This Rugged and Winding Coastline Is a Superior Road Trip Destination
Lighthouses, aquavit, and Bob Dylan, together at last.
Minnesota is the land of 12,000 lakes (the 10,000 thing is just a humblebrag), but one reigns over all. Lake Superior, the world’s largest freshwater lake, kisses the far northeastern reaches of Minnesota in the so-called Arrowhead Region. Dubbed the North Shore, this is a land of stunning views, quirky stops, and abundant natural beauty. As such, the winding, largely untamed 150-mile stretch known as the North Shore Scenic Drive ranks among the best road trips in the US.
Beginning in Duluth -- just two hours north of Minneapolis-St. Paul -- and ending at the base of Minnesota’s highest waterfall, the ultimate North Shore road trip is a true jaw-dropper. Here, visitors are free to sample the area's Scandinavian roots, breathe in the fresh boreal forest air, and dive into chilly Lake Superior. Yet despite its beauty, lake-to-table restaurants, fantastic beer scene, and historical sites, non-Minnesotans keep sleeping on this gem of a roadway. Time to change that. Here are the key stops on a North Shore road trip.
With a population of just over 85,00 year-round residents, Duluth is actually the 4th biggest city in Minnesota. It’s part industrial area, part college town, part popular resort destination, and part hipster hotspot. But it's also a place where you can embrace the “up north” vibes by trying a Ju(i)cy Lucy at the Breeze Inn. This famous burger is basically a hot magma cheese explosion wrapped in meat and is one of the most famous culinary creations in the North Star State.
Walk off the meat sweats on the Bob Dylan Way, which pays homage to the second favorite musical son of Minnesota (RIP Prince Rogers Nelson). For a slightly longer trek, consider exploring the 7.5 mile long Lakewalk, which hugs the greatest of Great Lakes’ shores and includes the Lake Superior Marine Museum, which showcases the history and shipping roots of Duluth. This gateway to the North Shore makes for a perfect jumping-off point for any road trip itinerary in the region.
One more thing: In a nod to the many Scandinavians in the state, shoot some chilled aquavit (AKA Norwegian Everclear) at Vikre Distillery. This foraging-focused spot is also the perfect vantage point for the landmark Aerial Lift Bridge, a well-known beacon of the port city.
About 30 miles northeast of Duluth is the gorgeous Two Harbors, the perfect access point for two of the most quintessential North Shore experiences: Gooseberry Falls and Split Rock Lighthouse. Arrive early to visit Gooseberry Falls State Park, the most popular of all Minnesota State Parks, and its beautiful namesake, which is actually three wide falls on the Gooseberry River that drain into Lake Superior. Twenty miles of mostly intermediate hiking trails await and offer numerous vantage points of the Upper, Middle, and Lower Falls.
Once you’ve exhausted your last TLC reference, check out the iconic Split Rock Lighthouse and its surrounding state park (get advance tickets to ensure social distancing). Standing 133 feet above the crashing waves on a sheer cliff, it’s often recognized as the most photographed location in all of Minnesota and a lighthouse scene that stands (really) tall alongside its east coast counterparts.
One more thing: Before reaching Two Harbors, thirsty travelers can stop for a tour and/or tasting at one of the state’s most interesting watering holes, Borealis Fermentery. Located in Knife River -- whose menacing moniker belies welcoming townspeople -- this superlative brewery mixes artesian Lake Superior water with Belgian-style brewing processes.
From Two Harbors, hop on Minnesota State Highway 61 to Silver Bay, a jaunt of roughly 30 miles. Pay attention to the ultimate sandwich of views, with the Superior National Forest on one side and the stunning cliffs and water vista of Lake Superior on the other.
Silver Bay is most known for Palisade Head, which is a dramatic scenic lake overlook in Tettegouche State Park. Rising almost 200 feet above Lake Superior, Palisade Head is a must visit on any North Shore road trip, with panoramic views for miles and miles. On clear days, visitors can see the Sawtooth Mountains to the northeast, Split Rock to the southwest, and the rugged Apostle Islands of Wisconsin across the lake to the south. Rock climbers are drawn to the dramatic cliffs, paddlers love the Lake Superior State Water Trail, and in the summer, travelers can pick fresh, wild blueberries.
One more thing: Keep your eyes peeled for a chance to see the northern lights in Minnesota. As the northernmost non-Alaskan state, you might just get lucky and catch a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis from the North Shore.
MORE: More interested in biking than driving the North Shore? Check out the best Minnesota bike trails to help plan your trip.
Tofte & Lutsen
About 30 miles further on MN 61 lies the town of Tofte, known for the North Shore Commercial Fishing Museum, if architectural and cultural exhibits are your thing. It’s also home to another of Minnesota’s eight outstanding parks, Temperance River State Park: perfect for hiking, camping, and fishing. This park also offers more waterfall views, in case you haven’t had your fill, alongside the pretty end of the Temperance River, which at the southern edge of the park flows into Lake Superior.
Lutsen is another 10 miles up the North Shore, and is famed for its wintertime ski resort, excellent golf course, and the Swedish-inspired Fika Coffee, named for their much beloved afternoon coffee break. Lutsen is considered a top Midwestern ski destination, with four mountains with a whopping 1,000 acres of skiable terrain, sweeping lake views, and the area’s only Gondola.
One more thing: Geology nerds should look for Lake Superior agate stones on the rocky shores of the lake, considered by some to be the oldest in the world. Learn more here.
The artsy heart of the North Shore, this enclave is about 20 miles past Lutsen on MN 61. It’s also the gateway to the unspoiled Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness -- the most Minnesotan thing aside from jucy lucys and visceral reactions to “Purple Rain.” (To graduate high school, I even had to plan a portage trip here.) Eat at laid-back pizza oasis Sven and Ole’s or the Angry Trout Cafe, an excellent lake-to-table establishment perched right on the harbor . For those who want to experience a touch of Minnesota’s interior, consider driving the Gunflint Trail National Scenic Byway, which cuts from Grand Marais away from the lake, through the densely treed heart of Superior National Forest.
One more thing: For extra alone time, take the ferry to the rugged Isle Royale National Park in Michigan, one of the least visited National Parks in the US and home to a remote and gorgeous archipelago.
MORE: Boundary Waters is one of America’s very best National Forests
The final stop on our North Shore excursion, Grand Portage rests about 40 miles northeast from Grand Marais on MN 61. This town is home to the Grand Portage National Monument, which displays a historic trading depot and offers numerous hiking trail options. Fittingly, Grand Portage State Park is another must see, though it’s only open for day use at this time. Chase waterfalls through multiple hiking paths, including the handicap-accessible route to Partridge Falls and the hike to the gem of the park, High Falls, which offers views that reach all the way to Canada.
Another gorgeous natural site in the area is Hollow Rock, a teeny island featuring a natural arch that gives mini “El Arco” vibes; for the best photo op, visit at sunset, when the painted colors of the day’s last breath make it appear that the arch is filled with fire.
One more thing: For those who want a more difficult hike, the roughly three-hour journey to and fro Middle Falls in Grand Portage State Park should be on your radar.
MORE: This is Minnesota’s best scenic drive. Here’s every other state’s.