Today, this area is still the edge of a wilderness that sprawls for 10,000 square miles across Minnesota's northeast corner. State-61 provides almost the only link to engaging harbor towns, wide-spot-in-the-road villages and state parks along the shore of oceanlike Lake Superior, as well as to the rugged north-woods country beyond. It's a journey to savor in short spurts, with plenty of stops along the way.
On this 175-mile two-lane lakeshore tour from Duluth to Canada, timeworn cliffs rise like weathered castles, their walls battered by crashing waves from the world's largest freshwater lake. Inland, Superior National Forest protects vast tracts of maples, pines and aspens. The rolling Sawtooth Mountains, which formed the shore of Lake Superior before the water receded eons ago, now rise several miles inland. More than two dozen rivers rush from these highlands to the lake, transforming the shoreline into a series of dazzling waterfalls. The area's forests and the woods closer to shore stage an incredible fall-color show, often lasting from mid-September to mid-October. Never is the contrast between the lake's deep blue and the surrounding countryside more striking.
You can hike, mountain bike, kayak and fish, or just contemplate the breezes in the trees and the sound of the waves. Though the landscape is a main attraction, you'll wish you had more time to spend in almost every community along the shore. If you talk to shopkeepers and artists in Grand Marais and other shore towns, you'll hear different versions of the same story: The more they visited Minnesota's North Shore, the harder it became to leave. That's a feeling you're sure to get to know.
More than a decade of revitalization has reenergized this vibrant port city, which serves as the North Shore's traditional gateway. From Lake Superior's western tip at the mouth of the St. Louis River, the city traces the lakeshore for 17 miles and extends up the hills just a few miles inland. Massive oceangoing freighters dock in the shadows of giant grain-storage facilities not far from historic Canal Park, now a lively dining, shopping and entertainment district.
Skyline Drive follows the ridge that rims the city for 35 miles. If you don't want to drive that far, travel just the stretch between 21st Avenue West and Mesaba Avenue, which includes Enger Park and five-story-tall Enger Tower. From there, you get the best view of the city, framed in red, orange and yellow foliage in fall.
Throughout the hills and along main thoroughfares, you'll see mansions that lumber and iron ore barons built during the early 1900s, when Duluth was home to more millionaires per capita than any other city in the nation. You can tour Glensheen, a historic lakeside estate that includes a 39-room mansion.
Streets plunge from the ridges through downtown past the St. Louis County Heritage Arts Center, nicknamed "The Depot," an 1890s train station that now houses four museums and the headquarters of the North Shore Scenic Railroad. Check out the collection of vintage railroad equipment and the early 1900s Depot Square. You can ride a train from there to the town of Two Harbors, with a two-hour layover for exploring before it returns to Duluth.
The city's Lakewalk is a paved trail that parallels the water for just over four miles. You can start at Lakeplace Park and sculpture gardens, then stroll to the rose garden and marble gazebo at Leif Erikson Park. From there, it's a short walk to cavernous Fitger's Brewery, restored as a hotel and shopping complex, and the Canal Park area.
Besides browsing the specialty shops and galleries, visitors can grab a bite at any of nearly two dozen bakeries, coffeehouses and sandwich shops, along with restaurants that range from Grandma's Saloon & Grill, a longtime Duluth establishment, to the new Bellisio's Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar. If you want to stay overnight along the harbor, take your pick from a half-dozen motels and inns.
Canal Park also provides close-up views of the city's most recognizable landmark, the Aerial Lift Bridge, a span that links the shore and Park Point, a narrow sliver of land protecting the harbor. Bells ring as the huge bridge rises 138 feet in just a few seconds. Crowds gather to watch giant ships glide by. Just steps away, you can explore the Lake Superior Maritime Visitors Center, filled with exhibits that highlight Duluth's shipping legacy and links to Lake Superior.
Be sure to drive to the tip of Park Point, the world's longest natural sand bar, jutting seven miles into the lake. You'll discover a park of gentle dunes and fine sand - a great spot for a picnic and wave watching.
The quickest route north is a new four-lane stretch of State-61 that travels 21 miles to Two Harbors. But for the best views, follow old State-61, called the North Shore Scenic Drive. Along the way, you'll pass the New Scenic Cafe (about 8 miles northeast of Duluth across the highway from the lake). The restaurant combines an innovative menu featuring fish, vegetarian dishes, soups and specialty desserts with a close-to-nature feeling in its pine-paneled dining rooms, highlighted with Scandinavian touches and lake scenes .
With the North Shore's first lighthouse and a wide, deep bay, this lakeside town prospered as a major port for freighters loading ore that came by train from Minnesota's Iron Range. At the harbor, you'll see the world's largest ore dock. The Edna G., berthed nearby, was the last steam tug operating on Lake Superior when it retired in 1986.
The town's turn-of-the-century depot doubles as a museum. Displays and photographs trace the area's past, including a series of shipwrecks that spurred construction in 1910 of Split Rock Lighthouse. Stop at the visitors center on your way into town to pick up a walking-tour map of historic structures.
Leaving Two Harbors, you'll see Lou's Fish House, which ships fresh fish almost anywhere, and Lakeview National golf course, with views of the lake from 14 of the 18 holes.
Drive 13 miles northeast on State-61. Two miles north of Two Harbors, stop for a bite at Betty's Pies, a North Shore institution. About 11 miles along the route just beyond the tiny town of Castle Danger, make a shopping stop at the Pioneer Crafts Co-op, which stocks quilts, paintings, home and garden accessories, folk crafts and other works of more than 100 local artisans.
Gooseberry Falls State Park
At this popular state park, easy trails lead from the state-of-the-art visitors center to picnic areas and five waterfalls, including one that plunges 60 feet over two tiers. Because the 1,660-acre park is along the North Shore flyway, migrating birds and waterfowl stop here in fall.
The park also includes camping, mountain biking trails and a naturalist program. You can shop for souvenirs at the Nature Store in the visitors center.
Drive 7 miles northeast on State-61.
Split Rock Lighthouse State Park and Historic Site
The 1910 lighthouse that's the centerpiece of this park has become an icon along the North Shore. It crowns a cliff that towers above Lake Superior and was not accessible by road until 1924. Workers who constructed the lighthouse brought materials by ship and laboriously hoisted them up the face of a sheer cliff.
On guided tours, you can visit the fog-signal building and climb the tower to examine the giant lens that helped direct ships until 1969. Next door, the restored lightkeeper's residence also is open for tours, complete with costumed interpreters. The visitors center has exhibits about Lake Superior navigation, shipwrecks and a short film about the lighthouse.
More than 12 miles of trails lead from this area to secluded camping sites and down to the rocky shore. You'll want to find the perfect vantage point to capture your own image of this often-photographed lighthouse.
Drive 15 miles northeast on State-61. En route, you'll pass through Beaver Bay, the oldest community along the shore (founded as a lumber town in 1856). Plan a stop at the Beaver Bay Agate Shop, the best of its kind along the shore, and the new Lemon Wolf Cafe, a little restaurant along the highway that specializes in fresh fish, just-baked breads and from-scratch soups and desserts.