Exploring Minnesota: Lake Superior’s North Shore

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The North Shore is Minnesota’s most spectacular landscape.

Exploring Lake Superior’s North Shore

The easternmost part of Minnesota snuggles between the north shore of Lake Superior and Canada. It’s an area of dramatic cliffs, rocky beaches, pine-covered hills, and stunning vistas.

State highway 61 is a Scenic Byway and the main route through the region, with small cities, state parks, and tourist services along the route as it winds north from Duluth to the Canadian border.

Inland, the Gunflint trail leads through wetlands and atmospheric lakes to the watery wilderness of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

Although most visitors come during summer and fall, the North Shore is popular for outdoor activities throughout the year. For example, Grandma’s Marathon brings masses of runners in early spring. During the winter, mushers and spectators alike come for the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon.

Because the North Shore is so scenic, it’s a popular place for photography workshops. These can be a great way to improve your photography and discover new places to practice your photography skills!

The following lists things to do and see along the route, along with a few of my favorite places to eat, drink, or shop.

Exploring Duluth

Duluth might be Minnesota’s favorite summer weekend get-away.

Minnesota’s largest northern city and an international port, this popular tourist destination was once a rather dreary industrial city. While it retains an active port and related activity, the city also boasts amenities that draw hordes of tourists during the summer and fall.

While many visitors are content to wander canal park and watch the lakers pass under the lift bridge, there is a lot of history, art, and culture for those looking for more to do.

Superior, Wisconsin

Red Mug signJust in case there isn’t enough going on in Duluth to keep you busy, remember that there is another whole city on the other side of the harbor. I haven’t spent a lot of time as a tourist in Superior over the years, but can heartily recommend the Red Mug coffee shop and pizza and beer at Thirsty Pagan Brewing.

Between Duluth and Two Harbors

fish shacks along Lake Superior's North Shore in MinnesotaAs you leave Duluth you’ll come to Brighton Beach. If you aren’t stopping the beach, you have a choice to make: take the old (two-lane) road along the shoreline or the new (four-lane) bypass inland. Sure, the bypass lets you zip up to Two Harbors in no time at all (and there aren’t significant attractions along the old section of road), but why are you up here anyway? Isn’t it to relax and enjoy the lake? This is place to start!

There are a few cafés and restaurants along the way, including the deservedly popular New Scenic Café, but mostly it is just a nice drive along the lake.

If you want to extend your drive, take the (short) detour along Stoney Point Road. Along the way, stop to check out the fish shacks or hike out to the beach to watch the waves. Keep an eye out for surfers when the waves are up.

Two Harbors to Silver Bay

The next section of the route includes a number of attractions, the first of which are found right in Two Harbors. Farther along you’ll find Gooseberry and Split Rock, a couple of the state’s most popular state parks.

There’s no doubt at this point that you have reached the North Shore!

Silver Bay to Grand Marais

Continuing north, the lovely scenery continues.

There aren’t many places to stop along the road and enjoy a view of Lake Superior, but there are plenty of parks, so plan to settle in for a while!

Along the way, large resorts like Bluefin Bay and Lutsen and small towns like Tofte and Schroeder offer travelers a variety of services and dining options.

Grand Marais

Sailboats in Grand MaraisGrand Marais is the artsy heart of the North Shore. It is a town filled with shops, services, lodging, and restaurants. There are special events and activities here throughout the year, but especially during the summer. This is a vacation destination in and of itself.

The food is always good in Grand Marais, with a range of really fine local restaurants. My favorite spots include the World’s Best Donuts (the name says it all, so be prepared for a line in any season), My Sister’s Place (the burgers are fabulous, particularly the bison), the Gun Flint Tavern (great northwoods food and more), the Crooked Spoon Cafe (upscale modern cuisine at its finest), the Angry Trout Cafe (fine northwoods dining with plenty of local fish), and the Dockside Fish Market (the source of local fish, with a fish-focused deli and a side of gourmet cooking ingredients).

There is also plenty of shopping available in Grand Marais. It’s a good place to stock up on groceries and other supplies if you are camping, but you can find all sorts of clothing, art, and gifts here as well. We are big fans of Sivertson Gallery, a beautiful space filled with art and fine craft by exceptional local and national artists. Visitors should also check out the Ben Franklin – it isn’t like any other Ben Franklin (remember those?) you’ve been in and it carries everything a northwoods visitor might need.

artist working on a basketWant to use your time here to expand your skills? Grand Marais is home to both North House Folk School and the Grand Marais Art Colony. Both offer a full schedule of classes throughout the year. One of my favorite winter memories is of sitting by the wood stove in North House’s big classroom, drinking tea, and working on a beading project under the direction of Jo Wood. Huge snowflakes gently falling outside the window was a bonus – until I had to go out and shovel out my car! (Actually, everyone helped each other shovel out, making it an odd sort of party that continued on through dinner.) Classes range from plein air painting to building your own coffin, so there is sure to be something of interest. There is also a summer arts festival if you just want to see art created by others!

Artists Point

sunset at Artist's Point in Grand MariasIf there is one “must do” activity in Grand Marais, it is walking out to Artists Point. Every city has a promenade – that place where locals and visitors alike go to see and be seen. Main Street fills that function in many Minnesota small towns; in Grand Marais it is Artists Point, the breakwater that leads out to the light at the harbor entrance.

East Bay

sunrise along the beachYou will discover East Bay if, instead of walking out to Artists Point, you turn the other direction. Once mostly hidden in plain sight, East Bay is beginning to fill with upscale hotels, condos, and lodges. However, even if it isn’t a secret anymore, it’s still the best place in the city to watch the sun rise.

Gunflint Trail

view of the lake from the Gun Flint LodgeThe Gunflint Trail begins in Grand Marais, running from the shore of Lake Superior to the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area. Along the way you will pass rocky outcrops, marshes where moose linger, lush forests and burned-over forests, wildflowers, the occasional bear, and lakes – lots and lots of lakes. The resorts along the trail are perfect places for exploring this watery mix of earth and water. The lovely little Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center sits at the very end of the trail and leaves visitors wishing it was their own home.

Grand Marais to Grand Portage

Most visitors don’t go any farther north than Grand Marais, but plenty of treats await those who continue on.

Plan your trip to Lake Superior’s North Shore

This is road trip country – load up your car and head north! Part of the pleasure of a North Shore vacation is simply driving through this beautiful area, stopping to hike or just enjoy the view as you see fit.

You’ll also see plenty of motorcycles on the road for the same reason.

Getting to and around the North Shore

Most visitors from the greater MSP area head straight up Interstate 35 to Duluth. That trip takes about 2 ½ hours.

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