The Centennial Trail is much more than a moderately challenging two-hour hike. It's an opportunity to trek into a different time, when people paused here not for scenery, but because they thought they'd find their fortune.
I set out on the 3.3-mile loop near the end of the Gunflint Trail, trail brochure in hand. The brochure promises me "poignant reminders of the struggles and accomplishments of bygone eras." According to a large interpretive sign in the parking lot, this quiet stand of balsam fir and spruces hosted a mining camp and railroad in the 1890s.
If You Go
The Centennial/Kekekabic trailhead is 50 miles up the Gunflint Trail, outside of Grand Marais. Those traveling from Grand Marais should watch for a brown Superior National Forest sign for Kekekabic/Centennial trails and a small parking lot.
Hikers should remember it's against federal law to remove any artifact, such as railroad nails, found along the trail. If you do see artifacts, please report their location to the Gunflint ranger station.
Some artifacts, including brick and pottery, discovered by Superior National Forest archaeologists after the Ham Lake fire are on display at the Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center, eight miles farther up the Gunflint Trail. It's open every day, Memorial Day weekend through mid-October.
Wear sturdy shoes to hike the rolling, rocky trail. Carry drinking water. No camping is allowed. No permit is needed unless you continue on the Kekekabic Trail into the BWCAW. Learn more online or call the Gunflint Ranger District at 218-387-1750. GPS users can download a GPX file of the trail at the website.
Nineteenth-century miners might not recognize today's forest. As I crest the slight rise leading out of the parking lot, I emerge from a copse of spruce trees into a regenerating forest characterized by charred tree trunks, pine seedlings, and brilliant green undergrowth sprouting in the wake of the 2007 Ham Lake wildfire, which burned more than 75,000 acres in northeastern Minnesota and Ontario.
Creation of a new trail.
This stark landscape allowed U.S. Forest Service staff to rediscover the Paulsen Mine story. The fire exposed mine pits, artifacts, and a rail bed, which had been hidden by dense boreal forest for more than 100 years. In November 2007, Superior National Forest wilderness ranger Tom Kaffine and a group of other U.S. Forest Service officials used GPS to map out the newly visible vestiges of the old mine. When Kaffine told his wife what a shame it would be for the history to disappear again as the forest grew back, she made a suggestion: Why not build a trail?
As Superior National Forest celebrated its centennial in 2009, forest officials wanted a new trail to commemorate the anniversary. Kaffine's trail proposal quickly received approval. The Centennial Trail officially opened in spring 2010.
The Centennial loop begins on the eastern end of the Kekekabic Trail, a minimally maintained 40-mile wilderness hiking trail that runs from the Gunflint Trail through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to Ely. After 1.2 miles, hikers turn off the Kekekabic onto a new path—roughly following a section of abandoned rail bed from the mining heydays—then loop back to the parking lot on a snowmobile trail segment.
Hike into history.
About a mile down the trail, I encounter the first in a series of test mine pits. I peer over the wooden guard rail into the pits' murky depths and find that in the years since miners dug here to test for iron, gold, silver, and nickel, the pits have filled with aqua-colored water, as well as fallen leaves and branches. Until that 2007 wildfire, only one mine pit was visible to hikers on the Kekekabic. Now hikers can gaze down five test pits, one of which is thought to be 70 feet deep.
Along with mine pits, the wildfire also revealed several glacial erratics, boulders moved by glaciers, which perch on ridges that the trail borders. Since fire removed the tree canopy, sunshine now floods the area and wildflowers flourish. In spring, violets and wood anemones dot the trailside. Autumn offers a palette of the brilliant colors of aspen, dogbane, goldenrod, and large-leaved aster.
With plenty of scenery to keep my camera busy as I hike, it's not until I reach the trail's trickiest portion that my mind focuses on the trail's human history. Just past the halfway point, the narrow path heads straight down a cliff so steep that I creep down gingerly. As I make my descent, I grab at anything beside the trail that looks like it might support me, including saplings and boulders, while extending my leg out to search for the next stable ledge with my toe.
When at last I reach the bottom, I stare up. I'm not the first person to struggle crossing this valley. More than 100 years ago, when railroad workers surveyed this terrain, they decided the only way to make it past the valley was to construct a 500-foot-long, 80-foot-high trestle over it.
There's iron in those hills.
The trestle served the Port Arthur, Duluth, and Western (PAD&W) Railway. An ill-fated operation, it was nicknamed "Poverty, Agony, Distress and Want" by locals. J.A. Paulsen and a group of Minneapolis businessmen convinced PAD&W to extend the railroad, running out of what is today Thunder Bay, Ontario, into the United States to iron ore deposits in the cliffs just west of Gunflint Lake. Propaganda stated: "The Gun Flint Range is without exception the most promising iron depository in the northern part of the fair state of Minnesota."
The Paulsen Camp, also known as Gunflint City, was built on the shores of a small lake near the mine site. But the train made only one trip out of the Paulsen Mine in 1893, removing, according to local legend, enough ore for a single horseshoe. Just months after its opening, a wildfire severed the tracks west of Gunflint Lake, and the mine closed permanently.
"It's a sad tale," says Superior National Forest naturalist Steve Robertsen. "These people were really living out there. It seemed like they really believed they were staying. We've found bricks out there, and you wouldn't use bricks if you were staying temporarily. You'd use logs."
Many factors influenced the mine's failure. While rail workers toiled to lay track in the Gunflint hills, other workers farther west were building railroads into the far more plentiful and profitable ore deposits in Minnesota's Mesabi Range. The Financial Panic of 1893 further dashed investors' hopes. Historians have also located financial documents that seem to indicate the mine could have simply been a scam.
The brochure I grabbed at the trailhead contains not only a trail map but also historical maps and in-depth explanations of the mine pits, railroad course, trestle, and recent natural events, all laid out in the order of interpretive waypoints encountered along the hike. Numbered posts mark the location of each waypoint.
By the time I reach the snowmobile trail that connects me back to the parking area, I've passed through a 120-year-old rock cut, seen firsthand the effects of both the 2007 wildfire and a 1999 windstorm, and stopped at several scenic overlooks. One vista looks over a deep valley filled with pine seedlings and beaver ponds and framed by pine-covered cliffs. The western edge of Gunflint Lake glints two miles off. Here hikers can pause to soak up the dramatic landscape of lakes and cliffs. Kaffine and Robertsen say they hope visitors remember the wilderness they're gazing on has been shaping human lives for hundreds of years.