Lake Superior and the North Shore

Updated: Apr 21, 2019

Lake Superior, or Gitchi-Gami as the local Native American tribe (the Ojibwe) calls it, is the world's largest lake by area and third largest by volume (fun fact: the water of Lake Superior could cover North America in three feet of water; or both North and South America in one foot of water). The lake is is 1,729 miles (2,783 km) around, bordered by not only Minnesota but also Wisconsin, Michigan, and Canada's Ontario. French fur traders were the first Europeans to encounter this part of the world and it was they who named it Lake Superior (Lac Supérieur). They named it this not because of its size but rather because it was the farthest north of the five Great Lakes.

The North Shore, which extends from Duluth to 150 miles (240 km) north along the shore to Canada, is one of Minnesota's most popular tourist destinations. There are many good reasons for this, not least of which being the lake itself.

Duluth: The entrance to the North Shore is Minnesota's fourth largest city, Duluth. I went to college (university) here not because I necessarily wanted to attend that school but because I very much wanted to live in this city. Growing up, Duluth was always my favorite place in the state because of its beauty. Nestled at the corner of the lake, it is an industrial city built into the steep hills and pine forests of this part of the state.

The Iron Range is the section of Minnesota between the lake and due north to Canada, with nine iron mines in the region. While the mining heyday has ebbed, Minnesota still provides the majority of American iron ore. The ore makes its way to the harbor in Duluth, where it is loaded onto 1,000 foot (305 m) ships that carry the ore across Lake Superior and the four other Great Lakes, to the St. Lawrence River in eastern Canada, and out to the Atlantic Ocean. This makes Duluth the farthest inland seaport in the world, at about 1,000 miles (1,600 km) from the ocean. If a person was to create a soundtrack for the city, the ship horns communicating with the vertical lift bridge that welcomes them to the harbor would be track number one.

Despite the mining background, the area votes Democratic due to the strength of the labor unions. Duluth is an especially liberal city, with several precincts voting at more than 70% DFL (Democratic Farmer-Labor, the Minnesota chapter of the Democratic Party). Minnesota has the highest voter turnout in the country, and Duluth has been the city with the highest voter turnout in the country before. This strong liberal activism culture came out strong following a 2018 "Rolling Stone" article that depicted the city as strongly in Trump's camp. It was lazy reporting and was met with an outpouring of anger from Duluth residents which included a statement from the mayor herself.

The city is also strongly invested in the arts scene. Every April is the Homegrown Festival, a weeklong music festival that showcases talent from the Duluth area. Much of this talent is in the form of folk and bluegrass acts. Bob Dylan was born in this city, and Trampled by Turtles also hails from Duluth. My senior year of college, I dated a folk musician (a killer guitarist) who I met through another folk musician friend (an absolute fiend on a mandolin). Some of my fondest college memories are sitting in their sunroom (a hilarious concept in one of the world's coldest cities) that had been converted into a record room, listening to bluegrass albums and drinking local favorite PBR.

Duluth also has it's share of dark history. Most famously, in 1920 a traveling circus came through town. Nobody knows exactly what happened but as was so often the case in that era of American history, three black men who worked for the circus were wrongly accused of a crime and did not survive the night to tell their side of the story. It was the only lynching of African-Americans in Minnesota history, and is shamefully rarely taught in the state's schools. This incident was described in Dylan's song "Desperation Row", one of the few times he referred Duluth in his works. Considering that this was the incident he chose to describe his home town, you can guess his feelings towards the place. In 2003, Duluth established the Clayton-Jackson-McGhie Memorial to the three men. It serves as a reminder that even in northern states that think they are progressive, evil acts can still occur.

Two Harbors: About half an hour north of Duluth along scenic Highway 61 (one of the greatest songs and albums ever, Dylan named it after the road that connects his hometown with New Orleans, a city much more renowned for it's musical heritage) lies Two Harbors, a small town that has a large harbor for ships to collect ore. The harbor is a popular tourist destination, with a lighthouse on a long berm (see photo) that is an enjoyable and popular walk.

Next to the harbor is the delightful Lighthouse Bed and Breakfast. A converted lighthouse, there are three bedrooms in the lighthouse and one in the Skiff House. I have stayed three times, and always chose the Skiff House because it has a jacuzzi tub. The breakfasts are Scandinavian influenced, cooked right in the kitchen, and absolutely delicious.

