That smile is something I like to see on myself. It is how I know I'm doing things I love and that fill me with joy. I need adventure in my life.
I was prepared for a short hike to the main waterfall (High Falls) as the most tourist accessible location. The rest stop and grounds were well maintained and the paved trail in back lead towards the falls viewing area. Along the way I was able to make out Pine Siskin and several Golden-crowned Kinglets as well. I noted some viewing of the Pigeon River and planned to examine the waters more closely upon my return hike.
The Pigeon River and rocky edge of Canada. It is something with all of this talk of building a wall to the south and even with a good flow of water this river crossing would have been easy for most anyone really.
Some fun rock layers along the rivers edge I spotted. I always try to take time to the see the small things beyond just birds. The world is filled with wonder.
The paved segment eventually split towards the main falls and the middle falls hike. I followed the wooden decking to the right and quickly found Winter Wren singing on territory as I made my way toward some stairs that would position me for a great view of High Falls and Canada on the other side.
The water flow was excellent and the falls did not disappoint as the highest in the state. This short stroll is definitely viable for most all parties and was a lazy amble through some nice forest and river habitat.
High Falls showing some quality.
A bit of a different view showing the secondary rapids area as the water drops and then is pushed through a narrower area along the Pigeon River. Pretty awesome location to visit.
My species list was still a bit thin, but by this time I was sitting at May 17th and as far north on the shore as I could get without changing countries. I had out run migration for many species and actually later began to supplement my list with waterfowl with 9 total species.
After some pictures and a snap of the hiking club signage I returned to contemplate the middle falls hike I had read about online. The sign at the split indicated the trail was not an easy one and should be avoided by children for sure. With 1.75 miles each way and at least 300' of elevation gain and loss each direction this was certain to be a fun hike.
A sign I'm sure many skip over and as you will read below I came upon several that seemed to do just that. I may be short selling others, but don't do this if you don't regularly exercise and have the ability to go for 3 or more hours.
I got myself into full beastmode and started at a brisk pace. The trail was loaded with roots, muddy spots, some stairs of native rock and in other cases just a scramble up a steep slope with a few rocky perches to help along the way. I saw no others along the way and assumed if they were present I would have passed them rather quickly considering the challenge of this hike and my swift pace.
Yes, the shot on the left is the trail. At this point when coming up I was on hands and feet to keep from falling. The trail was loaded with these kinds of views or just a pure root laden section. Very little was just level ground with packed dirt.
After what felt like at least a mile or more of hiking I reached what appeared to be the peak elevation of the hike showing a view back to the south of the lake area. It was beautiful and even knowing you technically were facing a direction with a large road it was invisible in the view.
The excellent view of the lake from the peak of the Middle Falls trail. Well worth even just this distance honestly. It was a good workout and a nice payoff.
I quickly found what 300' of elevation gain feels like when done in just .5 miles. The sign I found just past peak indicated I had 1.25 miles to go until middle falls. Determine not to take a beating I threw myself into the next segment ready for downhill effort. This was easier going for the most part however at a relatively low point the forest trail turned into a soft muddy mess like making my way through the swamps of Mordor. Once segment went for at least 200 yards as I picked my way along the edges, hopped really soft sections, moved into the thicker woods in others, and generally zig-zagged the entire way. Soon things straightened out as I birded by ear for long segments, rarely pausing, knowing I needed to make time and ensure this hike didn't last 4 hours.
I was utterly alone in the wilderness of northern MN, though just a mile or so from humanity at any given time. These types of hikes really fill me with excitement and wonder. I'm a safety conscious kind of dude and don't feel I really enjoy solitude to the point of being the only human around for dozens of miles. I want to know that if something happens I'll be able to figure my way out within the day so this hike fit a lot of my personal criteria. I arrived to the falls after what felt like an eternity of hiking. It was fascinating with a challenging trail can really feel like when you toss in elevation fluctuations on the order of what this trail offers. It is important to know that High Falls will fill you with awe and Middle will seem very tame by comparison. It might be best to do Middle first and then come back for the big dog honestly.
The first view of Middle Falls after a nice long hike. Looks inviting until you read the signage closely posted above that the river is filled with bacteria and likely to make you sicker than a dog.
The middle falls trail is really more about the hike than anything. I did find it really funny when I arrived I could see a road and pull off on the Canada side of the border as if to say you just hiked over rough terrain when you could have just crossed and driven to the same point.
