The North Shore of Minnesota

Did you know that Lake Superior is the largest fresh-water lake in the world (by surface area)?  Lake Superior is truly a sight to behold and it feels like you are standing on the edge of a vast ocean.  The black basalt cliffs are begging to share their geologic story of fire and ice with you which consist of pre-historic volcanos and ancient glaciers.  If there is one area of the country you should definitely put on your bucket list, that is a trip along the shores of Lake Superior…the great lake they call “Gitche Gumee”. 

Lisa gurtin-johnson

On the way there…

Banning State Park

When you’re in Banning State Park, hike the Quarry Loop which is a 2.5 mile loop that takes you around the ruins of an Old Quarry. There are numerous places to stop along the way and step out onto the rocks on the Kettle River to see the rapids. Then do the trail to Wolf Creek Falls (which begins at the campground at Wolf Creek Trail). When you reach this massive rocky area, you’ll have to do a bit of rock scramble but you are close at that point as the river will on your left and Wolf Creek on your right and you’ll start to hear the falls.

Jay Cooke State Park

This is a huge park with over 50 miles of hiking trails and an old pioneer gravesite, however, there are two points here that are a MUST SEE. You must go to the swinging bridge and walk across. The views of the cascading river are simply breathtaking and the rock formations that folded and fractured and gave them this crazy tilted appearance are stunning. You’ll also want to do Oldenburg Point which is further down the road (turn right after leaving the swinging bridge area). You’ll cross a bridge on the road and then start looking for a picnic area on your right. Pull in there and walk the paved trail (it is a very short loop so it doesn’t matter which way you start out). You’ll get spectacular views of the river gorge below.

Duluth

Canal Park

There’s so much to see and do in Canal Park so this is a MUST SEE if you are heading up the north shore. There’s several places to stay down here including The Inn on Lake Superior, The Suites, Hampton Inn, Comfort Suites, and the Canal Park Lodge, however, get your reservations in very early as the weekends book up quickly for this part of town. Make sure you walk down to see the Aerial Lift Bridge and go inside the free little maritime museum right by the bridge to check and see when the next ship is coming in. Northern Waters Smokehaus is a good choice to eat as it brings together the local fishing industry with the tourism. Another good choice is Canal Park Brewing which has a beautiful dog-friendly patio with a fire pit. They were the winners of five 2019 Brewers Cups and two 2020 Best of Craft Beer Awards and their food is just as good as the beer. Another good brewery is Hoops Brewing (which is connected to The Suites). They have so many beers on tap that they will please just about any palate. If spirits are your thing though, try Vikre Distilling, where they make hand-made spirits from the Lake Superior watershed. There’s so many kitschy souvenir shops along the north shore but this is the best place to start as they have everything from t-shirts to fine art.

Fitger’s Brewhouse

Fitger’s Brewhouse is the oldest brewpub in the State of Minnesota and is also known as the best. I wholeheartedly agree. They are known for their wildrice burgers and you won’t be disappointed as they are phenomenal! It is a true Minnesota experience! If you sit next to the old stone wall, you can spend your time pulling out and reading hundreds of little notes people left behind from their napkin holders like old, ancient sea scrolls. They are so hidden though that I almost missed them but once you see them, you can’t un-see them! Fitger’s has an Inn that you can stay at as well and there is a lot of shopping right in the same old, historic building! There’s approximately 15 shops, 3 restaurants and 2 night clubs, plus the microbrewery, a full service salon and a day spa. If you eat at the Figer’s brewery restaurant, be sure and stop at their gift shop in the same mall as well.

OMC Smokehouse

This place rates in our top 3 BBQ’s in the State of Minnesota. The meats are smoked to perfection, their mac and cheese is rich and creamy, and even if you don’t like sweet potatoes, you will like their sweet potato bake.

Enger Tower

Climb the Enger Tower in Enger Park for amazing panoramic views of the city and harbor below (which is spectacular in the fall as well).

