Loggers and fishermen arrived here more than a century ago. 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 bakeries, coffeehouses, sandwich shops and restaurants. If you want to stay overnight along the harbor, take your pick from lodgings.
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 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 offers 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 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 Northwoods Pioneer Gallery and Gifts, which stocks quilts, paintings, home and garden accessories, folk crafts and other works of more than 100 local artisans.
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.
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 Lemon Wolf Cafe, a little restaurant along the highway that specializes in fresh fish, just-baked breads and from-scratch soups and desserts.
Anglers, nature lovers and geology buffs all flock to this park. Hike a mile from the highway along the Baptism River to one of the highest waterfalls in the state. Another trail leads to rocky, windswept Shovel Point, jutting into Lake Superior. You can camp there, or reserve a cabin.
Drive 24 miles northeast, still following State-61.
At this park, the Temperance River races through a craggy gorge on its way to Lake Superior. Two footbridges cross the ravine high above the roiling stream. You can camp in the park and fish in the stream, where the trout hopefully will be biting.
Hiking trails follow the river inland to rocky ledges - popular with rock climbers - that overlook the canyon below, as well as to Carlton Peak and the Superior Hiking Trail.
Drive 10 miles northeast on State-61. About seven miles north of the state park, follow Forest Road-336 north four miles to the Oberg Mountain and Leveaux trails, which take you to overlooks with sweeping views about 1,000 feet above Lake Superior.
Special fall-color detour: For a short off-the-beaten-track loop canopied in the vivid reds and oranges of maple trees, take the Sawbill Trail road (County-2) out of Tofte about five miles (the road turns to gravel after a couple of miles). Turn left on Forest Road-600, which travels another six miles before intersecting with Forest Road-343 (Temperance River Road), which loops back southeast about five miles to rejoin State-61 south of Tofte near the little town of Schroeder. Watch carefully for the road markers, and be on the lookout for wildlife along the route.
A handful of resorts makes up this community at the foot of the Sawtooth Mountains. Lutsen Resort, Minnesota's oldest, has welcomed visitors along the lake for four generations. The complex includes the redwood Swedish-style lodge—with its open-beamed lobby, guest rooms and lake-view dining room serving Swedish specialties—along with lakeside townhouses and log homes, and log cabins in the woods beside the Poplar River.
Skiers flock to the Lutsen area in winter, but resorts cater to summer visitors as well. From Lutsen Mountains Recreation Area, you can take a scenic round-trip ride on the Lutsen Mountain Tram to Moose Mountain, the highest point along Lake Superior. At 1,100 feet above the lake, you can see for 100 miles on a clear day. Or swish down an alpine slide, go horseback riding from the stables or mountain biking on the trails.
You'll see the turn-off for the 27-hole championship Superior National golf course along the highway. If you play this course, beware! Views of Lake Superior, the Poplar River Valley and Sawtooth Mountains may distract you from your game.
Drive 10 miles northeast on State-61.
What more could you ask for? At this 2,800-acre state park, which follows the shore for about 12 miles, a rushing river creates a series of waterfalls that stair-step down toward Lake Superior. When you stand on the park's footbridge, you can see five of the sparkling falls tumbling down the rocky gorge.
Amid the hilly terrain, 18 miles of trails wind along both sides of the river through birch and spruce forests. Hardy hikers and park campers take the path to the top of Moose and Lookout mountains, which rise above Lake Superior, for panoramic views of the entire valley awash with a rainbow of colors in fall. You can fish in the lake or the river.
Drive 8 miles northeast on State-61.
Once a fishing village, Grand Marais has become the home of a thriving artists' colony. The town frames two natural harbors that bustle with pleasure boats in summer. You can go on fishing excursions and harbor tours with several charter companies.
Visitors stroll to specialty shops, galleries and restaurants, never far from the water. The harborside Lake Superior Trading Post, a two-story cedar structure, sells everything from local crafters' works to jackets and camping gear. The paintings, pottery, jewelry and sculpture of regional, Canadian and Alaskan artists fill the Sivertson Gallery in its spacious downtown location. At Joynes quirky, old-time department store, a fixture in Grand Marais for more than 70 years, all the essentials pack the racks and shelves, from quality north-woods clothing and shoes to linens, postcards, toys, toiletries—even duct tape.
Farther down the harborfront, the North House Folk School teaches and demonstrates traditional north-country skills such as boat-building, weaving, fly-tying, carving and timber-framing. The schooner Hjordis sails daily on two-hour excursions from the North House dock.
The Dockside Fish Market next door sells the fresh catch of the day, as well as smoked fish. You can stop for lunch at the Angry Trout, which resembles a weathered fishing hut almost right on the water. Local crafters created the cafe's log tables and chairs.
Sightseers stroll the breakwater that leads to a small lighthouse. Another trail takes you to a shelf of volcanic rock that edges the lake—a great spot for a picnic and watching freighters along the horizon. For a sweeping view of the town and harbor, make the easy one-mile climb to Sweetheart's Bluff, which rises at the edge of Grand Marais.
Drive 18 miles northeast on State-61.
At this park named after a Minnesota Supreme Court judge and mayor of Duluth, a two-mile trail climbs the steep banks of the Brule River to a roaring, 50-foot-high waterfall and a mysterious spot known as Devil's Kettle. Water from the falls flows into this pothole in the bedrock and disappears, stumping experts who've tried to discover where the stream leads. Visitors also can camp, white-water kayak and fish for trout in the river.
Drive 20 miles northeast on State-61.
A half-mile trail takes you to a viewing platform, where you can watch the Pigeon River cascade 120 feet down a series of stone ledges at High Falls in one of Minnesota's newest state parks (just south of the Canadian border). After viewing the state's highest waterfall, hike a three-mile trail through the forest to the park's Middle Falls.
Seven miles northeast on State-61, you'll find Grand Portage National Monument. At this re-created 1700s fur-trading post overlooking Lake Superior, costumed park staffers play the roles of French-Canadian voyageurs and their Ojibwa partners. Four reconstructed buildings within the stockade include the Great Hall, where you'll see replicas of the early traders' clothes and weapons. Video presentations about the fort's past also play here throughout the day.
Beyond the stockade, a trail leads to Mount Rose, 300 feet above the bay. A passenger ferry travels daily from the compound's dock to Isle Royale National Park. You can make the round-trip in a day or schedule a longer stay (you can camp or stay at a lodge on the island). The 45-mile-long wilderness island 18 miles offshore is a haven for hikers and home to wolves, moose and other wild creatures.
Drive 26 miles northeast across the Canadian border on Ontario-61.
In 1803, when fur traders abandoned Grand Portage in what's now Minnesota, they retreated to this site to build Fort William. Some 42 reconstructed buildings on the 25-acre site, including an Ojibwa camp and a working farm, bring that adventurous era back to life at the world's largest fur-trading post.
Walking tours leave regularly from the visitors center. When you reach the fort, you'll meet the costumed Ojibwas, Scots and French Canadian voyageurs. Artisans demonstrate skills such as blacksmithing and barrel-making at Trades Square. You can even try your hand at paddling a voyageur canoe.