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Visitor’s Guide to the Minnesota North Shore

From north to south and east to west, Minnesota is one of the most scenic and naturally beautiful states in the US. Minnesota’s North Shore Region is no exception to that rule. From hundred-foot tall cliffs to cobblestone beaches and quaint harbor towns, there are nearly unlimited things to do, see, and experience on the Minnesota North Shore. If you’re curious about what exactly the North Shore is and whether or not it’s deserving of a visit from you, you’re about to find out.

Palisade Head, Lake Superior North Shore area of Minnesota
Palisade Head, Lake Superior North Shore area of Minnesota

What is the Minnesota North Shore?

The Minnesota North Shore refers to the northern shore of Lake Superior, one of the five great lakes in North America. The North Shore runs from Duluth, Minnesota, at the southwestern end of the lake, to Thunder Bay and Nipigon, Ontario, in the north, and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, in the east. It’s an international area culturally and historically significant to both the United States and Canada.

All in all, Minnesota’s portion of the North Shore is a 145-mile stretch of land running from Duluth to Grand Portage. It consists of harbor towns, beaches, sprawling cliffs, and state parks. Throw in a few historically significant sites and thousands of acres of untouched wilderness, and you’ve got the full extent of the North Shore.

History of the Minnesota North Shore

Lake Superior, and the North Shore, in particular, have a long and storied history. It was originally settled by numerous Native American tribes in the early B.C. centuries. More recently, however, starting in the 1600s and 1700s, the Obijwe Indians settled and explored the North Shore before being pushed out by incoming white settlers and adventurers.

The early to mid-1600s marked the first visitations by French explorer Etienne Brule who was in search of the famous Northwest Passage. Brule helped create a map of the area and paved the way for a surge of incoming settlers and other explorers, including a group of Jesuit missionaries led by Charles Raymbault and Isaac Jogues.

From then on, the North Shore was marred by a series of tribal wars and competitive and cutthroat fur trading that eventually led to the depletion of fur-bearing animals in the area in the early 1800s. In the mid to late 1800s, the North Shore was then subjected to land settlements and heavy populating, thanks largely to the creation of the Lake Superior Mississippi Railroad and a series of steamboats on Lake Superior.

At the turn of the century in the early 1900s, the iron, lumber, and fishing industries were the main areas of interest on the North Shore. Towns including Duluth, Grand Marais, and Two Harbors were formed as hubs for this commerce and are where most people eventually settled along the North Shore.

Today, the North Shore is part of Superior National Forest, and its main industry is fishing and tourism. Towns such as Duluth, Grand Marais, Grand Portage, and Two Harbors are loved for their cultural diversity and unlimited things to do. We’ll go into more detail about these towns in a minute.

A beautiful sunset on the North Shore of Lake Superior.

Things to Do

Hiking

There are several state parks and hiking trails located along the North Shore Scenic Drive, which runs the full distance of the North Shore. You can jump off at any point and go for a quick hike or even make a full weekend of it. Many of the hiking trails have primitive campsites located along the way.

Fishing

As you drive along the North Shore, you’re driving along the best fishing lakes in the world. Lake Superior is renowned for its beauty and also for its economic value. Lake Superior was heavily fished for over a hundred years and produced tons of walleye, bass, trout, and northern pike. Even today, there are still tons of great fishing spots along the lake shores and within the lake itself. Make sure you bring your pole with you when you travel the North Shore.

Gooseberry Middle Falls, North Shore of Lake Superior
Gooseberry Middle Falls, North Shore of Lake Superior

Camping

Camping isn’t as popular along the North Shore as it is in other parts of Superior National Forest. For the most part, the area is covered in tourist towns and similar attractions. However, several state parks, including Gooseberry Falls State Park, Banning State Park, Tettegouche State Park, and Grand Portage State Park, offer camping, hiking, and wilderness adventures.

Kayaking and Canoeing

In the same way that fishing is a loved activity on Lake Superior, kayaking and canoeing are also popular activities. Just make sure to wait for a calm day as the waters of Lake Superior can be choppy and even dangerous at times.

Winter Activities

If you’re more into skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, and cross-country skiing, you’ll also have these opportunities along the North Shore. The mountain town of Lutsen includes the Lutsen Mountain Resort, which is one of the top ski resorts in Minnesota.

Places to Visit in the Minnesota North Shore

Lutsen Mountain

The towns of Lutsen, Tofte, and Schroeder along Minnesota’s North Shore are a winter lovers’ dream come true. They’re home to the Lutsen Mountains, the premier skiing resort in Minnesota and the only true ski resort in the Midwest. Lutsen Mountains is located along the North Shore and is the perfect getaway for anyone looking for the perfect winter vacation.

The town of Lutsen is also home to the only winery on the entire North Shore, aptly named North Shore Winery.