Chester Creek

Plug the “Burrito Union” into your GPS navigator and park anywhere on either side of the bridge. The trailhead is right across the street from Burrito Union and you’ll see a trail map there as well. You’re going to start hiking uphill but don’t worry, it’s not too difficult. It is about 2 miles up and 2 miles back (but on the way back, it is all pretty much downhill). There are small bridges going over the creek here and there and a trail that runs on both sides of the creek. The hike goes by quickly as you are so engrossed by the beautiful scenery. I personally would choose one side for the way up and the other side for the way back. You’ll know you’ve reached the end as there will be a bridge there with parking and probably a multitude of people wading in the falls and it is there that you can turn around and head back. The best part is when you are done, you can stop at the Burrito Union after your hike because the food is amazing! They have a lot of local beers on tap along with margaritas and they are very highly rated for their food. You can sit outside on the back deck if you want and enjoy your meal. Their burritos are what they are known for but we’ve had their wings and nachos as well and everything is just impeccable.

Congdon Park – Tischer Creek

Park near the intersection of E Superior and Congdon Park Drive at the end of the bridge. You’ll see the sign for the park up on the hill and the trail starts behind there. Tischer Creek Falls consists of multiple falls and cascades nestled in a steep, rocky gorge. Spring time is really the best time to go when the runoff is powerful. Head down some steps to the riverbank and hike across the first bridge (which is one of three bridges). The hike is only .3 miles but you’ll see falls after falls. The final falls rush down at three different levels.

Glensheen Mansion

This amazing 39-room mansion was built by the Congdon family who were responsible for opening up the area for mining. The house has much of the same furnishings from that area of the early 1900’s. The landscaping is beautiful and you can also visit the carriage house and view the outside of the boat house. They actually diverted water from Tischer Creek to flow through the property! Most people are more aware of the house being the location for a horrific murder in 1977 of the elderly Elizabeth Congdon and her nurse, however, the tour guides are instructed not to talk of this at all and will promptly shut down any questions if asked of the murders.

Lester Park

Lester Park is an amazingly overlooked park in the Duluth area. There’s over 9 miles of hiking trails and 7 different waterfalls. If you have time, hit the trails (both north and south of the park) or you can drive 7 Bridges Road. It is called that as you will drive over 7 very narrow (often one-car only) bridges. Be sure to stop at the pull-outs along the way and walk down to the falls and cascades. To see the tallest one, the Shallows, you can still drive to that one by taking Lester River Road and parking near a pull-out before the golf course.

Russ Kendall’s Smokehaus

When you are heading out of Duluth and up the shore, be sure and take the scenic drive. This actually used to be the original highway up the north shore before they put in the Highway 61 bypass and it is scenic in several spots. Because of this, many businesses went under without the tourist traffic, however, Russ Kendall’s Smokehouse in Knife River still remains a north shore icon.  It’s a little hole-in-the wall place but they ship all over the world.  They only sell local fish and this has been a family-run business for generations.  I can say from experience that it is best paired with a cold local beer from Castle Danger Brewery in Two Harbors and a sleeve of saltines.  If smoked fish isn’t your thing, they also have all sorts of jams, jellies, jerky, cheese, and flavored maple syrup which comes in such flavors as bourbon, apple, cinnamon, and even jalapeno!

Great! Lakes Candy Kitchen

If you have a sweet tooth, just a few more minutes further up the road is the Great! Lakes Candy Kitchen. It’s a tiny little seasonal candy store but they make much of their own candy. This is a family-run (3rd and 4th generation) business so they know what they are doing. They have caramels, toffee, chocolate-covered peanut butter, sponge candy, creams, fudge, etc. It is a very small store though with limited parking so be prepared to wait in line during the busy summer weekends.

Two Harbors

The Breakwater and Lighthouse

Drive down to the breakwater and lighthouse and maybe you’ll see an ore boat being loaded. Walk out onto breakwater to the very end and if you’re super lucky, you might get to watch that ore boat glide right past you on it’s journey up the lake! Bring a jacket though if it is anywhere under 80 degrees as it can get a little breezy out there. There’s a little giftshop at the lighthouse that you can visit (which is by the parking lot) and there is also a trail that winds around the shoreline and back to the parking lot. When my children were little, they always loved climbing on the rocks out here.

