Our trip to the North Shore in winter wasn’t what we hoped for. Of course we picked a year when winter was mild and snow cover less than normal. There was enough snow, but my husband still argues that we didn’t get the full experience.
Minnesota in winter is something people who live there flee; February vacations to somewhere warm are common. For those who don’t have to put up with it for months, though? It’s a great place to go play in the snow (unless you’re into downhill; there’s downhill skiing on the shore but it’s not fantastic).
Just How Cold Does it Get?
Very! It gets nose hair freezing cold. (Again, it was mild while we were there, which was honestly vaguely frustrating. Our sleigh ride got canceled because there wasn’t quite enough snow).
You will need snow boots and snow pants. And a good hat. Never go outside in a midwestern winter without a good hat and gloves. If you don’t have good winter gear, I honestly recommend buying it in Minneapolis before driving up; there’s always a good selection and you can make sure it fits and is comfortable.
Typical temperature averages for Grand Marais are 23 high/5 low in January and 26 high/8 low in February. So, yeah, expect it to be below freezing the entire time.
Good soup weather, though!
Is Everything Open?
Be aware that restaurants tend to have limited hours in winter…although the North Shore is a great winter playground, they make most of their money from people coming north out of the Twin Cities in the summer.
This generally means that they close a bit earlier than they would in the summer. Some stores in Grand Marais are also summer seasonal.
Of course, lodging is still plentiful and there are many, many winter activities to engage in.
What is there to Do?
Pretty much any winter activity…including a couple you might not have thought of…is available. The flatter hiking trails are groomed for cross country skiing, and that’s a primary activity (Minnesotans learn to ski the way kids elsewhere learn to cycle. Well, except they learn to cycle too. I know of at least one Minnesotan who more than once skied to work during a storm).
But there are quite a few other things you can do:
- Downhill/alpine. Lutsen has 95 runs over four mountains. It’s nothing like you’ll get, say, in the Rockies. But there is an opportunity to ski or snowboard. And the lower elevation makes it a great place to take children and beginners.
- Snowshoeing. If you want to move off the groomed trails, your best bet is to rent a pair of snowshoes. There’s nothing quite like moving quietly through the snow. Just don’t do what this klutz did and step on your own snowshoe! Ahem.
- Skating. There are skating rinks in Duluth and there’s also a rink in Grand Marais that is very cheap (free if you bring your own skates). Tofte has an outdoor rink which is also free, including skates, but they do ask for donations.
- Fat bikes. Yes, you can still cycle in the winter, if that’s your thing. It’s a pretty new thing (I didn’t hear much about it when we were up there a few years back) with relatively few trails. Gunflint Lake has trails all the way up to the border. Some trails are dual use; make sure you stay on the right side of the trail.
- Snowmobiling. There are a number of snowmobile trails. (Please don’t engage in other activities on marked snowmobile trails and be careful when you cross them). Several of the lodges will rent snowmobiles, including helmets.
- Dog sledding. Woof! You can book either a ride, or a hands on experience where they’ll teach you the basics. We did the latter with Points Unknown, and ended up in a puppy pile! I was surprisingly bad at it because I kept trying to treat the poor dogs like they were horses… (Be aware, they’re expensive because they do private, custom experiences. Positive Energy Outdoors also does hands on, but I’m not as familiar with them). Oh, and if you want to watch more dogs run, check the dates of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. We got to hang out at the start for a while.
- Sleigh rides. A few of the lodges offer horse-drawn sleigh rides. I can’t vouch for any of them; we had one booked out of Gunflint Lodge, but as I already mentioned, snow was a little scanty that year.
- Museums. And if you need to get in out of the cold some, there are a number of museums on the North Shore.
And, of course, you can take some absolutely fantastic photos. I tossed some of mine up with this article.
It’s not likely that winter travel is going to be a great option this year, but looking forward, if you want a snowy playground that isn’t focused entirely on alpine skiing, the North Shore is a great choice!