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Best Midwest Road Trips: Lake Superior Circle Tour

The 1,200-mile Lake Superior Circle Tour is one of the world's greatest drives. Check out our 21 photos for a sample of what you can see and do on this epic trip.
  • Great Lakes trip of a lifetime

    Dedicated road-trippers make the Lake Superior Circle Tour just to be able to say they did. But there's much more to the journey than the thrill of logging miles. The route leads to unmatched Great Lakes scenery, interesting people, lighthouses, cool towns, local food, inns and other experiences that make it a trip of a lifetime.

    The loop is long (we suggest you plan five days or more) but fairly simple, providing the joy of discovery without serious map reading. Photos on this and the following 20 slides show highlights of the journey along the Minnesota, Ontario, Michigan and Wisconsin shores.

    For route specifics and maps, visit the Circle Tour website below.

    Circle Tour

  • Imagine a light keeper's life

    Split Rock Lighthouse, Two Harbors, Minnesota Costumed guides lead tours of the lighthouse and the keeper's home (left). Built in 1910 on the edge of a cliff between Duluth and Grand Marais, this landmark lit the way for generations of freighters. (Those big freighters had it easy, compared to the native Ojibwa and fur traders of old--see their handcrafted wood canoes before crossing into Ontario at Grand Portage National Monument.)

    Split Rock Lighthouse

  • Soak up the atmosphere

    Naniboujou Lodge, Grand Marais, Minnesota A Depression-era hunting lodge, transformed into an inn 15 miles north of town, qualifies as the perfect lakeside refuge. "People come here to be nurtured ...just to relax and sit by the lake," owner Nancy Ramey says. A 1920s artist painted the dining room's striking Cree-inspired design (left), while a stonemason created the 20-foot-high fireplace out of 200 tons of native rock.

    Naniboujou Lodge

  • Walk to waterfalls

    Kakabeka Falls, Ontario The 130-foot cascade of Kakabeka Falls (left) roars a short walk from an off-highway parking lot. Waterfalls surround Lake Superior like a spectacular liquid halo. Just steps from the road, Gooseberry, Kakabeka, Rainbow and Tahquamenon falls alone make the drive worthwhile.

    Kakabeka Falls

  • Experience frontier history

    Fort William Historical Park, Thunder Bay, Ontario Re-enactors put on a convincing show at this replica fur-trading post, which has 40-plus buildings on 225 acres. Visitors meet artisans, fur traders, farmers and more, and can participate in hands-on activities such as paddling a canoe and making historic crafts.

    Fort William Historical Park

  • Gaze across a canyon

    Ouimet Canyon, Ontario Ouimet (WE-met) Canyon, between Thunder Bay and Rossport, requires a bit of a detour from the road, but it's worth the trip. A shady path ends abruptly at a wooden platform. According to a sign dizzyingly close to the rail, the canyon is 30 stories deep, more than a mile long and almost 500 feet wide.

    Ouimet Canyon

  • Buy local art

    Island Pottery, Rossport, Ontario The studio, on the shore of Lake Superior, sells wood-fired pottery (left) from mid-May through October. Visitors might get a chance to chat about lakeside life with artist Tim Alexander. "Most people who travel this far really want to experience the place," he says.

    Island Pottery 807/824-2409

  • Pose with a goose

    Young's General Store, Wawa, Ontario To the east of Terrace Bay, Ontario, Canada-17 loops far from Superior past pristine lakes and rocky outcrops. Then the trail rejoins the lake in Wawa, an obligatory photo op with the world's largest Canada goose statue (left) at Young's General Store.

    Young's General Store

  • Marvel at pictographs

    Lake Superior Provincial Park, Ontario Ojibwa pictographs of animals, figures and mystical creatures decorate Agawa Rock (left). Native peoples gathered in summer settlements on the lake's shoreline and moved to inland hunting grounds in the winter. Today, park visitors can hike, camp, fish and paddle along the rugged shoreline.

