Previously, I regaled you with Too Local: Duluth, Minnesota
Welcome to Minnesota’s North Shore
The northern terminus of Interstate 35 drops you at my old liquor store. That’s probably a metaphor for something but I’m too sloshed to suss it out. If you want to keep driving up the North Shore of Lake Superior, Interstate 35 becomes Minnesota Highway 61. Minnesota’s Scenic Highway 61 weaves along the Lake Superior shoreline, offering beautiful big water views, Minnesota pine trees (I dig that pine tree smell) and plenty of awesome stops. From Duluth to the Canadian border is just over a 3 hour trip.
Get in, bitches! We’re road trippin’!
Starting at the liquor store (of course), you’ll drive past some very lovely London Road homes on the lakeshore, then past the semi-secret 42nd Ave East Beach where my (then) 16 year old daughter t-boned a landscaping truck (Hoo boy, THAT was expensive!), then past rocky Brighton Beach (an excellent place to watch the fireworks on July 4th or the Northern Lights).
You can either take the expressway or the scenic route along the shore to Two Harbors. You should definitely take the scenic route (Old Highway 61 / Congdon Boulevard).
The New Scenic Café might be the closest thing we have to Michelin star level dining.
A little further up you’ll find Russ Kendall’s Smokehouse. If you like smoked fish, this place is heaven. Just be prepared to pay handsomely.
We ALWAYS had to stop at the Great Lakes Candy Kitchen in Knife River when the kids were in the car. I’m not much for candy, but they do make excellent pecan turtles.
A few miles north is the town of Two Harbors. The freeway merges with the scenic route – it’s all two-lane from here up to the Canadian border. In Two Harbors you can sometimes catch a big freighter ship loading at the docks. You can tour the birthplace of 3M (the people who bring you Scotch tape and Post it notes). Nearby is Castle Danger Brewing. They make very popular (around here) beer. So popular that they ran into a state mandated limit. In Minnesota, if you sell more than 20,000 barrels of beer in a year, you can no longer sell growlers to go. Growlers were a significant part of their income.
The lighthouse on Agate Bay has been turned into a bed and breakfast
Just north of Two Harbors the road goes though a tunnel cut through the bluff. I encouraged my kids to try to hold their breath for the duration of the tunnel (It was mostly my ploy to get them to stop talking for a little while. To this day, they still do it. Silly traditions.).
Skip Betty’s Pies (somehow wildly popular despite consistently poor service and mediocre pies) and drive a little further to The Rustic Inn Café instead. They have better service, better food, and waitrons that aren’t as surly.
Gooseberry Falls State Park is definitely worth a stop. I think you are supposed to have a Minnesota State Park sticker on your windshield to enter, but nobody has ever asked for one in the 15 years I have been going there. You can hike trails and bridges both above and below the falls. During certain times of the year and with recent rainfall, you can crawl over the rocks and eventually get to a lovely area behind the waterfall. Be careful in the water above the falls, though. It seems someone get swept over the falls every other year or so.
A few miles north, you will find Iona’s Beach which is dominated by cliffs of rhyolite on the north end. Lake Superior waves work away at the cliff, breaking off shards of the pink rhyolite and wash them down shore. Once home to Twin Points Resort, the area is named after longtime owner Iona Lind. This was my kid’s favorite beach in both summer and winter. Beautiful pink rocks. A cliff to jump off of into the cold Lake Superior waters. Some of the pink rocks are even good for skipping.
Split Rock Lighthouse is a few miles north. It is the most well-known visual representation of the North Shore. The Lighthouse, part of the MN Historical Society, offers a guided tour of the lighthouse, fog-signal building, oil house and light-keeper’s house. Each November 10th, the beacon is lit at the Edmund Fitzgerald Memorial. I found the tour of the lighthouse interesting. The adjacent state park has trails, camping, and alluring forests running down to the shoreline.
In Beaver Bay, you can enjoy an eclectic mix of shops and restaurants. The nearby cemetery is the eternal resting place of John Beargrease, a legendary dog musher and mail carrier in the late 1800’s. His legend is celebrated every winter with the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, a 300 mile race from Duluth to Grand Portage. The “Beargrease” is a qualifier for the famed Iditarod race in Alaska.
