The Northwest Angle in Minnesota – Only for the Sake of Geography

categories: USA Travel

I’m a geography geek. When I was young, I would spend long driving hours on family road trips with the road atlas, pouring through the maps, looking for unique locations. When I was in High School, my geography teacher, fresh out of college and bored teaching a subject he didn’t have interest in, allowed me to teach the final few months of the school year- units on Australia and Antarctica. It was no surprise when I went on to college and majored in Social Studies, with a concentration in Geography. When I was a teacher, I spent long hours crafting my lesson plans and designing my own worksheets, instead of using the provided textbooks. Geography has always been a big part of my life, and that has obviously translated over into my travels.

My friends & I at the Southernmost Point (Key West)

In January of 2003, I was visiting Key West, Florida, when we mad a trip to the famous “Southernmost Point in the Continential United States” monument. That got my already geographically-obsessed mind going. I wondered how hard it would be to visit the other extreme points in the continental U.S. I had already made up my mind to attempt to visit the national park units in the lower 48 states, and the more I looked at the map, it seemed easy enough to incorporate these extreme points in with that quest.

I visited the westernmost point in Washington state in 2005, followed by the easternmost point in Maine in 2008. In June of 2009, I visited the Geographic Center of the United States in Kansas. The final point, the northernmost point, was something I had planned later in that trip.

The northernmost point is a geographic anomaly. It is the only point in the continental United States that lies north of the 49th Parallel. It is technically part of Minnesota, but it is not connected to the rest of Minnesota by land. This 116 square mile section of land is only part of the United States due to an incorrect understanding of where the source of the Mississippi River was and a mistake made by the first map makers in the area.

The Final Extreme Point

Getting to the Northwest Angle requires crossing into Canada. As I was coming from North Dakota, I entered Canada via the border crossing at Pembina, ND and drove 85 miles through the plains of Manitoba. I reached the turn-off to head north toward the ‘Angle’ on Manitoba Highway 308. I had researched getting to the Northwest Angle and did not find a lot of information, but I did know the two road that I would be taking (308 & 525) would be unpaved. I had not read anywhere how rough these roads would be.

The section of Manitoba I had passed through had been sparsely populated farm land, but once I turned north, I entered heavy forest with only the slightest signs of settlement anywhere. The final 8 mile stretch of road (Manitoba 525) was some of the roughest road I have ever driven on. (I was later told by the nice lady at the gas station in the Northwest Angle that recent rains had made the road rougher than normal.) I expected to feel elation at collecting this final token of the geographic conquest, but the pinging of rocks from the gravel road underneath the van and the boring nature of the drive had taken a little of that enjoyment out of me.

I questioned myself further when, in the five minutes it took me to set up the camera and tripod to snap my pictures, I was swarmed with mosquito and biting flies. This shouldn’t have been a surprise- the Northwoods of Minnesota are renown for their biting insect population- but I was still annoyed at the inconvenience.

 

There are no formal customs booths entering the Northwest Angle. Instead, the sign shown above instructs visitors to proceed 8 miles down the road to a small shed where they will communicate via videophone with both United States and Canadian customs officers.

 

US & Canadian Customs Shed

I phoned both county’s customs officials. The video part of the phone was not working. I read both my passport number, and explained the purpose of my visit. I felt a little silly explaining this to them, but I guessed that despite avid fisherman, most of the Angle’s visitors where there for the same purpose as me.

Call Box in Customs Shed

As previously mentioned, finding information about the Northwest Angle had proven difficult. I drove to the only town in the territory, Angle Inlet, which was one of the smallest settlements I have ever seen. The were a few basic business serving the population (116 permanent residents as of the last census). There was also a resort and golf course on the northern end of the peninsula. 70% of the Northwest Angle’s land is part of the Red Lake Indian Reservation. Many of the dwellings I saw appeared to be summer cottages.

Northernmost Post Office in the Continental US

The only thing that comes close to a ‘tourist site’ in the Northwest Angle is the pint-sized Northernmost Post Office in the Continental United States. It had closed for the day at the time of my visit, so I stopped at the small gas station across the street to try and find some postcards or other small souvenir from my visit. They didn’t have any postcards, so I settled for a tourist brochure/newspaper, which was all the nice lady behind the counter could come up with as a souvenir. I asked her how many people she saw visiting for the same obscure purpose as me.

“A few, I suppose. Most end up looking as disappointed as you do now.”

I hadn’t meant to look so downtrodden. I shouldn’t have expected much. Later, upon reflection, I was able to come up with some pride in being enough of a geek for geography that I would spend half a day of my precious vacation time traveling to such a forlorn place. As for that day, I left the store, turned the van south, and hoped I could make it paved roads before the impending rain started.

I understand it’s not a ringing endorsement for the place. The woods are beautiful, and so is Lake-in-the-Woods, the large body of water that borders Minnesota, Ontario, and Manitoba. I’ve heard it is a great place for fishing and that the fall colors are beautiful. I even read that during the winter, when the lake is frozen, people are able to drive across it to get there from the rest of Minnesota. The crossing back into the United States at Warroad, Minnesota was, by far, the most unpleasant U.S./Canadian Border crossing I have ever done. They must have figured if you are crazy enough to go all that way for bragging right, you must be worth some extra scrutiny.

