North Shore Drive: Road Trip Along Minnesota’s Coastline

The “shining Big-Sea-Water” of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha, Lake Superior is as magnificent as it is mesmerizing.

Gooseberry Falls
Gooseberry Falls, in the state park of the same name, has five magnificent cascades of tumbling water tinged root-beer brown by leached minerals from the soil and foliage.

Route Details

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,

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.

1. Duluth
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.

4. Split Rock Lighthouse State Park
Seven miles farther along, a turnoff leads to one of the North Shore’s most famous attractions: Split Rock Lighthouse. After six ships were wrecked within 12 miles of the Split Rock River during a fierce storm in November 1905, the federal government commissioned a lighthouse to be built atop the forbidding 100-foot cliff that overlooked the disaster. Completed in 1910, the octagonal structure is now surrounded by 1,900-acre Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. Its powerful beam, visible from up to 20 miles away, shone steadily until 1969, when electronic navigational equipment rendered it obsolete.

Swooping along the shore like the gulls that bank overhead, the road passes through the towns of Beaver Bay and Silver Bay — where cranes and gantries feed the maws of giant iron-ore freighters — before regaining the rocky heights.

5. Palisade Head
The rusty, weathered cliffs of Palisade Head form a promontory prized by the daring climbers who spider across its sheer faces, and by the kayakers who paddle among the wind- and water-scoured caves below. Some 350 feet high, this scarp marks the beginning of the Lake Superior palisades, a ragged wall that extends some 40 miles eastward. A short road leads to a scenic overlook where the most dramatic views are available early in the morning, when the rays of the rising sun fire the rock and gild the dwarf spruces that cling to its crevices.

6. Tettegouche State Park
From Palisade Head you can look north and spot Shovel Point, the 170-foot-high monolithic remnants of ancient lava flows. Atop the reddish-black rock that forms the eastern boundary of Tettegouche State Park, winter gales and icy spray have razored down the stubborn dwarf spruce to a fuzzy crown. Although the park covers barely a mile of shoreline, its 9,000 acres encompass four lakes, undisturbed groves of northern hardwoods, and the Baptism River, whose 70-foot falls are among the highest in the state.

7. George Crosby-Manitou State Park
The George Crosby-Manitou State Park is located a short distance inland on Rte. 7. This road, built on the grade of an old logging railroad, is a reminder that timber was once the chief industry in the great northern woods. Severe deforestation left the North Shore a battered landscape, but the only remaining evidence today is an occasional three-foot white pine stump, moss-covered and moldering beneath the new growth. The revived ecosystem supports moose, black bears, and timber wolves, which prey on white-tailed deer.

Threading through the heart of the 3,400-acre park is the Manitou River, a rough braid of turbulent waterfalls and peaceful peat-dark pools full of trout. Twenty-three miles of trails explore cedar-scented glades atwitter with waxwings and warblers and offer hilltop panoramas reaching all the way to the Wisconsin shore.

8. Temperance River State Park
Back on the main highway, the drive soon reaches Temperance River State Park. The river, which romps over a rocky basalt bed, owes its name not to prim and proper behavior, but to a pun. Streams foaming down the slopes into Lake Superior carry gravel and sand, which is deposited at their mouths when the water enters the lake and loses velocity. While a small bar can be seen today, it didn’t exist in 1864 when the river was named Temperance.

9. Sawbill Trail
Three miles farther up the coast, the town of Tofte is the jumping-off point for both the Sawbill Trail (yet another access route for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area) and a scenic 60-mile round-trip sojourn through 3-million-acre Superior National Forest. Paved in some parts and gravel-surfaced elsewhere, the road bores through walls of northern hardwoods (including oaks, maples, and basswoods), whose fall fireworks brighten the otherwise solid backdrop of evergreens. Moose gravitate to the spruce swamps, where they emerge — dappled with duckweed — from conveniently located beaver ponds. Notoriously shy, they are best spotted at dawn or dusk, which are also good times to watch for beavers, deer, and loons.

