You hear the rushing water rumbling like a freight train long before you arrive at the viewing platform near the top of Minnesota's highest waterfall. The Pigeon River crashes between granite boulders that glisten under the warm sun. Then, the river cascades 120 feet down a series of stone ledges in Grand Portage State Park (150 miles northeast of Duluth), bursting into a shroud of mist.
Minnesota's newest state park, with its easy half-mile trail to High Falls, opened in 1994. But the geology of this wild region, bounded by Canada on the north and Lake Superior on the south, began millions of years ago.
Volcanoes heaved ancient bedrock, now covered by forests of birches and pines, into a rugged landscape the Ojibwas first explored. Later, stalwart French fur traders making their way northwest portaged from massive Lake Superior past the falls to the Pigeon River's upper reaches.
Visitors game for a hardy hike can trek a new 3-mile trail that leads farther upriver through dense thickets of balsam fir and aspens to the park's 30-foot-tall Middle Falls. Along the way, you might spot a moose or porcupine amid wild white and purple orchids.
Just 7 miles southwest of the park, Grand Portage National Monument overlooks Lake Superior. In the 1700s, pelt-bearing voyageurs bound for Montreal stopped here for rest and merriment. You're reminded of those early days when you tour the reconstructed Great Hall, kitchen, lookout tower and warehouse, all built from white cedar. Two aged birchbark canoes recall the area's first visitors long ago.