In Silver Bay, you’ll find Black Beach Park, a picturesque black rock beach. It gets its name from the taconite tailings [crushed rock] from taconite refining that makes up the beach. The huge Cleveland-Cliffs plant processes iron ore into taconite pellets for shipment to steel making plants elsewhere.
Palisade Head is a lakeside cliff with a stellar sweeping outlook over Lake Superior. Drive to the top along a curvy tree-shadowed barely-two-lane road with limited parking. In mid to late summer you can find wild blueberry bushes at the top. The cliff is a destination for rock climbers.
Tettegouche State Park (spread over 9,300 acres) features a mile of Lake Superior coast, including the Baptism River mouth; the river’s cascades and falls; four inland lakes; rugged semi mountainous reliefs; and an undisturbed northern hardwood forest. A Minnesota State Park permit is usually required to visit. I have never been able to camp there. It has always been full whenever I rolled in, bleary eyed from driving. Perhaps I should pre-plan better.
Temperance River State Park offers amazing river gorges that start a few feet inland from the highway, waterfalls, two foot-bridges, hiking, a cobblestone river mouth, camping and hiking. Hike a short way upriver to the amazing gorges, then return south of the highway and walk across the foot-bridge. During spring runoff or after rainy days, the river spray will soak you with mist.
Further north, you’ll come to Lutsen Ski Resort the Midwest’s largest and tallest ski area. It offers alpine skiers and snowboarders 95 sweeping runs over four mountains. Non-skiers can enjoy slope-side views and amenities at two chalets. Spring, summer and autumn visitors can hike, bike, ride the gondola and alpine slide, and dine at the chalets.
Nearby is Superior National Golf.
Cascade River State Park is next up the road. A quick jaunt up well-maintained trails brings you to overlooks and a footbridge spanning the cascades [ideal photo spot]. Picnic spots are a quarter mile farther along Highway 61.
In the town of Grand Marais you’ll find The North House Folk School. A friend of mine co-founded this school that revives folk crafts from felting to cheesemaking to canoe building to timber frame building. I try to go up every year for their wooden boat show.
Further into town you’ll find Hungry Hippie Tacos. I’m told the smoked brisket fry bread taco is the one to get.
You can pick up the Gunflint Trail in Grand Marais. This road will take you to the north and eastern side of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area a 1,090,000-acre wilderness area within the Superior National Forest. It is accessible only by canoe (or snowshoes in the winter). Most lakes have restrictions on the use of motors. Younger pistoffnick led many campers on canoe trips there back in the ‘90s. My friend, Gary, a hardcore canoer, spent 221 days in the Boundary Waters and Quetico (the Canadian version of the Boundary Waters) in 2014.
Isle Royale National Park is actually part of Michigan. One of the five least visited National Parks in the country, this island is only open May to September. Isle Royale is completely roadless and accessible only by boat or seaplane.
The easiest way to get there is by taking the Voyageur II ferry, which usually departs from Grand Marais every two days, and then takes the scenic route for a full view of the island. Once arrived, you step foot onto one of the most remote and undeveloped pieces of land in the country. (Isle Royale might be most famous for their wolf and moose population studies, since the secluded location provides the perfect research environment.)
Further along the North Shore you come to Naniboujou Lodge and Restaurant. Check out that ceiling!
The Devil’s Kettle, located inside Judge C.R. Magney State Park, is a mysterious waterfall that’s has been puzzling scientists and visitors for decades. The Brule River splits into two waterfalls. The waterfall on the right spills over a rocks, just like you’d expect. The one on the left? It pours into a giant hole and seems to disappear.
For decades, studies trying to solve the mystery have ended in nothing more than lost ping pong balls, GPS trackers, and (allegedly) a whole car. People speculated the hole may lead to a giant underground river or a separate outlet to Lake Superior, but even these explanations didn’t quite add up, for various geological reasons.
Finally, you get to Grand Portage State Park (very beautiful waterfalls), casino, and the Canadian border. I forgot my passport (and I detest the REAL ID MN driver’s license), so we can’t cross into Canada. That’s a trip for another time – maybe a trip around the Great Lakes?
Should you like to do the on-foot version of this tour, I’d direct you to the Superior Hiking Trail ,a 300 mile trek from Jay Cooke State Park south of Duluth to near the Canadian border. Avoid spring (muddy trails) and early June (black flies).
Thank you for riding along.