The forest primeval is punctuated by Carlton Peak, which rises to 1,526 feet and is accessible by the Superior Hiking Trail. A steep scramble to its rocky summit yields 360-degree views of two wildernesses — a watery one that shimmers to the south and east and, to the north and west, a wooded one that marches toward the Sawtooth Mountains.

10. Lutsen
If you’re in the mood for still more panoramic views, check out the lakeside resort of Lutsen, where a two-mile gondola Sky Ride takes in scenery that stretches for hundreds of miles-from the Apostle Islands in distant Wisconsin to the rumpled ridges of Minnesota’s North Shore. As the drive barrels northeast, stop at one or more of the many overlooks to sample Lake Superior’s many moods: the glimmering haze that mists its surface on calm summer days, the shoreless horizon, snapping whitecaps fanned by brisk winds, and the clean, crisp, incomparable scent of this huge, freshwater lake.

11. Cascade River State Park
The well-named Cascade River stairsteps to Lake Superior through five separate waterfalls. This moist environment also sustains an abundance of delicate mosses, lichens, and white cedars that shade the slippery rocks. Orange jewelweeds, pale orchids, buttery clintonias, and dainty Canada mayflowers thrive in this dim, dewy realm. Between the crashing currents lie peaceful pools — filled with rootbeer-colored water due to leached tannins — where trout and fishermen both idle patiently. The 500-foot summit of nearby Lookout Mountain is full of sunlight, cheerful flowers, and dazzling vistas.

12. Grand Marais
The French- Canadian fur traders called this trading post Grand Marais, or Big Marsh. Grand Marais Harbor, its protected port, was once the collection point for huge rafts of timber, but it is now alive with sportfishing charter boats, gaily spinnakered sailboats, and a host of other pleasure craft.

The trading post heritage lingers, however, in the many bed-and-breakfast inns, galleries, tourist shops, and outdoor-supply stores that cater to travelers heading north on the Gunflint Trail (Rte. 12), a two-lane paved road through the Sawtooth Mountains. The 58-mile trail provides yet another portal to the land of lakes — the Boundary Waters Canoe Area — and its Canadian counterpart, Quetico Provincial Park.

13. Judge C. R. Magney State Park
The coast road hopscotches countless streams, including the Brule River, backbone of the 4,514-acre Judge C. R. Magney State Park. Boreal forests of fragrant balsam firs, dotted with ghostly birch and aspen groves, frame blueberry-choked meadows. Long before the Brule’s upper and lower falls come into view, the dull thunder of water crashing against stone can be heard. But the best is yet to come. At Devils Kettle the river divides into two channels that flirt with a lip of rock. The eastern fork plunges 70 feet into the gorge below; the western one mysteriously disappears into a pothole just before the brink.

The road continues its curve into the northeastern corner of the state, sometimes referred to as Arrowhead Country for its distinctive triangular shape. North of Hovland the Arrowhead Trail (a two-lane gravel road) branches off to the north, an invitation to explore the Grand Portage State Forest and the many lakes of the Boundary Waters.

14. Grand Portage
The Chippewa Indians had long bypassed the risky rapids of the Pigeon River by an overland route, to which they gave a name meaning “great carrying place.” With the expansion of the far-flung fur-trading empire of the North West Company in the 18th century, the nine-mile haul (dubbed Grand Portage by French-speaking voyageurs) became the gateway to the rich fur-trapping grounds of the Canadian wilderness. After the ice broke up each spring, the voyageurs took their valuable pelts to a trading post on the shore of Lake Superior, where they would exchange them for goods and money. Their historic headquarters have been re-created on the spot as a national monument. The Grand Portage itself still exists as a hiking trail.

For a dramatic view of Lake Superior, board a ferry to Isle Royale National Park, a roadless wilderness 22 miles offshore. At dusk the island’s remaining timber wolves sometimes greet visitors with haunting howls.

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