Encompassing three of the state’s largest lakes, plus the infant Mississippi River and thousands of acres of forest and wetland, the Chippewa National Forest is absolutely packed with recreational opportunities. Established in 1908, this preserve became the first national forest in the eastern United States. Well over half of the forest’s 667,000 acres are lakes, streams, and wetlands, including Leech Lake and Lake Winnibigoshish, the third- and fourth-largest lakes in Minnesota. In total there are 1,300 lakes within the forest boundaries. Most campgrounds sit lakeside, and there is accommodation for all tastes.
The Chippewa is home to one of the highest percentages of breeding bald eagles in the Lower 48, and most years there are about 180 pair. Federal Dam on Leech Lake, Winnie Dam on Lake Winnibigoshish, and Knutson Dam on Cass Lake are all productive fishing grounds for eagles and thus good places to spot them, especially during the winter since the churning water doesn’t freeze below the dams. The birds also frequently soar over the Mississippi, so a canoe trip or a drive along U.S. Highway 2 often yields sightings. Just about all other Northwoods wildlife resides in the forest, too, including osprey, common loon, northern goshawk, black-backed woodpecker, deer, pine marten, wolverine, fisher, black bear, bobcat, cougar, lynx, and wolf. In total, nearly 250 species of bird have been recorded here.
Towns within the forest—Walker is the largest—got their start as lumbering centers, but rely mostly on tourism these days. The Leech Lake Ojibwe Reservation sits within the forest, as does the north-south continental divide, also called the Laurentian Divide. Rain falling to the south of the line flows to the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi River, while water to the north enters the ocean via Hudson Bay. Historical sites include a CCC-era camp and several stands of old-growth pine, preserved by fortunate error and forward-thinking conservationists.
Recreation in Chippewa National Forest
The Chippewa has over 160 miles of trails for hikers with routes ranging in length from the half-mile walk around Elmwood Island to a 68-mile portion of the North Country National Scenic Trail, which stretches from New York to North Dakota. Most of the hiking trails in the forest (the North Country and Shingobee Trails are notable exceptions) are also open to off-road bicycles. Most are easy or moderate, though those looking for a challenging ride will find it—Suomi Hills is considered the most difficult mountain bike route in the forest.
There are also hundreds of miles of unpaved forest roads, most fairly rough, that bikers looking to get off the beaten path can explore at will; bring a map and compass. Snowmobilers can take advantage of 315 miles of groomed trails and many forest roads, including a third of the 148-mile Soo Line North Trail, the longest recreational trail for motorized vehicles in Minnesota, which connects Cass Lake to Moose Lake along an abandoned rail bed. There is good fishing across the state, but the Chippewa National Forest encompasses some of the best of the best. These nationally recognized fishing waters provide ideal habitat for a wide variety of species. Deep basins like Benjamin Lake, Bee Cee Lake, and Diamond Lake harbor rainbow and lake trout, while more shallow, nutrient-rich lakes, including Blackduck, Winnibigoshish, Cass, and Leech, are home to walleye, muskie, northern pike, bass, and panfish. Facilities and services for anglers abound throughout the forest, and there are seemingly as many bait shops as there are lakes. There are launch services on Leech Lake, Cass Lake, and Lake Winnibigoshish.
Canoeists and kayakers have loads of water to choose from, too. Nine designated routes of varying lengths and difficulties cover the forest’s largest lakes and most secluded streams. There’s a two-mile route on the slow-moving Shingobee River, highly recommended for families, while the Turtle and Mississippi are other easy paddles with good eagle-viewing opportunities. More-difficult routes follow the Big Fork River, which has some white water, and the 120-mile Chippewa Headwaters Loop connecting Lake Winnibigoshish, Leech Lake, and Cass Lake via the Mississippi and other waterways. Canoeing on the large lakes is dangerous in high winds, so use caution and get weather information before setting out. Many of the forest’s rivers have primitive campsites facilitating multi-day excursions.
Fall colors normally reach their peak around the third week in September. Call the Forest Service’s Fall Foliage Hotline (800/354-4595) to get the up-to-the-minute scoop.
Camping in Chippewa National Forest
The Chippewa has 21 campgrounds on or near the forest’s major lakes. Most are officially open May-September, and some allow access into November; however, there is no water or facilities available in the off-season. Each campsite has a picnic table, fire grate, tent pad, and parking spot. Beyond that, facilities vary, though three—Norway Beach, O-Ne-Gum-E, and Stony Point—have electric hookups, flush toilets, and showers. Nine of the larger, more developed campgrounds take reservations (877/444-6777, $9 nonrefundable fee). Camping rates in summer range $14-25, depending on how developed the campground is.
Nearly 400 “dispersed” backpacking sites are sprinkled throughout the forest. For more information on these free and typically very primitive options, as well as more-developed hike- and canoe-in sites, inquire at one of the district offices. Forest Service rules also permit you to camp anywhere on public land, as long as you’re 100 feet from any water source or trail and observe Leave No Trace outdoor ethics. Though registration isn’t required for backcountry camping, checking in at a ranger station is always a good idea, especially to find out about any current fire restrictions.
There are three ranger districts in the Chippewa: Walker, Blackduck, and Deer River. For convenience, the latter is divided into two areas. The Forest Headquarters (200 Ash Ave. NW, 218/335-8600 or 218/335-8632 TTY, 7:30am-5pm Mon.-Fri. May-Oct., 8am-4:30pm Mon.-Fri. Nov.-Apr.) in Cass Lake can give general information, but district offices and seasonal visitors centers are the best places to get advice.