Much of the fare you will find in town is either Scandinavian or mining influenced. Pasties are popular, which was always fun to try to explain to my British friends who seem to think they have a monopoly on meat-and-veggie filled pastries. I personally don't love pasties but my parents get several every time they come up.

Gooseberry State Park: Keep going north along the lake and you'll hit Minnesota's most popular state park in terms of distance traveled to visit (it is the second most-visited park, but the first is in St. Paul and thus easier for people to get to), Gooseberry has multiple easy-access waterfalls, miles of hiking trails, and a beautiful campground that is right on the lake. The parking lot is almost guaranteed to be full, but there is a reason for its popularity. It's well worth a stop, even with the crowds.

Tettegouche State Park: 20 miles (32 km) north is another of the eight state parks on the North Shore. Offering more hiking and camping options, I personally like this park because it offers (in my humble opinion) the prettiest views of the lake. The top photo for this blog is a photo snagged at Tettegouche.

Split Rock Lighthouse: One of the most famous spots in Minnesota, this lighthouse offers an incredibly picturesque location. There are lighthouses up and down Lake Superior, as well as the other Great Lakes. The lakes are still an important transport route, though certainly down from their heyday (60 years ago, there were 300 ships on the lakes. Now, there are less than half that). With so many boats and ships afloat, that means there have also been hundreds of wrecks over the years. The most famous of these incidents was the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald, a ship that sank after departing the Wisconsin side of the Duluth harbor in November 1975. The tragedy was captured in the haunting Gordon Lightfoot song.

Grand Marais: A small town two hours north of Duluth, this is an incredibly sweet town at the edge of the US. While the entire region and state are heavily influenced by its Scandinavian heritage, nowhere quite so as Grand Marais. The buildings are very reminiscent of Norway. So much so, in fact, that when I was in Norway I spent the whole time thinking it was similar to Minnesota, and the first time I went back to Grand Marais after Norway I spent the whole time thinking it was similar to Norway!

The town might be small and far from any major population center but it still gets a lot of tourists every summer. The harbor is a beautiful spot to enjoy the lake, and local pizza joint Sven and Ole's is Minnesota's most famous eatery due to clever marketing tactics, with food that lives up to the hype.

Grand Marais is the gateway to the Boundary Water Canoe Area: I have unfortunately not been to this Minnesota favorite since I was 13, but was lucky enough to go twice in my childhood. The photo on the right, taken by local photographer Mark Morgen (check out his beautiful work here) is just one small corner of the spectacular area. This cell-serviceless paradise is a huge wilderness, with over one million square acres (4,400 square km) of connected lakes and forest that you explore via canoe or kayak. It is easiest to explore with at least one other person, as often you will need to portage your canoe across small land trails in order to get to the next lake, and, well, canoes are heavy. The Boundary Waters are one of the most famous places in the state, and Minnesotans are fiercely proud of it. Unfortunately, there have been many instances in which mining companies have tried to work in the area. It is a constant political battle between business interests and environmentalists.

Grand Portage: Containing both a national monument and state park, this northeastern-most corner of the state is a Native American reservation that continues until the Canadian border.

The national monument lies on the shore of the lake, with a beautiful visitors center that has stunning views of the lake and surrounding cliffs (see photo). There is a small museum that educates the visitor on the local Ojibwe band of Native Americans, as well as the French fur traders that frequented the area in the 18th century. There is an open-air museum with both Ojibwe and white historical interpreters to tell the story of what this important fur-trading post looked like in the 1790s. A small Ojibwe village is before the wooden fort, which has a grand dining room and officers quarters. What I personally found most interesting were the canoes - I am used to recreational canoes, but for transporting material and men across a thousand miles and giant lakes, something a bit more industrial was necessary. The canoes were up to 40 feet (12 m) long, manned by up to 16 men, with the capability of carrying 8,000 pounds (4 tons)!

Six miles north of the national monument is the state park of the same name. This is the last part of the state before the border crossing, which is visible from the parking lot. An easy, beautiful walk through a forest deposits you at the edge of Minnesota's tallest waterfall, at 120 ft (37 m) tall. The waterfall also marks the exact border. If you look at the picture, the waterfall and everything to our left is in Minnesota/the US, while everything on the right is Canada.

The waterfall marks the end of the beautiful North Shore, as it hands the Lake Superior activity baton off to Ontario.