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A Coastal Drive Along America’s Superior Shoreline

Dramatic cliffs, crashing waves, beaming lighthouses and Northwoods vibes along Minnesota’s North Shore

split rock lighthouse in gooseberry falls state park minnesota

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One of America’s most dramatic coastal road trips isn’t alongside the Atlantic or the Pacific, but rather along the wild North Shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota. From the port city of Duluth, an industrial shipping hub since the 19th century, Highway 61 skirts the rocky shoreline for 151 miles up to the Canadian border, offering a round-trip jaunt that takes in one of the most iconic lighthouses in America, a stunning overlook 300 feet above the crystal-clear waters of the lake, and a picturesque harbor that will make you think you’re in Nova Scotia, not Minnesota.

The roadside landscape is one giant boreal forest broken only by the occasional, dramatic glimpse of the lake or of a river cascading down into it, often producing waves large enough to surf. Paddling and hiking opportunities entice at nearly every mile, but with charming towns and roadside attractions along the way, it’s easy to make the trip as adventurous or as laid back as you want.

​Duluth has a small regional airport with roughly half a dozen flights daily, but it’s better to fly into the much larger international airport in Minneapolis, which has more flight options and, likely, lower fares. Rent a car there and you’ll be in Duluth, 158 miles north, in about 2 1/2 hours. In autumn, when the leaves are in peak color, bypass Interstate 35, the fastest route, in favor of Wisconsin’s winding Highway 35, which you can pick up across the St. Croix River near Stillwater and Oak Park Heights. This scenic route will add an hour to the drive, but the reward is some of the nation’s best leaf peeping in a relaxed, forested corner of Wisconsin. 


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Duluth

Day 1: Duluth to Silver Bay (55 miles)

​Duluth is worth its own long weekend, but to get a flavor for the city in a half day, head to Canal Park, a peninsula between Lake Superior and the St. Louis River. There, old factory buildings have been repurposed as shops, restaurants and hotels, and a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk, called the Lakewalk, delivers stunning views of Lake Superior and the iconic Duluth Harbor North Pierhead Light that marks the entry to the Duluth Ship Canal. From the boardwalk, you can listen to the waves crashing against the nearby jetty and feel the brisk air coming off the cold Superior water. 

​For a better sense of what’s under the water’s surface, walk 15 minutes past the William A. Irvin Museum, a historic iron and ore freight ship you can tour, to the Great Lakes Aquarium, which is dedicated to freshwater ecosystems, like those in and around the Great Lakes. It’s a perfect activity for multigenerational travel, serving as a fun, informative primer on the landscape you’re about to traverse.     

Come lunchtime, grab a sandwich at Northern Waters Smokehaus, near the Lakewalk. The deli-style restaurant smokes its fish in-house, from Atlantic salmon to Lake Superior trout and whitefish, as well as other meats. And the price is reasonable for such exceptional food.

​When you’re ready to leave town, you’re only going 55 miles up the coastline on Highway 61, so take your time. About 40 miles on, at Gooseberry Falls State Park, wander along accessible paths to admire the cascades of the Gooseberry River flowing into Lake Superior. Another 6 miles farther up the road, don’t miss the Split Rock Lighthouse, a dramatic brick structure perched atop a 130-foot cliff. The building, in service from 1910 to 1969, is one of the country’s most visited lighthouses. Paved paths and ramps lead up to the visitor center and into the caretaker’s house and fog signal building; from there, you climb 22 steps to reach the observation deck. The best view of the lighthouse, however, is from the park’s campground near the lakeshore. The walk from the campground trailhead to the beach isn’t suitable for wheelchairs because it’s a mix of gravel and dirt, but it’s an easy amble — roughly a quarter of a mile — to the beach and stunning lighthouse views.       

