From Pemmican Trails
The trail is approximately a 32-mile loop that is minimally maintained. Method of travel is hiking. There is a need for preparedness in route-finding under adverse conditions for those who enter this wilderness trail.
It is marked by rock cairns and tree blazes; however, there are other signs to watch for -- sawn-cut log ends and tree roots that have been worn bare by foot traffic. Even with these signs it is possible to lose the trail or encounter a large blown-down jumble of trees.
To find the trail, the best course of action is to post someone where you last knew you were on the trail while the rest of your party circles the area out in front or beyond the jumble to search for the trail tread. Don't forget that the last place you think you were on the trail might already be off the trail. False trails are sometimes created by others who have made the same wrong turn that you did -- so you may have to check for the true trail somewhere behind you.
Other areas to be alert for is around beaver dams. The trail doesn't always continue where the dams end (beavers keep changing the dams). Usually there will be a discernible reroute leading you to the trail. Keep your eyes open and you should be able to find it.
Check for fire restrictions and current information prior to your trip. For more information, please call the LaCroix Ranger District in Cook at 218-666-0020.
Following is a brief description of the trail -- divided into four sections -- with approximate distances listed in miles.
Trail head to Elm Portage (3 1/4 miles) Elm Portage to West Cut Across (2 3/4 miles) Cut Across to Devil's Cascade (3/4)
The first section of the trail is a popular day hike to Devil's Cascade or an impressive first leg of a multi-day trip. The rich diversity of the region presents itself as the trail progresses from old road to meandering grassland path to rocky woodland trail.
Loosen your legs during the first half-mile cruise along the old road. At the first beaver dam, look for a sharp left turn onto the challenging single track that is characteristic of the trail and say "goodbye" to civilization. Follow the meandering trail corridor for a mile as it winds through waist-high brush and across hidden streams. Don't be deceived by straying animal trails! Stay close to the edge of the first open pond, then watch the transition of the landscape as the trail climbs out of the wet lowland region and into the forested uplands.
Traversing the rolling hills for the next two miles gives a good indication of what much of the trail is like. The distant sound of rumbling water signals the arrival of an excellent resting spot -- the rapids of the Little Indian-Sioux River at Elm Portage.
After leaving the rapids, the trail glides alongside the slow-moving river for a mile before turning north. Expect and unavoidable and challenging beaver dam crossing before coasting out of the remaining 1 1/2 miles of the section on long forested straight-aways. Crossing the Lower Pawness/Shell Lake portage foretells of the upcoming intersection with the Cut Across and day-hike destination of Devil's Cascade.
Continuing on from the intersection with the cut across, the trail heads northwest for 1/2 mile -- gaining a high point on a saddle between two ridges. At that point turn left and head due west while beginning a 1/4 mile descent to the devil's Cascade area. After the descent levels out keep a close watch. The main trail takes a sharp right turn as it heads north towards Heritage Creek -- before it actually gets to the devil's Cascade area. It is well-worth the short side trip to see the Devil's Cascade area. Continue west from the main trail intersection, then straight ahead a short distance until you cross the devil's Cascade portage trail, and finally arrive at the campsite which is at an overlook at the top of the cascade. At this point you're standing 80 to 100 feet above the main falls in the cascade. Look N/NW and you'll get a great view down the gorge, which the Little Indian-Sioux River follows to Loon Lake.
Devil's Cascade to Beaver Dam (2 3/4) Beaver dam to Heritage/Loon Portage (3/4) Heritage/Loon Portage to Pageant Lake Camp (2) Pageant Lake Camp to Range Line Creek (1 1/2)
Some of the most beautiful sights on the whole trail are contained in this section; the Heritage Creek crossing, the campsite at Pageant Lake, and the overlook of the Pageant Creek crossing. From the Devil's Cascade spur intersection you'll head north on the main trail as it traverses the east side slope of the river gorge (never more than 1/4 mile from the river). The slope is heavily wooded, but there are a few chances to peek out at the river 100 feet below. After about 1 1/4 miles you'll leave the side slope and walk up a small coulee. Turn left at the top of the coulee before reaching the marsh; the trail heads NE over a rock top for 3/4 of a mile.
Sliding off the rock top the trail sweeps around the west side of another marshy area, briefly gains solid ground before arriving at a long beaver dam. Carefully work your way across the top of the dam to the other side, where the trail follows solid, higher ground. About 3/4 miles after the dam-crossing will be the intersection with the Heritage Lake/East Bay of Loon Lake Portage. Soon after the portage (1/2 mile) you'll reach Heritage Creek -- where the trail crosses on a downed, large, old-growth red pine.
The trail continues generally north for the next mile. First it's up and over one ridge hill, a quick drop into -- and climb out of -- a gully, then up to the top of another ridge hill. Here the trail begins to drop before rounding quickly to an eastward direction. When you're about even with the west end of Pageant Lake, the trail crosses a small stream. After rising from the stream-crossing, watch for the Pageant Lake campsite spur trail on your left. From the campsite spur trail, the main trail heads generally eastward, parallel to the south shore of the lake. As you continue, the trail gradually pulls away from Pageant Lake and turns southward at the top of a steep rise that overlooks Pageant Creek and a series of beaver dams along it's course. Descend straight down the hill [active beaver population in this area] and cross the creek directly below.
