As you head north from Duluth, you reach a fork in the road, literally, that sets the tone for your trip. On the right, the vast blue waters of Lake Superior reach out before you along the Old North Shore Road that winds it’s way leisurely along the shore with views of the lake darting in and out of the trees. On your left is Hwy 61 that will whisk you to Two Harbors.
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As with many choices in life, it’s not where you end up that matters, it’s how you get there that counts; which is why whenever I’m traveling along the North Shore in the late summer I try to take the scenic route.
Late summer is a quieter time of the year along the lake, with the number of families dwindling as kids go back to school and before the old people come to strain their necks as they gaze at the brilliant fall colors.
Trips this time of year are all about slowing down, spending time with the lake, and stopping along the way to see what’s in the little restaurant on the side of the road or to see if there’s a path that leads to the falls under the bridge you just passed over.
What to Do
The best thing to do along the North Shore during late summer is to hike. Hiking along the North Shore can be deceptive, as you speed along the highway there are all sort of little places to pull off and signs for state parks.
In most parts of the country these would be places to take in a nice view or stretch your legs for a few minutes, but along the North Shore they’re doorways into the tall pine trees and cascading waterfalls of Superior National Forest’s three-million acres of rugged wilderness.
Here tiny little parking lots with small footpaths lead to miles of hiking trails. A part of what makes it fun is you don’t know what the path has in store for you until you get out of the car and out on the trail. A few of my favorites are the Temperance River and Cascade Falls State Parks.
The Temperance River has a winding path that leads through a series of falls to a wide open mountain stream. Around every corner in Cascade Falls, there’s another waterfall twisting or turning this way or that as you hike up the hills.
If you’re not interested in wandering around the woods but still want to take in the scenery, you can stop at two of Minnesota’s most iconic wonders.
Split Rock Lighthouse
Perched high above the lake Split Rock Lighthouse looks out longingly across Lake Superior. When you see it high atop the cliffs, it looks like someone ordered a lighthouse straight from central casting.
Split Rock Lighthouse has its origins in the 1905 storm that swept across the lake with such devastation that a hundred years later pictures and monuments from the storm are still used as a cautionary tale for the power of the lake.
When you stop at the lighthouse take the time to wander through the visitor center and to take the tour. They help bring home how important the lake and shipping are to the region’s economy and provide insight to the people who live there. Also, take the time to hike down to the lake to see the lighthouse from the beach, this is where the iconic images of Split Rock Lighthouse that you find all over Minnesota come from.
Every time you see Gooseberry Falls, they look different. In the spring there’s so much water rushing over the falls that it feels like you’ll be swept away if you stray a foot or two off the path. By late summer the falls are tired, having spent their energy for the year the whole area has opened up for family picnics and kids to scamper across boulders where torrents of water rushed by in the spring.
Located in a sprawling state park Gooseberry Falls are a place you can spend all day hiking or can be a pit stop where you hop out of the car, walk for five minutes to the falls, spend two minutes talking about how beautiful they are, hop back into the car, and hit the road. If you have the time, hike the path from the main falls along the river to the beach and picnic area along Lake Superior.
Where to Eat
Whenever I eat at the New Scenic Café I get the feeling there’s a deeper Northern Exposure story going on. The New Scenic Café is located in an older, weathered, one-story building that is nice and cozy with big windows to take in the blue waters of Lake Superior across the road. It’s such a contrast with the food that is modern and delicious with regional touches that make it seem both at home and extraordinary.
The New Scenic Café is widely regarded as one of the best restaurants in Minnesota and is especially well known for their pies. Their triple berry pie has a light and delicate crust along with just the right combination of blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries that it is worth the drive alone.
Located close to Gooseberry Falls the Rustic Inn Café has a claim to the best pies on the North Shore. Whether you’re in the mood for a creamy chocolate pie or fresh fruit pies their extensive list has something for everyone.
If you make it to Grand Marias, which was recently named the coolest small town in America, there are tons of great places to eat and drink. Our favorite is the Angry Trout Café for how their delicious food embodies everything great about the North Shore and the lake. Located in a converted fishing shack the Angry Trout’s food is focused on a rotating menu of fresh fish straight from the lake. So fresh that you may see the fish being brought in from the lake while you’re there.
Grand Marais is also home to the self-proclaimed World’s Best Donuts. Their claim is somewhat justified, especially when it comes to their fresh cake donuts, which are everything a good cake donut should be.
Places to Stay
There are so many places to stay along the North Shore from small mom and pop cabins to luxury resorts with spas. Our favorite place to stay this time of year is the Lutsen Lodge. Nestled along the lake the Scandinavian style lodge is a great place to unwind. With a massive fireplace and a stone porch that is filled with comfortable places to sit and hang out with the lake.
Time with the Lake
As you travel along the North Shore make sure to take a few moments to sit and spend time with the lake. On clear days with blue skies, the water shimmers with blues that make it feel like you’re in the Mediterranean. On cloudy days it’s as if the cold gray water takes its colors and mood from the the lake’s rocky bottom. And if you’re really lucky you’ll get to see a storm move across the lake and understand why so much of the Lake’s history and lore is about the power of the lake and why it is used as a cautionary tale for why we should respect nature.
There are a variety of hiking options along the North Shore ranging from easy to difficult that include the Superior Hiking Trail. First-time visitors to the area or people looking for easier hikes may want to try the trails in the Minnesota State Parks, which are well marked and designed for getting around.