One thing that has continually amazed me as I travel and live in different cities around the USA is how rarely people appreciate the incredible place I was raised.The Midwest is so often written off as “flyover country”, and the Great Lakes seen as freezing, industrial, unsalted seas. I have come to think that the North Shore of Lake Superior is an utterly unappreciated gem of our country, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve argued with people who assume I left this place for lack of culture or inspiration. Let me set the record straight: I can’t fully explain why I felt compelled to leave, but it was not because I needed new trails to hike or lakes to swim in.
Especially if you like camping and outdoor adventure, Northern Minnesota is one of a kind for rugged wilderness. How many other places can you find more than a million acres of lakes, rivers and forest, untouched by mining, logging and motorized vehicles? Where else can you hike for hundreds of miles along the largest lake in the world, all the way to the Canadian Border?
Though it’s a little off the beaten path of many of the classic American road trips, I believe that making a trip Up North is well worth the divergence, and that you’ll start to feel the magic as soon as you drive over the hill in Duluth and see Lake Superior stretching before you for the first time.
Nearly every trip to the North Shore begins in Duluth, and it’s a city worth spending at least a day or two exploring. As the largest and farthest-west freshwater seaport in North America, Duluth’s harbor is busy and bustling all summer long with huge cargo vessels from all around the world (the boyfriend and I have joked about how many a ship will leave Duluth full of grain grown in the Midwest of the USA, bound for Italy to be transformed into pasta “Made in Italy”, then shipped back to the States for consumption) and it’s possible to watch the ships come into the harbor underneath the unique Aerial Lift Bridge. Duluth isn’t the rough shipping town it once was, though. Today it is a fantastic place to live and visit, named Best Town in America by Outdoors Magazine in 2014 and a perfect launching point for a North Shore adventure. You’ll find a plethora of parks and hiking trails in town, lots of unique shopping, good food, good microbrewed beer and plenty of museums to get you antiquated with the history of the area and vast variety of natural resources.
I’d recommend getting a hotel room in Canal Park, where you can walk to historic downtown and along the lake, braving a quick dip into Lake Superior on the beach at Park Point, prepping for outdoor excursions at the Duluth Pack Shop and making sure to drive up the hill to climb Enger Tower where one can truly appreciate the hugeness of Lake Superior from her mouth.
For more about what’s happening in Duluth during your visit (so many awesome summer festivals!) and for all the info you need to plan a great stay in the coolest* city in the USA, click here.
*Note: The huge, cold lake can cause pretty dramatic temperature shifts, even in the middle of August so being sure you’ve got a sweatshirt in your bag for your trek up the North Shore in case the wind’s change direction!
Superior Hiking Trail
Think Appalachian or Pacific Crest Trails, but along the North Shore of Lake Superior. The Superior Hiking Trail runs 310 miles (499km) along the length of the the lake from south of Duluth to the Canadian Border, and is dotted with 93 free rustic campsites along the way. The portion of the trail reaching Jay Cooke State Park and the WI border was just completed this summer, 30 years after the original vision of the Trail was begun. Along the way, you’ll hike through boreal forests, up and down the ancient Sawtooth Mountains, past smaller lakes and rivers and catch glimpses (and breezes!) of the incredible Lake Superior nearby.
You can take a day hike (I recommend heading north from Silver Bay towards Bean Lake and Mt. Trudee for some spectacular views and a good work out) or you can spend months on the trail, enjoying the changing landscape of the lake shore intimately.
Check out all the trail information, including sections for day hiking, backpacking and thru-hiking here, or stop in the Superior Hiking Trail Association office in Two Harbors.
Maybe you don’t have the time, energy or gear to get too far off the highway? The great news is whether you’re traveling north of Duluth by foot or by car, it’s easy to get out and experience the highlights of the area. Highway 61 winds up the coast of Lake Superior through a handful of small towns and 8 fantastic state parks where you can stop and take a short or long hike or camp for the night.
Just north of Two Harbors is Gooseberry Falls State Park, a non-negotiable in my personal tour of the neighborhood for newcomers. You don’t need to pay an entrance fee to park at the great visitor’s center and follow the easy, paved path to the breaking point of a three-tired waterfall rushing over the ancient volcanic stones which make the lake shore so unique. A little farther up the shore, Split Rock Light House is an iconic landmark, and in the summer you can take tours of the historic site. Temperance River State Park features a short, moderate hike along the gorges the river must pass through to reach Lake Superior which you cannot miss.
Check out more about each of the parks you’ll find along the road here.
If you are looking for wilderness like you’ve never experienced before, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area is a treasure you must explore first hand to believe. Over a million acres have been set aside in the chain of lakes, rivers and short portages where no logging or mining and not a single motor vehicle is allowed. You explore the land the way the French Canadian voyageurs did in the 18th and 19th centuries: by canoe. In order to camp in the BWCA, not only do you need a permit, you’ll need to cross lakes, carry your canoe and gear through the forests for short (less than a mile typically) portages, and seek out the rustic camp grounds that dot the lake shores. It’s a fair amount of work, and takes preparation, but for the intrepid, it is a rare journey into a true wilderness area. One where you can really see the incredible star-filled sky, hear the loon’s eerie calls across the still water and disconnect away from the modern world as you swim, hike and bask in the wilderness.
It is possible to just go out paddling for a day, too. For all sorts of gear rental (by the 1/2 day or longer), as well as for quick tutorials on canoe carrying and BWCA info, I recommend Sawbill Outfitters, on Sawbill Lake, about 20 miles inland from the town of Tofte.
Grand Marais, MN
Of all the towns along the North Shore to stop at, I believe Grand Marais is probably my favorite. It’s far enough away from Duluth that the 1,300 people who live there have really chosen to be up north, whether for artistic or personal reasons, and the town culture reflects this. You’ll find more breweries, outfitters and artist’s shops, a marina and plenty of smoked fish to eat as well as festivals and unique events throughout the year. It was named the Coolest Small Town in America in 2015, in fact. (And I believe that may mean both temperature and quality of fun.)
The first time I brought my boyfriend here, he looked northwards, into the horizon of cold water and said “I truly feel like I’m at the end of the earth here – but there is a whole country and continent still beyond!” This feeling only intensified when we came back in the winter. The fact remains that Grand Marais does have the feeling of the farthest place one can go before they’re falling off the map.
If you’re partial to sleeping in town rather than a tent, Grand Marais makes a great home base for plenty of small day trips into the wilderness. If you want to see something truly incredible and spend some extra cash, grab a table (and or a bed) at the spectacular Naniboujou Lodge.
Yes, most of the activities I’ve described above are summer-based, but don’t disregard the long, cold Minnesota winter as off-season! Throughout the winter months, the North Shore is busy with cross country and downhill skiing, sled dog races and tours, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, surfing (no, I’m not joking!) and general fireside, hot coco sipping. There are a plethora of resorts that cater to the winter crowds and with a good base layer, you can find just as much delight on a cold January day as a hot August one.
At the heart of my love for Northern Minnesota is not just the artists and adventurers who live here, not just the history of hard work and industry, not just the trees and trails and lakes, it’s not the silence of the forest and the sound of folk music. It is truly Lake Superior, the cool, calm, powerful force of nature that is unlike any other body of water I’ve come across in my travels round the world. Lake Superior is a grand mystery which calms and confounds, breathes quietly and shouts with winter gales. This water is ageless, it is uncompromising. But every once in a while it is forgiving, and you find the tides have turned just enough: you can slip into the water for a swim: an incredible gift, a quick submersion into something more ancient and intimate than any ocean who’s held me.
Go, and discover the gift that’s waiting for you in this incredible place.