Vanilla Bean Restaurant

This tiny little restaurant is only open until around 3:00 p.m. each day but if you want to get some Minnesota-based Scandinavian food, this is a good place to do it. They have Swedish pancakes with lingonberries and a wild rice porridge (simmered in cream and maple syrup with dried cranberries and pecans).  Be prepared to wait a long time for a table during the summertime though as seating is limited and this is a popular place.

Betty’s Pies

This is another north shore icon. The pies are fresh baked daily and the menu often changes daily. Get there early though as by mid-afternoon, many of the more popular pies are often sold out. These pies are amazing and they are shipped all over the country.  They run around $20.00 a pie and I’ve seen pictures of people with 20-30 boxes of pies. They have a separate window to walk up to and place your order. Don’t overlook the food though as that is just as good! During the summer months and over fall foliage on the weekends, you can expect a very long wait for a table though. The parking lot area has a lot of cars entering and leaving as well and I have found it to be a somewhat dangerous traffic area during the busy months so use some caution. I suggest stopping there on your back down Highway 61 if possible so you can avoid crossing the other lane of traffic.

Castle Danger Brewery

I remember when this place first opened in 2011 and they just had a handful of beers on the menu. Since that time, they have expanded their operation and now you can drink their beer all over the State of Minnesota and they have beer on tap ranging from IPA’s, to one of many stouts and lagers, to their signature Cream Ale. Their tap house has also expanded with indoor and outdoor seating (and they have a dog-friendly patio). Stop in for a pint so next time you are ordering a beer from your local pub and you see them on the menu, you can say, “Hey! I’ve been to this place!”.

Between Two Harbors and Grand Marais

Gooseberry Falls State Park

This is the second most visited park in the State of Minnesota outside of Fort Snelling so I would put this one on your MUST SEE list as well. Since this is just down the road from my father’s house, I’ve spent a lot of time here over the years. This can get very busy during the weekends in the summers and during fall foliage with cars often parking on the shoulder of the road and walking in so my advice is to get here early. If you are staying in Two Harbors, get up early and make sure you are here before 10:00 a.m. or the whole parking lot will fill up quickly. There are 18 miles of trails in this park (all of which are worthy), however, if you have limited time, head down all the stairs and take the Falls Loop Trail which goes around both sides of the Middle and Lower Falls (and it lets you see them from different levels). When you finish the loop, follow the walkway under the Hwy. 61 bridge, and there you’ll see beautiful Upper Falls. Keep going a little ways further up the trail and you’ll find yourself eventually above the falls. Be careful though as many people climb out onto all the falls and every year, there always seems to be somebody seriously injured or killed.

Iona’s Beach Scientific and Natural Area

Between Gooseberry and Split Rock State Park, you’ll see a sign for Iona’s Beach (which also is a boat landing). Turn in here, park, and take the paved trail that heads off into the woods. Eventually the paved trail curves left and you’ll see an unpaved hiking path straight ahead. Take that hiking trail and when that trail branches to the left or right, take the left path first. That will take you down to Iona’s Beach. Not too many people know of this area so you’ll often find this huge expansive beach all to yourself. It is so peaceful listening to the rocks tumbling when each wave comes in. When you’re done there, take that branch off to the right now and you’ll find yourself in a private little cove that during the summer months, it gets warm enough to swim in. There’s also a little trail that continues along with a couple great overlooks which eventually drops you back at the parking lot. This whole area is just a little spit that juts out into the water and was only recently developed in the last 15 years or so.