Once across Pageant Creek the trail continues straight ahead and abruptly climbs 4 to 6 feet out of creek level. Again on solid ground, the trail rises up the toe of a rock ridge, first heading southward, then swinging somewhat eastward to Range Line Creek as it dances northward. A view of the north end of Range Link Lake will open to your right a short distance past the creek. After crossing Range Line Creek, go another 1/4 mile and keep your eyes open for the easily missed campsite spur trail [the trail is marked by a cairn]. Range line is a nice campsite, but seldom used by hikers and is not easily accessible by canoe.
Range Line Creek to 3 Sentinels (1 1/4) 3 Sentinels to Hustler/Oyster Portage (2 1/4) Hustler/Oyster Portage to S. Emerald Camp (1 1/2) S. Emerald Camp to bend at Shahola (3/4) Shahola Creek to Agawato (1 1/2)
Watch for wintergreen's scarlet berries peeking out beneath its ground-hugging evergreen foliage along this section. Look for saplings with their tops broken or frayed off overhead by moose feeding in the winter using the trail as a highway.
The main trail continues through a boggy area -- a good test of your waterproof boots. About a mile down the trail are three old growth white pines along the trail side. Often referred to as the three sentinels, these trees are 200+ years old [Never even saw these]. Takes some time here to look around and imagine what these giants have lived through.
One-half mile past the Sentinels begins a long descent from the ridge to a bog crossing at the north end of Hustler Lake. Here you'll find an old log bridge to cross; a short distance further is a rock hop crossing at the Posse Lake drainage. This is a good place to top off your water -- the next easily accessible water is at the east end of Hustler Lake (approximately 2 miles away). Just past Posse Lake crossing is the north Hustler Lake campsite -- it is on a slope, but [very] useable. The next 1 1/2 mile section, to east Hustler Lake campsite, is dry with some ridges to climb. As you hike along the ridges watch for glimpses of Hustler Lake through the trees. The east Hustler campsite spur trail, which is marked by cairns, is on a trail bend as you start to descend the ridge [This spur trail is not well marked or easy to follow]. This campsite is frequented by paddlers using the Hustler/Oyster Lake portage. A little further on you'll come to the Weeny Lake drainage -- which is just a step across, and the Hustler Lake/Oyster Lake portage -- which intersects at 90 degrees and is well-defined.
Continue 1 1/2 miles south to the Emerald Lake north campsite. The camp trail follows the shoreline of the bay to camp -- marked, but hard to find [I never saw this spur trail or any markings that indicated its existence]. The camp is seldom used by hikers and well used by paddlers. Keep on walking south for another 3/4 miles to the Emerald Lake south campsite spur trail [Marked by a cairn, but strewn with deadfall, narrow, and hard to follow]. This spur trail heads west and descends from the ridge crest for almost 1/4 mile. It is seldom used by paddlers.
It is only 1 1/4 miles further to the Shahola/Cut Across area, but first you'll cross the creek on an impressive beaver dam and climb up the hill to the ridge crest. At this point you'll see where the main trail turns west and intersects with the east end of the cut across.
Heading west from Shahola Creek, the trail continues west along a ridge for a mile before descending into a saturated lowland depressing. In the spring watch for bog flowers such as the Minnesota state flower -- the delicate Lady Slipper. While catching your breath at the top of the next rise, start looking for the [large rock cairn and] sawn logs that mark the spur trail to the secluded campsite at Agawato Lake. The campsite sits on a small bluff above the lake.
Agawato - Shell/Little Shell portage (3 1/4) Shell/Little Shell portage to Shell/Heritage Portage (1) Shell/Heritage Portage to West Cut Across (1 1/2)
The sharp bend in the trail at Shahola Creek signifies the start of a wonderful and diverse six-mile section known as the "Cut Across." Look forward to scenic lakeside hiking, challenging climbs and the most spectacular lookout points east of Devil's Cascade. The section is also known for frequent moose sightings in the cattail swamps that edge many of the small lakes.
Immediately after the Agawato campsite spur trail, the path descends steeply to another bog and rises again just as quickly on one of the steepest pitches along the trail. Within 1/4 mile expect a sharp right turn heading down along a bluff, followed immediately by a short scrambling climb. The sinuous trail requires full attention through this section. A series of vista points looking south over Dogfish Lake and west across Shell Lake highlight the next mile before the trail descends to a splendid lakeshore stretch along Little Shell Lake.
Several ideal rest spots are scattered along the shoreline all the way to the Shell/Little Shell portage. A popular campsite is located on the peninsula on the west side of the portage. Scramble south along the Shell Lake shoreline to reach the spacious campsite. Continuing west from the portage, the path climbs steadily towards the highest point along the entire trail -- an excellent panoramic view looking south to Shell Lake and Con Island.
The hill drops off after the vista point, quickly descending to the Shell/Heritage portage and another beaver dam crossing. From the west side of the dam, the trail turns sharply to the left and begins a steady SW ascent up to the west Cut Across intersection. This final 1 1/2 miles of the section is fast and straight. [There is another intersection along this section, marked by a cairn and leading off to the left, I have no idea where it leads.] The trail eventually arrives at a T, with the Devil's Cascade being a short trip to the northwest and the trailhead six miles to the southeast. The last 6 miles of the trail back-tracks over the Little Indian-Sioux River section, a pleasant way to end your hiking adventure.
- US Forest Service Brochure