National Forest Lodge: 180 degrees from hectic
The National Forest Lodge, seven miles northwest of Isabella on Minnesota Hwy. 1, has been a cross country skiing and snowshoeing destination for decades. A short distance from the BWCAW, the lodge is situated on top of the continental divide in the heart of the Superior National Forest making for excellent snow conditions throughout the winter.
NFL overlooks Lake Gegoka, a shallow 145 acre lake with above average numbers of walleye and pike according to a 2011 DNR survey. The area surrounding the lodge is home to some of the most majestic forest land in the state known as the “Isabella Pine Belt,” encompassing a variety of elevations with towering red and white pines. Its 30 kilometers of remote, groomed cross country ski trails offer a quiet wilderness experience, as snowmobiles are off limits on the resort’s property.
“We have some of the most beautiful cross country ski trails in the state” said NFL’s owner Andy Fisher, adding that lodge guests also have approximately five miles of snowshoe trails to explore.
According to Fisher, there is much to recommend the lodge to visitors, including its unique history, which dates back to the Great Depression era. The lodge was built in the 1920s for use as a summer vacation destination for Chicago area residents. It was not, however, a place to rough it or ignore social protocol.
“They would arrive by train in Ely and then were transported to the lodge by in a model A,” he said. “The atmosphere was different then. People would go for cruises around the lake and arrive to dinner in their best clothes.” But its days as an upscale resort were short-lived; shortly after the start of WWII business declined and the lodge closed.
Over the intervening years, Fisher said, the lodge has changed hands and themes several times. In the 1960s a failed effort was made to resurrect it as Camp Gee-Go-Ka. Also round that time, the historic log lodge was destroyed by fire and rebuilt. In the 70s and 80s with the establishment of the Flathorn-Gegoka ski touring area, the lodge became one of the premier cross country skiing destinations in the state. Then, with the massive construction of statewide ski trails, business at the lodge once again waned until 1995 when new owners brought the operation back to life.
Fisher said that NFL currently has nine small cabins and a large log home across the lake. Typically NFL is open for business from the weekend after Christmas until about mid-March.
“We have a lot of repeat business and a lot of groups like the Sierra Club, North Star Ski Club and the Minnesota Rovers to name just a few,” he said. In the main lodge building meals are served to the guests on the weekends and there is an outdoor hot tub and a lakeside sauna to soothe sore muscles after a day on the trails. Fisher said he recently added live music on the Saturday nights, which has been well received by guests and local area residents as well.
“Our biggest challenge has been making people aware of the unique niche we fill in this wilderness setting, reaching audience that wants to experience the silence of the wilderness while still having the comforts a warm cabin,” Fisher said. One such guest and repeat customer of the lodge is Michelle Wall of Duluth.
“Some friends from the Twin Cities told us about the place so we went and just fell in love with it,” she enthused. Wall said she has planned another trip later in January— her fourth annual visit to the NFL.
“It’s so beautiful and they have everything you need, the meals are healthy and delicious, the trails are great and everyone is so polite. It’s just so unique to have a wilderness experience and yet come home to a warm cabin in the evening,” she added. “In the mornings I go to the outdoor hot tub for coffee, I love sitting there relaxing with the falling snow, it’s just great.”
While the primary business of the NFL is accommodating winter enthusiasts, the lodge is open all year for vacation rentals. In recent years grouse hunting has been a large draw in the fall and Lake Gegoka is known to many as a good fishing lake. Fisher says that greeting the growing number of guests and getting to know people has made for a satisfying business and life in the northwoods.
“This is a rewarding job for me” he said, “when guests arrive I do a short welcome announcement, when they leave I give a departing speech and I get to hang out with them and talk while they are here. It is a great honor for me”.
Information about the National Forest lodge is available at nationalforestlodge.com/about.htm or at 1-800-353-0707.