January–February 2024

Bucket List

Visit the Lost 40 SNA

Large white pines dominate the winter landscape at this tract of old-growth forest.

Carolyn Howell

It was a quiet January morning, and we had the trail to ourselves. My parents, my siblings, and I were on a mission to recreate a family photo beside one of the largest white pine trees in the forest. One winter a decade earlier, my family had visited the Lost 40 Scientific and Natural Area for the first time. Hidden within the 660,000 acres of the Chippewa National Forest in north-central Minnesota, this 114-acre patch of woods holds some of the last old-growth forest in the state. Many of the red and white pines are over 200 years old, and some boast trunks nearly 4 feet in diameter. At the time of our first visit, we were a gaggle of boisterous and quick-tempered children with more interest in snow fights than the historic pines. 

I remembered that the trees were tall, but on our return visit I saw it wasn’t just my childhood memory. Even now, their sheer size was impressive. When we found the white pine shown in our decade-old photo, it took at least three of us to circle the towering trunk with our arms. Over 100 feet above us the snowy branches spread under the clouds, creating a patchwork of blue-and-white sky. Posing awkwardly in our winter gear and squinting into the sun, we took our photo.

Dispersing down the trail, we explored the forest, stopping to read trailside signs and guessing at the height and breadth of the surrounding pines. Pine forests are a common sight in Minnesota, but this one was different. Untouched and unassuming, the Lost 40 is a living snapshot of the past.

Pausing at a bench beside the trail, I sat with my head propped back and watched the interplay of the branches around me. Towering pines and firs stood with aspens all the way down to the frozen creek below. An 1882 survey error saved the Lost 40 from clear-cut logging—what would this view look like if things had been different? For now, that didn’t matter. I walked back through the snowy forest and rejoined my family. As we bundled back into the car, I wished for a moment that all the world was snow and ancient pines. 

Plan Your Trip

  • The Lost 40 Scientific and Natural Area is located in Itasca County, 53 miles north of Grand Rapids off Highway 26 on forest road 2240, also known as Lost 40 Road, near Northome. This gravel forest road is maintained, but winter weather may affect its conditions. 
  • A 1-mile interpretive trail loop, maintained by the U.S. Forest Service on both national forest and state SNA land, lends itself perfectly to birdwatching, snowshoeing, and hiking expeditions in all seasons. The terrain can be more challenging in winter, but it suits adventurers of many skill levels. A shorter and flatter quarter-mile loop on Forest Service land will take you past several of the largest tree.
  • Vault restrooms and limited parking are located at the Forest Service trailhead, but drinking water and garbage facilities are not provided. Plan accordingly and pack out your garbage.
  • Camping, campfires, motorized activity, rock collecting, and plant harvesting are not allowed at SNAs. Get directions and more information about the Lost 40 SNA at mndnr.gov/snas/sna01063.