Escape to Minnesota's North Shore
For stressed-out city folks, it's hallowed ground.
© Beth Gauper
The North Shore is lined with lichen-covered volcanic rock.
Ten thousand years ago, the melting of Minnesota’s last glacier transformed a placid beach into a rugged coast.
It’s a 150-mile stretch of wild beauty, lined by piles of jagged black basalt, cobblestone beaches and the mouths of dozens of rivers, tumbling down from the old beaches of Glacial Lake Duluth.
Seven state parks follow their winding gorges, marked by rapids and waterfalls, and the Superior Hiking Trail crosses them on its way from Duluth to the Canadian border.
This is Minnesota’s breathing space, to which tourists return like spawning salmon, year after year, or whenever we need to fill our lungs with brisk Lake Superior air. We can’t swim in the water — it’s about 40 degrees, even in summer — but we can look at the views and walk through the forests, and we do.
The romance of crashing waves and wooded solitude makes the North Shore a favorite honeymoon and anniversary destination, but
its popularity is universal.
Only a few decades ago, most visitors stayed in mom-and-pop resorts, usually a string of small cabins perched on the rocky shore. The traditional spots since have been joined — and often supplanted by — upscale condos and townhouses. But the North Shore still is primarily for people who just want to be outdoors.
There’s so much to see and do that planning a trip can be hard. It helps to know where the highlights are; for distances between state parks, attractions and towns.
For more, see North Shore by the
The first stretch, on Old Highway 61 between Duluth and Two Harbors, retains the feel of the old shore and has many old-fashioned resorts.
In spring, fishermen flock to the French, Sucker and Knife rivers for smelt, salmon and trout. For more, see Minnesota's scenic 61.
The next stretch holds the densest concentration of scenery. Minnesota 61 passes through two tunnels cut through rock and
over the waterfalls of Gooseberry State Park, Minnesota’s most-visited outstate park. Split Rock Lighthouse, just up
the road, is the most-photographed spot on the shore and probably the state.
At Palisade Head, sheer pink cliffs rise from the lake, lining the shore to Shovel Point at Tettegouche State Park. For more,
see The near North Shore.
The stretch between Schroeder and Lutsen attracts a well-heeled crowd to the cushy resorts and condos around Lutsen Mountains.
Many of the shore’s most popular hiking trails are here, along the Temperance, Onion and Poplar rivers, as well as
Eagle Mountain, the state’s highest point. For more, see Hiking the North Shore.
Grand Marais was founded by fur traders, loggers and fishermen and still is the favorite spot of die-hard outdoors people,
especially cross-country skiers. It’s also the beginning of the Gunflint Trail and one of the gateways to the Boundary
Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Hiking around here, especially around the Devil Track, Kadunce and Brule rivers, is the most dramatic of the shore. For more,
see Charismatic Grand Marais.
© Beth Gauper
In Tettegouche State Park, a cliff jumper leaps off Illgen Falls on the Baptism River.
Few venture beyond Grand Marais, but those who do will be rewarded. Two centuries ago, Grand Portage was a fur-trading
metropolis, and Grand Portage National Monument re-creates its colorful past in and around a reconstructed stockade.
Next door, ferries leave for Isle Royale National Park, one of the nation's best backpacking destinations. For more, see
Life on the Grand Portage.
Six miles north, in Grand Portage State Park, the 120-foot High Falls of the Pigeon River cascade over a sheer basalt face. This is the unpassable chasm that forced the Ojibwe to make a 8½-mile grand detour, a route the voyageurs later adopted to reach the fur-rich interior.
The British-owned North West Company post moved across the border in 1803, and that era is re-created at Fort William Historical Park, where costumed interpreters work their magic in and around the continent's largest reconstructed post.
It's just one of the attractions of Thunder Bay, the largest city on Lake Superior and the most ethnically diverse. For more, see Exploring Thunder Bay.
According to Canadians, the real North Shore starts there; it is, of course, the north shore of Lake Superior. But that's
another story: For more, see Circling
Trip Tips: Minnesota's North Shore
Driving distances: A blue guide called North Shore Drive of Lake Superior, put out since 1937, is indispensable, especially because it lists all landmarks by milepost — from the Vista Fleet dock in Duluth at 0.0 to the Canadian border at 151.5.
It's 24 miles from Duluth to Two Harbors, then another 16 miles to Gooseberry Falls, 6 miles to Split Rock Lighthouse, 12 miles to Tettegouche State Park, 24 miles to Tofte and 7 miles to Lutsen.
From Lutsen, it's 10 miles to Cascade River State Park, 10 miles to Grand Marais, 14 miles to Judge C.R. Magney State
Park/Naniboujou, 21 miles to Grand Portage National Monument and 6 miles to the Canadian border.
Fall weekends are even busier, when throngs come up to hike and see the hardwood forest burst into color.
Late October and early November is an excellent time to hike; muddy trails harden, falling leaves open up new vistas, the
bugs are gone and hotel rates drop. Just remember to wear blaze-orange — deer firearm season starts in early
For more, see Quiet time on the North
© Beth Gauper
Volcanic rock on Two Harbor's Lighthouse Point slides into Lake Superior.
In winter, the North Shore is a sports paradise, with hundreds of miles of trails for downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling.
When there’s not enough snow, trails and frozen rivers are fine places to hike. Temperatures along the shore are 10 degrees warmer than they are inland, thanks to heat held by the lake, but biting winds often erase the advantage.
The ski season at Lutsen Mountains extends into mid-April. But away from the Lutsen area, prices at many hotels drop to
half-price in March. However, spring weather is unpredictable at best, and trails are sloppy.
The best bet in spring is late May and the first half of June, when wildflowers appear in the forests. However, black flies
may be a problem inland, away from lake breezes. Mosquitoes also come out in force then. In most spots, both die down by
Accommodations: See Where to stay on
Minnesota's North Shore.
Make reservations as early as possible for summer, weekdays as well as weekends.
Reserve a year in advance for weekends during peak color season, the last weekend of September and the first weekend of
October. Color peaks first inland, and that's where maples provide the most vivid reds and oranges.
On the third weekend of October, Minnesota schoolchildren have a four-day break, and the entire North Shore books up.
In winter, reserve a few weeks in advance for the best selection on ski weekends.
Dining: See Dining on the North Shore.
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