Length: About 150 miles plus side trips.
When to go: Popular year-round.
Ferries: Three-hour boat trips to Isle Royale leave regularly from Grand Portage.
Words to the wise: Since Rte. 61 is the state’s busiest highway, leave plenty of time for the trip. Look at the waterfalls all you want, but don’t drink from them; they may be contaminated.
Nearby attraction: The Depot, an 1892 landmark train station that houses three museums and four performing arts organizations, Duluth.
Further information: Wild North, P.O. Box 190, Biwabik, MN 55708; tel. 800-688-7669, www.wildnorth.org
The “shining Big-Sea-Water” of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha, Lake Superior is as magnificent as it is mesmerizing. Its moody blues are forever shifting in color — one moment a sun-shot sapphire, the next a stormy gray as dim as the wilderness that shades its shore. As the coastline curves toward Canada, civilization gives way to nature, and breaking the evening hush is heard the clarion call of the Great North Woods: the piercing cry of the loon.
Each year hundreds of ships enter this inland port, the final destination of a long journey from the Atlantic Ocean through the St. Lawrence Seaway and beyond. En route the ships pass beneath Duluth’s aerial-lift bridge, an extraordinary structure that rises vertically to allow ships to pass by. For visitors, however, the city is not an end but a beginning: the starting point for an equally scenic trip along lovely North Shore Drive.
As Rte. 61 sprints northeast through Duluth, turn west on 60th Avenue East to reach one of the town’s prime natural attractions, Hawk Ridge. As many as 33,000 raptors have been sighted on a single October day along these 600-foot bluffs, making this one of the premier hawk-watching spots in North America.
2. Two Harbors
As Duluth’s grain towers fade away in the distance, Lake Superior sprawls to the east, its immensity glimpsed from the breakwater in Two Harbors. The world’s largest freshwater lake, Superior is so extensive — nearly 32,000 square miles in surface area — that it breeds its own weather. The lake’s moderating waters also serve as a season-stretcher, causing spring to arrive sooner, and fall later, along the shore than inland. Locals boast of their “second spring” and “second fall,” which keep lilacs blooming well into June and cause roses to flower against the golden aspens of autumn.
Two Harbors’ turn-of-the-century boom days — it was Minnesota’s first iron-ore port — are vividly recalled at the Lake County Historical Museum. Also visit the ornate Edna G, an 1890s tugboat that retired in 1981. The town’s other harbor, Burlington Bay, shelters a pleasure boat landing and a campground.
3. Gooseberry Falls State Park
Countless streams drain into Lake Superior, but none so dramatically as the Gooseberry River, whose Upper and Lower Falls plunge 30 and 60 feet, respectively. The mouth of the river washes over the aptly named Agate Beach, a good place to find samples of Minnesota’s state gemstone.
Embracing some 1,700 acres, Gooseberry Falls State Park lures visitors not only with its five splendid cataracts but with 18 miles of trails, all of them threading through a green-and-silver tapestry of birch, aspen, and spruce. In winter some trails are groomed for cross-country skiing.
The park’s superbly crafted buildings, steps, and retaining walls were constructed of native granite, quarried and cut by the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps. Gooseberry Falls is linked to six other state parks along the North Shore by the Superior Hiking Trail — a narrow 300-mile path that, when completed, will parallel the entire length of Lake Superior’s rocky rim, from Duluth to the Canadian border, and will provide hikers with unique perspectives of the beauty to be found in the area.