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Minnesota's next great treasure: Turning a North Shore highway into a recreational trail

The best way we as a state can improve our precious coastline is to plan to rebuild Highway 61 further inland when its lifespan comes to an end, and repurpose the old roadway as a recreational trail.

The best way we as a state can improve our precious coastline is to plan to rebuild Highway 61 further inland when its lifespan comes to an end, and repurpose the old roadway as a recreational trail. Wikimedia

It’s a new year, and soon enough the feel of spring will be in the air. As every Minnesotan knows, the best place to experience the season is along the North Shore.

But the best way we as a state can improve our precious coastline is to plan to rebuild Highway 61 further inland when its lifespan comes to an end, and repurpose the old roadway as a recreational trail.

This sounds like a radical idea, but from a broad perspective, it’s very sensible.

The lifespan of all roads comes to an end, so at some point in the next few decades we will be spending money to rebuild the stretch from Duluth or Two Harbors to the Canadian border.

Along this stretch of Highway 61, the North Shore is a wonderful highway strung with such jewels as the Split Rock lighthouse, Gooseberry Falls, Palisade Head, Tettegouche State Park, and Grand Marais, the most tranquil town on earth.

In its current state, Highway 61 links these scenic areas and also serves as a transport hub for mining and industrial material, as well as connecting Minnesota to Thunder Bay and the Trans-Canada Highway. (It’s also the eastern route of the Alaska-to-Chile Pan-American Highway. The western route travels through the Rocky Mountains.)

But when the lifespan of the roadway nears its end, we can rebuild Highway 61 five, 10, or 20 miles inland, so it can meet its utilitarian responsibilities. From that new highway, we can link to existing towns or attractions along the coast with smaller spur roads.

What would remain is the pathway of the former Highway 61, and from Two Harbors to Grand Marais, that would be nearly 90 miles of an empty, quiet, natural, sun-filled trail along the North Shore.

With those intermittent parks and attractions, it would be a wonderful path for running, hiking, biking, Nordic skiing, camping, and others. And because we are Minnesotans, perhaps it should be accessible for (preferably electric) snowmobiles for a few weeks or weekdays each year. We’d certainly need to accommodate electric golf carts so the elderly or people with disabilities could use this path and experience the North Shore’s beauty.

Just imagine what this stretch of coast would be like as a trail without the noise from trucks and fast-moving cars. It would be a spectacular way to experience the North Shore’s nature, vistas, and solitude. The nearby Boundary Waters are closed to motorized vehicles, and it is a national treasure partly because of its ear-ringing silence. Transforming Highway 61 into a quiet recreational path would be just as spectacular.