Water, water everywhere—as far as the eye can see. Traveling to Northeast Minnesota is like plunging into the pages of a beloved storybook. Expect wild beauty (and wild animals!) around every corner, from the thundering waterfalls and soaring cliffs in the state parks sprinkled along scenic Lake Superior to the pristine wilderness that runs 150 miles along the U.S.-Canadian border. For canoers, hikers, kayakers and anyone else who worships and respects Mother Nature, there is nowhere else like it.
Chase waterfalls in Tettegouche State Park
The Superior Hiking Trail snakes 310 miles along the North Shore of Lake Superior, cutting through seven state parks en route. One of the most ruggedly beautiful is Tettegouche State Park near Silver Bay. With 23 miles of hiking trails, four waterfalls and a clutch of placid inland lakes, the 9,346-acre park is just as suitable for day trippers and weekend campers as it is hardcore thru-hikers. The overlook at Shovel Point is just 20 minutes from the visitor center and features postcard-worthy views of Palisade Head, which was formed by a volcanic eruption more than a billion years ago. (The high cliffs are also a magnet for rock climbers.) Cascade Falls, with its easy two-mile in-and-back trail, is the most accessible waterfall dotting the Baptism River. High Falls is another must-see cascade: With a 63-foot drop, it’s the tallest in Minnesota, and its summit rewards hikers with sweeping views of the Baptism River Valley.
Stargaze in a dark sky preserve
In September 2020, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness earned its International Dark Sky certification — making it only the 13th place on the planet to receive such a special designation. (At more than a million acres, it’s also the largest.) With inky-black skies and upward of 2,000 designated campsites, it’s the ideal place to catch a dazzling Northern Lights display. Backcountry adventurers can paddle more than 1,200 miles of canoe routes to find that perfect stargazing spot or simply rent a houseboat in Voyageurs National Park, which has four major lakes and miles of interconnected waterways. (A whopping third of the park is covered in water.) Local outfitters rent vessels for two to 12 passengers, and they can be as barebones or glampy as you like. Unsurprisingly, the houseboats with waterslides and satellite TVs are especially popular with families.
Learn a new skill at North House Folk School
For a quarter of a century, the North House Folk School in Grand Marais has offered immersive courses in nearly every craft imaginable: basketry, blacksmithing, boatbuilding, moccasin sewing, mushroom foraging and more. It counts celebrated artisans and authors among its teachers, but students needn’t have a lick of experience to sign up. Classes are held on the lakefront campus year-round; lucky are the tutees whose course dates coincide with popular events like the annual Grand Marais Arts Festival in July, Moose Madness in October or Winterer’s Gathering & Arctic Film Fest in November. Summer visitors can book a spot aboard the 50-foot Hjørdis, the school’s gaff-rigged schooner. Daytime and sunset sails are available, and Captains Bill Hansen and Luke Opel will happily show fledgling sailors the ropes when they set out for a leisurely cruise on Lake Superior.
Dog sled in Ely
Ely is the gateway to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, but the town of 3,390 has another claim to fame: the world’s highest concentration of dog sled outfitters per capita. So what better place to test your mushing skills than on an outing with a family-run tour operator such as Chilly Dogs Sled Dog Trips or Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge? The former counts more than 90 Alaskan huskies among its crew, many of them retired racing dogs, and books two half-day tours: a low-key fun run suitable for most ages and fitness levels and a demanding backcountry trek for adventurers that really want to test their mettle. Over at Wintergreen, the pack comprises 65 Canadian Inuit dogs, whose hardy personalities guests get to know via day trips, multi-night camping tours and comfy lodge-based excursions. Whichever ice-packed path you choose, whooshing through the snow-blanketed Northwoods in the winter is always exhilarating.
Shoot the rapids on the St. Louis River
Adrenaline hunters, look no further: Rip-roaring runs abound on the St. Louis River, just 15 minutes from Duluth. Established outfitters Minnesota Whitewater Rafting and Swiftwater Adventures provide everything daredevils need for a wet ’n’ wild day on the river — including experienced guides. The chiller section above the Thompson Dam is a 4.4-mile stretch with Class I, II and III rapids; it takes two to two-and-a-half hours to run. The rowdier section below the dam courses through Jay Cooke State Park and is packed with more technical Class II, III, IV and V rapids. Though typically reserved for expert kayakers early in the season, rafts can make it through when the water levels and flow conditions are just right. Expect thrilling three- and four-foot drops and the kind of knockout canyon views that blow up Instagram feeds.
Ashlea Halpern is a contributing editor at Condé Nast Traveler and a writer for Dwell, New York Magazine, Bon Appétit, AFAR, Airbnb, Midwest Living, Artful Living, and Minnesota Monthly. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @ashleahalpern.
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