Minnesota’s Lake Superior North Shore Offers Lighthouses, Trails
Split Rock Lighthouse was built on a cliff 130 feet above the lake. All the building material had to be brought in by water because it predates the road. (Karen Samelson/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MCT)
The protected harbor is calm on a summer day at Grand Marais on Minnesota's North Shore. (Karen Samelson/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MCT)
The sunset draws admirers on the dock at Gunflint Lodge on Gunflint Lake near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. (Karen Samelson/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MCT)
A canoe sits at a backcountry canoe campsite on Seagull Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota. (Karen Samelson/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MCT)
Kids and adults alike play in the pool below High Falls at Tettegouche State Park on Minnesota's North Shore on a hot August day. At 60 feet, High Falls is the highest waterfall that's completely in Minnesota. (Karen Samelson/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MCT)
You don’t have to be a voyageur in a birch-bark canoe to land on Minnesota’s North Shore.
If you’re working your way north from Wisconsin toward Canada on a Lake Superior circle tour, heading to the Boundary Waters or Isle Royale, or just looking to relax on a great stretch of a great lake, the North Shore offers plenty of outdoor activities and historical sites.
For adventurers looking to rough it and explore the outdoors, the 150-mile drive from Duluth to the Canadian border goes past numerous state parks with campgrounds and hiking trails, as well as places to go biking or boating.
For tourists looking to take it easy, the North Shore has B&Bs, cabins, resorts and even a casino, as well as lighthouses to tour and art studios and other shops to poke around in.
And no one will get stuck with dry rations — fresh fish and berry pie are among the local specialties.
After making the six-hour drive from Milwaukee via I-90/94 and U.S. 53, travelers pick up the North Shore Scenic Drive in the port city of Duluth. Highway 61 stays close to the shore, though not always within sight of it, up to Grand Portage as it heads northeast, following the rocky spine along Lake Superior that is a remnant of ancient volcanic activity.
One of the first towns is Two Harbors, home to a major ore dock and a lighthouse. It’s also a great place to stop for pie.
Betty’s Pies on Highway 61 also serves meals and has a special takeout counter and picnic tables outside. I opted for the decadent five-layer raspberry pie, which included meringue, chocolate, raspberry cream and chocolate cream. My boyfriend, Rick, had a luscious slice of berry pie.
Gooseberry Falls State Parkis the first state park that drivers pass heading north. It’s a popular park with several waterfalls and a sought-after campground that’s often used as a base for biking on the North Shore.
More than 30 miles have been paved so far on the Gitchi-Gami State Trail, with the longest of the five segments running 15 miles from the park to Beaver Bay. Some stretches run along the highway, while others go into state parks.
One spur leads to Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. The lighthouse, a National Historic Landmark, gets more than 100,000 visitors a year.
Guided tours depart throughout the day from the visitor center (open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. from May 15 to late October, $6-$9).
Our guide, Jill, explained that the steel industry pushed for the lighthouse after the devastating storms of 1905. The highway didn’t exist then, so building the lighthouse on top of a cliff was no easy feat. A special steam-powered hoist and derrick helped lift 300 tons of building material from the water.
The lighthouse went into service in 1910 and served as a location marker until 1969, when technology made it obsolete.
Keeping the Fresnel lens rotating was a major chore and required the keeper and assistants to work four-hour shifts at night. After the highway opened in 1924, the keepers also had tourists to escort. By 1939, the Coast Guard called it “probably the most visited lighthouse in the United States.”
Today, visitors can talk with costumed guides while touring the keeper’s residence, the foghorn building and the lighthouse. A climb up a narrow spiral staircase offers a great view.
For visitors wanting a photo op of the lighthouse itself, a birch-lined gravel path — or stairs if you’re energetic — lead down to the rocky shoreline.
Tettegouche State Park, north of Silver Bay, is the next park up the shore. Besides regular campsites, it has 13 cart-in sites, which are a five- to 10-minute walk on the lake side of the highway. The sites are nicely wooded, but campers may hear highway noise. The carts make it easy to carry gear, but note that water is available only in the main campground.
(North Shore state park campgrounds fill up fast; by early April, reservable sites were basically taken for the weekends in August.)
Tettegouche has a variety of hiking trails. We walked out to Shovel Point, where rock climbers were rappelling on a 70-foot cliff going straight down to Lake Superior.
We also hiked up to the 60-foot High Falls, where vacationers were cooling off in the water below the highest falls that are completely in Minnesota.
That path briefly followed the Superior Hiking Trail, which runs 296 miles from Jay Cooke State Park south of Duluth to the Canadian border, mostly following the rocky ridgeline above Lake Superior. It has trailhead parking lots every five to 10 miles for day hikers, and backcountry campsites for backpackers.
Next comes Father Baraga’s Cross, which honors a Slovenian priest who got caught in a storm in his canoe in 1846 while crossing from the Apostle Islands.