I rested for a short while making sure I was hydrated though the weather was mild enough that I was not sweating much out at the time. When I was ready to get back I for some reason decided it must be at a world beater type of pace. I put my camera away strapped the bins down and really tightened up the backpack and began to trail run. I have no idea why other than to say I really wish I could still run on a regular basis. More specifically I would love trail running and bouldering I think. My back has been doing very well since stopping full time running, but every now and then I just have to let the horses loose. I moved swiftly along the trail watching close my footfalls, grinning as I was sure I looked like a yeti moving about the north woods. I found myself slowing only for the swampy Mordor region and generally put some serious time down. Arriving back at the peak in what felt like a fraction of the time on the trip down. I was about to begin the trail run down when I happened upon an older gentlemen sitting on a rocky step. Asking if he planned the full hike he said it was the plan. I noted to myself he had zero water with him and the path was not friendly. I relayed what I could about the trail and recommended he reach the peak just behind me and look at the sign noting 1.25 miles left to go still. He was surprised by the distance remaining and I told him it was surprising and that anyone doing the trail should seriously consider if they have that much juice to do it all again when complete. I moved on and quickly found a group of 4 with a dog. Younger this time, but generally wearing beach/picnic attire and not a bottle of water amongst the group. I provided the same information and suggested a stop at the peak for a look at the view and then assess what they thought they could handle. Arrogance aside I told them was in peak condition with plenty of water and food should things go wrong. I also noted that I saw nobody else the entire time and doubted many hiked to the end this early in the season with the iffy trail conditions.
I set off down the mountain and began a rocky root laden run on par with one I loved at Harney Peak back in South Dakota. That hike and run down with Dave Bon was easily the best I have ever taken in my life. It was at my absolute best when it comes to running strength and I did that effort just 2 days after having hiking the entire peak for birding as well. (That hike is 1,100 feet of gain in 3.5 miles.) Perhaps the only other trail to match in quality and perhaps outstrip due to view was one Melissa and I took way back on our honeymoon while at Yosemite National Park. We did the Lower Yosemite Falls trail that gained about 1,100 feet of elevation and then returned due to time issues and opted to forgo the full 3,000 foot elevation gain over a 9 mile round trip hike. Just thinking about something that beastly stirs something deep within me that yearns to go back for those master level hikes. I must go back soon for some ultra beastmode.
Anyway, I moved very fast down the hill as I quickly came back to the trail split and flat ground finding myself making the return trip in just 35 minutes for a total of about 2 hours of hiking the trail. I was ravenous with hunger at this point having only snacked most of the morning after breakfast. I setup for a meal on the picnic tables off the parking lot and put as many calories in as I could thinking I could probably add a 3rd park on the day and ease my efforts for the next day. As I ate I noticed everyone I passed on the way back coming back to the parking lot. They had in fact turned around realizing the trail was more than they were prepared for. I was happy to perhaps saved them the trouble of getting in deeper than they could handle honestly.
After the meal with an American Crow watching me for cast off snacks and a Merlin making a racket from a nest nearby I wanted take a look at the Pigeon river and see if any birds were moving about in the slower segments of the river. Using my Nikon P900 a few times I pulled out both Teal species and even an American Black Duck hanging out with some Mallards. Belted Kingfisher seemed to be establishing ownership of the area as well as I continued to add county and park birds for my all time lists.
My visit to Grand Portage was certainly met with a couple of great quality waterfalls, but the greatest boon was the outstanding hike I was able to get from a park with very few trail segments. You never know what you're going to get and this park gave me more than I hoped for at the time. I have tried to balance extreme research with just enjoying the moment and surprise value of some locations. I knew the Middle Falls hike from a distance standpoint and I always prep beyond what is needed for a situation to ensure I stay safe, but it was still filled with surprise and fun.
The Great: I needed a serious hike and really loved the Middle Falls trail. Don't take this if you don't have the juice for a multi-hour hike with elevation changes and some rough trail scrabbling conditions. Worth it by far, but not for everyone. This is the kind of trail that is a 10 of 10 for me and like a 0 of 10 for my wife. You don't want to be tripping over your own feet or roots on something like this.
The Meh: Important to realize that this park has only a couple trails to take. You get the easy road to the high falls or the challenge route to the Middle Falls. With a bit of a stroll along the Pigeon River to finish you are not looking at a network of options to keep you busy all day.
The Verdict: At least visit this park for the High Falls. Birding is good and I'd like to see it at peak time frames to get a gauge for what kind of game it brings then. Just a great option for those wanting to go on an adventure and see the highest falls in the state. May be a relatively small park, but as day visits go this is pretty solid.