Drive through the Canal Park area of Duluth, cross over the aerial lift bridge, and keep driving to the parking lot outside Sky Harbor Seaplane Base’s restricted area. Minnesota Point, otherwise known by natives as Park Point, does not stop there. The Park Point Recreational Trail begins where the roadway ends. Park your car and get ready to hike.
The Park Point Recreational Trail is a non-motorized, non-equestrian trail which extends about two miles to the end of Minnesota Point and loops back. You will not meet motorcyclists, dirt bikes, or ATVs on this trail. Along the way to the trail end, the Superior Entry to Superior Bay, you will see abandoned historical places and lots of natural beauty. On an April afternoon in 2010, my family hiked the trail. Photos of our visit to the Point may be seen in my slide show.
We ascended the sand dunes on wooden steps with a fenced off area on either side of us. The fences and stairs have been constructed in an attempt to prevent beach grasses and other erosion control plantings from being trampled. These plantings by the Park Point Community Club include American beach grass, juniper bushes, wild roses, sand cherries, and spirea. White and red pine as well as Juneberry trees were also planted back from the beach area. Minnesota Point has been fighting a battle against Lake Superior’s most violent weather and the consequent beach erosion since the sand bar formed a thousand or so years ago.
Once you crest the top of the dunes, you see the lake. On calm days, the water is deep blue. On windy days, white-capped waves rush toward the shore. You can see how far inland Lake Superior has pressed by where the line of small and large pieces of smooth wave-polished driftwood and stones lie. Much of the swimming and sunbathing during the hottest summer days is done further down the beach toward the beach house and ball fields. You may occasionally find a few sunbathers here near the beach trail. Since Lake Superior can have rip tides, the better place to swim is where the lifeguard is stationed near the beach house in the Park Point Recreational Area.
We chose to start our hike on the sand beach portion of the Park Point trail. A few other hikers were strolling on the beach. One barefooted jogger ran by us, his dog on a leash. My advice would be to walk barefooted on this section of the trail. Sand can get into your shoes and, in the right conditions, cause blisters, as I discovered by the end of the hike.
Be sure to put your shoes back on before walking into the forested or grassy areas. Another natural problem Park Pointers have been fighting for years is the abundance of poison ivy on Minnesota Point. According to Janet E. Olson’s “Minnesota Point Time Line,” in 1935, the WPA burned gigantic piles of poison ivy workers collected from the Superior Entry to 26th Street. Other mentions of attempts to eradicate this noxious weed by spraying may be seen in 1948, 1958, and1959. In 1955, Boy Scouts helped to plant 8000 pine seedlings on the Point. Afterward, many reported having poison ivy rashes. There are reports by web site bloggers about their encounters with Park Point poison ivy. A few signs are posted warning about the plant.
The beach sand became difficult to hike through, so we took a path up to the trail which led toward what is called the “Old Growth Pine Forest.” When we reached the modern pumping station buildings to our left which supply water to Cloquet and Superior, the trail was quiet with little foot traffic. To our right, the fence surrounding the Sky Harbor airstrip came to an end.
Then we were among the tall red and white pines of the “Old Growth Pine Forest.” This forest is one of the reasons this part of Park Point has been designated a protected Scientific and Natural Area by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. A 1996 study of pines in the “Old Growth Pine Forest” by the DNR indicated some to have had their beginnings in 1798. A separate study in 1966 by Davidson and Bernard found some of the white pine samples to have begun around 1766. The “Old Growth Pine Forest” trail section was a peaceful hike.
The next manmade structure was a white cabin to our right overlooking Superior Bay. The name on the placard above the door said “Pine Knot.” The cabin was locked up tight and we did not wish to trespass. I later discovered through my research the cabin was built on Minnesota Point in 1900 by a former mayor of Superior. In 1927, it passed into the hands of the Pollock family. The land on which it sits belongs to Superior Water, Light, and Power Company. In 1999, representatives of the city and the DNR were determining whether the cabin which had been given to Duluth by the Pollock family could be moved to the Park Point beach house area. Their plans have not come to fruition. The beach below the cabin is a good place to dip your feet in the water. You can also sit and scan the Superior ore docks and the flour and grain elevators.