If you go, the closest hotels with good ratings on TripAdvisor are about 30 miles away:

To see the rest of my geographic extreme points, check out the article on my blog.

The Northwest Angle - Top of the (Continental) USA

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by Erik Smith

Erik's parents fostered a love of traveling that started with long family road trips during the summer months. His first international trip was a family jaunt to Europe at age 14. Since 2003, he has been trying to visit all the National Park units in the lower 48 states, currently standing at 304 of 350 visited. In 2010, he took a one year break from his National Park quest to visit Israel (with side trips to Jordan & Egypt) for the month of May, on a tour inspired by The Amateur Traveler. His blog is at http://onmyfeetorinmymind.blogspot.com. Twitter:@eriksmithdotcom

12 Responses to “The Northwest Angle in Minnesota – Only for the Sake of Geography”

Chris

Says:

Came across your post while searching for extreme points of the US. I too have been trying to visit these places. I’ve been to Lubec and Key West and need to get to the westernmost. Where in Washington state did you visit?

As for northernmost, according to Wikipedia, Sumas, Washington is the northernmost incorporated town, and since that seems to be my pattern so far, I’d like to go there, but I haven’t been able to find out if there’s a marker there or not (for photographic evidence of course).

Nice post! Glad to see someone else is geographically obsessed as I am!

Jan Dunlap

Says:

I was so excited to find your article and photos! We drove this same road two weeks ago on the way to our daughter’s wedding on Flag Island. I write a humorous Birder Murder Mystery series (from North Star Press, available at select stores and on Amazon.com) and want to place a future novel in this area, so I was looking for photos to remind me of the trip, and found your blog. Your comments are all interesting too. Thanks for recording your trip!

Gary Hager

Says:

Thank you for sharing your journey. This coming January I have a meeting in Florida and thought about doing the same thing, except start at the Northwest Angle on a snowmobile, crossing The Lake of the Woods, then drive the remainder of the way to Key West. This is not so much of a trial as I live in northern Minnesota, about 4 hours from The Lake of the Woods. Ya, you betcha, it’s much easier living near the starting point. Please share your wisdom to assure a journey that is safe, yet pleasurable to prevent those UFF-DA moments.
BTW – the mosquitoes are pretty tame this year.
Native Minnesotan

Pennshioan

Says:

Some may think this pedantic but you have  used the term continental (i.e. “Northernmost Post Office in the Continental United States”) rather than the terms  contiguous or conterminous.  Alaska is part of the continental U.S.

Chris Christensen

Says:

It is pedantic… but it doesn’t mean I don’t do the same thing 🙂

ClaudeMercure

Says:

Hey, can I join the pedantic party? I just wanted to point out that most of these places with markers are geographically inaccurate. The Four Corners plaque isn’t in the right spot. And in the Northwest Angle, it’s very difficult to get to the actual northernmost point unless you’re a seasoned hiker. In Key West, though, it’s easy to do better than the officially marked spot. There’s an area of the beach in Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park that’s actually south of the southernmost marker. (The real southernmost point is actually within the naval base nearby, but I don’t know if civilians are allowed there.) I’m map-obsessed myself, and I know that when I check out these extreme points, I’ll just HAVE to stand as close as possible to the real spot!
p.s. Thanks for the informative article. It’ll be helpful when I visit the Angle.

Gary Lutrick

Says:

I think you mentioned Maine as eastern most point. I think Alaska has those bragging rights where the Aleutians cross the date line.

Gary Lutrick

Priscilla Bloomquist

Says:

Erik, loved your pictures! Very clear and exactly like we all experience when we come up to the cabin. Too bad you didn’t have time to find a local to show you the high points! My father bought the lot and some acreage up there before the road was built, so it was even more of an adventure the first time I went up there. But it is beautiful in both its scenery and its isolation. I do agree with the U.S. customs assessment you found at Warroad. They don’t seem to want anyone to come back to the States there.

John Cocktoasten

Says:

Well done annotation of a goal I have on my own “bucket-list”. I really enjoyed the description of the importance of the pictures. I have been to Key West, Seattle & Olympia en route to Vancouver (BC).

Tahir Usman

Says:

Great blog and a very interesting read. Thank you

I was visiting Key West recently and that got my mind wondering where the northern most point was.

Mike Lizonitz

Says:

I am wondering if anyone has the GPS coordinates for this northern most point of the contiguous states. I have been to the southernmost and easternmost points and will be going to the westernmost in May and hope to hit the northernmost on the way back from the state of Washington to PA. We are also talking a cruise out of Vancouver up to Alaska before heading back to PA.

I was hoping there was some sort of signage mentioning the northernmost point.

We are also hoping to visit American Island where the center piece of the Sunsweep Sculpture was placed. We visited the eastern piece in Maine and will visit the western piece at Point Roberts, Washington on this trip.

When finished with this trip we will have visited all 50 states and I would love to end it with having visited the MN sites. I understand you can only get to American Island via boat and I am hoping there is some business close by that takes people to the island.

Thanks in advance for any help.

Mike and Pat

Phil James

Says:

Mike and Pat,
Google Maps gives the GPS coordinates of the topmost corner of Angle Township as 49.382974, -95.153354. The topmost home seems to be 49.368238, -95.152326. Angle Inlet post office is 49.345464, -95.070417, if all that is not too pedantic.
Phil

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