Minnesota’s North Shore is one of those places that truly deserves all the accolades so freely heaped on it. Officially an All-American Road, the 150 miles of Highway 61 from Duluth to the Canadian border is about as rewarding as a drive can be.
Tucked in between Lake Superior and the worn-down remnants of the ancient Sawtooth Mountains you’ll find improbably tall shoreline cliffs, countless waterfalls, lighthouses, myriad moose, and much more. You need several days to do it justice.
This is a popular place, so it’s wise to make weekend reservations as far in advance as possible during summer and fall. Even weekday reservations are a near necessity during July and August and then again for fall color. Two-night minimum stay requirements are common on peak weekends, and prices drop very low during the shoulder seasons.
If you want to get right up to Two Harbors, stay on four-lane Highway 61, otherwise take the exit after Kitchi-Gammi Park and follow North Shore Drive as it hugs the lake for the next 20 miles.
My Way or the Highway
There are many ways to travel the North Shore besides Highway 61. The Superior Hiking Trail is the greatest thing to happen to the North Shore since the Ice Age. Sticking primarily to the ridgeline on its 205-mile run from Two Harbors to near the Canadian Border, it has frequent vistas of Lake Superior to complement the waterfalls, gorges, and other up-close scenery.
It connects seven state parks (all but Grand Portage) and many of the Superior National Forest’s scenic highlights, plus it joins with the Border Route Trail at the east end, letting you continue on for another hundred miles across the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Work is underway to connect the trail with Duluth. It’s no surprise that readers of Backpacker magazine recently ranked it as the second-best long-distance trail in the country. Most access points are between five and ten miles apart, so the trail is ideal for day trips.
No matter how long you are hiking, you can travel between most trailheads with the Superior Shuttle (218/834-5511, www.superiorhikingshuttle.com). The 12-person van runs on a set schedule Friday through Sunday (plus holiday Mondays) from mid-May to mid-October. In general the cost is $15 for the first stop and $5 for each additional, with a maximum cost of $60. Transport outside these times can be arranged for about twice the normal rate. Though not necessary, reservations are a good idea, especially on holiday weekends and during fall color.
Many area resorts will also drive their guests to trailheads. Eighty-one free, first-come, first-served backcountry campsites — with latrines, fire rings, and room for two or three tents at most — are spread out along the trail. Another overnight option is Lodge to Lodge Hiking, arranged by Boundary Country Trekking (800/322-8327, www.boundarycountry.com). The Superior Hiking Trail Association (731 7th Ave., 218/834-2700, www.shta.org) in Two Harbors can answer any and all questions about the trail. They also publish the detailed Guide to the Superior Hiking Trail, sell maps, and lead guided hikes.
Though it won’t be finished until around 2011, the Gitchi-Gami State Trail is already earning rave reviews. The 86-mile paved path, open to bikers, in-line skaters, cross-country skiers, and other non-motorized travelers, will run from Two Harbors to Grand Marais, connecting the towns and parks in between. The route generally hugs the highway, but often runs down to the lake and up through the adjacent forest.
Currently about 26 miles of the trail are paved and open to the public, including a 13-mile stretch between Gooseberry Falls State Park and Beaver Bay and three miles along Temperance River State Park. Check with the Gitchi-Gami Trail Association (www.ggta.org) for trail updates.
Up behind the bluffs, the rugged North Shore State Trail (218/834-6626) runs all the way from Duluth to Grand Marais. The 146-mile path is used primarily by snowmobilers, though the rest of the year it offers a remote and seldom-used mountain bike route. The 70 miles through the Finland State Forest and Superior National Forest are the best bet for biking since the western half often has long stretches of standing water. Camping shelters are spaced out along the entire route.
More and more sea kayakers are discovering the joys of the North Shore and the still-developing Lake Superior Water Trail (www.lswta.org) offers a campsite or rest area every three-or-so miles for most of the journey between Two Harbors and Grand Marais. Remember, lake conditions can change from placid to rough in a matter of minutes and the cold water means small mistakes can be deadly. Beginning paddlers should take a guide or at least stay very close to shore.
With safe harbors at nearly a dozen spots and full-service marinas in Duluth, Knife River, Silver Bay, Grand Marais, and Grand Portage, traveling by boat is fairly easy. Anyone boating on Lake Superior should not set out without a copy of Bonnie Dahl’s Superior Way: The Cruising Guide to Lake Superior at the helm. Its 400-plus pages are filled with harbor maps, wilderness charts, and GPS coordinates. If you don’t have your own boat, sailing and fishing charters operate out of several North Shore towns.
© Tim Bewer from Moon Minnesota, 3rd Edition