MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Planning a Circle Tour of Lake Superior

For a great vacation, follow the shores of Lake Superior.

Duluth's Bayfront Festival Park.

© Beth Gauper

If you're staying in Duluth, plan around the big festivals at Bayfront Park.

Of all the vacations a person can take in this region, a Circle Tour of Lake Superior may be the best.

It appeals to waterfall watchers, lighthouse fans and history buffs. It's a magnet for kayakers and hikers. It makes a great honeymoon and also a great family trip, because small children adore the many pebble beaches.

You can do it in a car or a motorcycle; you can camp or stay in motels. It’s all things to all people, the perfect vacation for anyone who loves the outdoors.

However, planning the 1,300-mile Circle Tour isn't easy, because you need a new place to stay every night or two. It would be nice to be able to stop when you feel like it, but in summer, you risk being turned away or getting the worst place in town.

So it's best to reserve a place for every night. Late winter and spring is the time to start nailing down plans.

I've gone on the Circle Tour twice, once in late June-early July and once in late July. I went clockwise the first time, counterclockwise the second. 

Both worked; how you plan depends on what you want to do along the way.

Here are tips to get you started.

For an overview of what you'll see on the trip, see Circling Superior.

For a 10-day, nine-night sample itinerary, with a list of the best places to stay, see Lake Superior's greatest hits.

When to go: Late May and June are least crowded and rates usually are lower, though weather is unpredictable and black flies are heaviest.

From mid-June, festivals, attractions and tours are at full throttle. Canadian schools don't get out until the end of June, so tourism is light there until then.

Blueberry-picking season starts in late July. On the south shore, swimming is best in August.

Fall colors can be spectacular — expect peak the last week of September and the first week of October — but weather may be chilly and even blustery.

In Ontario, Fort William and campgrounds at parks along Lake Superior close after the first week of October. For more, see Circle Tour of Lake Superior in September and October.

Sunset on Grand Marais harbor.

© Beth Gauper

The Sawtooth Mountains rise behind Grand Marais and its harbor on Minnesota's North Shore.

How to plan: First, get Lake Superior magazine’s annual Travel Guide, which comes with a map. The guide is free with a subscription or available at newsstands and bookstores.

Or, call for the map alone (free, but postage and handling is $2.95).

Consult the guide's map chart and decide how much time you want to spend driving each day. Then, see if there's an event you want to catch and build your itinerary around that.

2015 events: Duluth has the biggest festivals, so if you're going to be there on a weekend, plan early. 

Grandma's Marathon weekend, June 19-21, also packs the town.

Other Duluth festivals: July 4, Fourth Fest, with a big fireworks show. July 25, All Pints North Summer Brew Fest. July 18, Bayfront Reggae & World Music Festival. Aug. 7-9, Bayfront Blues Festival.

People who like to watch Great Lakes freighters should be in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., June 26 for Engineers Day, when the public can walk across the lock walls. On June 27, join the International Bridge Walk.

There's a Great Tugboat Parade through the locks June 26 and Great Tugboat Races June 27.

Canada Day is July 1 and celebrated in Canadian towns everywhere.

In Wisconsin's Apostles, Madeline Island has a fun parade on July 4, followed by historical figures giving patriotic speeches. In Bayfield, July 18-19 is the Festival of Arts.

In Thunder Bay, July is a busy month, with events that include Blues Festival July 3-5, the Anishnawbe Keeshigun Aboriginal Festival at Fort William Historical Park July 4-5, the Dragon Boat Race Festival and Lake Superior Day.

In Red Rock, east of Thunder Bay, the Live From the Rock Folk Festival is Aug. 7-9.

In Grand Marais, watch for the Wooden Boat Show, June 19-21; Arts Festival, July 11-12; and Fisherman’s Picnic, July 31-Aug. 2.

Kakabeka Falls near Thunder Bay.

© Torsten Muller

Kakabeka Falls in Thunder Bay often is called the Niagara of the North.

In Grand Portage, the Rendezvous and Powwow is Aug. 14-16, and the surrounding area books up a year in advance.

Paradise, Mich., near Whitefish Point Shipwreck Museum, celebrates Wild Blueberry Festival Aug. 21-23.

In White River, Ont., the home of the bear that inspired Winnie the Pooh, Winnie's Hometown Festival is in mid-August.

In Superior, Wis., the Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival is Aug. 21-22. For more, see Waking the dragon.

Crossing borders: U.S. citizens 16 and over need a passport or passport card. For details and updates, check government requirements.

Residents of Minnesota and Michigan also can get an enhanced driver's license that will allow them to reenter the United States. It's an extra $15 in Minnesota and $45 in Michigan.

Children need a birth certificate or other proof of citizenship. If you’re bringing a child who is not your own, you need notarized consent from both parents.

And don't bring the family pit bull — Ontario bans pit bulls.

Motorcyclists: Helmets are required in Michigan and Ontario. If you try to cross the Canadian border without one, you'll be turned away.

Bicyclists: It's a long slog on the more remote stretches in Ontario, especially between Marathon and Sault Ste. Marie. People do it, but it doesn't look fun.

To do a partial Circle Tour on the less-isolated southern part and also see Isle Royale, take the ferry from Grand Portage, Minn., to Rock Harbor and then another ferry to Copper Harbor, Mich.

For more, see Isle Royale reverie.

Information: Duluth, 800-438-5884. For more, see Duluth stories.

Grand Marais, 888-922-5000. For more, see Four seasons of Grand Marais.

Thunder Bay, 800-667-8386. See more, see Exploring Thunder Bay.

Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, 807-977-2526. For more, see In the shadow of the Giant.

The B&B at the shipwreck museum in Whitefish point

© Beth Gauper

At the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, the Coast Guard crew's quarters now is a B&B.

Ontario’s North of Superior, 800-265-3951.

Naturally Superior Adventures in Rossport, 807-824-3314. For more, see Kayaking the Rossport Islands.

Pukaskwa National Park (pronounced PUCK-a-saw), 807-229-0801. Campers shouldn't miss this large and beautiful park along Lake Superior. 

Most people in cars bypass it because it's a 40-minute detour each way from the Trans-Canada Highway. 

Lake Superior Provincial Park, 705-882-2026.

Wawa, 800-367-9292, Ext. 260.

Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., 705-949-7152.

Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., 800-647-2858. For more, see Locking through the Soo.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, 906-387-3700. For more, see Michigan's Pictured Rocks.

Marquette Country, 800-544-4321. For more, see Marquette's two faces.

Keweenaw Peninsula, 906-337-4579. For more, see Digging the Keweenaw.

Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, 906-885-5275. For more, see Afoot in the Porkies.

Bayfield, 800-447-4094. For more, see Beloved Bayfield and Madeline's magnetism.

Superior, 800-942-5313. For more, see Plainly Superior.

Last updated on February 21, 2015

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