Also known as the “Scandinavian Riviera” to Minnesotans, the North Shore of Lake Superior is one of the most beautiful places in the state. It begins in Duluth and extends along the shoreline of Lake Superior to Grand Portage on the Canadian border. Many little towns can be found along the way such as Two Harbors, Beaver Bay, Lutsen, and the ever so quaint town of Grand Marais. Known for its Great Lakes shipping, mining, railroad, waterfalls, lighthouses, hiking, camping, blueberry bushes, and craggy shoreline, the area draws thousands of people each summer to cool off in the lake’s chilly waters.
I seem to discover something new on nearly every visit I make to the Shore. At least one yearly visit is required to make my heart happy. I have family roots in the area so I always feel as if it’s a part of my soul. So I thought I would write up my favorite “must-sees” for my North Shore visits and share them with you! So here they are in no particular order with a short explanation of each.
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Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, Castle Danger
My favorite place in the state. Tour the lighthouse and keeper’s quarters. Listen to stories of shipwrecks and the life of the keepers and their families. Pack a picnic lunch of a smoked whitefish from Russ Kendall’s (see below), cheese, crackers, and fruit and drive down to Pebble Beach picnic area where you’ll find the spot to take the iconic shot of the lighthouse.
Glensheen Mansion, Duluth
Want some intrigue and tales of true crime? Then before you travel, be sure to read “Secrets of the Congdon Mansion: The Unofficial Guide to Glensheen and the Congdon Murders” and/or “Will to Murder: The True Story Behind the Crimes and Trials Surrounding the Glensheen Killings”. Yes, this historic mansion is the scene of one of Minnesota’s most notorious murders. Explore the house and grounds not just for the horrific history, but for the stunning beauty and opulence of a different age.
Gooseberry Falls, Two Harbors
In the summer this park is crawling with day visitors looking to cool off in the river’s waters and sometimes even the falls themselves. The visitor center offers one of the two best state park stores for books and various gifts. The hiking trails can take you away from the busy falls area and into serenity.
The Ghost Town of Taconite Harbor
If you aren’t looking for it, you would pass by it without seeing the crumbling streets, rusted light poles, and overgrown baseball field. This was a town that was both created and then destroyed by the ore mining industry. Families lived here between 1957 and 1988. Homes were removed or demolished but small remnants of the town remain for those with a keen eye. To get here, follow the signs for the Taconite Harbor Small Craft Harbor. You drive through the ghost town to get to the small craft harbor.
The Rustic Inn Cafe, Two Harbors
No offense to Betty and her pies, but this is my favorite place to dine along the shore. Avoid the crowds and just move a little further up the Shore to the Rustic Inn Cafe. Some may argue with me on this, but everyone is entitled to their opinion. I’ve dined here more times than I can count and I have never been disappointed. The menu changes from season to season, but it’s always good. I have the hardest time trying to decide if I want to have breakfast, lunch, or dinner here. I’d prefer all three. And yes, the pies are good too! Oh, my gosh, I am completely drooling on my keyboard.
George Crosby Manitou State Park, Finland
This is a very rustic state park that’s definitely off the beaten path. It isn’t even located on the lake! A hike here can be treacherous. The Minnesota State Parks Hiking Club even offers an alternate Hiking Club trail for those who are wary to attempt the more challenging yet rewarding option. While the trail was the most difficult one of all the Hiking Club trails, it remains a favorite for its sheer beauty.
Naniboujou Lodge & Restaurant, Grand Marais
Another fantastic meal along the Shore can be found at Naniboujou. Breakfast here is my favorite as they make amazing toppings for pancakes and waffles that goes beyond just maple syrup to an orange cream or orange rum syrup. The restaurant itself is hardly understated as it’s an explosion of color in Cree Indian designs punctuated by an enormous stone fireplace.
Cascade River State Park & Cascade Restaurant & Pub, Lutsen
The aptly named Cascade River State Park offers a gorgeous view of the cascading waterfalls just a short hike from the main highway. Stairs are involved so it’s not an easy hike, but again, it’s fairly short. Follow your hike with lunch or dinner at the Cascade Restaurant & Pub. You’ll be thirsty for a beer or a root beer after viewing the churning waters stained brown from the tamarack swamps upriver.
Lighthouse Bed & Breakfast, Waterfront, and Ore Docks, Two Harbors
Here’s your chance to sleep in a lighthouse keeper’s quarters! This was a dream come true for me and I look forward to doing it again someday. The accommodations were comfortable and the morning’s breakfast was delicious. If you’re not staying the night, you can at least enjoy the Two Harbors waterfront. The harbor is a working ore dock so large Great Lakes ships come and go frequently to load iron ore. This is a great spot to see ships come and go. I recommend downloading the Marine Traffic app to your Smartphone which will allow you to see what ships are in the area, what time they will be arriving, and when they will be departing.
Black Beach, Silver Bay
Black Beach is a beautiful yet haunting reminder that we need to take care of Mother Earth. This is not a natural black stone beach. What you see here are called taconite tailings which are a byproduct of iron ore processing. Prior to 1980, these tailings were simply dumped into Lake Superior. The water clarity diminished greatly and fishermen complained as the fish moved away from the area. The practice of dumping the tailings into the lake was halted and as the lake pushed them ashore, they now create this black beach. There is a campground for visitors to enjoy and the beach itself is a short walk from there.
