Big Hole Hiking Club Loop

McCarthy Beach State Park, Minnesota

Trip Date: Sunday, October 8th, 2017
Last Updated: Monday, November 13th, 2017
By Ricky Holzer

Hike Information

Rating ★★★★☆(4/5)
Overall Difficulty Easy
Navigation Difficulty     Easy
Distance 3 miles roundtrip
Time 1.5 hours
Terrain Hilly
Best Seasons All
Family Friendly Yes
Dog Friendly Yes
Accessible No


Hike Summary

The main attraction at McCarthy Beach State Park is obviously the beach, and this is a popular summer destination in the Iron Range. Tucked away in the hills beyond the crowded lake are some hiking trails that provide excellent solitude, especially in spring and fall. The scenery around Pickerel Lake is gorgeous, but the rest of the trail isn't anything to write home about. You can tell a trail isn't going to be anything special when even the trail description on the park's official map (linked below) is purely navigational and doesn't attempt to persuade you to do the hike (this statement probably also holds true with my own writing on this site, read some 3-star hikes for examples). However, this trail is absolutely stunning in the fall -- I was lucky enough to visit during peak fall color and my jaw dropped, at least mentally.

Dogs are allowed on leash. The terrain and distance make this a more difficult Hiking Club Trail, but it should be doable as a family and your kids will enjoy collecting another password for the Hiking Club program. If you desire a shorter hike, follow the Pickerel Lake Trail described at the beginning of this hike and turn around when the trail veers away from the lake and starts heading uphill. Hiking and snowshoeing are allowed anywhere in the park during the winter as long as you stay off the groomed ski portions of the trail, so you can enjoy this hike any time of the year. I visited on a gloomy Sunday fall morning and only saw a couple people. This park is notably quieter in the spring and fall, so expect more people in the summer.

From the parking lot, cross the dirt road and start the trail descending to Pickerel Lake. On the right, there will be a set of stairs leading to a little dock where I took two beautiful pictures of the lake shown below: one at the beginning of the hike with cloudy skies and one at the end after the clouds had cleared. Turn right at the first intersection to continue hiking along the lake, and you'll soon see the view pictured at the top of the page on your right. This is the best scenery you'll see on the hike, so take your time here and enjoy it!

Cloudy skies and fall colors from the dock on Pickerel Lake

Cloudy skies and fall colors from the dock on Pickerel Lake
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Blue skies and fall colors from the dock on Pickerel Lake

Blue skies and fall colors from the dock on Pickerel Lake
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Have one more look at those lovely hills surrounding Pickerel Lake (another picture below) before beginning the ascent to the top of the ridge. Continue following the Big Hole Trail Loop, crossing the dirt road at the top of the hill and staying straight through the next two intersections. There are some ups and downs throughout the rest of the loop, but nothing as major as the first climb. The forest here is very quiet, so much that the sound of deer footprints startled me multiple times (I saw a lot of deer).
One last glimpse of Pickerel Lake before climbing uphill

One last glimpse of Pickerel Lake before climbing uphill
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Once the trail bends to the left, you'll be walking along the ridge around the Big Hole, a round depression in the hills about 100 feet deep. There isn't much of a view because of the dense forest, but as I stated earlier, the fall colors here are breathtaking and you will be surrounded by yellows and oranges and reds in all directions (don't forget to look up like I did in the picture below). Stay left at the intersection ahead with another trail that leads to the Red Top Trail Loop. You'll eventually reach the second parking area with a pit toilet in case you need one (if you had to start here because the other lot was full, just read the post backwards from this point).
Looking up at the vibrantly colored trees

Looking up at the vibrantly colored trees
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Shortly after reaching the parking area, you will cross the dirt road again and begin the descent down to Pickerel Lake. Turn left at the T intersection at the bottom of the hill, and turn right at the next intersection. The hike finishes with a nice uphill climb back to the parking lot and you can see pretty Pickerel Lake one last time. Stop by the beach area on your drive out to cool down and relax before heading home! Let me know what you think in the comments section below and be sure to use #nocoastbestcoast on Twitter and Instagram!


From Grand Rapids, MN take U.S. Highway 169 north to Chisholm, then take the exit for Minnesota Highway 73. Or from Virginia, MN take U.S. Highway 169 south to Chisholm, then turn right onto Iron World Road and right again onto Minnesota Highway 73. Take the first left onto 6th Street, then turn left again immediately onto County Highway 5. In 15 miles, watch for signs indicating McCarthy Beach State Park, and turn left onto McCarthy Beach Road. Look for the turnoff for the park office and pay the vehicle fee, then continue on McCarthy Beach road, turning right on a narrow dirt road -- Google Maps has it labeled as 915, but I vaguely remember the sign labeling it as 913 or 917. Drive very slowly here as the road is only one lane wide and can be rough (still passable in a sedan though). Luckily, the small parking area isn't far from the main road, and you'll soon see it on the left.

Google Maps Directions

Parking, Fees, and Facilities

Like all Minnesota State Parks and Recreation Areas, you must pay a vehicle entry fee of $7 per day or $35 for an annual pass (highly recommended if you frequently go to Minnesota State Parks). There are no facilities at this lot. If this lot is full (there's only room for a few cars), continue down the dirt road and turn right on Ski Trail Road, then quickly turn left into another larger parking area -- note this lot has pit toilets. You can access the same trail described below, just from a different starting location.

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External Links