If you've never been up along the "coast" of Lake Superior on the Minnesota side you are definitely missing out. Yes, there are very pretty waterfalls in Iowa (a later blog post) but nothing matches the vibe on The North Shore.
The "bottom" starts in Duluth, MN, which is about 6 hours from central Iowa. If you are
needing to grab any last minute bug spray, camping supplies, or underwear (Duluth Trading Co lol) that's the place to do it, as the further North you go, there aren't many options to stop and grab unless it's a gas station. Also be aware of the route you are taking and if you will be going through a major city during rush hour. That can easily add time to the trip and if you're not one for a lot of traffic it's worth changing the route or time you leave. Another thing to think about is to have an idea of where you plan to stay ahead of time. If you're not feeling outdoorsy to camp, finding hotels last minute can be difficult, and even sometimes planning ahead can be tricky as the Summer is busy and they fill up fast. If you do plan to camp there are many areas to choose from, and more spots (electric, if that matters to you) have even been added near Black Beach in the last couple years. Clothing wise, take layers. Even if you go in the Summer, the North Shore is still chilly in the woods and it's better to peel off layers than to be too cold.
Travel up the shore is easy taking highway 61 from Duluth all the way up to the Canadian border. Although there are many many places to explore inland from 61, this is a good route to take for a first time trip, and where most of the waterfalls are easy to access. I have been up to the North Shore three times and I'm nowhere near seeing everything there is to enjoy, but here's a list of my favorite spots thus far.
Gooseberry Falls. Gooseberry State Park is just off the highway and has easily accessible trails to see the Upper, Middle, and Lower falls. It is a more popular location, but it's deserving. There is a visitor center for restrooms and if you enjoy reading about the history and wildlife that resides there. If the water levels are lower, hopping rocks is very easy and you can follow the river bed. Visitors take advantage by crossing the river to hike on the other side, and also to take pictures right up in front of the Middle Falls and feel the spray from the water. If you're into rocks eroded by water there are cool formations you can crawl under and one that looks like a cave by the Upper falls. The water levels always depend what time of year you visit and if it's rained recently or the snow has melted.
Split Rock. There are a few things to see in this area. 18 miles from Two Harbors, there is a trail that leads away from the shore (Not accessible by wheelchair or stroller) where you can see Split Rock Falls, and even further is a small forest canyon worth seeing. There is also a trail nearby that will lead towards the shore and give you a sweet view of Split Rock Lighthouse, up on a cliff. It can be hard to find, so keep an eye out for signs. It's rocky and an adventure of it's own to get close enough for a photo. The lighthouse can also be seen from the Madeira Pullout, a small horseshoe just off the highway. Visits to the lighthouse are also available, tickets are $8-$25 depending on what tour you choose. (This photo was taken just as the sun was setting, earlier in the day is better for the cliffs).
Black Beach. One of my favorite places I have to see each visit. Just past The Silver Bay turn off on the East side, follow the signs to the beach. The entrance to the beach is right across from a new campsite development, and is a little rough, wheelchairs and strollers cannot get through. Though mesmerizing to look at, this beach isn't actually sand, but small black rocks. This beach is not dark naturally, but as a result of taconite tailings that were dumped in the lake until about 1980 when the factory was mining iron ore. The locals use this beautiful area as a reminder to take care of nature. If visited in the morning, the sun warms the rock, and it's relaxing to stretch out on and sink into. If visited at sunset, the colors are gorgeous and the black beach contrasts the red island that can be reached during low tide. I could sit on the beach for hours just looking at it all.
Palisade Head. This is a short rocky walk from the highway, a pull off area is available for parking. This a more dangerous spot and nuggets (children) should be watched carefully. To see Palisade head you will be standing on another cliff that does not have a fence and is uneven and missteps can happen. Risky but worth it. Palisade head is an extension of the nearby Sawtooth Mountains, and gives a view of miles along the coast and out towards the lake. If the weather is right, you may also be able to see the Apostle Islands if you look to the South. Coming from Central Iowa where it's significantly flat, these cliffs are breathtaking. (This photo was also taken about dusk, the clouds are neat).
Tettegouche State Park. It's pronounced Tet-uh-goosh, but I say it like Tet-uh-goochie, so while I'm hiking to the falls I can sing "Way down yonder on the Tettegouche, it gets hotter than a hoochie coochie" (if you know, you know). The State Park is in the top 5 largest in Minnesota at over 9,000 acres and has lots to show visitors. The hike to High Falls is a couple miles if I remember right, and there are a couple little paths to stray onto down by the river if you want to do a little off path exploring or just sit by the river and let the sounds calm you.
The hike to High Falls is 100% worth it unless you do not like cool things. The highest waterfall within Minnesota borders, you can hike to two different spots to view the waterfall; from the top looking down or at the bottom. Many visitors swim if it's warm enough and even jump from the cliffs, and there's a huge rock that's perfect for photos. Aside from the hike to the falls, there's 11 miles of trails to hike within the park, so camping and spending the day there would be easy, and fulfilling.
Grand Marais. The most charming little town on the shore. This is a good place to stop for gas or snacks. Located 18 miles North of Lutsen, this is also a great pitstop to break up the day. It's over halfway up the shore towards the Canadian border, but is much different than the other diners or pie stores you'll see on the highway. There's a pizza place, tourist shops, an ice cream shop, and the lighthouse on the breakwall. It's perfectly accessible to walk out to the lighthouse and is a good spot to see any boats coming in to the harbor. There's plenty of spots to picnic and if you're not into the camping scene, there's a good hotel right on the water and is a beautiful spot to watch the sun come up!
Hollow Rock. Just before Grand Portage State Park is a place called Hollow Rock Resort. I never saw the resort or anything else around there, but I did go down and see the hollow rock and it's very cool to look at! If the tide is low, some can walk the rocks the 100 yards or so to the little island and take pictures, or maybe kayak to it if you're brave, but I just liked to look at it. If you don't want to look at a rock, no worries, I'll have more privacy while I look at it.
Grand Portage State Park. Just under 3 hours from Duluth in a straight shot, Grand Portage State Park sits right on the border. You can't miss the turn off, the only place left to go is Canada. They have a visitor center that has a gift shop if you buy a coffee mug everywhere you go like I do. They also have a video that shows the falls each month of the year to show the different water levels and how much it changes with the ice and rain. It's a good representation of the best time to visit if you want to see the best of the falls. On Pigeon River, the falls is what separates Canada from the U.S., and there are a couple lookout points on our side of the border. If the sun is out, you might catch a glimpse of the rainbow down in the bowl from the 120 foot falls. Something else I think is really cool is on the upper lookout point, if you look straight across the river to the other cliff, you can see the same lookout point on the Canadian side. If people are standing there, feel free to wave, it's a bit of a cool experience, and only once I did not get a wave back (they must not have seen me, eh?)
Like I said, there are still places I have not seen yet, many trails I still want to hike, and I want to take more days off to camp in the woods. A big bucket list site is The International Wolf Center in Ely, MN, about an hour and a half inland. Last time I went up they were closed, and wolves are one of my favorite animals so to see a pack of wolves would be a dream. There's also a lot of waterfalls I have not visited yet, and I'm a sucker for those too. I do not think I'll ever stop visiting the North Shore as long as the State Parks are maintaining nature as it should be.
Bonus photo (I haven't been back since I've gone blonde so enjoy)
Photos by Mallery Adkins
Some information pulled from books Hiking The North Shore, by Andrew Slade, and 61 Gems on Highway 61, by William Mayo and Kathryn Mayo.
Pigeon river, downstream from the waterfall at Grand Portage.