Bluefin Bay Resort & Waves of Superior Spa, Tofte
The only thing that could make the North Shore any better in my opinion was the addition of a spa. My dream came true several years ago with the opening of the Waves of Superior which is a part of one of my favorite places to stay on the Shore, Bluefin Bay. The resort offers various kinds of accommodations from guestrooms to multi-bedroom multi-level condos. The spa offers a variety of services such as deep tissue massage, manicures, pedicures, and a hot stone massage using Lake Superior stones.
The City of Grand Marais
Plan to spend a night or two in or around Grand Marais. A jumping-off point for the Gunflint Trail and a re-supply point for the Lake Superior Hiking Trail, this town is bustling with activity in the summer. Go sailing on the lake, have some pizza at Sven & Ole’s, do some shopping at the many gift shops, gear up for a hike at the Lake Superior Trading Post, and satisfy your sweet tooth at the World’s Best Donuts shop.
Tettegouche State Park, Silver Bay
Remember when I said that Gooseberry Falls State Park had one of the two best state park gift shops? Well, here’s the other one. Tettegouche has a beautiful visitor’s center and parking area. Here you’ll be able to talk to staff about which of the many trails you should hike. The High Falls of the Baptism River are within this park and are worth the hike to get there. Climbers use the high stone cliffs that tower over the lake to hone their skills. The Minnesota State Parks Hiking Club trail will take you to a large blueberry patch (towards the end) so go ahead and gorge yourself on these tiny delectable trail snacks!
Temperance River State Park, Schroeder
The waterfalls and gorges of the Temperance River are beautiful and quite treacherous. So be sure to stay on the trails and keep loved ones away from the cliff edges. Despite signs posted to stay out of the water and to keep back from the edges, people have lost their lives here so caution should be practiced. The rugged trails aren’t easy but you will be rewarded with the splendor of nature’s gift for your efforts.
Judge C.R. Magney State Park, Grand Marais
Stairs, stairs, and more stairs! 175 stairs down and 175 stairs back up again! Thankfully there are spots where you can sit down and rest along the way. But what could possibly be worth climbing all these stairs you ask? Well, the Devil’s Kettle awaits my friends! It’s not nearly as ominous as it sounds, I promise. It’s simply a mystery. Where does the water actually go?? The Devil’s Kettle is a waterfall. The river splits into two branches. One branch of the river cascades of the cliff’s edge as expected. The other branch falls off the edge and into a “kettle” where it simply disappears! For years it was a mystery as to where that water goes. Science has since explained the phenomenon…but it’s amusing to think of it falling down into the depths of oblivion.
Russ Kendall’s Smoke House, Knife River
Which smokehouse you prefer is serious business on the North Shore. People are very loyal to their smokehouse! I have always gone and will continue to always go to Russ Kendall’s in Knife River. This is where you buy your traditional North Shore smoked fish people. Various fish varieties are available but my family has always selected a whole smoked whitefish as our fish of choice. They also offer a variety of cheeses and sandwich or cracker spreads. Remember when I mentioned the picnic at Split Rock Lighthouse? Well this is where your smoked fish and cheese to make that picnic complete!
Northern Waters Smokehaus, Duluth
OK, I am NOT being unfaithful to my smokehouse! Northern Waters is one of the smokehouses on the Shore and they do a damn fine job of it. But I personally do not buy my whole smoked fish here. Northern Waters offers fish for purchase, but they also operate as a restaurant. And that’s what I’m here for. My personal favorite is the Northern Bagel which is smoked salmon served on a toasted bagel that’s dripping with scallion cream cheese. Heavenly!! I take my sandwich on a short walk to the Duluth Waterfront (see below) and watch the boats go by as I devour it. OK, now I’m drooling again.
Duluth Waterfront, Canal Park, & Lift Bridge
This is truly a staple of a North Shore visit. Most Minnesotans who have never been to the North Shore can at least say that they’ve been to Duluth. The port of Duluth is the largest inland freshwater port in the world. From here iron ore, coal, flour, limestone, cement, wood pulp, steel coil, and wind turbine components are imported and exported from all over the world. The Army Corps of Engineers operates a visitor center to display how this busy port and the iconic Duluth Lift Bridge operate on a daily basis.
Grand Portage State Park & National Monument, Grand Portage
For anyone who is doing the National Parks Passport, be sure to bring it with you because you can get your cancellation stamp here. This was a vital area of the fur trade. The Grand Portage is actually an 8.5-mile trail used by American Indians and voyageurs to exchange furs for goods. You’ll want to explore the reconstructed fur post and Heritage Center. The State Park is further up the road. Don’t miss the left turn into the park because you’ll end up at the Canadian border crossing a stone’s throw away. There is a short paved trail that will take you to the Pigeon Falls which is the highest waterfall in the state of Minnesota. One side of the falls is Minnesota and the other side is Canada.
There you go! I highly encourage you to visit this divine wilderness that exists within Minnesota. It will truly capture your heart.