Split Rock Lighthouse, Minnesota North Shore
Split Rock Lighthouse, Minnesota North Shore

Iona’s Beach and Two Harbors

Iona’s Beach in Two Harbors, MN, offers unique red sandy beaches rather than the traditional brown or white sand. Iona’s Beach and Split Top Lighthouse are true hidden gems along the North Shore that don’t get as much attention as they deserve. Two Harbors, in general, is an excellent town and home to some of the best bed and breakfasts in all of Minnesota. It also includes the Castle Danger Brewery, which is one of the top breweries in the state.

Two Harbors is also home to Gooseberry Falls State Park, the most popular and visited state park in Minnesota outside of the Twin Cities. Make sure to check out the Middle and Upper Falls in the park, which are guaranteed to be the highlight of your day. Not stopping in Two Harbors for a night and exploring the beach and surrounding areas the next day would be a travesty during your North Shore adventures.

Temperance River Gorge

If you’re in the mood for hiking and sightseeing, then the Temperance River Gorge is a must. It’s located in Temperance River State Park and is one of the most popular hiking spots along the North Shore. The trailhead to the Temperance River Gorge is conveniently located right off the North Shore Scenic Drive.

The Temperance River Gorge trail is full of scenic views and breathtaking sights from start to finish. You’ll start with a dramatic view of the river gorge before climbing a series of rocky steps. At the top of these steps, you’ll be greeted with an aerial view of waterfalls and natural potholes from the perfectly placed pedestrian bridge. From there, the hike continues upwards for even more gorge views before the ecology shifts towards a peaceful river with a wooded forest. Don’t miss out on hiking this scenic trail!

The Temperance River, Temperance River State Park, Minnesota
The Temperance River, Temperance River State Park, Minnesota

Isle Royale National Park

Yes, yes, I realize that Isle Royale National Park isn’t technically part of Minnesota’s North Shore. However, the North Shore is as close as you can get to the National Park without venturing into Canada or Michigan. Isle Royale National Park is one of the least visited national parks in the country, due largely to the difficulty of access.

It’s located on an island in the middle of Lake Superior and is technically considered part of Michigan, but we won’t hold that against it. You can only get to Isle Royale via boat or seaplane. If you’re traveling the North Shore, you can hop off and catch the Voyageur II ferry in Grand Marais, which will take you out to the island.

If you look up a hidden gem or underrated in the dictionary, it should show a picture of Isle Royale National Park. Were it more accessible to outside populations, there’s no doubt that it would be as famous as the many other national parks in the country. However, its inaccessibility and remoteness are part of what adds to its charm, mystery, and beauty.

Gunflint Trail

The Gunflint Trail is a 63-mile paved highway that runs from north to south through Superior National Forest. It starts in Grand Marais and runs through the forest before stopping in the middle of it. Once again, Gunflint Trail starts on the North Shore but then branches off of it and ventures inland. However, it’s the only road that travels through this part of Superior National Forest and the only way to gain access to the treasured Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Duluth

Duluth is one of the largest towns in northern Minnesota and is home to the largest inland port in the US. For years, it was a major source of fishing, steamboat travel, and commerce. Today, however, it’s one of the top tourist towns in northern Minnesota and features scenic coastlines, rocky shores, and sprawling cliffs.

Duluth is also one of the most culturally significant cities in the state. There are so many activities, including museums, dining options, breweries, and so much more in Duluth, that some travelers never make it past this part of the North Shore.

Grand Marais

Grand Marais is a town on the shores of Lake Superior that marks the midway point of the North Shore in Minnesota. It’s the type of dreamy harbor town that you see in storybooks or Thomas Kinkade paintings. Grand Marais is home to some of the finest restaurants, art galleries, bakeries, and tourist traps on the North Shore and in all of Minnesota. Make sure to check out the famous Grand Marais Lighthouse while you’re there!

High Falls in Grand Portage State Park
High Falls in Grand Portage State Park

Grand Portage

Grand Portage is at the very end of the North Shore in Minnesota and is the perfect culmination for an unforgettable trip. It features the Wayswaugoing Bay Overlook, which offers one of the most breathtaking views of Lake Superior and stands at 400 feet high. Grand Portage also includes the Grand Portage National Monument, which stands as a tribute to the history of the Anishinaabeg Ojibwe people and the region’s fur-trading past.

Finally, you can experience another hidden gem: a 120-foot tall waterfall known as the High Falls, located in Grand Portage State Park. Grand Portage serves as the perfect outdoor ending to one of the most scenic pieces of shoreline in the country!

Explore the Minnesota North Shore

No matter what you’re looking for or what you want to experience, the North Shore of Minnesota likely fits the bill. It’s bustling with outdoor activities, hiking adventures, winter sports, and tourist activities. From Duluth to Grand Portage and everywhere in between, the North Shore is a true national treasure and one worth visiting.

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