TOFTE — Imagine waking in a quaint cabin to a view of the Superior National Forest through 10-foot-tall sliding-glass doors. Slip outside of the warmth provided by a gas fireplace to welcome the sunrise with a steaming cup of coffee on the patio.
Then head a little farther down the road to Oberg Mountain for a fall color hike. Return in the evening to gather around a communal fire pit, share stories and roast marshmallows with fellow travelers. Through the trees, you catch a glimpse of a sailboat floating by on Lake Superior.
That’s the type of experience Christopher Austin and Kelsey Braun, both 36, hope to provide guests at their newest vacation rental cabins called
“Nobody was talking about Tofte. It was always Grand Marais, Lutsen, Silver Bay, Beaver Bay. Tofte is this incredible mecca of trails,” Braun said. “Our guidebook is riddled.”
Their property at 151 Onion River Road is within minutes of the paved Gitchi-Gami State Trail, a portion of which travels from Schroeder over the Temperance River gorge near Tofte, to Ski Hill Road near Lutsen. Eventually, it will expand from its 30 completed miles to 90 total miles, connecting Two Harbors to Grand Marais.
“You’re right at nature’s doorstep,” said Austin. “We want people to be blown away. We want them to have a great time. This is something that they haven’t seen.”
Each of the five cabins at Tofte Trails is a modest 12-by-24 feet, meant to be “small on purpose” while maintaining an efficient use of space.
To encourage guests to get outdoors, they’re all fitted with a 20-square-foot “adventure locker” that includes camp chairs, a small cooler and a blanket, in addition to ski and snowboard mounts. A Solo stove for smokeless bonfires, as well as a propane grill, can be found on each patio.
Custom ceiling-height windows open up the bedrooms and bathrooms with outdoor views, all while achieving a cozy feel inside. The interior design uses mostly pre-owned and locally handcrafted items.
Yet, the most distinctive feature that sets Tofte Trails apart from the “traditional” North Shore cabin is the 140-year-old barn wood throughout. Sourced from a fully functioning dairy farm in Faribault, Minnesota, this detail is most meaningful to Braun, who grew up in a family of dairy farmers.
“I wanted a moody, different wood and Chris, bless his heart, made it happen,” Braun said.
It took three large truckloads and a lot of hard work for the aged wood to create a unique look that would be difficult to replicate. “It was a labor of love,” Austin said.
According to the guestbook, their goal in building Tofte Trails is that guests have a rejuvenating getaway filled with adventure, nature and connecting to oneself and loved ones.
The concept is similar to that of the couple’s vacation rentals located in Crosby, Minnesota, where mountain biking and outdoor recreation has exploded in recent years.
Cuyuna Cove is strategically placed on a 3-acre plot connected to the Cuyuna Country State Recreational Area trail systems. “It connects to the bike trails and you can pretty much walk to Main Street, so it was this incredible location,” Braun said of their first commercial rentals.
After investing an estimated 4,000 hours of sweat equity to develop and build Cuyuna Cove from the ground up, their five year-round cabins with five seasonal tents launched in 2020.
“COVID had just happened when we were finishing building, so we were just sick — I mean stressed. We didn’t know if we were even going to be able to open,” Braun said.
However, their business fared well given the nature of travel and tourism during the pandemic since their pockets of cabins allowed for outdoor community spaces where guests could still meet new people.
Once a small team was secured to help operate Cuyuna Cove, the couple set out on their next venture.
In 2021, Austin and Braun purchased a 17-acre lot, where they worked to clear the raw forest land in preparation for Tofte Trails. They slept in a tent and bathed in frigid Lake Superior, later upgrading to a 9-by-20-foot bunkhouse they found on Facebook Marketplace. It just recently received utility hookups.
“We’ve been up here for two years without electricity or water,” Braun said. “We get a lot of people reaching out to us almost every-other day saying, ‘We want to do what you’re doing.’ I always want to discourage them because it’s just that in remote places like Crosby (and especially the North Shore), it was brutal. The cost of this one was insane.”
In order to afford to build Tofte Trails, the couple took out a loan, leveraging the equity from their first resort and their home due to the high costs of construction.
“The foot dragging was bad,” Austin explained. “You have a smaller labor force with a higher demand on that labor force, so people can kind of pick and choose, and charge whatever they want.”
The frequent 3.5-hour drive between Crosby and Tofte to haul an estimated 20-30 loads of materials also took its toll, according to Braun.
“It’s more the satisfaction in the overcoming,” Austin said. “You don’t see the drudgery or the work, so it’s easy to think it’s a passive income type of thing.”
The couple used their more than a decade of experience from flipping and renovating homes, launching businesses and hosting Airbnb guests in Austin, Texas, and Crosby to complete Tofte Trails, only this time with the help of builders.
Next, they may take a much-needed break to reconnect with each other. “We got married and it’s been pretty much been nonstop construction for three years,” Braun said.