    Lake Superior Provincial Park

  • Drive on the wild side

    Lake Superior Provincial Park, Ontario Signs remind drivers traveling Canada-17 that they are in the middle of a wilderness.

    Lake Superior Provincial Park

  • Tune in to the harbor

    Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan Harbor-watching is better than TV in this international port. Viewing platforms overlook the Soo locks, where water "elevators" carry ships over the 21-foot-deep drop between Superior and Lake Huron. A visitors center operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers explains the lock system. Sightseeing cruises (left) explore the locks and the busy international harbor.

    Soo Locks and Visitors Center

    Soo Locks Boat Tours

  • Dive into shipwreck lore

    Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, Whitefish Point, Michigan The treacherous waters that extend west from Whitefish Point are nicknamed Lake Superior's Shipwreck Coast. At the Shipwreck Museum (left), learn about the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald and other shipwreck legends. A lighthouse still stands guard over the area; you can tour the restored 1861 keeper's quarters.

    Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum

  • Kayak along cliffs

    Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Munising, Michigan Serious lake-lovers should consider a daylong kayak tour along Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, 40 miles of dunes and mineral-stained cliffs--like tapestries interpreted in rock. Carl Hansen of Northern Waters Adventures leads trips past Miners Castle (left), one of the park's best-known formations, looming 100 feet above the water. Carl tells groups, "Everyone you see today, whether they're on the beach or on a tour boat, will wish they were in your boat."

    Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

    Northern Waters Adventures

  • Camp on a beach

    Munising Tourist Park Campground, Michigan Both trailers and tents find beachfront camping at Munising, Michigan's Tourist Park (left). Much of the Lake Superior Circle Tour skirts parks and protected lands with memorable shore campsites. Reserve yours before you go; check out the websites below for Michigan, Minnesota and Ontario parks.

    Munising Tourist Park Campground

    Michigan State Parks

    Minnesota State Parks

    Ontario Parks

  • Hike to the clouds

    Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, Ontonagon, Michigan Michigan's largest state park has 90 miles of hiking trails on a stretch of shore and inland forests. Easy paths lead to 1,958-foot Summit Peak and an overlook of Lake of the Clouds (left), its mirror-bright blue far below.

    Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park

  • Try a pastie

    Randall Bakery, Wakefield, Michigan Relish plump, crescent-shape pasties (signature UP meat pies) at this western UP bakery (left) in Wakefield.

    Randall Bakery 906/224-5401

  • Sleep in a lighthouse

    Sand Hills Lighthouse Inn, Ahmeek, Michigan Guests stay in the Great Lakes' largest lighthouse, built in 1917. Some of the Victorian-themed rooms have lake views, fireplaces and whirlpool tubs. Climb the tower for a Lake Superior view (left).

    Sand Hills Lighthouse Inn

  • Tour a freighter

    From 1938 to the late 1970s, the William A. Irvin carried iron ore and coal to Great Lakes ports. The freighter, the flagship of U.S. Steel's lake fleet, also carried company guests in luxurious quarters. Today the ship rests in Duluth's Canal Park, and visitors can explore its cavernous interior.

    William A. Irvin freighter

  • Watch a bridge rise

    Aerial Lift Bridge, Duluth A major landmark in the port city of Duluth, the bridge was built in 1905 to carry passengers and vehicles in a gondola across a canal to Park Point. The bridge was upgraded in 1929-30 to its current design, which replaced the gondola with a roadway that can be raised to allow ships to pass underneath.

    Aerial Lift Bridge

  • Pilot a Great Lakes ship

    Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center, Duluth Learn about the lake's shipping industry (left) and try your hand on a pilothouse wheel. The center has three replica cabins and a pilothouse, a two-story steam engine, 50 scale-model exhibits and presentations on shipwrecks, life on board a boat and more.

    Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center

  • Hear the call of the Apostles

    In Wisconsin, the Bayfield Peninsula and the channels and sea caves of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (left)--an adventure in their own right--beckon. By now, you know there's no way to experience everything on this route in a single trip. But at least you know what it's all about. And that's something worth going full circle for.

    Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

    Bayfield Peninsula

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