Hiking Bean and Bear Lake with Inflatable Paddle Boards
Fall hiking is an essential part of Minnesota living. There are so many great options across the state - bluffs along the St. Croix, endless State Parks along the North Shore, Mississippi trails, and more. A staff favorite at Paddle North is the Bean and Bear Lake hike. This is a moderately challenging hike across approximately 6.5 miles along the Superior Hiking trail and takes about 3.5 to 5 hours to complete depending on your pace. It boasts around 1,000 feet of elevation gain, so be prepared to work for it.
Many of us at Paddle North had completed this hike over the years, but we decided to approach it differently this year. Bean and Bear Lake are secluded, stunning bodies of water that are ideal for paddling – but they’re quite far from any parking lots. We wondered what it might be like to hike in with some inflatable paddle boards and kayaks. We knew it wouldn’t be easy, but there’s nothing more satisfying than completing a challenge. Mistakes were made, but we pulled it off and it was absolutely worth it! Here is an overview of our experience, and some helpful tips if you decide to hike and paddle Bean and Bear Lake yourself…
We did our best to prepare, but some things must be learned the hard way. Completing a 6+ mile hike with minimal gear is one thing, but carrying an extra 40+lbs of paddling gear on your back adds a significant challenge.
Be aware of your capabilities: Prior to doing a hike of this length with an inflatable paddle board or kayak on your back, it’s important to know your physical limitations. It might be a good idea to load your Portager, Play, or Karve 3.0 Kayak into a backpack with the essential gear (board, paddle, pump, fin, and extras such as water, snacks, or towels) and take a 1+ mile hike with it around your neighborhood. If this feels comfortable, remind yourself that you’ll need to do this across 6.5 miles while climbing 1,000+ feet.
Water: we recommend at least 2 liters of water for each individual making the hike. Our hiking crew came up a little short (Pete didn’t pack any) and this made for some serious thirst during the second half of the hike.
Snacks: never underestimate the importance of a little energy boost mid-hike. Trail mix (protein and sugar) is always a safe bet.
Towel: a major highlight of the hike was jumping into Bear Lake. The water was cool, refreshing, clear, and rejuvenating. Depending on the weather, it might take a little bit to dry, so having a towel on hand is convenient.
Extra Shirt: hiking with that extra weight on our backs caused some serious perspiration. Having a new shirt, clean shirt at the conclusion of the hike would have been welcome.
Extra Socks: a pair of dry, clean socks would have been great to put on after jumping into the lake and spending time on the water.
Walking Stick: with the extra weight on our backs, a walking stick was essential in distributing weight and providing extra balance when descending down steep declines, or traversing muddy sections.
Packing Light: prior to the hike, we were feeling ambitious and each brought a paddle board or kayak. Instead, we could have brought 2-3 and had just as much fun, while spreading the carrying workload a bit more. Once at the lake, we paddled, swam, and relaxed on the shoreline. We didn’t need to all be on the water at the same time. If you’re bringing more than one paddle board or kayak, it’s also not necessary to have a pump for each item. As long as you have one, you can still inflate everything and conserve some weight while hiking.
Pack a small flashlight or headlamp: depending on time of day and season, we recommend bringing a light source just in case. If you’re hoping to catch a sunset over Bean and Bear Lake, it will be a very dark hike back. With a lot of rocky sections, the hike would be very challenging without a light.
The Bean and Bear Lake hike can be done as an out-and-back venture, or a loop (the loop is just a little bit longer, but does allow for great scenic overlook at the midpoint). Overall, the trail is pretty well marked. With that being said, we learned a valuable lesson early on in our hike: never blindly follow the crowd. Approximately 1 mile into the hike, the trail crosses over an ATV trail. A large group of 15+ hikers in front of us had turned left onto this trail, as there was a sign mentioning the lakes. This detour ended up being a 3-mile mistake, turning our 6.5 mile hike into a 9.5 mile hike (with 40lb+ all terrain bags on our backs).
With that being said, we did learn that if the full Bean and Bear Lake hike is a bit much with full gear, you can still access a very pristine shoreline and campsite to Bean Lake at the end of the ATV Trail. It looked like a great spot for swimming and paddling. This shoreline is also accessible via ATV if wanting to forego hiking entirely, although you do miss out on some epic scenery.
Along the route, you’ll encounter endless overlooks that provide spectacular views of Lake Superior, bluffs, hills, and fall colors. The first truly stunning overlook is a cliff overlooking Bean Lake. It’s a great spot to take a rest and enjoy the views. You’ll then continue on the trail, eventually reaching Bear Lake. The easiest way to access the shoreline and spend some time swimming and paddling, is to follow signs to the “Bear Lake Campsite.” Down at the shoreline we inflated our paddle boards - the Play and the Portager, along with the Karve Kayak 3.0 (inflatable kayak) - and enjoyed some of the best paddling Minnesota has to offer. The water was clear, calm, and quiet. As you glide along the lake, you’re surrounded by peaceful trees and bluffs. Jumping into the water was the perfect way to cool off.
After some time on (and in) the water, we dried off, deflated our inflatable paddle boards and kayak, packed up, and continued back up to the main trail. When coming back up to the trail from the campsite, you can either turn left to continue on the loop route, or turn right, to go back the way you came. We opted to go back the way we came due time of day and the fatigue from adding an unnecessary 2.5 - 3 miles to our hike.
Note: there is elevation gain in both directions on this hike, with plenty of dips along the way. So you will be climbing almost as much on the way back as you do on the way out. It was also very muddy. We were aware of this ahead of time, but some sections were ankle-deep mud that required extra time to maneuver.
Once we reached the main parking lot at the trailhead, we tossed our gear in the car and sped to the nearest gas station to load up on water and Gatorade. The thirst was real.
Overall, this was an incredible experience that offered a special paddling experience. Had we packed more water and avoided our costly detour, it would have been perfect. If you’re up for the challenge, it’s highly recommended. Just be sure to properly prepare and be aware of the physical demands of hiking with paddle gear. As always, be a good steward of the outdoors when hiking - clean up after yourself and leave no trace.