In northern Minnesota’s Chippewa National Forest, the expansive stands of majestic birch, aspen, maple, and pine trees look almost timeless. But looks can be deceiving. Today, much of the famed “Northwoods” are made up of trees that are less than a hundred years old.
Much of the United States’ northern forests were clear-cut in the late 1800s and were only reforested decades later. But thanks to a surveying error, a rogue patch of old-growth forest was left untouched by loggers in Minnesota. Now known as the Chippewa National Forest’s “Lost 40,” it is home to trees that are up to 400 years old, offering travelers a snapshot of the forest that once dominated the northern part of the state.
Twice the size of Rhode Island, Chippewa National Forest is a year-round destination for nature enthusiasts. Visitors can find almost endless opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, and snowshoeing. And while the forest is home to 700 lakes and 920 miles of rivers and streams, the trees themselves stop the show. With interpretive signs, easily accessible trails, and plenty of natural and historical sites nearby, visitors to the Lost 40 can get a dose of history with their wilderness excursion.
Broken treaties and surveying errors
In the 1800s, settlers’ early maps of northern Minnesota were labeled only “Abundant Pine.” After a series of contested and often unfulfilled treaties with Indigenous people in 1854 and 1855, much of the area was opened to logging by white colonizers. Indigenous people have lived in the area for over 10,000 years, but many colonizers saw the forests as mere timber fields, and trees as nothing more than future barns, homes, factories, wagons, and paper for burgeoning newspaper and printing industries.
Between the 1880s and the 1920s, loggers clear-cut much of the area’s pine forests. The lumber industry boomed—but by 1929, it had come nearly to a standstill. Lumber barons had exhausted the finite supply of trees.
Or, nearly exhausted the supply. If you travel to the Chippewa National Forest today, you’ll find more than 30 acres of undisturbed, old-growth forest that were protected from the saws and axes of the logging boom. (According to some accounts, the Lost 40 got its name because land was typically sold in 40-acre plots after surveying.)
How the Lost 40 came to be preserved is a subject of some debate. “There is definitely lore with the site—which is kind of part of its appeal,” says AmberBeth VanNingen, plant ecologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. What we do know is that this conservation oddity is the result of a surveying error.
The story goes that in 1882, a four-man crew set out from a settlement on the Mississippi River for a month-long surveying trip into the thick pine forests. They carried canvas tents, pork and beans, and dried apples. But as the November snow whipped around them, they rushed to finish the job.
“These surveyors went out and made a mistake,” says Michelle Heiker of the U.S. Forest Service. “They thought that this area was within a lake.” But Coddington Lake is located a half mile away. “When they were selling off the land for logging, it seemed to be underwater,” says VanNingen. “So it never got logged.”
All throughout the peak logging years, this patch of trees stood, towering above the scorched and barren earth surrounding it. How it continued to evade the ax after the fortuitous surveying error is anyone’s guess—especially considering that logging companies were known to harvest trees outside the boundaries of their allocated land.
This rogue logging was one of the reasons a National Forest was formed in the area in 1908. The designated forest, which came to surround the Lost 40, was eventually named the Chippewa National Forest. Like many state and federal forests, the Chippewa National Forest received help in the 1930s from Civilian Conservation Corps enrollees, who replanted many of the trees that had been lost to clear-cutting.
The grandeur of old growth
Today, the Lost 40 is surrounded by trees once again—though the trees of the Lost 40 are often more than twice or three times as old as the surrounding forest.
Despite the old age of the Lost 40’s pines, their grandeur is subtle. VanNingen tells visitors not to expect California redwoods. “We’re in the middle of the continent. It’s cold here, especially in the winter. It’s also dry here,” she says. For that reason, she says, Minnesota’s trees don’t grow at the same rate or live as long as those on the coasts. But many of the trees are objectively massive specimens. The Lost 40 is home to the state’s largest living red pine, which stands at 120 feet tall and nearly 10 feet around.
The Lost 40’s undisturbed, old-growth trees have benefits beyond just their awesome size. Certain animal species—including some woodpeckers, who find more suitable and plentiful insects in older trees—are much more abundant in the Lost 40 than in other parts of Minnesota.
“It’s the right mixture of a lot of different things—between the big trees and also the amount of dead and decaying trees,” says Arika Preas, a naturalist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. That biodiverse and complex habitat makes the Lost 40 a destination for birdwatchers. “It takes time to get that complexity,” Preas adds.
In and around the Lost 40
For those who make the trek out to the Lost 40, there is plenty to see along the way. Two Scenic Byways—Avenue of the Pines and Edge of the Wilderness—bring travelers up from the small but vibrant city of Grand Rapids just over an hour south. Grand Rapids’ Itasca County, in which part of the Chippewa National Forest also lies, has more than one million acres of publicly accessible land, 1,400 lakes, and one thousand trails, many of which are easily accessible from the byways.
The Laurentian Divide—a ridge of granite hills running laterally across the continent and marking the boundary between the watershed that flows southeast to the Atlantic Ocean and that which flows north to the Arctic Ocean—is nearby. Small towns dot the Scenic Byways, and their restaurants, lodging, and boutique shops stay open through the depths of winter.
Inside the Chippewa National Forest, visitors can find historic sites, including the oldest forest ranger station east of the Mississippi, and Camp Rabideau—one of the country’s few remaining and best-preserved Civilian Conservation Corps camps.
Much of the forest is rugged. But the Lost 40 is set apart from other backwoods outings by its year-round accessibility. The roughly two-mile trail is well maintained and accessible immediately off a plowed forest road. Travelers can find everything from snowshoes to snowmobiles for rent in nearby towns.
For many, the trees of the Lost 40, in their subtle glory, are the area’s main attraction. “Things that big make you feel really small, in a good way,” says Preas.
“I think by having it, it just makes people think that they’d like to see more of it,” says Heiker of the undisturbed forest.
Today, the Forest Service maintains large wilderness areas where trees are protected from harvesting. “We can bring habitats back, but it’s not a quick process,” says Preas. “It’s a lot easier to preserve than to make anew.” She hopes a visit to the Lost 40 can inspire travelers to ensure it doesn’t take a mistake to protect old-growth forests in the future.