He landed safely near present-day Schroeder and erected a wooden cross to thank God. Now there’s a granite cross in his honor. Father Frederic Baraga also ministered to the Chippewa and settlers in Wisconsin.
Near Lutsen, drivers can catch a glimpse of the ski runs and a popular golf course. Lutsen, considered one of the Midwest’s largest ski areas,is a reminder that winter lovers also visit the North Shore. Alpine slides and other activities lure the kids in the warmer weather.
Drivers won’t miss Grand Marais even if they blink. It has a resort town feel, with a variety of shops along the protected waterfront and tourists wandering about. What began as a trading post turned into a thriving arts community, with plenty of galleries. It’s also home to the North House Folk School, which offers classes ranging from basketry to woodcarving.
Standup paddleboarders were getting a lesson in the harbor as we headed for slices of delicious berry pie (we had blueberry and the bumbleberry mixture), at the Pie Place Café. Wisconsinites will be glad to know there’s also a custard stand near the waterfront.
Grand Marais is a good spot to get fresh fish, including whitefish and lake trout. We had lunch on the deck at the Dockside Fish Market, where I ate locally caught fried herring and bought smoked trout for our cooler.
For anglers who want to catch dinner themselves, the options range from Lake Superior to inland lakes.
To get to remote lakes, fishermen and canoeists will follow the Gunflint TrailNational Scenic Byway northwest out of Grand Marais. It runs 57 miles into the heart of the Superior National Forest and provides access to cabins and resorts on the many lakes and also serves as an entry point into the sprawling Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. For some families and scouts, a weeklong canoe trip with portages over rocky trails is a ritual.
Back on U.S. 61 heading north from Grand Marais, drivers watching carefully can find a wayside around Mile 123 and walk on the pebbly Paradise Beach, known for agates.
Just a few miles shy of the Canadian border is the Ojibwe community of Grand Portage. There’s not much of a town, but the Grand Portage Casino offers rooms, campsites, dining and, of course, slot machines.
It’s named for the 81/2-mile portage that the American Indians and French Canadian voyageurs used to carry their canoes and goods as they bypassed rapids on the Pigeon River on its way into Lake Superior. We were surprised to encounter modern-day voyageurs — a group of Minnesota university students — who had just reached the big lake, successfully completing an arduous canoe trip that began near Ely, more than 100 miles west.
The Grand Portage National Historic Site tells the history of the portage. The free site has a new visitors center, as well as an Indian encampment and a traders compound, complete with re-enactors.
Fish were cooking over a fire, and volunteer Noreen Horwitz from Colorado was showing how to use an Indian baby carrier.
We were especially intrigued by the canoe warehouse, where Keith Lindeman, an RVer originally from Columbus, Ohio, explained how in the 1790s, the North West Company used 40-foot canoes made of birch bark, cedar and spruce that could hold 5,000 pounds of goods. After the spring thaw, a crew of about 12 men set out from Montreal for Grand Portage, paddling 14 or 15 hours a day and unloading the canoe every night and at every portage. “You can’t beach a birch-bark canoe,” Lindeman explained.
At Grand Portage, the men traded with the Indians and sent smaller canoes to outposts farther west to trade goods for fur pelts.
Grand Portage is also the jumping-off point for backpackers and paddlers headed to the remote Isle Royale National Park, known for its wolves and moose. Wisconsinites usually take a ferry from the U.P. to Rock Harbor on the main island’s eastern end, but for backpackers who want to start at the western end, the ferry from Grand Portage to the Windigo dock takes only two hours.
Hikers who want a taste of the island can also do a day trip.
Right before the Canadian border checkpoint is Grand Portage State Park, which is operated jointly with the Ojibwe tribe. It’s an easy half-mile walk to the overlook for the 120-foot High Falls, the highest waterfall partially in Minnesota.
A parks worker there was carving a pole to use for harvesting wild rice, a reminder that Indian traditions live on.
For those who have plenty of wanderlust, Lake Superior’s North Shore beckons, with adventures on land and water. For those who just want to slow down, the shore offers plenty of cozy cabins, historical sites, striking photo opportunities — and fresh berry pie, too.
If You Go
When to go: The main season runs from May to mid-October, said Alyssa Ebel with Explore Minnesota. If you want to avoid the crowds, “don’t do fall,” when a lot of people do the scenic North Shore drive.
“Any time of the year is beautiful, even in winter there’s a lot to see and do,” said Kaija Benson with Minnesota State Parks and Trails. “It’s hard to beat the autumn season with the brilliant colors — golds and reds, and the backdrop of the blue lake.”
For a list of festivals and events, go to northshorevisitor.com. Major events include Grandma’s Marathon, June 21 from Two Harbors to Duluth, and Bayfront Blues Festival, Aug 8-10 in Duluth.
Minnesota state parks: State park passes are $5 a day or $25 per vehicle for the year. For information on parks, camping, the rock climbing program and more, see dnr.state.mn.us/state(underscore)parks.