nations in the north built birch bark canoes. They also used birch to create torches. Early settlers prepared birch for railroad ties for the trains that edged northward.

In today's economy, birch is used as lumber and firewood and for veneers. Birch also contributes nutrients to the forest floor and has served as food for various insects. Stands of birch often begin to grow after a fire, windstorm, or timber harvest. Another reason so many birch trees lay on the ground is that birch loses out to the taller-growing aspen as both sun-loving species compete. Along the Highway 38 corridor, you can see how birch trees topple due to competition from other trees, disease, and insects, as well as from northern Minnesota's light soils.

Recreational Qualities of the Edge of the Wilderness

Following World War II, northern Minnesota's tourist and resort industry grew rapidly. Itasca County had a peak of about 300 resorts in the 1940s and 1950s. Today, there are approximately 100 resorts and vacation sites in the area, many vacationers returning year after year.

North Star Lake -- at more than three miles long and about 1/2 mile wide -- is considered one of the best fishing and recreational lakes in the area. It is representative of many of the lakes on the Edge of the Wilderness, with its scenic beauty, islands and bays, clear waters, and recreational offerings. The still-visible remnants of the railroad trestle provide good habitat for the lake's many fish. The lake is 90 feet deep and is managed for muskie. Visitors also catch walleye (the state fish of Minnesota), northern pike, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, bluegills, and crappies.

This map of Minnesota's Edge of the Wilderness will take you to countless opportunities for recreation in gorgeous natural settings.

With a wingspan of more than six feet, keen vision, and white head and tail feathers, the bald eagle is truly a magnificent bird. People often make a special trip to the Chippewa National Forest just to observe bald eagles. Spending time along the shorelines of the forest's larger lakes is the best way to treat yourself to the sight of an eagle in flight.

Large, fertile lakes; towering red and white pines; and remote areas provide ideal nesting and feeding habitat for bald eagles. Nesting birds return in late February and early March, though a few birds spend the entire winter in the forest. Eggs are laid in early April, and the young eagles leave their lofty nests in mid-July. Eagles occupy their breeding areas until the lakes freeze over.

The best opportunity for viewing bald eagles is from a boat; in fact, one of the best opportunities to see eagles is to canoe down the Mississippi River. You can search the lakeshore with binoculars to spot eagles that are eating fish on the beaches. These birds of prey often perch in trees found around the larger lakes, such as Bowstring. The Bigfork River is also a favorite eagle area.

However, if you do not have a boat, you can simply find an area along the beach with a good panoramic view of the lake. Campgrounds, picnic areas, and boat landings are good places to visit.

Find more useful information related to Minnesota's Edge of the Wilderness:

  • Minnesota Scenic Drives: The Edge of the Wilderness is just one of the scenic byways in Minnesota. Check out the others.
  • How to Drive Economically: Fuel economy is a major concern when you're on a driving trip. Learn how to get better gas mileage.


Highlights of the Edge of the Wilderness

Fall is an excellent time to drive the Edge of the Wilderness. The birch trees put on a splendid show.

What makes the Edge of the Wilderness unique is its rich and wide variety of upper Minnesota terrain, vegetation, wildlife, and history. While some elements are fairly common in other areas, no other route exposes travelers to so much variety in such a short distance along such a beautiful and accessible corridor. The Edge of the Wilderness is definitely a road to take slowly in order to enjoy the scenery of forests and meadows.

On the outskirts of Grand Rapids, the corridor begins to hint at the landscape to come. At first, the route is flat and flanked by mixed lowland meadows, swamps, and lakes. Very quickly, however, the corridor leaves most signs of the city and begins its rolling journey through mixed hardwoods and stands of conifers with aspen. With so many curves and hills, the corridor hides from view many memorable scenes until the traveler is upon them. Seemingly innocent turns in the road yield eye-popping surprises.


The terrain continues in this way for half its length until the town of Marcell, where the terrain flattens slightly and offers more conifers. Between Bigfork and Effie, the corridor's terminus, the landscape introduces lowland wetlands, a flatter landscape that served as the bed of glacial Lake Agassiz thousands of years ago. Surrounding forests continue to contain aspen and lowland conifers such as jack pine and spruce.

A visitor to the Edge of the Wilderness could simply travel the route without stopping to take advantage of its recreational and interpretive opportunities, yet still leave with many vivid memories of the corridor. The byway hugs the terrain, rising above lakes and then sloping down to meet their shores before rising up again through the trees and down into wetlands.

Throughout the southern half of the route, maples, paper birch, and quaking aspen branches provide a canopy that envelops travelers in the lush forest. During the fall color season, the corridor displays bright red sugar maples, warm gold birch and aspens, and maroon red oaks. After the leaves have fallen and the ground is covered with snow, the forest opens up and offers new opportunities to see the terrain and spy on wildlife.

The Edge of the Wilderness officially begins at Grand Rapids, Minnesota. The byway proceeds north with sites of interest marked consecutively as follows.

Grand Rapids: Grand Rapids is in a historic logging and paper-making region. It is named for its strong rapids on the Mississippi River. Other waterways, including lakes, and forests help make Grand Rapids recreational opportunities great.

Lind Greenway Mine: The Lind Greenway Mine is a historic iron mine. Here you can find a mountain-size tailing of rock, soil, and iron ore fragments, reaching some 200 feet in the air.

Black Spruce/Tamarack Bog Habitat: Black Spruce/Tamarack Bog Habitat is one of the largest and most mature bogs in the area. It began forming here some 16,000 years ago when the last of four glaciers covered this part of Minnesota.

Trout Lake and Joyce Estate: The Trout Lake area offers 11 lakes for outdoor enthusiasts. While fishing, visitors are likely to see loons, herons, and beavers. Joyce Estate is an impressive 1920s estate in the Trout Lake area.

Day Lake CCC Camp: Day Lake CCC Camp has a long and varied history of use as both a Depression-era work camp and a German POW camp during World War II.

Laurentian Divide: On the north side of this site, the divide directs the waters to empty into Hudson Bay and on to the Arctic Ocean. On the south, water flows into the Mississippi River and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico.

Scenic Overlook at North Star Lake: Years ago, loggers cut down trees around this potato-shape lake during winter then floated them downstream when the temperature rose.

Chippewa National Forest Ranger Station: The Chippewa National Forest encompasses 1.6 million acres of forest and lakes, providing ample opportunities for an outdoor adventurer.

Gut and Liver Line: Make a stop here to view the remnants of old lumbering operations. Locals share several possible tales about this line on the Minneapolis and Rainy River Railroad.

Nature-lovers, take note: the Edge of the Wilderness will give you a taste of the North Woods you're sure to treasure. But don't rule out this route if you're not an angler, a hiker, or a camper -- there's plenty to see and enjoy from the view out your car window, including bald eagles galore and fall foliage that can't be beat.

Find more useful information related to Minnesota's Edge of the Wilderness:

  • Minnesota Scenic Drives: The Edge of the Wilderness is just one of the scenic byways in Minnesota. Check out the others.
  • How to Drive Economically: Fuel economy is a major concern when you're on a driving trip. Learn how to get better gas mileage.