Planning a trip can seem daunting in a time where health and safety guidelines are just as dynamic as the weather. Fewer and fewer places seem like viable options—yet we all want to get away. Minnesota’s North Shore offers wide open spaces and stunning visuals—and a lot more. There’s built-in social distance; they were doing it before it was cool. Let’s take this outdoors and see what the North Shore’s Cook County is offering for a winter retreat.
Winter is typically an event-packed season for Cook County. Skiers and snowboarders hit the slopes in Lutsen, and a bustling community plays host to wintertime tourists 20 miles to the north, in Grand Marais. 2020 took a hit in the events department—they’re down but they’re not out.
For winter cyclists, the North Shore offers everything from miles of single-track trails, to powder-filled fat-tire bike trekking to keep you pedaling through the season.
Kjersti Vick, marketing & public relations director for Visit Cook County told me about some recent adjustments to their trail system. “The Norpine System, which is in the Lutsen area, is vast trail network…the trails go from right around Lutsen Mountain Ski Resort, to Cascade Lodge (in Grand Marais)—really excellent trails, previously only open for traditional cross-country skiing, now open to fat-tire-bikers and dog-friendly skiing.”
In January, the Norpine classic—a fat bike race spanning the lion’s share of the Norpine system—returns for its 5th running. The race is scheduled to go ahead, however specifics have been with withheld until the month of the race to ensure up-to-date COVID considerations can be implemented. For $50, you can try your luck against the weather—and your own endurance.
Competing in front of a much smaller crowd—but competing nonetheless, are two of the most legendary contests of the North: The John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, and the Gunflint Mail Run. Organizers are asking for limited spectators and responsible gathering for the January races. “I think the way for people to really be involved and see that race first hand is to volunteer, because they do need some volunteers for both of those [races],” said Linda Jurek, executive director of Visit Cook County.
Fast days and dark nights.
Nothing follows a busy day like a still night. With the Boundary Waters designated the 13th Dark Sky Sanctuary in the world, you’ll find yourself deep in the darkness of night. “We have the darkest night sky east of the Mississippi in the U.S., and that means that we have excellent stargazing,” according to Vick.
“Two years ago, we started the Dark Sky Festival, which has different components—speakers and presentations… we obviously can’t do it this year, but we’re still encouraging people to come and experience the dark sky.” COVID or not, the northern lights and the Milky Way are sure to deliver a dazzling, three-dimensional diversion.
Cook County is a great place to put in the hours. About half of the residential properties in Cook County are owned by individuals living outside of the county. “Many people, as they were forced to work from home, came to their property here,” Jurek told Lavender. “Now, because of the change in how we work—working from home, [people] are going ‘wait a minute, I can work in northeastern Minnesota, sit in the middle of the boreal forest, have full Wi-Fi connection,’ because we have incredible broadband, better than some of the suburbs of the cities.” “We’re seeing an influx of people choosing to make this their home base.”
Cook County is open. Hotel rooms, Airbnbs, actual bnbs—they’ve got lodging covered. Food delivery is less available than in the city, but COVID-safe dining options are plentiful. You can get a taste of northern Minnesota culture, or you can get a pizza or a hamburger. You’re on vacation, after all.
Remember to gear up before you go. You’re heading into the tundra so you’ll want to act like it. You can rely on outfitters in Cook County for rental equipment and adventure planning, but there are certain items that should come to the shore with you. “In terms of what you want to wear and bring, wool is going to be your best friend. You’re going to want wool or some kind of warm base-layers,” vick told me. “And if you don’t already have it, our local shops up here are chock full of that kind of stuff. And this is stuff that’s been tested by the owners and the employees of the shops.”
The best resource for planning a trip to Cook County is their website, www.visitcookcounty.com. You’ll find their calendar of events, maps, lodging information, and lot more. The website also offers a “winter packing list” that makes sure you’re prepared for your own trip to the north.