Split Rock Loop and 9 Waterfalls (which is no longer a loop trail)

At mile marker 43, you’ll see a wayside rest with lots of parking. Park there and you’ll see a sign for the Superior Hiking Trail which you’ll want to start out on. You’ll eventually go a short ways and the trail will split to the left and right. Go to the right and follow the stairs down. This will put you on the correct trail (which is still called the Falls Loop). It’s a thigh-burner and mostly uphill for a little over 2 miles. You’ll find nine amazing waterfalls all along the way though…one right after another and when there isn’t a waterfall, there are rushing cascades. Not many people know about it though so you’ll probably find the trail mostly devoid of the usual tourists. In my mind though, this is a MUST SEE, but only if you have a day to dedicate and the stamina to pull it off. This trail is also where you are going to find the “split rocks” for which Split Rock State Park was named for. You’ll know you reached the end of the trail when you finally pass a rustic campsite and find the trail ends at a washed out bridge (the remnants of which are sitting below you). This hike used to be a loop hike but when the bridge was washed out, they found that it would not be cost effective to replace the bridge so you must turn around and go back but the good part is that you get another perspective on the way back and it’s mostly downhill now. I found this hike to be an all-day hike with all the stops we made. You’ll want to climb out on the rocks and take lots of pictures as you go as it really is that incredibly scenic.

Split Rock State Park and Lighthouse

Keep in mind that if you have a State Park Pass, that won’t get you into the lighthouse as that is owned and run by the Minnesota Historical Society so that will be a separate admission to climb the lighthouse which runs around $8.00. They have a very nice Visitor’s Center here and lots of trails but if you do only one trail, take the hike down to Pebble Beach as some of the most iconic pictures of Split Rock Lighthouse are taken from here. I should mention that before you get to Split Rock Lighthouse, there is a sign that points to the right for a “scenic overlook”. This overlook will give you a view of the lighthouse as well from afar and this is an incredibly popular spot at sunrise and sunset. If you are going to Split Rock State Park and want to save time, you could skip this overlook as you’ll get much better views hiking down to Pebble Beach.

Palisade Head

This is a MUST SEE with some really incredible views. The road is very steep and narrow so I do not advise doing this if you are pulling a camper or have any large, oversized vehicle. It’s not a harrowing drive up or down as the only thing on each side of you are trees but it’s still pretty steep. Parking can be a little tough in the summer months on the weekend but it is well worth it.

Tettegouche State Park

This is actually my favorite State Park up along the north shore and is a MUST SEE. It is huge at 9,300 acres with lots of camping and hiking trails so your options to keep busy are endless. You could easily spend a whole day here (or even several days), however, if you are short on time I would suggest doing the hike to Shovel Point. This starts out from the Visitor’s Center and is about 1.2 miles out and then you have to come back the way you came. It offers spectacular views of the shoreline (and you’ll probably see some rock climbers out there).

The second thing from there I would do is get in your car and drive down the road (within the park) and take it all the way to the end. When the paved road branches off, keep right until you eventually get to a parking lot which is the end of the road (and the parking lot wraps around in a circle and exits the same way). It is here that you can get to the two largest waterfalls and you’ll see the trail from the parking lot. This is the quickest and easiest, although the 1.5 mile climb up is a bit steep. This will take you to the High Falls which is the tallest waterfall located entirely within Minnesota and it is truly a sight to behold (especially in the spring). You’ll eventually cross a suspension bridge (which will reward you with some more great views of the falls on this side of the river).

As you keep on that trail, you will eventually see a sign indicating that it is 1 mile to Two-Step Falls. You’ll want to go there as well as that one is definitely worth taking the time to see.

We once took the trail to the falls that starts by the mouth of the Baptism River (by the bridge). We hiked there from the Visitor’s Center by following the beach and then hiked up but the trail was so muddy and slick that we didn’t come back that way and instead headed down the steep trail to the parking lot at the end of the road (which I described above). There wasn’t a recent rain either so I was surprised that the trail was that slick. We then had to hike back out so we followed the long road back to the Visitor’s Center. We did, however, stop to take the trail to Cascade Falls on the way back to the Visitor’s Center which is right by the side of the road. The Cascades are only about a .75 mile hike and then you have to come back the same way, however, not many people go there and we found the falls to be majestic and the whole area to be beautiful and serene. If you decide to do what we did (including Shovel Point), this would be an all day excursion.