Shortly after this, we crossed back over to the Lake Superior side of Park Point. My husband discovered a small driftwood hut someone had constructed among the pines with a view of the lake. The hut reminded me of the old television show “Gilligan’s Island.” From there, we could see the red and white lighthouse on the end of the Wisconsin Point breakwater.
Someone had discovered three long thin driftwood poles with gnarled ends. These were stuck upright in the beach sand at regular intervals. I wondered at the time if they were markers of some kind used by the unknown person to signal someone in a small boat. Walking along the beach, we also caught our first glimpse of “The Old Standby,” the Minnesota Point lighthouse.
Just before we reached the spot on the beach where we would turn inland and hike a few yards to the Minnesota Point lighthouse ruins, the Superior Entry canal pier caught our attention. The original wooden piers were constructed at the Superior Entry by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1869. It was an attempt to shape the canal opening so that the St. Louis River would flow between the piers on its way to Lake Superior. Gravel and boulders added more structure to the canal. The Duluth Ship Canal was constructed in 1871 and both entries to Superior Bay were improved in 1877. Some speculate this led to the abandonment of a twenty-year veteran of the Point, the Minnesota Point lighthouse.
The lighthouse was constructed in 1858 and decommissioned in 1878. Once equipped with an iron spiral interior staircase, an adjoining lightkeeper’s house, and a beacon lens imported from France, the lighthouse stood fifty feet tall. It did not need to be as tall as the lighthouses on the East Coast. Those can tower over 100 feet in height. With the lantern room removed and time, wind, and the elements eroding away the brick masonry work, the tower on Minnesota Point is now about thirty feet tall.
This was my second time visiting the lighthouse ruins. The last time we hiked the Park Point Recreational Trail was several years ago and much has changed during that period. I remembered the fence around the structure, now torn away in one place to allow entry. The interpretive sign as well as the heavy padlocked lighthouse door were gone. Then again, maybe my memory was playing tricks on me and those were never really there. Some speculate the lighthouse was not demolished because of its historical significance. It was built on the site of the 1823 “zero point” for every subsequent navigational survey of Lake Superior and its environs. It is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Photos of the Minnesota Point lighthouse the way we saw it may be viewed by clicking here.
Another manmade structure on the Park Point trail very near the old lighthouse is a huge block building with the letters “USLHS DEPOT” above the wide doorway. The United States Lighthouse Service Depot, completed in 1905, has two rooms. A huge dirt-floored main room has been heavily marked with graffiti, some of which is very decorative. This area looking out onto Superior Bay held lake buoy markers at one time. Steps on the side of the building lead into this room and several long narrow windows let in light. A smaller room on the back of the building has almost no windows and is entered only from a side door leading directly into that room. Vandals have broken a hole through the main room wall but even this does not dispel the gloom of that smaller room. This room held oil and other equipment for the lighthouses of the area, according to some sources.
Walk down to the beach from the Buoy Depot and you will see the remains of a wooden wharf. Nearby in the forest are the remains of a brick foundation and a white-washed brick privy without a door. The privy may have been built and used by the men of the Buoy Depot but I have not found any research indicating what the sunken brick foundation once was.
We returned to our vehicle by way of the “Old Growth Pine Forest” and the gravel roadway paralleling the Sky Harbor airport security fence. This time we encountered a few more people out walking their dogs on the trail.
The Park Point Recreational Trail remains one of my favorite places to explore. Minnesota Point’s natural beauty, tremendous lake scenes, and history are worth the four mile hike.
Olson, Janet E.. Minnesota Point Time Line. Duluth, MN: Park Point Community Club, 1999.
http://www.duluthmn.gov/parks/parkpointtrail.cfm Official City of Duluth Website: Park Point Trail
http://www.lighthousedepot.com/lite_digest.asp?action=get_article&sk=1571&bhcd2=1273089664 A History of the Minnesota Point Lighthouse and Area
http://www.terrypepper.com/lights/superior/duluth-depot/duluth-depot.htm Duluth Buoy Depot History and Photos