We were in Duluth for a couple of hours back in 1988, but all we really got to see was the Waterfront Walk and Canal Park, the much-gussied-up former industrial area that's now a mecca for tourists. But I hadn't really seen the downtown before. I was amazed at the mix of grand stone late 19th-early 20th century (including the incredible Hogwarts-like old high school at the corner of Second and Lake), wooden Victorians on the fringe streets, and even a surprising amount of Deco. Really a very pretty city. Plenty of dining and coffee choices, art galleries, a music scene—a lot going on, in short. We were particularly happy with Thai Krathong on Lake Street in Canal Park, which offered your choice of spiciness on a 1:10 scale and was one of the few Thai restaurants I've ever found that was truly vegetarian-friendly and was happy to make delicious food without fish sauce.
If you want to de-urbanize in Duluth, drive across the lift bridge (Duluth's major landmark) and keep going. A dune beach starts very close to the bridge, but I recommend driving all the way to Sky Harbor Airport at the end of the road, where you can walk along the beach and gaze back along more than three miles of sand to the harbor and city skyline, and look at least another mile in the other direction. On a warm and beautiful Monday morning in August, the beach was almost deserted and very beautiful.
Duluth itself goes for quite some distance. When we came in on Route 35, as we drove the four miles on the beach road, and as we left on Bob Dylan's Highway 61, we were surprised and how far the city (population ~86,000) stretched its tentacles.
Highway 61 was our route to the north, along the northwestern shore of Lake Superior.
When we’d come through here before, we'd stopped at Betty's Pies, in Twin Harbors—the most famous of the many pie restaurants that line the road going northeast. We stopped just for a look, knowing now what we didn't know back then—that all their pies are made with lard, which we do not intentionally eat.
Gooseberry Falls State Park
Our first real stop was Gooseberry Falls State Park, scenic and crowded. Several picturesque rock bridges form falls, and the trails (starting at just two miles) are mostly through peaceful, if contained, forests. Minnesota seems to have mastered the art of cramming a lot of forest into a small space; we saw other examples of this later.
Northshore Mining Lookout and Palisade Head
At mile 54.3, we followed a sign for a scenic overlook that had a nice description in a book of gentle hikes on the North Shore. This took us off to the west a mile or so, up a high hill overlooking the lake. Unfortunately, this lookout was built by the Northshore Mining Company to provide views of its massive taconite transfer plant, a hideous blot on the beautiful lake view. From the parking lot, there are signs to three different views: plant, lake, and city. When we saw "plant view," we figured it would be some rare species growing on the side of the hill, but the sign actually refers to the taconite plant, and the lookout contains an informational display about it. "City View," on the other side of the hill, provides a vista of the small town of Silver Bay, an uninspiring collection of suburban tract houses and a large campus with a green-colored roofs that I'm guessing is the local school complex. The "Lake View" overlook was a little bit better, with a pleasant, if not exactly breathtaking, view of Palisade Head just north—the lookout we thought we were going to is there—and Tettegouche State Park two miles beyond. Skip this one unless you're just wild about mines or shipwrecks. It gets my vote for Most. Useless. Scenic. Overlook.
Fortunately, just a mile and a half farther at mile 56, Silver Bay redeemed itself with the delightful Palisade Head lookout (another one where you drive and get out for tiny walks). Yes, you can see the taconite plant from one angle, but it no longer dominates the beautiful lake. This was a lovely little woodsy area with several cliff overlooks.
Temperance River State Park
After the bitter taste of that awful overlook, we were delighted with Temperance River State Park (mile 80). On our northbound drive, we chose an up-and-down gorge/beach walk adjoining the camping area on the Lake Superior side that took about half an hour to explore, and enjoyed the sights of lake water dashing on the rocks, river water cascading through the beautiful gorge, and ships on the lake…the easy adrenaline of climbing the cliff rocks and staring down at the gorge from narrow bridges, and the taste of a wine-flavored raspberry that probably crossed with the thimbleberries that also grow in abundance. You could get more of a thrill; several people were diving off the rocks and even one of the bridges into the chilly river.
On our way back to Duluth, we did the short walk on the other side of the highway, with seven scenic overlooks of Hidden Falls Gorge and a rock formation/water feature called The Cauldron, all in under half a mile. That trail continues several miles along the river, but we wanted the dramatic part, and had already taken a longer hike half an hour earlier, so we stopped at the bridge.
This park was actually our favorite, even though the trails we did were so short.
Seven miles farther, at mile 87.5, the turnoff to Oberg Mountain leads to a very gradual 2.3 mile climb with eight different scenic viewpoints: Superior, of course, but also a small lake, a marsh, the hills and valleys on the western side. This would be a great first hike for someone who had never climbed a mountain, because it's both highly rewarding and very easy.
In Judge C.R. Magney State Park, near Hovland, about 15 miles northeast of Grand Marais.
Very scenic river with powerful falls. Devil's Kettle itself is a place where the river splits in two, and one side disappears into a large cauldron-shaped hole. Much of what goes into that hole doesn't reemerge, and scientists still aren't sure where it goes (or so the locals say). Most of the hike is quite easy, but there's a massive altitude drop down to the Kettle, on stairs, and you have to be prepared to huff back up again. Across Highway 61 from the state park entrance (on the lake side and up a couple of hundred feet) is the Naniboujou Lodge. Decorated in traditional Cree Indian patterns, this beautiful inn's main dining room features a gorgeous painted ceiling that's been described (in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune as "the North Woods answer to the Sistine Chapel"—as well as a huge stone fireplace.
Pincushion Mountain, just outside Grand Marais, has a network of hiking/ski trails; we chose the "B&B loop" trail. A wide but woodsy trail, lined with raspberries and thimbleberries, took us to the bare rock summit with an overlook of the entire Sawtooth Range—certainly the most expansive vista we've gotten on this trip.
Although it's one of the larger towns on the North Shore, Grand Marais, where we based ourselves for two days, is not very big. A laid-back artsy place, built on tourism but primarily local Minnesota tourism. Most people we met are visiting from the Twin Cities, a few from Duluth. There are a number of restaurants (many specializing in local Lake Superior fish), art galleries, outdoor outfitters, etc., and not much else.
While we didn't make it all the way to the Boundary Waters, we did get a taste of it by renting a canoe at Trout Lake, eight miles up the Gunflint Trail and then four miles down a dirt road, where a very affable gentleman rented us a canoe for $15. I asked how long the rental was for, and he smiled, "until you get back." He never even asked our names, saying "I have your car. If you want to trade that canoe for a car, go right ahead." The small conifer-ringed lake was beautiful, and we saw a number of loons. After hearing two of them conversing across the lake, my musician son joined the conversation. We don't know what he was saying, but the loons did, and they responded to him.
Have a bit more time? Add a few days to explore a bit inland, easily accessible from Duluth or Finland.
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