First, some background.
Name: This trail is also called Snowbank Lake Loop and Snowbank Lake Loop Trail and I’ve seen it called Snowbank Trail too. If it has the name “Snowbank” and it’s a trail, it’s probably talking about this trail which circumnavigates (surprise!) Snowbank Lake.
Mileage and character: The Snowbank Lake Trail is different from other BWCA trails in that a significant proportion of it is outside of wilderness boundaries. Of the 24 miles* probably 1/3 are outside of the wilderness. Even the miles within the wilderness don’t always feel remote: Snowbank Lake allows motors so you can hike all day long to get away from civilization and the whine of a motor might still find you. This is disheartening.
*Other estimates on distance place the trail closer to 28 miles which does feel accurate to me — but every mile is long in the BWCA.
My experience: In May 2020, I took a socially-distanced hike with a few friends (Nicole, Anna, and Roberta) on the Snowbank Lake Trail. It felt really dicey given the impacts of COVID-19, but we kept our distance from each other and were extremely careful.
Day 1, May 22, 2020
It’s hard to take socially-distanced selfies!
Snowbank Lake Trail starts from the Ely side of the BWCA, a pretty long haul out of town. It’s the same trailhead as the Kekekabic Trail, and for some unfathomable reason there’s a large Kekekabic Trail sign at the start of the Snowbank Lake Trail. The Kekekabic Trail starts on the other side of the parking lot. I wonder how many people make a mistake here… and how long it takes them to catch on.
For the most part, Snowbank Lake Trail is easy to follow and offers a pretty good pain-to-payoff ratio. Within a couple of hours of hiking we’d already come to some beautiful overlooks. We could see what I think was Disappointment Mountain far on the other side of the lake.
There was also an epic beaver dam to cross which was at least 10 feet high.
The trail was pretty busy so the only wildlife we saw was a snake trying to get away from us. With so much traffic, we were worried about getting a campsite, so Anna and I took off to try to snag a site. This is my perpetual complaint about the BWCA – that you begin to see other visitors as competition instead of as fellow adventurers.
Our first choice campsite was taken but luckily our second choice was empty. We set up on Bass Bay across from a little island. There wasn’t great water access but the water had been ice only a few weeks prior, so swimming wasn’t in the forecast regardless.
We all set up and slept decently and we got a pretty good start the next morning.
Day 2, May 23, 2020
It just wouldn’t be a BWCA hike with more beaver dam crossings!
Despite an early start we felt pressure to keep moving quickly today: with so many people hiking the loop, we knew that getting a campsite might be hard. We scooted around Grub Lake and North Bay of Snowbank.
We had lots of interesting terrain; there is a small peak that the trail ascends on the northeast side of the lake, which is very rocky and beautiful. On the map I was using, I could see many campsites, but in reality I didn’t see many.
I was tickled to find a bridge in the wilderness. I’m all about the untrammeled nature of wilderness, etc., but I also know in high-use areas, it’s more sustainable to throw a bridge in. This may have been near the Boot Lake Portage, but memory fails.
Shortly after the trail forked (we stayed right to stick to Snowbank Lake Trail, left leads to Disappointment Mountain and some assorted other trails), we hit the blowdown hell. This area has had incredible maintenance done. I cannot fathom hiking this trail without the work that was done, probably by volunteers. There were hundreds if not thousands of trees which had been cut. It was unreal. Also: all these trees were cut by handsaws and axes, not chainsaws. Truly amazing.
Our campsite for the evening was on Disappointment Lake and it too had been blown onto by trees but thoroughly cleared. Again, water access wasn’t fantastic, but I was content to be in my tent away from bugs.
Day 3, May 24, 2020
We awoke to the threat of forecasted rain and decided to go father than planned and end our hike a day early. I always have mixed feelings about getting out of the woods early but it felt right.
We stopped for only a couple of short breaks as we continued on. Before lunch, we hit the junction of the Snowbank Lake Trail and the Kekekabic Trail. They coalign for about six miles.
I hadn’t hiked this part of the Kekekabic Trail since 2013, so it was fun to see it again — and in the spring instead of in a late fall downpour. The going was definitely easier on the Kek than on the Snowbank, and we made much faster time than we had been.
Not too long after lunch we made it back to the trailhead and shortly thereafter, to ice cream.
Reflections: Of all the BWCA trails I’ve hiked, this one least tempts me to return. The reasoning is simple: Snowbank Lake Trail does not have the same quality wilderness character that all other BWCA trails have. This isn’t because several of its miles are outside the official boundary but rather because of the rules regarding motorized travel on Snowbank Lake. While there are cool spots, great swimming holes, and some nice vistas, I think better experiences can be had on any other BWCA trail.
Also, the ticks in May are completely overwhelming.
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