Where to stay: For a basic lodging option with wheelchair-accessible rooms, book the moderately priced AmericInn by Wyndham in Silver Bay, roughly 10 miles up the road from Split Rock Lighthouse.

grand marais lakefront homes minnesota

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Grand Marais

Day 2: Silver Bay to Grand Marais (55 miles)

Begin the day with a short 2-mile drive on 61 to Palisade Head, a stunning rock formation towering above Lake Superior. The winding, steep road up to the overlook is paved and thus manageable for most any passenger vehicle, and it delivers dramatic lake views. You’ll likely do most of your gawking from the car because the walking paths aren’t paved and aren’t for the faint of heart, traversing the edges of 300-foot cliffs that are popular breeding grounds for peregrine falcons. Standing at a cliff’s edge, feeling the wind in your face from one of the highest vantage points for miles, you’ll quickly understand why the raptors soar above the headland here.      

​For a water-level view of the lake, head to the main entrance at Tettegouche State Park, less than 2 miles up the road. The visitor center offers a good respite for a bathroom break; it also offers a quick walk down to a pebbled beach, overlooking where the Baptism River flows into Superior, occasionally creating small standing waves, depending on the river flow. The park is home to a series of waterfalls on the river, most notably High Falls, and 23 miles of trails (most are moderate to difficult, but many are doable for people accustomed to hiking).         

​Another 51 miles of driving brings you to Grand Marais, a lakeside town with one of the North Shore’s most bucolic harbors. You’ll see lots of docked sailboats, as well as seagulls squawking on the rocks. Just before entering town, stop at the North House Folk School, which offers classes (many single-day offerings) and programs on Northwoods skills and handicrafts — everything from basketry to boatbuilding. A small store sells artisan-made goods like birchwood bowls and rosemaled plates with elaborate hand-painted designs.        

​A good dinner choice: the Taproom at Voyageur Brewing Company, a local favorite that serves house-made ales and excellent pub fare like fish tacos and pizzas at reasonable prices ($10 to $15 entrées). For something slightly fancier, although still not expensive, dine on the deck at the Angry Trout Cafe and watch the sunset. 

Where to stay: The moderately priced six-room Mayhew Inn, a downtown boutique hotel, overlooks the water and is full of Northwoods kitsch and charm. For wheelchair-accessible rooms, opt for the 40-room Aspen Lodge, another moderately priced property on the eastern edge of town.  

grand portage national monument great hall minnesota

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Grand Portage Loop

Day 3: Grand Marais to Grand Portage Loop (70 miles round trip)    

Start the morning with breakfast at the Blue Water Café, a local joint with a large front window facing the harbor. Enjoying a cup of coffee here, with sailboats moored in the harbor and fog rolling in from off the lake, feels more like getting your morning Joe along the coast of Nova Scotia than in Minnesota. 

​Drive 35 miles north to Grand Portage and spend most of the day at the Grand Portage National Monument, the former location of a crucial overland trade route near a series of waterfalls and rapids on the Pigeon River. The lakeside location became a critical trade hub for both Native Americans and, later, Europeans. When Europeans descended on North America, it became a headquarters for the North West Company, which helped transport thousands of tons of furs to Europe. Today, the monument is home to a heritage center that provides an excellent overview of this history. 

​The monument is more of a living exhibit than it is any sort of static museum display (although it has that too). You’re able to tour the old North West Company Depot, which includes a Great Hall where the company’s shareholders met for their annual meeting during the late 18th and 19th centuries. There’s even a warehouse where, today, you can watch craftsmen demonstrate woodworking, carving and coopering. A collection of impressive bark canoes in the depot may make you long to explore the area’s other famous jewel, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (which is possible, but you’ll need a few more days). 

​Grand Portage borders Canada, so once you’ve had your fill of 19th-century fur traders and Ojibwa lore, you can return to Grand Marais.     

Where to stay: Return to the Mayhew Inn for the night, then drive back to Duluth via Minnesota Highways 1 and 2 and on to Minneapolis on I-35. 

​Ryan Krogh is an Austin Texas-based freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in numerous publications, including Garden & Gun, GQ and Scientific American. He was an editor at Outside for nearly a decade. He spent many summers as a teenager hiking (and paddling around) Lake Superior’s North Shore and still returns there regularly.​​

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