High Falls Grand Portage State Park with rainbow

5 Days on the North Shore of Lake Superior

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A real-life rainbow over High Falls in Grand Portage State Park

5 Days on the North Shore of Lake Superior

There's a reason why Minnesota's North Shore is one of the state's most-visited destinations. Hugging the North Shore of Lake Superior from Duluth to Grand Portage, this 145-mile stretch is dotted with small towns, state parks, scenic trails, historic sites and untouched wilderness that beckon travelers off the beaten path to experience a place that's unlike any other.

At the southwestern tip of Lake Superior sits Duluth, one of Minnesota's largest cities and the world's largest freshwater inland port. Duluth has enough excitement to fill an entire vacation, or can serve as a launching pad for a trek up the North Shore. Drive north along the North Shore Scenic Drive toward Lutsen, Grand Marais and Grand Portage to relax, bike, fish, hike, golf, canoe, ski or snowmobile.

Grand Marais offers not only arts and cuisine straight from the lake, but also serves as the gateway to the Gunflint Trail and Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Adventure seekers come from around the world to explore millions of acres of the Superior National Forest, rocky cliffs, serene inland lakes, and wilderness streams plunging over waterfalls to Lake Superior below.

Follow this itinerary to plan your North Shore adventure of a lifetime.

Looking toward downtown Duluth from Canal Park

Looking toward downtown Duluth from Canal Park / Ty Miller

Day 1: Duluth

With its Lake Superior and harbor views and an incredible array of things to see and do, Duluth is a popular destination. The Canal Park area on the waterfront is a great place to start your visit. Watch large seagoing vessels come through the canal and under the landmark Aerial Lift Bridge. Stop in the Maritime Visitor Center to learn more about Great Lakes shipping, and take a break to skip rocks in the big lake.

Also along the harbor is the Great Lakes Aquarium, focusing on the fish and wildlife of Lake Superior. There are several shops and restaurants around Canal Park, and you can take a sightseeing or dinner cruise with Vista Fleet. Stroll the Lakewalk that follows the Superior shoreline more than 7 miles to attractions including the historic Fitger's Brewhouse, Duluth Rose Garden and Brighton Beach.

Day 2: Duluth

People of all ages will enjoy Duluth's many attractions. Families will find hours of fun at the Lake Superior Railroad MuseumDuluth Children's Museum and Lake Superior Zoo. Cross over the Lift Bridge to find 5 miles of sandy beaches along Park Point. Climb the tower at Enger Park, dine and shop in the trendy Lincoln Park neighborhood, or experience how the upper crust lived at Glensheen Estate. Find places to stay in Duluth and Duluth attractions.

Aerial over North Shore Scenic Byway Tettegouche State Park

North Shore Scenic Byway near Tettegouche State Park

Day 3: North Shore Scenic Drive

The North Shore Scenic Drive, designated as an All-American Road, is a 145-mile scenic byway following the dramatic, rugged shoreline of Lake Superior, with forested hillsides, wilderness streams and waterfalls along the way. From Duluth, follow old Highway 61 north along the shore to Two Harbors. Stop at one of the smoked fish shops and buy a delicious treat for your trip. In Two Harbors, tour the 1886 Edna G. tugboat, an 1892 lighthouse, and the humble place where the 3M company got its start.

Head north from town and stop for the great views of Gooseberry Falls, just off the highway. A little further north is the landmark Split Rock Lighthouse, where you can tour the 1920s lighthouse and light keeper’s home. Continue north of Silver Bay and turn off the highway to drive to the scenic overlook at Palisade Head, soaring above Lake Superior. Next you'll hit the town of Tofte, where you can visit the North Shore Commercial Fishing Museum. From there, Lutsen offers all kinds of outdoor fun, including a mountain tram, an alpine slide, and scenic golf at Superior National.

Day 4: Grand Marais & Grand Portage

A stroll around the artsy town of Grand Marais reveals an eclectic mix of restaurants, shops and galleries. Dabble in the arts at the Grand Marais Art Colony, the state's oldest arts school. Founded in 1947, it offers a wide variety of workshops that will help you express the inspiration you feel while surrounded by the beauty of Lake Superior. Another Grand Marais gem, the North House Folk School seeks to enrich lives and build community by teaching traditional northern crafts in a student-centered learning environment. Art galleries in town include the Johnson Heritage Post Art Gallery, Betsy Bowen Studio, Eight Broadway and Sivertson Gallery.

For outdoor enthusiasts, there are golf courses, lakes for canoeing and kayaking, and streams for fishing. In the winter, snowmobile, snowshoe and cross-country ski trails abound. After working up an appetite, indulge in the local fare at The Angry Trout, Blue Water Cafe and Sven & Ole's. After dinner, catch a show at the Grand Marais Playhouse or enjoy local music at several establishments around town.

High Falls Grand Portage in the fall

The High Falls at Grand Portage in the fall / Kurt Carlson

Head north another 35 miles to Grand Portage where you can tour Grand Portage National Monument, a reconstructed trading post of the late 1700s, and learn about the area’s Ojibwe culture and the lives of the fur traders. Nearby, on the Canadian border, a short hike in Grand Portage State Park leads to a spectacular view of the Pigeon River High Falls, the tallest waterfall in Minnesota.

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Green sky over pine trees on the Gunflint Trail

Northern lights over the Gunflint Trail / David Johnson

Day 5: Gunflint Trail

The Gunflint Trail is a 63-mile paved highway that heads inland from Grand Marais and through the Superior National Forest, an area of woods and lakes, including access to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The fascinating story of the Gunflint Trail is told at the Chik-Wauk Museum, in a restored 1930s lodge. Enjoy a lakeside picnic or dine at one of the resorts along the trail. At Naniboujou Lodge, a celebrity hangout in the roaring '20s, dine in front of the state's largest stone fireplace, surrounded by the brightly colored Cree design.

Rent a canoe from one of the resorts or outfitters to explore a lake, or hike one of the trails. For an adventurous trek, take the 7-mile round-trip hike to the top of Eagle Mountain, the highest point in Minnesota.

The only way back is the way you came, so take the opportunity to hit any of the places you may have missed on the way up. And then come back next year and do it all again. Find places to stay.