With borders closed, most of us are going to be looking to do our next trip within the U.S. (or simply putting it off indefinitely.
One destination to consider at any time of year is Minnesota’s North Shore. The summer retreat for the Twin Cities is less popular with people who come from further afield, but has much to offer. Especially waterfalls.
Where is the North Shore?
The North Shore is a stretch of the shore of Lake Superior which runs from the port city of Duluth to the Canadian border at Thunder Bay. Duluth itself is not considered part of the North Shore, the center of which is generally considered to be Grand Marais.
Essentially, it’s a strip of land between the lake and Superior National Forest. It’s part of a popular driving route around the lake, although this requires crossing into Canada.
What is the Weather Like in Summer?
In summer, the weather on the North Shore is generally mild. At the time of writing it’s 70 and partly cloudy (July 9). It does rain some and fog rolling in off the lake is a common experience.
But for the most part it’s nice t-shirt weather, neither too hot nor too cold, great for the variety of outdoor activities in the shore.
Where to Stay?
I personally recommend Cascade Lodge (if there’s space). Their restaurant is great, although currently pandemic restrictions have caused them to curtail their menu, removing the fantastic fried chicken.
There are a number of lodges along the shore that offer slightly to greatly upscale lodgings, but often for a reasonable price. For larger groups, look to rent a cabin or vacation home.
If on a budget, motels are an option and there are also plenty of campgrounds on the shore. The state parks have campgrounds and there are a number of campgrounds in Superior National Forest, ranging from free rustic sites to ones which charge a small fee for facilities such as potable water. Some sites have electricity.
Where to stay really depends on your budget and the size of your group.
The geography of the North Shore creates a lot of small waterfalls. The most famous is Gooseberry Falls, but being right next to the main road it gets very crowded.
Better photo opportunities come at places like the Devil’s Kettle (in the top picture. Half of the stream vanishes and we have no idea where it goes). The moderate hiking trail to the falls continues some distance.
The Cascades waterfalls are a bit easier to get to (the trailhead is by Cascade Lodge). I can’t personally vouch for this self-guided tour, but it seems solid. You won’t find anything like, say, some of the waterfalls in Iceland, but it’s very pretty.
Sailing and Cruising
As a Brit, my first reaction to Lake Superior was a huge cognitive disconnect. A body of water that large is supposed to smell of salt, dang it!
Going out onto the lake is not to be missed. Unless you’re us who try to go sailing on Lake Superior and wind up becalmed in a fog. It was hilarious, but one day we’ll have to go back and try again. (Don’t worry, the boat had an engine).
There are a number of day and even multi-day trips which go out of various ports. Some do go out of Thunder Bay, which may not be accessible until at least next year.
The trip we took was from the North House Folk School in Grand Marais; traditionally their two-hour trips fill pretty quickly. (the Folk School also offers classes in a variety of handcrafts for both beginners and the more experienced).
You can also take a day trip from Grand Portage to Isle Royale, where you can hike and relax.
Lake Superior Is the Monster
Gitche Gumee (Lake Superior) has no monster in it. Gitchi Gumee is the monster.
The waterfront at Duluth has, or at least had, a series of posters that show shipwrecks over time. The invention of radar is clearly the most important safety improvement in the lake’s history. (It’s also worth stopping by the waterfront to watch the huge ore carriers).
The most famous of these wrecks is the SS Edmund Fitzgerald. The Fitzgerald, an ore carrier, was sunk on November 10, 1975, in a sudden storm. The ship had always been popular with ship watchers, due to its captain’s penchant for piping music over the ship’s intercom and giving a running commentary when going through the lock between Gitche Gumee and Lake Huron. The exact cause of the sinking (beyond weather) has never been discovered.
But the real reason for the fame is, of course, the song by Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” became a classic. (Link goes to a video).
The massive publicity surrounding the disaster led to numerous changes including mandatory survival suits for freighter crew, improved positioning systems, and more frequent inspections.
Split Rock Lighthouse
1905 was a particularly bad year for shipwrecks. Four ships were lost in a single blizzard, although most of their crew made it safely ashore.
The decision was made the following year to construct a lighthouse. Completed by 1910, Split Rock Lighthouse shone until 1969, when the growing availability of radar made it redundant.
The lighthouse is now the centerpiece of Split Rock State Park and is open to visitors, including the keeper’s home and outbuildings. There is a steep path down to Lake Superior, which gives great photo opportunities and you can see what’s left of an elevator, which hauled supplies up from the lake. (the lighthouse is currently closed and I can find no date for reopening).
Every year on November 10, a beacon is lit to commemorate the Edmund Fitzgerald and its crew, as well as all other lives lost on the Great Lakes. This is the only time the beacon is lit.
It’s worth a visit once it’s open again (allow about half a day).
I don’t fish, but if you do, there are so many fishing opportunities on the lake shore. You can cast from any public lands on the shore or from a fishing pier, or hire a charter out of any of the towns.
You can also fish inland on smaller lakes or tributary streams. And most of what you catch is tasty. (If you don’t have any luck, you can always go to the fish market).
If you take your own boat you are asked to clean it, drain all water, and dry your boat and equipment before and after fishing on the lake to prevent the spread of invasive species.
There are more hiking trails on the North Shore than you will have time for. You can also go mountain biking, kayaking and canoeing.
Horseback riding is offered at Gunflint Lodge & Outfitters.
Mostly, though, exploring on foot (and take your binoculars to watch for those lake birds) is the way to go.
Finally, you can take agates from various beaches along the shore (please only from those locations). After a storm is the best time to look. If you can’t find one, you can buy at many shops along the shore.
Next week I’m going to do a follow up post about going to the North Shore in winter, which is a very different experience.