George Crosby Manitou State Park

Drive to Finland, MN, and then take Cramer Lake Road (County Road 7). This is an unpaved road for about 8 miles to George Crosby Manitou State Park. When you get to the park, you’ll go down another dirt road about .5 miles to a fairly large parking area. This is an unmanned park so the amenities are rustic and don’t even attempt this park in the winter time as the roads are not plowed into the park. We tried this once and almost got stuck just trying to turn around as we didn’t have a high-clearance vehicle. Once you have parked, look for the “Middle Trail” which is closest to the vault toilet. Hike on that until you reach the “Manitou River Trail” and then follow that one down to the river’s edge. The falls are absolutely massive with 3 separate tiers. This is not a park that gets a lot of visitors so chances are that you will have the whole place to yourself. There are a couple more waterfalls in the park which we plan to visit in the future and will update this entry when we get a chance to reach those as well.

Coho Cafe and Bakery

This is a tiny restaurant south of Lutsen and we’ve only tried their pizza but it was pretty good! They use locally made wild-rice sausage for their pizzas. The place is kind of small and if there is more than a few tables going, it might take a little longer to get your food. They are also only open from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. each day but if you are just passing through and want to experience some good food after a long hike, this is the place to go.

Temperance River State Park

You don’t even need to drive into the park to get the best experience here. Right around mile marker 80, park on either side of the road. You’ll first see the Lower Temperance River Falls which is visible from the parking area. You can walk down, cross the pedestrian bridge, and come back up for the best views. Then head across the other side of the road and hike down the Gorge Trail. It’s a really short distance to Hidden Falls (which is called that because it is tucked back into the gorge and pretty hard to photograph). Then you’ll go up some stone steps that will take you up to some higher viewing areas. You’ll see the cauldron which is a giant pothole (it is kind of hard to photograph). Just a little further up the trail is another waterfall which is located under the first brown pedestrian bridge. The next set of falls is pretty spectacular and you can see them from a viewing platform. The last set of falls is pretty neat as well which is on a corner of the river and you can walk out there or sit on the rocks and just observe. From there, just head back the way you came. The whole hike is just a little over half a mile out to the final waterfall but it will take you quite a bit as you explore all the different falls and cascades. This is a MUST SEE.

Onion River Falls

Drive to the Ray Berglund Wayside Rest and follow the trail which winds along the river and then starts heading uphill. You’ll see and hear the first waterfall and then be prepared to walk down a lot of stairs (which you’ll have to come back up). After you’ve seen this waterfall, keep continuing up the trail for maybe 10 more minutes. You’ll come to a pedestrian bridge overlooking another waterfall with signs guiding you to the Superior Hiking Trail. You can head back down after you’ve come this far. The whole hike will probably take no more than an hour (up and back).

Oberg Mountain Loop

This 3-mile loop is one of my most favorite hikes in all of the north shore area (especially in the fall). It offers the most rewarding views for the least amount of effort for a hike with these kinds of views. Take a left onto Onion River Road (which is a dirt road) and follow it approximately 2 miles to the parking lot for Oberg Mountain. There are other trails here but the Oberg Mountain trail starts by the main road as you come into the parking lot. This is a MUST SEE.

Lutsen

There is no better place to visit during the fall than Lutsen when you can ride the gondola up to the top of Moose Mountain. From there you can see the Sawtooth Mountains and the coastline of Lake Superior. Take the trail to the right after you get off the gondola and you’ll find yourself on a large viewing platform with spectacular views. The whole ride up and back will leave you awestruck though.

North Shore Winery

This is a fun place to check out if you like local Minnesota wines. They have a wide assortment of wines that they produce including my favorite, Boundary Waters Red. You can sip your wine at their wine bar and check out a lot of local art work (which is for sale) or you can sit outside by the fire if they’ve got one started.

Cascade River State Park

You don’t even need to drive into the park to experience this incredible series of waterfalls. There is plenty of parking right at mile marker 100 near the Cascade River so you MUST SEE and experience this. After you have parked, look for the sign that says “Cascade Falls 300 feet” and start heading up the trail. This is a very popular spot as you can witness the Cascade River making its final descent over a multitude of waterfalls to Lake Superior. The gorge is filled with moss, ferns, and trees that offset the black lava rock from the river gorge. You will have reached the end when you hit a wooden pedestrian bridge where the massive Cascade Falls tumbles down. There is also a viewing area here as well which makes a perfect picture spot. Once you get to that spot, come back down the other side as the trail runs on both sides of the gorge and you’ll find yourself back to the parking lot. The trail isn’t long but you’ll be mesmerized going up and back the whole way and stopping often. You could go further up the river gorge for several miles which will finally wind away from the river and into the woods to a scenic overlook, however, if you’ve done Oberg Mountain, this is a comparable sight but with foliage blocking the view and not worth the time or effort.

Grand Marais to the Canadian Border

Gunflint Trail

Grand Marais is basically the gateway to the Boundary Waters and if you have time and can fit the Gunflint Trail into your schedule, it is well worth it. Note that you will lose reception within about a half hour of heading up the trail and then you are on your own. The next time you need to use a phone, there is an old pay phone (yes…they still exist) outside by the parking lot at Nor’Wester by the laundry mat about half-way up the trail. The whole trail is 57 miles long one-way and ends at a museum and nature center (which used to be a lodge) on Saganaga Lake. This is your best chance to see bear, moose, fox, eagles, or maybe even an elusive timberwolf. Don’t forget to stop at Trail Center though to get your souvenir’s, camping supplies, or maybe even one of their incredible burgers or fish dinners! This is where I got my very first peanut butter and fried egg burger and I’ve been hooked ever since!

Voyageurs Brewing Company

This is only brewery around the Grand Marais area and it is a good one. They have ample seating inside and out and a great food menu using only the freshest ingredients (locally if possible). It’s absolutely impeccable and our favorite go-to restaurant on the north shore.

Judge C.R. Magney State Park – Devil’s Kettle

This park is most famous for the Devil’s Kettle which makes it a MUST SEE. If you haven’t heard of this infamous waterfall, it is unique because the waterfall splits at the top and tumbles to the bottom of the cliff and the other side sinks down into a pothole. The mystery of where the pothole goes was fodder for the imagination for many years. People would throw all sorts of objects down there and wait for them to resurface but they never did. It has even been said that a car was pushed in there (although I find that very hard to believe as there would be no way to really get a car to the site and then to the top of the falls). It has been determined that the water just really flows back out below the falls. The mystery might have been solved but it still doesn’t take away how truly unique and amazing it is to really see this. It is a little over a mile out and then you have to come back (plus you’ve got to tackle about 177 stairs) so be sure to put on your hiking shoes!

Upper Falls is a smaller waterfall on the hike to Devil’s Kettle that is definitely worth seeing. There are some stairs to walk down to get to them and then you have to come back up. The stairs are metal with sharp grating which are made for traction and these are painful to the paws of your pets so be prepared to carry them down and back up if you are hiking with your dogs.

Grand Portage National Monument

This park was actually the headquarters of the Northwest Fur Company during the turn of the 18th century. It is interesting as the staff dresses in the attire for that time period and explains what life was like at the fort.

Grand Portage State Park

This is the last State Park you can see in Minnesota before crossing the Canadian border. It also doubles as a rest area for travelers coming and going across the border so the visitor’s center is quite superb as well. The High Falls are a MUST SEE though as they are the highest waterfall in the state and are incredibly impressive. The trail there is paved and only .5 mile so it is easy to get to.

There’s another trail that branches off and indicates that it goes to the Middle Falls and it is 4.5 miles round-trip. There is a sign right there indicating the difficulty of getting to the falls but I’m going to give you a tip on how to get there easily: cross the Canadian border (so have your passport ready). Once you cross the border, take your first left which is Route 593. Drive about .3 miles and you’ll see a small gravel parking area. Get out here and you’ll get great pictures of the Middle Falls from here. Drive a little further up the road to where there is a corner on the road and park on the shoulder. There is a little trail that heads through the trees and that will lead you to a huge rock that sits above the falls. I can almost guarantee you that you will have the place to yourself as not many people know about this and you can wipe hours of strenuous hiking off your list.

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